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Museums in Australia For Us – Part 1


1975 TO 1996

A National Museum opened in Canberra on March 11 2001, the centenary of Australia’s Federation: proposed in the 1902, its establishment was again recommended in 1975 in one of the best reports on museums of the twentieth century. How did successive governments deal with that report and their responsibilities to ensure our movable cultural heritage was cared for? With less than the genuine commitment of resources by governments at all levels, with little understanding of the full range of museum activities and without regard for leadership, governance, intellectual inquiry or discovery.

Marble pathway near Lefkes, Paros, Cyclades (More)

As political forces were massing against each other in Canberra in late 1975, a major report on museums in Australia was published. No other report in any country reached the heights of that report until the mid 80s in the USA with the publication of ‘Museums for a New Century” for the American Association of Museums in 1984 [1] . The culmination of two years of inquiry by historians, archaeologists, zoologists and museum specialists, “Museums in Australia 1975″ took a broad sweep, confronting the entire range of issues facing museums from collections cramped together in appalling conditions to opportunities to excite and encourage understanding. The Committee, chaired by Peter Pigott (then of the company “Pete’s Toys”), included Professors Geoffrey Blainey of Melbourne University and John Mulvaney of the Australian National University as well museum directors and others: they visited museums all over the world.

The Whitlam Government (1972-1975) is recognised for having established a number of Committees of Inquiry and expanded other fields of endeavour: the areas of arts and heritage were not left out. The Committee of Inquiry into the National Estate chaired by Justice Robert Hope reported in 1973 on the nature and state of Australia’s built and natural environment ““ the “National Estate” – and how to conserve and present it. That report led to the establishment in 1975 of the Australian Heritage Commission. The Whitlam Government expanded the role of the Australian Council for the Arts under the Chairman of Dr HC (Nugget) Coombs. Interestingly, the contemporary programs of Australian art were eligible for funding and art museums could benefit.

The most important recommendation of the Pigott Committee was that an Australian Museums Commission be established to foster the development of museums generally throughout Australia. The importance of the Pigott Report is not simply in its recommendations but, like the contribution of a good leader, it’s statement of a vision and purpose. Actions flow from a policy framework, or so bureaucrats are fond of asserting, and certainly no policy framework existed then at a national level: major museums were the responsibility of State and Territory governments. (Forget the Australia Council established earlier to develop policy and administer grants for arts activities through the country.)

Actions also flow from a genuine meeting of minds. Especially in a federation like Australia’s, failure to involve the major players leads to endless squabbles, not progress. Policy developed at a national level would be able to take account of general trends and encourage the sharing of information and experience. But the nature of Australia’s federation is that in this not quite nation, anything in Canberra is seen by the States as duplication and the federal government is always happy to have the States do things so they can accumulate budget surpluses; again more of that later.

Also recommended by Pigott were a new National Museum of Australia to be constructed in Canberra including a Gallery of Aboriginal Australia (which a separate committee had recommended be sited near the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies) and a slew of national specialist museums including a Maritime Museum in Sydney, an Aviation Museum in Melbourne and a Gallery of Australian Biography.

The idea for a national museum had been around since Federation. Speaking to the Third General Meeting of the Library Association of Australasia in 1902, Mr Arthur T Woodward, then Director of the Art Department at the Bendigo School of Mines in Victoria said, “Sooner or later a National Museum will be founded “¦ It must not be supposed for one moment that the existing State museums will be stripped of their treasures”¦ the natural home for articles that have an Australian historic interest, now that we are one nation with one destiny, surely would seem to be a National Museum of Australia.” He concluded, “It behoves us all to look to it that our money is well spent, and that we get good value for it.” This required “the best staff who should be given as far as possible, a free hand to develop their respective departments according to their desire… ” [2]

In the 1950s and 60s various proposals were made for “national museums” based on natural history and geological collections. CSIRO developed substantial collections of mammals and birds, fishes and especially insects, now the National Insect collection. Collections of geological material were accumulated by Government departments associated with minerals and energy. But nothing significant happened until the Pigott Report.

The Pigott Committee found that even the major state institutions could not adequately preserve their collections: they needed larger storage areas, better security. Collections were slowly deteriorating by being moved around, sometimes by untrained staff, by the environment in which they were stored; conservation lacked trained staff. The cost of this silent, scarcely visible damage probably exceeded a million dollars a year. There was not enough money for acquisitions. The Committee observed, “highly skilled executives are more important for a major museum than is at present realized.”

