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When people talk about quality in museums and what they do, they often are referring to the extent to which the museum meets their expectations in terms of its focus, its concern for building and maintaining collections, whether exhibitions reinforce their views about what is good in art or correct in history. When the museum does not meet expectations it may be accused, these days, of being populist or popular: these days the main criticism of museums relates to its attention to its public programming and attempts to incorporate up to date technology, or diversify the offerings by bringing in touring exhibitions. In any event, notions of appealing to a wide range of people are often eschewed. Meanwhile funders including governments are often asking for wide appeal. The museum turns to marketing.

Again, Paul DiMaggio makes the interesting and important observation that seeking to be popular can draw an enterprise towards eventual market failure. He also points out that trying to justify support of the arts (and museums) on economic (i.e. instrumental) grounds because they produce other benefits such as attracting business, providing employment, increasing tourism is unsuccessful.

“In the long run, [it] is neither good advocacy nor good policy”¦ the arguments are too weak and open up the possibility that support will go to arts projects with the greatest economic impact or to other projects which produce greater economic benefits”¦ cultural policy must regard the market as a tool rather than a standard. Policy towards the arts should use the market when it serves its purposes, but insulate and protect those goals””and the organizations that support them””that the market will not support”.

Sculpture in the garden of the
Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (More)

When the enterprise relies on marketing those responsible can forget that by doing so it enters into a contract with its audiences. Talking of branding ““ marketing by another name ““ John Falk and Beverley Sheppard in their recent book say, [it] “is all of the content ““ your rich collections, primary experiences and deeper knowledge of both “¦ Your brand is the promise you make about your work ““ a guarantee of quality. As with any promise, it implies a relationship, this one between you and all your potential audiences.” Marketing is everything you do and say: good marketing doesn’t overcome poor product. We all know that don’t we!

But all of this surely leads to the recognition that indeed there are some things which are clearly superior. The question is what is it that has led to that, how did it get to be like that, what was done that was unusual? What for instance is our varied reaction to performances of the Nederlans Dans Theatre, Australia’s Bangarra Dance Company, the Australian Chamber Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Carlos Kleiber, to exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, [some of] the films of Robert Altman, the trilogy of films about India by the Toronto-based film maker Deepa Mehta or the video art of Fiona Tan such as “San Sebastian” or the BBC and ABC (Australia) productions about natural history.

The kinds of arrangements, behaviour and concerns which lead to exemplary achievement in these areas are the same as those contributing to high performance in any organizations including the best scientific and business organisations. It is not a focus on money ““ having the accountants move into the TV or feature film business or the airline business ““ or demand open tenders for every new product or project, or carefully calculating the risks (remember the Challenger Shuttle). It is attention to recruitment of the best people, it is genuine people-focused (cohesive) leadership and it is a clear and “unique value statement” promoted with enthusiasm.

Garrison Keilor, interviewed about the film “A Prairie Home Companion” observed, “I learned so much from working with [Robert Altman]”. Julie Rigg (of ABC Radio National) asked, “What exactly?” Keilor responded, “Casting is the crucial thing and you worry about it and you think about it and just fuss abut it for weeks and for months looking for the right person and when you find them they are that character and you do not instruct them very much about how to be that character.”

Consider the following examples. (Some of the following are dealt with on various websites.)

Bleak House

Bleak House is perhaps Charles Dickens’ best novel. The story is both a condemnation of the appalling exploitation by lawyers of the unfortunate people caught up in contested estates ““ Chancery ““ and a picture of London in the early 1800s. It is also a whodunit and psychological thriller about the relationship between Esther Somerson, companion to Ada Clare, one of the wards of Chancery, and the lovely Lady Deadlock whose dark past is gradually revealed by the scheming Mr Tulkinghorn, Sir Lester Deadlock’s lawyer.

John Dryden is a reporter, writer, dramatist and radio producer. His most recent production is of Vickram Seth’s “A Suitable Boy” in 2002, an Indian epic based on the efforts of an Indian woman to find her daughter a suitable husband. Produced and directed in India it recently won the Spoken Word Publishing Association awards for Best Drama and Best Production and was short-listed in the Audio Book category of The British Book Awards.

In the BBC audio production of Bleak House Dryden is both dramatist and director. The production is “not so much a reproduction as an interpretation”. Described as an “excellent dramatisation of a strong story” it stars Michael Kitchen, Clare Price and John Shrapnel and is set in Chiddingstone Castle in Kent; it won the 1999 Sony Gold Award for Drama and the 1999 Talkie Awards for Best Dramatisation and for Best Abridged Classic Fiction.

