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Understanding Museums - Australian Museums and Museology: Edited by Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien

About the authors

Des Griffin is currently Gerard Krefft Memorial Fellow, Australian Museum, an honorary position commemorating one of the early directors of the Museum. More about Des Griffin

Leon Paroissien AM is the Chair of Object: Australian Centre for Craft and Design in Sydney. More about Leon Paroissien

Museums in Australia: from a new era to a new century
by Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien

The border between the themes of an art museum and a general museum is often blurred. Moreover the spirit and atmosphere of an art museum is no longer so inimical to the spirit and atmosphere of a museum of natural history or technology ... Today, in influential quarters, art is the new religion and so an art museum is more likely to be housed in a new Parthenon. Nonetheless, the art museums have nearly all the troubles and the unanswered challenges facing other kinds of museums. [1]

The election of EG (Gough) Whitlam in December 1972 as the first Labor prime minister for 23 years generated significant changes across a spectrum of areas in Australian life, including education, the arts, the environment and urban planning [2], foreign affairs and Indigenous affairs. The three years of the Whitlam government also triggered initiatives that were to have a profound effect on Australia’s museums for the rest of the century and beyond.

Australia in the early 1970s had gone through a period of great change. A 1967 referendum had recognised Indigenous Australians as citizens in their own country. The Vietnam War and subsequent immigration of refugees focused attention on Asia and began to change the country’s ethnic mix. The Australian National University had become a significant centre for Asia and the Pacific, and was a leader in educating Australians to become fluent in Asian languages. The Whitlam government’s early recognition of China generated one of the most generous cultural exchanges that China was to negotiate with any western country, ultimately contributing to a trade partnership that is vital to Australia’s economy today.

Museums of art, science, technology and natural history had existed in state capital cities since the nineteenth century, and a number of smaller museums and galleries contributed to the life of some larger regional cities and towns. While state galleries had hosted major international art exhibitions episodically in the past, most museums had seen their own exhibitions as almost permanent public displays. Staff concentrated on collections and their documentation. Most of the state museums had research programs of various kinds, mainly in the areas of natural history and anthropology, but seldom of social history.

The Australian War Memorial in Canberra commemorated the nation’s loss of life in foreign wars and portrayed the heroism of Australian soldiers. Australian history and nation building had meanwhile begun to emerge as a special subject in schools and universities. Previously social history – the comings and goings of ordinary Australians – was seldom addressed in Australian schools, universities or museums, although many small collections of machinery, equipment, fashion items and domestic paraphernalia were assembled in towns throughout Australia, and daily life in the country and the city was being photographed and painted. Australian inventions and creations were not considered as significant as those produced elsewhere. Children learned of generals, politicians and explorers, but not of the achievements of immigrants, of Aboriginal peoples, or of conflicts on Australian soil.

A national collection, consisting primarily of portraits and landscapes by Australian artists, had been assembled incrementally for a long-discussed National Gallery, and a site had been chosen in 1970. However, the nation’s capital still had no national museum of any discipline other than the Australian Institute of Anatomy.

The relationship of museums in Australia with Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders for more than 150 years failed to recognise the validity of different peoples with distinctive cultures. This unfortunately positioned museums as an instrumental agent of the dominant white population derived from Europe that had settled the land without any regard for prior ownership and occupation. Museum collectors obtained artefacts and cultural material, including secret and sacred items such as stone tjuringas. Worse still, human remains were obtained, often from graves, and skulls and other skeletal material and soft body tissue were sent to museums in Europe and America. Such practices regarded Indigenous peoples as ‘primitive’; a number of museums publicly displayed human remains, and disparate artefacts were densely arrayed in glass cases as late as the 1960s.

Computers and information technology had not yet begun to impact every facet of the life of museums. Documentation of collections often depended upon bound registers collating handwritten information, utilising small cards on which information might be typewritten. Curators were expected to mount exhibitions, care for the collections and conduct research; when resources permitted, they published catalogues for exhibitions. Boards governing museums had substantial control over collections and programs. Funding was almost entirely from government sources, and bureaucratic control was exercised through the department of the relevant minister. Politically, state governments exercised much of the power concerning domestic matters; the Commonwealth had only recently undertaken developmental initiatives on behalf of the arts, as it had previously done in tertiary education.

