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Museums in Australia For Us – Conclusion

Museums in Australia, Part 3: Museums in Australia for a new millennium

The Cultural Ministers Council established in May 2002 a consultative Forum to consider priorities, benchmarks, standards, strategies and programs to address the needs of collections, identify their community value and support their potential and the means of enhancing co-ordination. The Forum was also to advise upon the feasibility or otherwise of establishing a national industry body to represent the library, archives, museum and gallery sectors. Following the Forum’s recommendations, the Cultural Ministers approved the establishment of an Australian Collections Council to represent the interests of, and formulate long-term strategies for, the sector. Whilst this was an important decision, some major issues were not addressed.

By 2000 the Heritage Collections Council, a body established by the Australian Cultural Ministers’ Council, had completed some impressive work in the area of conservation and electronic access. It had produced some important publications. Much of this would never have happened had the Council and its predecessors not been established. This had been achieved by co-operation between museums of all kinds and through the provision of funds by museums and Commonwealth and State governments. Libraries and archives had participated.

The progress from Heritage Collections Working Group to Heritage Collections Council had not always been easy and roadblocks frequently appeared from Canberra. Litanies of minutiae delivered at the last minute objected to the establishment of the group (later overturned by a senior officer with a broader view), objections to members of Council Working Parties having their fares and expenses paid to attend meetings absorbed half of one meeting of the HCC and, because some museums were slow in paying their financial contributions, assertions were made that there was less than adequate support for the HCC. [1] And there was a lack of consultation with Museums Australia representatives on meeting agendas and progress.

In 2002, following the review by Deakin University and consideration of the report by the Council itself and by the Cultural Ministers Council, the CMC established, “a National Collections Advisory Forum to provide strategic advice on collections, and to identify priorities for government in addressing the ongoing needs of the sector.” The CMC resolution continued, “A key focus for the Forum will be to advise Ministers within 12 months on the feasibility of establishing an industry body to represent the collections sector….”

When the HCC itself met three months previously, in February, to discuss the future, it had before it three models: 1, continuation of the current HCC model, expanded to incorporate libraries and archives, to provide policy advice and manage a work program, including product delivery; 2, an industry forum providing high-level policy advice to CMC’s Standing Committee on the development of national strategies and the coordination of programs across governments; and 3, establishment of an independent industry body to coordinate and manage support for the sector.

Though it was acknowledged that each of the models had strengths it was agreed (by many at least) that the most useful approach would be to build a future based on choosing the optimal aspects of each in a structured and strategic way. A two stage process was proposed to progress formation of a national co-ordinating body through building creatively on the key features of the three models presented: this would involve a transition stage that would allow time to develop the terms of reference for the creation of a new national body. In the meantime the HCC would continue!

Some of those present loudly expressed indignation at the limitations on discussion, others thought that trying to get on with the bureaucrats would eventually bring rewards. And besides, rude comments loudly delivered would simply not carry, they were a disturbance! In the end, a resolution that the HCC continue concurrently with a review was passed by the ‘industry’ meeting. At its meeting on May 1 2002 the CMC gave support to museums.

“For almost a decade Ministers have worked with the Heritage Collections Council and its predecessors to co-ordinate national strategies and initiatives for improving the preservation and accessibility of heritage collections.

“Ministers acknowledged the valuable work of the Heritage Collections Council and are committed to build upon this work. Ministers are also committed to a continuing partnership with the museums and galleries sectors and to the development of new partnerships with libraries and archives…”

When appointed the membership did not include an official representative of Museums Australia although Vice President (and lead consultant for the Deakin University study) Margaret Birtley was a member. Ron Radford, Director of the Art Gallery of South Australia, joined the Forum when one member became ill and unable to participate.

The Forum was allocated $160,000 to address its Terms of Reference, to:

And $100,000 per annum was allocated to the CMC Standing Committee to fund programs of support for the sector following advice from the Forum.

An amount of $70,000 was allocated to a significant redevelopment of the AMOL website so that it may “fulfil [its] potential to “provide access to our heritage collection by Australians”, Ministers having recognised the value of AMOL to the collections sector.

Almost two years later, on 19 February 2004, the Cultural Ministers, meeting in Perth, issued a communiqué which said in part,

Ministers have endorsed the recommendations of the National Collections Advisory Forum, chaired by Professor Margaret Seares AO, and agreed to the establishment of a new national industry body [the Australian Collections Council] to represent the shared interests of galleries, libraries archives and museums.

This is an historic moment for the collections sector and is the culmination of more than ten years of collaboration on the part of CMC.

The Collections Council will play a critical role in:

· developing long term strategies to address issues facing our collections;

· undertaking industry support, particularly through the development of a profile for the sector at a national and international level; and

· implementing initiatives to address cross sectoral issues.

The membership of the body will be announced shortly.”