David Sexton in the Sunday Telegraph wrote, “…Only when you hear a production like this, in which different scenes have been recorded in different rooms, do you realise how monotonous is the acoustic used by most radio drama. And Mark Lawson of Radio Times said, “John Dryden has pioneered in radio a kind of movie for the wireless, in which fast cutting, music and location recording are used to create pace and atmosphere…Outstanding production…”

My response to this production”“ I had not read the book ““ is unwavering, in contrast with the rather wooden and rambling recent TV version of the same novel. I can visualize every character and every scene. The acting and atmosphere, the scenes selected and the threads of Dickens’ novel which are included, combine to produce one of the most outstanding audio productions ever, surpassing even the BBC’s Hamlet (1988) directed by John Tydeman with Ronald Pickup and Angela Pleasance. Every single word spoken is, in my view, perfect. The characterization is in a word, “extraordinary”! Even thinking about it takes my breath away.

Why is this? I think it is two things in particular, both features of Dryden’s role. These are the dramatisation itself and the casting. Did whoever commissioned Dryden have any idea that it would turn out this way?


More than 10 years after writing this (27 December 2014) I am still amazed at John Dryden’s marvellous production of Dickens’ classic.

Dryden has gone on to direct a huge number of plays for BBC Radio. Perhaps the best list is to be found on the Goldhawk site. Almost every production receives rave reviews. However, trying to get hold of copies of the older productions such as Vikram Seth’s “A Suitable Boy” is more difficult than pulling teeth. I continue to search.

La Boheme

“La Boheme” is amongst Giacomo Puccini’s best known operas. In 1989 the Australian Opera commissioned a production by Baz Lurhmann, later director of “Strictly Ballroom” and more recently “Moulin Rouge”. It opened 28 July 1990 at the Sydney Opera House, Australia to a standing ovation and went on to become one of The Operas’ most successful productions over the next 15 years. Described as “a magical translation” of the opera updated to 1950s Paris “with dazzling sets and costumes”, the cast included David Hobson, Cheryl Barker and Roger Lemke, then only in their 30s and hardly well-known. This youthfulness and relative inexperience were to audiences and viewers amongst the most extraordinary features of the production.

Two more productions were staged in 1993 and 1996, including a televised performance. Luhrmann took his production, with different and also young stars, to triumphant tours through US theatres in 2002.

American audiences watching a TV version of the first production on PBS in 1994 wondered how such young people could give such a wonderful performance. One reviewer (John J. O’Connor, “Bohemians of ‘Boheme’ Reawaken as Beatniks”, New York Times June 8, 1994) described it as “shamelessly and quite gloriously romantic. By the slow close of its final curtain, there will not, I assure you, be a dry eye in anybody’s house.” O’Connor continued, “contributing mightily to the success of the performance is an uncommonly attractive cast. David Hobson is a dashing Rodolfo”¦ As Mimi, Cheryl Barker has the kind of oval-faced beauty prized by Renaissance masters. Vocally speaking, we are not here on the level of Sutherland and Pavarotti, admittedly, but Mr. Hobson, Miss Barker and the rest of this lively cast are indisputably gifted and quite able to drain “La Boheme” of just about every heartwrenching nuance”¦ Operagoers might think “La Boheme” overly familiar. Watch this smashing production and be seduced all over again.”

Why was this production so outstanding? What made for its success? Australian Opera’s Artistic Director Moffatt Oxenbould said, “Of course the material is fantastic, strong. We gave Lurhmann and Catherine Martin (designer) a brief: treat this as a totally new piece and this as the first performance. The result was freshness and spontaneity. Lurhmann recognised that the AO is a resource of accumulated craft skills. Lurhmann and Martin made the most of that, Lurhmann harnessed energies, he found like-minded people and formed a meaningful relationship with the conductor”. He went on, “Management’s purpose is to provide an environment in which artists can give of their best”. Then General Manager of Australian Opera Donald McDonald recently described the production as amongst the cheapest they had staged.


Two Museum Exhibitions

I have chosen these two productions because they epitomise the very very best of artistic productions, productions which “made a difference to my life”. (They didn’t lead to my making more money or produce economic benefit for me or any other viewer.) The question is, what makes for such outstanding experiences. Further, how can we aim for something comparable in a museum production?

Of course there are outstanding exhibitions in museums, though not everyone would agree they are outstanding. I will mention two, the Grande Galerie de l’évolution at the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris and “First American Art: The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection of American Indian Art” exhibition at the New York Customs House site of the National Museum of the American Indian (April 24, 2004″“May 29, 2006).

The Natural History Museum in Paris was until the 1980s a typical classical natural history museum with many mounted animals and models in glass cases. For the last several decades of its former existence it was simply closed down.