The Pigott Report (1975)

A Committee of Inquiry on Museums and National Collections, chaired by businessman Peter Pigott, was commissioned in 1974 to review museums of all kinds. The Committee’s far-sighted and significant vision for museums in its 1975 report was an overarching one, addressing the need for new museums, new emphases, new initiatives and new training courses.

The Pigott Report was delivered in 1975, only days before Governor-General Sir John Kerr dismissed the Whitlam government. The Report nevertheless survives as one of the most important documents on the state of any country’s museums. Museums in Australia 1975 took a broad view, confronting the entire range of issues facing museums, from collections in cramped and appalling conditions to opportunities to excite visitors and encourage inquiry and understanding. ‘As places of education, museums have unusual but rarely defined advantages’, it argued, as they are able to instruct and entertain a great diversity of people and provide an immediacy to the real thing through dispensing with the ‘layers of interpretation which, in most media, separate an object or evidence from the audience’. [3]

Amongst the aims of museums highlighted in the Report, several advocated for the museum experience as a dynamic engagement with the public:

  • Museums should classify and arrange their exhibits with boldness and caution, conscious that a way of arranging knowledge can be illuminating in one era and stultifying in another era.
  • Museums should satisfy curiosity and arouse curiosity.
  • Museums should educate formally and informally.
  • Museums should extend the frontlines of knowledge ... and enable curious spectators to visit those frontlines and understand how some of the battles to extend knowledge are fought. [4]

This approach to the educational aims of museums recognised the learning experience in ways that – even today – are sometimes challenged or ignored by critics who are unaware of the advances made in understanding the nature of learning, the nature of the museum visit, or the role of informal learning institutions such as museums, zoos and libraries in social development.

‘In Australia’, the Report observed, ‘governments too often accept museums as institutions where the second-best will succeed’. [5] Museums needed to work together; they would not survive and reach their potential without a shared approach to basic ground rules and policies endorsed at a national level. Thus the most important recommendation of the Committee was that an Australian Museums Commission – comparable bodies existed in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom – be established to foster the development of museums in Australia.

The Pigott Committee recommended a number of new national museums, especially a ‘Museum of Australia’ to be constructed in Canberra, focusing on three themes or galleries: ‘Aboriginal man in Australia’; ‘European man in Australia’; and ‘the Australian environment and its interaction with the two named themes’. An early Planning Committee for a Gallery of Aboriginal Australia had recommended that a separate institute be established. The Pigott Committee, while strongly supporting the concept, questioned the practicability of separate administrative arrangements. [6]

The Committee also recommended establishment of a National Maritime Museum in Sydney, an aviation museum in a growth centre such as Albury-Wodonga, and a Gallery or Museum of Australian Biography within Canberra’s Parliamentary Triangle.

The Committee meanwhile found that the deterioration of existing collections in Australian museums had reached crisis point, and recommended that a Cultural Materials Conservation Institute be created to study and communicate ways of preventing the deterioration of fragile and perishable objects in the Australian climate. [7]

Addressing the international context, the Pigott Report further expressed concern about the unregulated export of particular items of Australia’s cultural heritage.

The Pigott Committee covered a number of other important issues, including the growth of small local and regional museums and regional galleries of art, the nature of research in museums, and the role of curators in research as opposed to exhibition activities. The Report also referred to the lack of attention given to Australian history, and the future of biological collections held by various Commonwealth government departments.

In subsequent decades Australia’s cultural life was transformed through a variety of different events and initiatives, and the Report must today be viewed in its historical context. The Committee could not have envisaged many of the factors that have subsequently shaped Australia’s museums. However, fulfilling the vision of the Report, the Australian National Maritime Museum was eventually built in Sydney, opening in 1988; the National Museum of Australia finally opened in Canberra in 2001 to coincide with the Centenary of Federation; and a provisional National Portrait Gallery [8] was established in Old Parliament House after the completion of the new Parliament building in 1988. A handsome new purpose-designed building for the National Portrait Gallery opened alongside the National Gallery on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin late in 2009.

The introduction in 1978 of the Commonwealth Government’s Tax Incentives for the Arts scheme provided tax deductions for the full value of gifts to museums and libraries, bringing valuable additions to collections throughout Australia. The export of significant cultural heritage was addressed by the Australian government’s ratification of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting the Illegal Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. [9]

Art museums and the Australia Council

The Whitlam government’s substantial expansion of the role and funding of the Australian Council for the Arts – focused on the performing arts under previous governments – had an immediate and enduring effect on art museums that was unparalleled elsewhere in the museums sector. Boards for Aboriginal Arts, Visual Arts and Crafts all initiated policies and programs that impacted on museums. For decades the state art museums had been represented on one of the few Australian government bodies concerned with aspects of museums – the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board. This body’s transformation into a board of the Australian Council for the Arts (later the Australia Council) in 1972 prepared the way for unprecedented Commonwealth support for Australia’s art museums.