They noted that “as resource centres for research in Australia, the major museums are rivalled only by the libraries in importance”. They asserted that a museum without scholarship could become “a huckster’s supermarket”. The Committee promoted some radical aims:

“Museums should classify and arrange their exhibits with boldness and caution, conscious that a way of arranging knowledge can be illuminating in one area and stultifying in another era.

Museums should satisfy curiosity and arouse curiosity

Museums should educate formally and informally

Museums should extend the front lines of knowledge …and enable curious spectators to visit those front lines and understand how some of the battles to extend knowledge are fought.”

None of this positioned museums [3] as dull, unchanging temples in which to worship the truth as we wanted to believe it was. No hordes of objects with unintelligible text locked away in glass cases. Instead adventure, curiosity, theatre.

The report continued, “The aims require such knowledge, such skills, such dedication and such a level of government and popular co-operation that the performance often lags behind the goal. In Australia”, they continued, “governments too often accept museums as institutions where the second-best will succeed”.

The new National Museum [of Australia], “will illuminate new fields of knowledge and also link traditional fields in revealing ways. It will chart a course quite different to that followed by those earlier Australian museums which were founded during a different educational and scientific climate. [4] The museum, where appropriate, should display controversial issues. In our view, too many museums concentrate on certainty and dogma, thereby forsaking the function of stimulating legitimate doubt and thoughtful discussion.” [5]

The national capital is the kind of place in any country to establish a national museum to explore the nation’s history and ideas (possibly even beliefs and understandings), its culture, its past, witness Washington DC, Ottawa, Copenhagen, Madrid, Mexico City, Paris, London. There was a National Gallery already on the books in Canberra and director James Mollison was buying up big. The Museum of Australia was not to be some temple or mausoleum but a bold juxtaposition of three themed components: Aboriginal Australia, history since 1788 and people and the environment, all within a holistic framework.

The Museum was to be developed on one spectacular site on the side of Lake Burley Griffin from which one could look out at what our mythology tells us is Australia. Very importantly, the Aboriginal component was to look out to the Brindabellas, Aboriginal country, not the city nearby which, in the words of one Committee member, symbolised the destruction of indigenous society. The museum was to be indoors and outdoors, entirely appropriate for Australia.

Pigott and his colleagues recognised that museums need to work together, that wherever they are across the cities and towns of this wide brown land, they will not survive and reach their potential without some basic ground rules or policies set at a national level. Museums should be recognised in three grades: Major Museums (State and Commonwealth museums), “Associated Museums” (the fifty or so holding collections of national importance, including many provincial art museums, certain university museums and several large open-air and folk museums and Local Museums) which were mostly small and needed discrete aid from government to raise their standards. Although the differences between many of these museums were vast, they “fulfil many of the same functions and are suffering at present from many of the same weaknesses”.

Completing the Report were recommendations for a “national fund to facilitate emergency acquisitions of objects of unique importance to the country”, the placing of all Commonwealth museums under the one ministerial portfolio; even the Australian War Memorial, then the responsibility of the Minister for Veterans Affairs, was to be brought under the same Minister as other museums. A Cultural Materials Conservation Institute was recommended to study and disseminate ways of preventing deterioration of objects, “especially under Australian climate and other conditions” and a postgraduate course to train conservators developed at a “degree granting” institution was proposed.

The important collections held by Universities either should be safeguarded adequately by the university or transferred to major museums on long-term loan. The UNESCO convention of 1970 on the Means of Prohibiting the Illegal and Illicit “¦ Transfer “¦ of Ownership of Cultural Property ought to be ratified and tax incentives provided for donations of collections.

It is in the area of education ““ more specifically learning – that museums are most challenged. Pigott observed “as places of education, museums have unusual but rarely defined advantages” ““ instructing and entertaining a great diversity of people and providing an immediacy to the real thing through being able to dispense with the layers of interpretation employed by most media. But museums were seen as unable to cater for the demand of school groups and still trying to address all audiences in the one space, often at the same time; many science museums were “filled with the incense of certainty”. Many displays, they observed, even in major museums, were “as up-to-date as an encyclopaedia of 1920 or 1954″.

Despite the farsightedness of the Pigott Report, in the next 15 years next to nothing happened so far as the major recommendations were concerned. Some politicians mumbled about temples to Gough Whitlam. Bureaucrats talked about there being no support for another semi-Government authority such as a Museums Commission which would amount to more needless duplication and allow more interference from Canberra. And State Museums were doing everything that the National Museum could do. (Some museum directors bought this silly nonsense!) Certainly there were meetings between people from museums and government officials, arguments about national policy, even suggestions that States might match the funding of the Commonwealth. That suggestion met with little support, one State at least responding by listing the large amount of money they already provided for museums. So much for Australia’s heritage!