The main space of the Museum is now an Evolution Gallery, a wonderful space dominated by a huge parade of animals running almost the entire length of the main floor with supporting objects and information that elaborate the story surrounding the parade and stretching out to the walls of the space and up and down to other levels. The total space is 6,000 square meters and comprises sections presenting the diversity and evolution of life, the impact of humans on the natural environment and the future of the planet. It portrays a variety of environments from the deep sea to tropical forests. Mounts of endangered and extinct species are displayed in a darkened room like a morgue.

The exhibition was part of the overall redevelopment of the entire site including the construction of an underground collection storage space (which leaked: it is actually under the Seine). The exhibition was developed by learning specialists: there were protests all the way to the President of France by scientists at the Museum.


The Diker collection exhibition at the George Gustave Heye Center of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in the Customs Building in New York in 2004-2006 was the collaborative product of a group of Native and non-Native artists, art historians, critics, writers, and anthropologists from NMAI and across North America “who gathered to discuss a new paradigm for the articulation of Native American art”.

Exhibition curators Bruce Bernstein and Gerald McMaster (Plains Cree and member of the Siksika Nation) describe the group’s development of the exhibition in this way: “Through our conversations, we arrived at seven principles that guided us in appreciating the breathtaking range of beautiful objects in the Dikers’ collection: idea, emotion, intimacy, movement, integrity, vocabulary, and composition. Instead of organizing this exhibition around artistic regions or object type, we used these seven principles to guide our curatorial vision. We hope they will help visitors to understand these objects as true works of art as well as significant cultural objects.”


Talking to and watching staff and players from two of Australia’s leading orchestras, both of which have received world-wide acclaim, I came to the same conclusion.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra is recognised as one of the finest small orchestras in the world. It spends much of its time touring Australia and regularly tours overseas. The artistic director Richard Tognetti is known for his extraordinary focus on the music and his demand for the highest standards, players are recruited to the orchestra after up to six months playing with the orchestra on a trial basis, everyone in and associated with the orchestra and the board meet once a year to discuss every issue anyone wants to raise, the board is recognised as extremely supportive. And so on. It all leads not only to extraordinary performances but to fundraising efforts of the highest quality.

The Australian Youth Orchestra comprises players no older than 28 and recruits new members for the year every year. Watching the debriefing after a performance of Britten’s War Requiem recently, the enthusiasm of these young players, their feeling of belonging and the mutual respect between players, conductor ““ always superior people – and staff were all obvious. At the end of speeches the players broke into happy birthday for the General Manager. On one of the tours, at the end of the performance, Vladimir Ashkenazy, said, “It doesn’t get much better than that!” To verify all this, you can for instance listen to the AYO’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony and compare it with any other performance.

In July 2007, the AYO is again on tour in Europe. Its opening concert was in the Cathedrale de Saint Louis at Les Invalides in a program of Ravel, Rachmaninov, and Tchaikovsky. Maestro Lawrence Foster and pianist Lukáš Vondrácek  shared the stage with the AYO. The Australian Ambassador to France, Penny Wensley hosted this concert appearance by AYO in this special building and introduced the orchestra after interval. This was an invitation only concert with many representatives from the diplomatic corps and musical life in Paris. Colin Cornish (CEO), reports, “the capacity audience rose to their feet whilst the final note of the symphony was still resounding around this very generous acoustic and the standing ovation remained for some 3 or 4 minutes.”

He continues, “This concert was a milestone in the implementation of this tour and we now move into a routine of travel and performances over the next 10 days. After a very smooth flight from Sydney, the combination of long transfer times in Heathrow, lost luggage, and a number of cases of flu, has made this a bumpy ride to the first European performance. But as expected the AYO rose to the occasion and in the words of Maestro Foster, “delivered a fantastic performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.4 only comparable to the highest standard of performance by the greatest orchestras”.

You can watch and listen to the orchestra rehearsing in this grand cathedral on the Orchestra’s new website, by clicking here.

Thinking about all this, I recalled the other day, the stories about Lucas Aerospace. The reason was that I finally caught up with the emergence of Ricardo Semler and Semco, a Sao Paulo company which has attracted huge attention because of its unusual management practices, when Semler was interviewed by Kerry O’Brien on ABC TV’s 7:30 Report in early 2007.

Amongst others who have recently interviewed and written about Semco is Charles Handy, noted management and leadership guru himself, in his series or the BBC, “The Handy Guide to the Gurus of Management”. In episode 11 he summarises Semco and Semler and the changes that have taken place.

Semco manufactures pumps, high volume dishwashers, cooling units for air conditioners, basic things, although more recently it has diversified into high margin services and e-business. It does all this, too, in the difficult economic conditions of Brazil, where the currency rises and falls unpredictably, and inflation can range from 1000 per cent to under ten.