The Council’s Visual Arts Board (VAB) [10] inherited some of the functions of the former Commonwealth Art Advisory Board, aside from the building of a national collection for the ultimate establishment of a National Gallery.

The Visual Arts Board’s priority in the 1970s was designing diverse programs of support for the work of Australian artists. The VAB also took over the role of ‘the mounting of Australian exhibitions to tour internationally and co-operation with State galleries in bringing outstanding overseas exhibitions to Australia’. [11] The development of art museums across Australia – especially of regional art museums – expanded the collection of work by living Australian artists, while publication grants generated catalogues that museums could previously ill afford. Meanwhile initiatives of the new Australia Council’s Aboriginal Arts Board located arts and crafts advisers in Indigenous communities across the country, initiating a process that ultimately took Indigenous artists on national and international trajectories.

The Visual Arts Board’s recommendations to the Australian government led to regional art museums eventually being established in Burnie, Devonport, Townsville, Wollongong, and to an expanded Newcastle Region Gallery, although by the time a number of these projects came to fruition the incoming Fraser government had passed the responsibility for capital funding to the states.

Grants through VAB support programs to assist purchase of works for public collections, together with grants for exhibitions, provided additional encouragement to art museums and non-collecting art galleries across the country. 

In at least one field, a Visual Arts Board funding initiative went far beyond benefiting art museums. The Board recognised ‘the dearth of people qualified to do conservation work’, and in ‘the absence of any other national body with a similar concern’, and acknowledging a position considered ‘to be in the nature of a national emergency’, [12] the Board funded the attendance of 20 interstate delegates to attend the First National Seminar on the Conservation of Cultural Material, held in Perth in August 1973. Other grants funded overseas travel by conservators. However, support for conservation was still minimal in the face of the critical national situation regarding collections subsequently described in the Pigott Report two years later.

With funding from the VAB, the Australian Gallery Director’s Council (AGDC) transformed its exhibition co-ordinating role and became a not-for-profit entity. The AGDC drew in regional art museums across the country, expanding the long-standing cooperative domain of state gallery directors. By 1979 the AGDC was touring more than 60 national and international exhibitions to both metropolitan and regional venues, visited by approximately 1.5 million people. [13] This was the first of a succession of exhibition touring agencies established with Australian government funding.

Exhibitions development for Australian audiences was a key platform of the Visual Arts Board. With new skills in exhibition coordination still needing development, the Board became the ‘organising museum’ for a number of exhibitions in the 1970s. Building on the Australian government’s policy of not insuring its property, the Australia Council was instrumental in initiating the government’s revolutionary indemnity scheme – in lieu of prohibitive insurance premiums – for a US$70 million exhibition, Modern Masters: Manet to Matisse, assembled specifically for Australia by New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

This indemnity agreement paved the way for an extensive application of government indemnity that would, by the end of the century, reach the level of indemnifying one billion dollars’ worth of touring exhibitions in the country at any one time. In subsequent years the demand for exhibition indemnity stimulated the development of state schemes. In 2010 the Australian government replaced what had become the Art Indemnity Australia program with the Australian Government International Exhibitions Insurance Program, in which a budget of eight million dollars extended over four years was available for purchasing commercial insurance for exhibitions with a minimum value of AUD$50 million.

This Australian government impetus in the 1970s to support the expanding momentum of exhibitions, together with the highly publicised development of the National Gallery in the 1980s, inspired state governments to fund new museum buildings and major extensions, and support expanded programs and operations, together with new public amenities such as restaurants, cafés and larger museum stores. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, funding of art museums by the states had grown well beyond anything originally envisaged by the Australia Council.

Despite its primary emphasis on art-forms development and support for artists, the Australia Council continues to support the research, mounting and touring of exhibitions, and provides core support for a number of key Australian art institutions that focus on exhibiting and supporting contemporary Australian art.