True, legislation establishing the National Museum was passed in 1980 and a Council, a director and some staff were appointed and property acquired on the shore of Lake Burley Griffin. Over the next 18 years simple buildings housing the offices and modest displays appeared whilst the bulk of the collections were gathered in a storehouse in another Canberra suburb; a half dozen people, one after another, took on the increasingly desperate role of museum director. The Council of the Museum met. Further reviews of the feasibility and desirability of the Museum were undertaken, the location was reviewed.

Some of the Pigott Report’s recommendations were implemented. The UNESCO Convention was ratified and the required legislation prepared and passed by the Parliament [6]. A course on “materials” conservation was established in Canberra at the Canberra College of Advanced Education (later University of Canberra). (And in 2002 the course was cancelled despite howls of disgust from the museum community!)

Meanwhile art museums developed, indeed flourished. Not just because of the sudden emergence of the National Gallery in Canberra but through the seed funding provided over and over again to consortia of art museums (as they suddenly turned profits on one exciting tour into losses on the next by overoptimistic estimates of attendance). Ultimately Art Exhibitions Australia Ltd (AEA) was formed to tour exhibitions with Commonwealth Government indemnity covering the works. Art museums got their share of entrance fees and merchandising and paid none of the organising, touring or insurance costs; of course venues contributed space and organising museums curatorial input. Participating museums showed the gains but not the costs in their financial statements. There can be no argument on this: art museums increased audiences enormously because of this funding and what it allowed. More frequent and more exciting temporary exhibitions means more audiences mean more entrance fees and merchandising revenue and publicity and more money for exhibition development bringing more audiences. General admission can be free because temporary exhibitions deliver the needed revenue. [7]

Art Museums learned to manage international touring exhibitions themselves: they became success stories par excellence. They generated a greater appreciation of modern and contemporary art, not least through exhibitions such as the Guggenheim exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW. (In a quaint twist some described that exhibition as a failure because, due very much to large insurance costs, it lost a million dollars!). “˜Risky’ exhibitions such as the Mapplethorpe photographs at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art attracted great interest and little controversy, especially compared with some venues in the USA at which the exhibition was “˜arrested’. This was due in no small part to the sensitive management of it by Bernice Murphy, then Chief Curator at the MCA. Regional art museums developed through the nineties with State Government funding for buildings and lately special Federation assistance.

Small local history museums, on the other hand, stood virtually still. Left to the generosity of State and Local Government, without any national framework, they battled away with their mostly volunteer staff, doing what they could. If they attracted tourists perhaps they could get money from Government. The recognition that they contribute significantly to local people’s understanding of themselves seemed too much to expect. People are interested in local history, especially in the regions. That smaller museums are greatly helped in Canada, the USA and even tiny New Zealand, is presumably beside the point: they aren’t Australia. Later evidence showed just how important the smaller museums were. Attempts in some states to join together those in major regions and designate a central one as a “˜hub’ also failed.

Suddenly, the idea for a National Maritime Museum in Sydney gained endorsement! NSW Premier Neville Wran called Prime Minister Bob Hawke on the phone one day. This could be an attraction right in the new Darling Harbour development in Sydney, just in time for the upcoming ‘celebrations’ of 1988. Yes! After some wrangling abut who should pay for what, it opened. Wasn’t everyone pleased? No they weren’t!

Bureaucrats, especially those in the Department of Finance, asked museum people why “things” had gotten out of sequence. Surely a National Museum in Canberra was the highest priority. Why did the Maritime Museum get up? To which the obvious answer was, “Why are you asking us?” It wasn’t the recommendation of the museum community, not that they objected mind you, although some criticised the emphasis on exhibitions rather than curatorial effort Department of Finance officials got put into the 1987 federal budget and the rhetoric about the essentiality of self-funding.

Then came an inquiry into museums. How better to show no money needed to be spent! A lot of statistics, some not checked very carefully, some not comparable and we have the conclusion, in a report (from the Department of Finance) “What Price Heritage?”, that museums were not caring for our heritage very well! (Pigott had already pointed that out.) And there was waste! The Art Gallery of NSW got twice as many visitors as the National Gallery with a collection worth less than half of the money: the National Gallery had clearly wasted its money on non-accessible works like ‘Blue Poles’ and Rothkos. The National Gallery therefore should sell some of its collections down until it reached the same ratio of visits to collection value as the Sydney Gallery. Such was their misguided logic. No possibility of advancing the National Museum here. A puny staff of about 20 staff and a few huts on the shore of Lake Burley Griffin were enough in such a climate. Even with support from Australians like celebrated actor Jack Thompson.