To some this was more than had been expected. To others it was not really an advance at all. “Representing” the shared interests did seem to resemble what an industry body like Museums Australia would do. Perhaps what was meant was more related to “developing long term strategies”. There was an equally important issue: of all the activities concerning museums and their collections, including the presentation and interpretation of them, those within the area of public programs, including exhibition development were, and remain, of huge importance. Indeed, as said elsewhere, the real contribution to recognition by politicians and the media of museums’ place in community life achieved by temporary exhibitions was not yet fully realised by non art museums. These are responsibilities recognised in Britain by the Government funded policy and funding body RESOURCE [2] (now the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council) and in the USA by the Institute of Museum, Library and Archive Services.

The fundamental necessity of providing working capital for exhibition development is not clear to many governments who believe that museums can fund it from sponsorship and what remains of operational revenue after salaries (which have had to absorb agreed and/or imposed increases) and other costs. This is absolutely wrong and will achieve nothing. Perhaps Ministers imagine that existing Commonwealth exhibition touring schemes such as Visions Australia are adequate: they are not!

The agreement of February 21 2004 by the Cultural Ministers Council is welcome in several ways but does not recognise the importance of learning and understanding the museum visiting experience. So long as that prevails, the interface between exhibition and visitor will not expand and overlap. It might be left in the area of curatorial expertise with the media complaining every time the curator is not at the centre of the process. The usual cant about the need to teach facts rather than excite interest will go on.

The year 2003 saw the publication of the report reviewing the National Museum of Australia chaired by Professor John Carroll; it was the final year of Director Dawn Casey’s term. The recommendations called for more important historical events to be dealt with in the exhibitions, criticised the layout of the museum and the design of the “Garden of Dreams”, complemented the Museum for the Indigenous exhibitions and criticised many of the other exhibitions. The review committee received many submissions, a number of them making very important points indeed. But the report hardly mentioned them.

Margaret Anderson, now Director of the South Australian History Trust (and co-ordinator of the survey of Australia’s museums for the Heritage Collections Working Group in the early 1990’s) wrote,

While much of the vision for the National Museum changed between the early 1980s, when it was first established, and the present, its commitment to presenting exhibitions spanning three broad themes ““ Indigenous history, history of the environment and history of the Nation ““ remained intact. In the 1980s this was a new and innovative approach to Australian history: by 2001 it was much more mainstream, but no less relevant for that.

“None of these themes is simple and exhibitions devised to explore them must, of necessity, be complex and contested if they are to engage in any meaningful way with the wealth of historical research produced over the past two decades. Governments cannot instruct museums to foster research on the one hand and expect them to ignore it in their public programs, in the interests of a “˜celebratory’ view of “˜our journey as a nation,’ on the other. The public has a right to expect that the exhibitions they see in museums will reflect the latest historical research, just as they do for science or art museums. After all we would not expect our science museums to present exhibitions based on popular conceptions of scientific issues. Why then would we suggest that history museums should do so?

“The community expects that the information they encounter in museums will be properly researched and honestly presented, even if some of it reflects the nation in a less positive light. This is the basis of the museum’s integrity. Party politics has no place in this mix… The authority [of museums] in the community ultimately rests on their capacity to present information unfettered by political constraints.

“Australian museums are not alone in confronting difficult questions in the life of the nation through history museums… [Germany gives examples in the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the Stasi Prison] … There is widespread recognition that in honest historical enquiry lies one defence against repression. Our own Prime Minister has been a trenchant critic of the Japanese Government’s selective memory in its textbook approach to the Second World War. In this sense his speech at the opening of the National Museum seemed to support the notion of the museum as a legitimate forum for review and debate.

“… While European nations derive much of their sense of self and their national pride from the past, they accept that their patrimony includes both good and bad. Magna Carta may be celebrated as a tentative step towards democracy, but no one pretends that King John was a hero. Similarly the Danes derive enormous satisfaction from the archaeological wealth of their country, but they have few delusions about the antics of their Viking ancestors abroad. Perhaps we still lack cultural maturity.”

Anderson also observed,

“It has been suggested that oral evidence is not “˜proper’ historical evidence. Historians have long recognized both the strengths and weaknesses of oral evidence. It is assessed in the same way that any historical evidence is assessed – for internal consistency, consistency with other forms of evidence, motive of the source, etc. In general historians have found oral evidence to be particularly useful when there is little written, or more formal, evidence, or when the weight of formal evidence leans overwhelmingly to one side of a story.”

Andrew Reeves (former Executive Director of the Western Australian Museum, one time member of the Council of the National Museum (1996-2002), then Chief of Staff for Senator Kim Carr (Labour, Victoria) in the Australian Parliament and, from December 2007, Senior Policy Advisor to Senator Carr, Minister for Science, Research and Innovation in the Rudd Labor Government) asked four questions: what is the nature of a national museum, what steps does the Museum need to establish research as the key driver of exhibition quality, what decisions does the Museum need to take in order to identify its position as a key museum and what steps does the Museum need to take to create vibrant, lively, inquiring and sustainable culture.