A national policy for museums

Successive governments have failed to adopt the recommendation of the Pigott Report that a Museums Commission be established, or put any alternative support system in place. [14] The absence of a national policy for museums, as recommended by the Pigott Committee, was illustrated by the 1989 report published by the Commonwealth Department of Finance, What Price Heritage? The review focused on the increased expenditure on Commonwealth-run museums – an increase attributed in part to the part played by the Pigott Report in raising expectations [15] – and sought to establish performance indicators through comparisons with major museums in the states. Through an elaborate analysis of the ratio between total floor area, exhibition area, total staff, recurrent expenditure, and cost per visitor, the Australian War Memorial, the National Gallery, the nascent National Museum and the National Maritime Museum (under construction at the time) were compared with a number of vastly different museums. It was nearly two years before the Department of Arts, Sport, the Environment, Tourism and Territories (DASETT) – a minor voice in the preparation of the What Price Heritage? report – demolished the underlying methodology used by the Department of Finance in a 1990 Report entitled What Value Heritage? However, the earlier report had already concluded that museums should be more entrepreneurial; that the National Maritime Museum should be primarily an exhibiting institution; that the National Museum building should be deferred for five years; that a management review of the National Gallery would precede any consideration of the Gallery’s resources; and that there would be no new Commonwealth museums, nor assistance for national museums proposed by the states. [16]

Most museums, meanwhile, were well established as primarily the responsibility of state and local governments. Agreement on creating a truly representative body lay with the periodic meetings of the state arts and culture ministers. This body established the Australian Libraries and Information Council in September 1981. However, a succession of approaches to the Commonwealth and to state governments by professional museums associations during the 1980s was unsuccessful in gaining support for an equivalent national body for museums.

In the early 1990s the Cultural Ministers Council (CMC), after meeting with representatives of the Council of Australian Museum Associations (CAMA, representing all major types of museums and professional groups) agreed to establish a Heritage Collections Working Group (HCWG); libraries and archives were included on the Committee. The focus was to be on collections; other functions of museums, such as exhibitions, education, audience development and research, were not included in the brief.

By 1996 the HCWG had evolved into the Heritage Collections Council (HCC), which developed specific programs to build a national database for heritage items and a national collection conservation program. Programs to enhance exhibitions development were subsumed within the Australian government’s establishment of the Visions of Australia program in 1998, to tour heritage collection material in mostly small exhibitions around the regions and metropolitan areas. Major museums contributed financially to the HCC’s work and meetings through Museums Australia, the professional association that had evolved from the amalgamation of a number of museums associations nationally. All governments also contributed funds in support of HCC objectives.

By the time of the 1998 International Council of Museums (ICOM) Triennial Assembly and Conference in Melbourne, the HCC’s work on the Australian Museums on Line (AMOL) project included information on more than 350,000 objects of all kinds, encompassing 1006 Australian museums and galleries. The National Conservation and Preservation Strategy for Australia’s Heritage Collections and re-Collections publication were both well advanced, and a set of practical guidebooks for use principally by people other than conservators working with Australia’s cultural heritage had been achieved. The latter publication was available for professional development workshops and constituted a ready reference tool to assist museum conservators.

In 2000 the Cultural Ministers Council (CMC) commissioned Deakin University to undertake a ‘Key Needs Study’ that identified the next steps in coordinating Australian museum collections at a national level. The outcome was the 2004 establishment of the Collections Council of Australia (CCA) – amongst other things – to ‘develop long term strategies to address issues facing our collections’. The CCA was promoted as the ‘peak body’ for the ‘collections sector’, encompassing four domains: archives, galleries, libraries and museums. Two separate councils of museum directors, one of art museums and one of other museums (CAAMD and CAMD), were represented on the governing council, as were libraries and archives. Its board, however, did not include a representative of Museums Australia. The small staff of the Collections Council commenced work in 2005; various submissions were made to government agencies and sector-wide meetings organised. A first national CCA-organised ‘summit’ was held in Adelaide in August 2008, on museums and digitisations of collections. [17]

The decision by the Cultural Ministers Council in October 2009 to cease funding of the Collections Council put back 20 years the development of a national policy for the distributed national collection comprising the collections of the museums of Australia. Australia, along with Canada, remains one of the few developed nations with no national body concerned with a national policy on museums. (Interestingly, Canada has no national education policy either.) Thus, in spite of all these initiatives specifically focused on collections – not least through financial contributions by museums themselves to the Heritage Collections Council’s work – a broad national policy for Australia’s museums has meanwhile continued to be an elusive goal. 