A response to “What Price Heritage” emerged two years later, from the Department of Arts, Sport, Environment, Tourism and Territories (DASETT), under the title, “What Value Heritage?”) but, like first allegations (even lies), “What Price” held sway. No matter that the National Museum might deal with what were increasingly emerging as subjects even more interesting to Australians, our history and our environment. Wouldn’t greater understanding of Aboriginal culture develop from a National Museum? Certainly Prime Ministers, Ministers for Arts and Ministers for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs were told so, frequently. Museum directors were later able to gather statistics together to show how wrong were the conclusions of “What Price”.

The National Museum continued to languish. March 1993 saw Paul Keating launching the ALP’s arts policy for the upcoming election, speaking strongly of distinct Australians and distinct Australian culture. Good. In fact very good. The National Museum would not be another mausoleum, we were told, but “a modest structure which would lightly touch the ground”. Fine! An Australian type structure”¦ we would be able to sense it everywhere. The government would provide $26 millions for the development if the private sector – probably developers – would put up a similar amount. Canberra city planning authorities hadn’t been consulted but that would be fixed later. It wasn’t and within a year it was clear that the funding mechanism wouldn’t work. Perhaps the Government would provide all the money. Nothing happened!

But those little people who brought forth “What Price Heritage” hadn’t gone away. Out were trotted the old myths, again. Didn’t we all know that no-one went to museums. The collections were all in the States. The Commonwealth Government didn’t have to do anything special. Canberra already had the War Memorial and that said almost all we needed to know about social history (for which read history since 1788). And if we needed more there was Old Parliament House where those who now enjoyed spacious offices on the top of the hill above had once had such good times. As for Aboriginal people, their stuff which museums now held could be given back to them. (Another superficial approach to another important issue.) Rubbish, dangerous stupid [8] rubbish, as festival artistic director Robyn Archer would say.

In November 1994, Prime Minister Keating launched his Creative Nation amid great fanfare. A fantastically got up street theatre group entered the hall at the National Gallery like a desert caravan, David Hobson and Cheryl Barker, sang an aria from the superb and much lauded Baz Lurhman production of “La Boheme”, which caused the hairs on the back of Keating’s neck to rise, he said. The arts devotees cheered and former Special Minister of State in the Whitlam Government (and onetime patron of the Pigott Committee) and then National Gallery Chair Lionel Bowen talked about why the National Museum didn’t have support and why the Gallery was getting a new exhibition gallery to house a collection of Chinese artefacts.

A committee set up earlier had met but hadn’t talked much to anybody. Some special reports had been written but they hadn’t been published. The creativity of the Nation was fixed up in the Prime Ministers’ office. And the public of Australia was fitted up there. The hallmark of democracy, consultation, was not necessary: Canberra knew it all. There was not to be any movement on the National Museum but there was to be a Gallery of Aboriginal Australia co-located with the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (as the Pigott Report had recommended) further down the Lake from the rest of the National Museum, where there was presently a hospital with infrastructure. Good, perhaps, in part. The Council of the Museum, said so anyway. Perhaps a chance we had missed in 1988 might not fall off the side of the island continent in 2001, I thought.

But whilst half of the computer-minded in Australia ran around trying to find their way onto Creative Nation’s Information Superhighway paved with vast amounts of money where messages and images would replace the real experience, the Canberra powerful were telling the National Museum not very much at all. Except that the Aboriginal Gallery was an Aboriginal matter and the Museum would learn what it had to do in due course. Just wait! Meanwhile, prepare! And the Museum did wait. A long time.

To his credit, Prime Minister John Howard provided funding for a National Museum and considerably expanded the cultural gifts program offering donors a tax deduction for the market value of their gifts. The Museum opened 11 March 2001. At the opening some speakers spoke of how much better the new museum would be than those other recently opened museums in New Zealand and Victoria. Later they had to apologise for the sweeping enthusiasm of their assertions.

The National Museum was not the large structure proposed by Pigott but it was a National Museum nevertheless. And a de facto Museums Commission did get established which by 1997 had become the Heritage Collections Council supported by Commonwealth and State Governments and by Museums.

Two years ago I could have said that we might go forward from 2001: the National Museum would be recognised as a start – an important start – and an acknowledgement that museums do indeed contribute significantly to society. And that if museums will contribute both money and expertise to their own general advancement (as we will see later) perhaps that is a very good model to adopt and build on. Clearly there were other alternatives: a referral back to the States of the ways in which co-ordination might take place among museums. Another enquiry, in some ways a real indication of what federation really means in Australia: cash rich and policy poor federal government pretending to give the States with their uniquely different views some kind of say. Or nothing much at all.