Reeves observed,

the faults of [National Museum] exhibitions … stem not from a minority political agenda but rather from inexperience, from a lack of skill in the development of exhibitions and from the use of external exhibition designers who, without pressing the issue, failed to comprehend Australian history or our particular social or cultural characteristics.

Referring to previous statements, Reeves asserted,

“a strong research-based, collaborative culture within the Museum is patently lacking, and insufficient attention has been placed on such a priority. In place of such a robust cultural identity, the museum has suffered instead from a culture of dependency- to its parent Department.

“The comparative history of the National Library, the National Gallery and the National Museum is illuminating. In contrast to the acceptance of cultural autonomy by the Library and the Gallery, the Museum obviously remains tied to the Department and subject, to some degree, to its agendas and concerns…

“… the Gallery and the Library have a history of recruiting widely, attracting leading practitioners from their respective fields, both nationally and internationally. In contrast, decisions made by successive governments have ensured that the Museum has relied for its directors almost exclusively on recruitment from the ranks of the Federal Public Service (either current or recently employed) and particularly heavily from the ranks of [the sponsoring] Department ” – currently DoCITA.

“Such introspection reinforces dependency and feeds back directly to the character and depth of the exhibitions. The Museum needs to be opened up- not to the political correctness feared by some but rather to a range of skills and experience already available in Australia but, in large part, hitherto resisted by the Museum.”

Tim Sullivan (previously Executive Officer to the Director, Australian Museum; now Deputy CEO and Director of Museums at the Sovereign Hill Museums Association, Ballarat) submitted that,

A national museum in the national capital is in the prime position to tell the story of Australian life on this continent over its many thousands of years. It is uniquely positioned to tell the story with a genuinely national perspective on our indigenous history, the story and impact of colonisation, our growth as a modern nation and as a member of the world community, and what we have learned about ourselves and our land along the way… A most noticeable gap is a narrative discussing the significance of social, political and economic change through the nineteenth century, with particular reference to the importance of rural activities and regional centres as the economic engines in our national development in that period, and the subsequent shift in the 20th century to our predominantly urban and cosmopolitan ways of life in the major metropolises. That transition has been such a significant one to understand in our perception of ourselves.”

Distinguished academics and former members of the Pigott Committee even also submitted views. All of the above points are absolutely critical. Yet neither the Carroll Review or the media for that matter paid any attention to them.

There can be no doubt that many of the critics of the National Museum are, as Margaret Anderson says, unaware of the nature of historical scholarship and indeed of the way history is portrayed and understood. Professor Joyce Appleby, Professor of American History, UC Los Angeles, speaking at the Smithsonian Institution, March 1997 [3], made some important statements about that.

“The questions we ask in history depend on the situation at the time the questions are asked. Different questions are asked about the Soviet Union after it collapsed compared with those asked when it was [it seemed to some] a viable political entity.

There are two misconceptions that many people have about what history is.

“1, The past lingers on after events to force the hands of the historian. NOT TRUE!

“2, There are historical facts and if historians would just stick with the facts they could stay out of trouble. NOT TRUE. [For instance] the story of arrival of Europeans in Jamestown, now Virginia, does not include Native Americans unless there was a massacre, nor slavery until it was abolished.

“Some Americans will say, “They were not in my school textbook. Why are they in my son’s textbook?” “Take them off! They weren’t there when I was at school.” These are some of the problems I have discovered about the public’s understanding of history. And I think we need to recognise that the past is a foreign country. It is a mysterious place and it needs interpretation. There are lots of puzzles to be solved and we should present the past with a sense of discovery.”

Appleby concluded,

History is not only connected to the present, but it’s also connected to the future, or what we think the future is going to be. … America’s future is going to be multiracial. Schoolchildren and researchers now ask questions about these races and their interactions as a way of understanding of this development… . The important things is to keep the link as to how knowledge is created. It is not something that is being imagined; it comes out of new questions. It’s entirely possible our current views won’t last for more than 30 or 40 years. Yet another perspective will generate new scholarship, and once again will take 210 to 15 years to develop the depth, the complexity and the thoroughness of a new body of material.”

As the year ended, Dawn Casey delivered trenchant criticism of political interference in appointments to the Museum’s Council and one Council member, David Barnett, complained about the poles in the Garden of Dreams because they were painted blue: they were, in fact he said, a memorial to Gough Whitlam.

Major art museums continued to attract large audiences, tour important exhibitions and, in some cases, make important acquisitions.