Ricardo, author of “Maverick” describes how he took over as chief executive of the company from his father at the beginning of the eighties, when he himself was not yet twenty, straight out of Harvard. He started out by doing things the traditional way, wielding the corporate axe to cut a failing organization into shape. He ran the company himself, from the top, with tight disciplines and controls. The stress he created was enormous. Semler himself was being physically destroyed by the workaholic lifestyle he had to adopt. Something had to give. And it did! Semler’s sickness forced him to make a dramatic change to his work patterns, more than that, he had to rethink his whole way of managing the business.

He began by attacking what he called ‘corporate oppression”. Time clocks, dress codes, security procedures, privileged office spaces and perks, they all went. There were to be no receptionists or secretaries, everyone was to meet their own visitors, send their own faxes, make their own coffee. He got more people involved in taking decisions. The first thing was to eliminate needless layers of hierarchy. He inherited eleven layers. Now a front-line lathe operator is only one layer away from the general manager of his division. He put more new ideas to the test. They needed to relocate a factory, so they closed the firm down and everyone boarded buses to inspect three possible sites, then it was put to a vote.

He next set up what he called ‘factory committees’ to run the plants, in an attempt to get more worker involvement. It was slow going at first. Many did not want to be involved, or were worried about losing their jobs if they spoke out. Semler therefore guaranteed that no-one could be fired while serving on the committees or for at least a year afterwards. It was a crucial decision that won their trust and it turned the culture around from one of fear to one of cooperation. Ricardo then introduced far-reaching profit-sharing schemes for all the workers. The thought that they could directly influence their own pay encouraged the committees to look for savings and to question any procedures or layers of management that didn’t seem to add value. As the committees grew in confidence so the attacks on the traditional ways of managing increased, but this time from the workers themselves. Factories and business units were progressively spun off into self regulating units with their own profit and loss accounts. Managers were hired and fired by their own employees. And, to keep employed yourself, you had to find a way to add visible value so that your team would still want to include you in their six-monthly budget.

New businesses grew from the ideas of employees themselves, such as maintaining air conditioners. A partnership managing retail facilities followed and that, in turn, encouraged one group of workers to sense the opportunities that existed in managing inventories with the help of the internet. And so Semco grew, entirely due to the initiatives of its workers. In fact, Ricardo called his latest article in the Harvard Business Review “How we went digital without a strategy.” Ricardo meanwhile was redefining his own role, since so much of the organization was really running itself. He now sees himself as the ‘questioner’, the ‘challenger’ and the ‘catalyst’, as the person who asks basic questions and encourages people to bring things down to the simplest level, to apply commonsense to complicated issues. He no longer needs to be involved in day-to-day affairs and, in fact, works mostly at home.

Handy observes, “Looking around him at the world outside Semco, Ricardo is worried about a hardening of the arteries in many of what were the exciting new businesses around Silicon Valley and elsewhere. The respect for individuals and their ideas, a distrust of bureaucracy and hierarchy, a love of openness and experiment, all the things that Semco holds dear, are beginning, he feels, to be throttled by the old ways of business. CEOs from older businesses are being brought in to provide focus and discipline. Strategies are being written, human resource departments formed to issue policies and plan careers, entrepreneurs are being pushed to the margins where they are less disruptive. It’s sad, says Ricardo, and it isn’t necessary.”

Noted management and leadership guru himself, Charles Handy concluded his interview with Semler with these words. “So listen, finally, to his heartfelt plea. ‘You can build a great company, he insists, without fixed plans. You can have an efficient company without rules and controls. You can be unbuttoned and creative without sacrificing profit. All it takes is faith in people.’ I just wish that more people believed him.”

All it takes is faith in people!

So, I am reminded of Richard Feynman’s story about his young engineers working out the calculations for implosion of a nuclear device during the Los Alamos project. “All I had to do was tell them what it meant.” Trust counts, centralised control doesn’t. Genuine leadership means trusting people. When people are trusted they respond.

Why do so many museum executives, government officials and museum trustees and board members ignore these lessons and what we have learned about creative organisations?

Last, isn’t it interesting that even when describing the most significant scientific discoveries the words used describe emotions, not intellectual highs? When Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of the Los Alamos Project, talked of seeing the successful test explosion of the first atomic bomb at Alamogordo in the [New Mexico] desert, he thought of the horror that the use of the bomb could unleash but said, but the “equations are so beautiful”. A Nobel Prize-winning Physicist can talk of a scientific discovery being like reaching the top of Mount Everest and falling in love all at the same time. John Stocker, then Chief Executive of Australia’s CSIRO referred to a scientific discovery as being like an orgasm of the mind.

Can we say that quality is that which produces the strongest emotional response and that everything else is just technique?