Well, in its first year the National Museum received some 1 million visits. But it was criticised, as one might have expected, for showing things like Hills Hoists and the stories of ordinary people. More disturbing was its criticism by those “hard men of the right” for falsification of history, portrayal of massacres of Aboriginal people on the frontier of European occupation, for which there was little evidence except oral history. This was being said at the same time as the Howard government was pronouncing that Australia’s borders needed to be protected from invasion by people from Afghanistan and middle eastern countries. And yes, what we got was a review, a consideration of what the Museum should show. And unfortunately a lot more as neoliberalism, a retro view of history and how it was to be constructed ““ how stories were to be properly told – an unproductive view of the role and utility of trustees and a papering over of conflicts between management and National Museum Council. Meanwhile the dominance of treasury reached its apogee and government intervention reached new depths. (Yet again, more later!)

We should not forget that there have been lots of changes in museums including better exhibitions, not to mention buildings ““ in every major city and some smaller cities. In the last three years four museums have opened large and very sensitive exhibitions on Australia’s Indigenous people and their culture! But sometimes one would think that museums were about nothing more than exhibitions and arguments between directors, boards and governments.

Peter Pigott may be remembered, not as the man selling toys to kids, or the man who saved Parma Wallabies, but as the chair of a committee which wrote the most important Report on museums, bar only one, this century. And thereby advanced museums and how they can enrich our lives by helping Australians develop a perception of how Australia has become a more tolerant society, one which recognises the unique contribution of Indigenous peoples in their own land, a civic virtue to be advanced, as Donald Horne said in concluding the first Barton lecture [9] on 8 February 2001. Successive Australian governments might be remembered as a government for all Australians that took a long view, in co-operation with others, and recognised the importance of the material representation of our heritage. Not the present government!

And perhaps that was as it should be in a postmodern world where leisure time was difficult to find and those who had not been taken to museums when they were young weren’t quite sure why they might go to them when they were adults. Whilst one of the major movements in the museum world led to an appreciation of how they might be for somebody rather than about something and how people learned in museum spaces, Australia continued to focus on the objects. Unlike the USA, Britain and Europe where the learning experience was increasingly the focus. Unlike the USA where the social role of museums was increasingly recognised. But like most countries where money was ever tighter and dynamic leadership and considered governance seemed in short supply. A consequence of economic fundamentalism! And other things!


In a paper presented at the CAMA Conference, Canberra, 24 November 1990 (“The Strategic Role Of The Heritage Collections Council”) I said, “As I see it, museums face the following seven challenges:

  1. working together;
  2. getting our purpose clear: removing internal faction fighting;
  3. relations with indigenous people and the cultural diversity of Australia’s population (not necessarily the same agenda item by any stretch of the imagination);
  4. access, participation and interpretation;
  5. resolving the balance between public purpose and collection maintenance or mission vs market;
  6. the political and economic agenda;
  7. governance.

The fact is that museums straddle two of the most important elements of the future of Australia: science and the arts (or culture or heritage).”

Continue to Museums in Australia Part 2

[1] Bloom et al, (1984). Museums for a New Century. A report of the Commission on Museums for a New Century (American Association of Museums, Washington, DC).

[2] National Museum of Australia Amendment Bill 2000

[3] The Committee clearly recognised the word museum to encompass art galleries; it observed that art museums had been more favoured by governments than other kinds of museums and that Aboriginal culture was differently displayed in each.

[4] Museums in Australia 1975: Report of the Committee of Inquiry on Museums and National Collections Australian Government Publishing Service Canberra 1975, section 12.2

[5] The same, section 12.16.

[6] One of its provisions was that a Committee be established to oversight the transfer overseas of items important to the cultural heritage of the nation; such transfer could be prevented should the Minister, on the finding of the committee that the item was of fundamental significance to the nation, so decide. A John Glover painting acquired by Mr Robbie Waterhouse was sold to a person in Los Angeles; the Committee recommended against its leaving the country and the Minister took that advice. Mr Waterhouse was aggrieved.)

[7] The vital importance of working capital and co-operation in developing and touring exhibitions which make a substantial contribution to visitor numbers and the museum’s aims has still not been recognised by most non art museums and governments.

[8] At the National Press Club, Canberra 8 October 1990.

[9] Donald Horne, What holds Australians together despite their diversity? First Barton Lecture, 8 February 2001