It must never be forgotten that museums in Australia have achieved much in the last 30 years, and particularly in the last 15 years. There have been substantial gains, in scholarship, in exhibition development, in understanding visitors’ experiences and in marketing and the achievement of private sponsorship. Exhibitions on Indigenous Australians in almost every major museum represent a dramatic reversal of those of 30 years ago. Some important developments have been achieved by regional museum services, particularly in Queensland.

Exhibitions on most subjects are better presented and marketed. Natural history museums are involved in major issues concerning the natural environment, especially biodiversity conservation; those presenting exhibitions on evolution have not shrunk from proclaiming the importance of theory derived from the work of Charles Darwin and his contemporaries. And there have been advances in the provision of access to collections and the use of information technology. These advances are not lagging behind those in museums in other countries, as visitors from those countries will attest.

Yet many of what the achievements are submerged in arguments over political correctness and assertions about dumbing down, core programs are marginalised by bureaucratic interventions including ongoing arguments about performance indicators and insistence on financial valuations of collections. Problems of management are trivialised. Failures of governance are overlooked. The consequences of the kinds of mistakes that Reeves draws attention to are ignored.

It would be foolish to not recognise that there are further very large clouds on the horizon. Many of them are consequences of the mythologies of neoliberal policies and the ongoing moves to value the price of everything, to ignore evidence which does not support ideology. Too much of the dynamics are the dynamics of power and few resemble what we increasingly understand to be best practice in leadership and governance.

The consequences of favouring small government and tax reduction strategies are declining funding from government and the dominance of every policy area by departments of the treasury, something that those concerned with health, education, transport and social welfare are very familiar with (see Endnote 2).

A recent book [4] quotes Harvard Professor Harvey Cox,

“One sometimes wonders in this era of market religion, where all the sceptics and freethinkers have gone. What has happened to the Voltaires who once exposed bogus miracles, and the H.L. Menckens who blew shrill whistles on pious humbuggery?”

Such questions and statements are not new. Neither is the failure of those who manage and govern museums, those who develop policies for them and those who comment on them publicly to genuinely analyse and criticise what is going on. It is left to a few people within museums, some scholars and a few others.

Back to Museums in Australia from Pigott to Carroll


(1) On 2 March MLA announced the launch of “Inspiring Learning for All”, a program described by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council as a pioneering proposal to make museums, libraries and archives central to the development of modern education. It is a web-based resource which enables review and development of learning activities based on a framework of best practice and measurement of the inmpact of those activities on learners. At the launch Charles Clarke, Secretary of State for Education and Skills, said, “Museums, libraries and archives have a vital role in inspiring learning across the community. This new framework will equip them to respond to the latest developments in learning and teaching and develop their services in innovative ways”.

On Museums 9 March 2004 MLA launched “Investing for the 21st Century”. The media release said, “Today museums across the country have joined together to publish A Manifesto for Museums, calling for a five-year programme of investment to sustain their current success and build for the future”.

The Manifesto was launched alongside a set of new reports by the NMDC (National Museums Directors’ Conference), the Museums Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) and GLLAM (The Group for Large Local Authority Museums) which demonstrate the contribution museums make to society and underline the case for increased government funding.

A total of £115 million per annum is needed for museums: £35 million to fully fund the “Renaissance in the Regions” programme for regional museums, £50 million to enable national museums to carry out their core activities and programme of modernisation, an additional investment of £15 million to fund a series of innovative joint initiatives and £15 million for acquisitions.

(2) In “Wisdom in Hungry Times” (Museum News July/August 2003, p 31) Frank Shafroth, former director of state and federal relations for the National Governors Association in Washington DC, describes and analyses the current fiscal situation of the states of the USA: it is precarious! The state revenue system is outdated, health care costs are spiraling out of control, unfunded mandates are being imposed by the Federal Government, tax revenues are continuing to decline and homeland security costs are exacerbating the situation. All but one state must balance its budget each year. The budget deficits are as large as at any time since World War II: expenditure is being drastically reduced and the impacts on families and individuals from education to healthcare is dramatic. Shaforth concludes, “Museums will want to think outside of the box”. This means roles, importance to economies and dependence on state funding.


(1) The Commonwealth took over the collecting of museum contributions when the Council came into being with the promise that they would get Commonwealth Museums to pay in the same manner as had State museums. They never did. In one year the secretariat failed even to send out invoices, the HCC thereby foregoing some $200,000 in funds.

(2) The name of this body, originally the Museums and Galleries Commission, has recently been changed to the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA). On March 2 it launched a major new project to make museums, libraries and archives central to the development of modern education. See endnote 1.

(3) Journal of Museum Education 23 (3), 1998, p 7

(4) Francis Wheelan, “How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions”, Fourth Estate (2004) reviewed by Tim Adams in The Guardian Weekly February 12-18 2004.