Responding to a rapidly changing society

Over the last 35 years museums have strengthened their collection management, their programs and their scholarship. They have initiated a hugely escalated range of temporary and special exhibitions. There has been increased emphasis on engaging with communities, including Indigenous peoples, and in the 1990s museums began to return some of the most precious Indigenous cultural material to the communities from whence the material came as well as repatriate ancestral remains to source communities. Some museums have taken public stands on environmental issues, especially those relating to biodiversity, and on arguments about evolutionary theory.

Museums Australia, the amalgamated professional body representing museums and museum professionals established in 1994, has continued to serve the sector nationally – especially drawing together regionally dispersed and small museums across state borders. However its primary source of Australian government funding – through the Australia Council – ceased in 1999–2000.

A most dramatic change in Australian museums over recent decades has been in the areas of the visitor experience and learning, and in public participation and access – especially as facilitated by the growth of information technology. There have also been important developments in the portrayal of Australian society in its increasing diversity, and in the fundamental place of Indigenous Australians within this picture. However, the contribution that museums can make to teaching and learning in fields such as history, science and technology is yet to be fully realised. 

A number of universities introduced museum studies courses during the 1980s. As is the case in many countries, tension remains between the museums community and universities as to the most appropriate courses and content for museum training.

Collection management issues have received substantial attention, although gains in widespread common access to linked collection information have not progressed to the extent they should have for a variety of reasons.

Museums have changed and greatly diversified the ways they develop exhibitions. Specialists from many disciplines and backgrounds – from fabrication and building through design, education, marketing, finance and sponsorship – now form project-style teams to realise finely honed exhibitions and associated publications. This has meant that, at least in the field of exhibitions, curators no longer have the sole driving position that they once exercised. While there have been fluctuations and differences in the attention given to scholarship, those museums that have developed active public programs have generally also continued – in many cases even augmented – their support for scholarship.

Museum professionals have increasingly found themselves faced with significant shifts in the structure and funding of their institutions; some have not been in a position to provide the appropriate leadership for change, or even been equipped to do so. As museums have raised more and more of their capital and recurrent funding from sources other than their sponsoring government, often commercial business organisations or granting agencies, they have effectively become public-private partnership institutions, although governance arrangements seldom reflect this important shift in structural orientation.

Since the 1990s many senior museum professionals have taken specialised short courses in leadership, such as the Museum Leadership Program, sponsored by the Gordon Darling Foundation, and closely associated with the Museum Management Institute (MMI) in Los Angeles (later the Getty Leadership Institute (GLI)), where a number of Australians have also studied in longer residential courses. Others have taken part in tailored courses at the Melbourne Business School at Mt Eliza, while some have undertaken a variety of university graduate courses in management. Nevertheless, governance, leadership and management have often remained alien fields at a crucial time of change when museum professionals should be steering institutional and public debates and projecting policies, ethics, codes of conduct and frameworks of governance designed specifically for museums (and for particular institutional needs), rather than passively accepting policies inappropriately borrowed from business or other not-for-profit fields.

Art museums have for the most part been entrepreneurial since the 1970s, especially in relation to exhibition sponsorship and philanthropic gifts, financial and in-kind. Exhibitions in art museums have been one of the main inspirations for extensive public learning programs, the unprecedented growth in membership bodies, and in volunteers working across diverse departments and programming of museums. These changes have assisted art museums immeasurably in public positioning, in achieving expanded facilities and generally warding off savage budget cuts.

Education and learning

As mentioned earlier, where there has been any national attention paid to museums as a ‘sector’ in Australia, it has tended to focus on collections and exhibitions rather than other crucial aspects of museums’ policies and programs such as education, community engagement and public programs. This perhaps reflects the long-established role the states have played in school education generally, and also the fact that museum education programs had traditionally been oriented to supporting school curricula, while ‘education’ in museums has expanded to develop new and mature audiences, and take on more experimental roles.

Australian museums, along with museums elsewhere, have participated in research projects that have clarified the potential of museums to contribute to lifelong learning. The notion that museums can determine directly what is learned during a museum visit is being challenged. [18] Prior knowledge and experiences elsewhere are seen to relate directly to motivation for and expectations of a museum visit. Even though what is sought and what is learned may be very personal, this is still a very vital kind of learning. The fact that visitors can exercise considerable choice and control over what they see significantly increases the likelihood that they will find exhibitions and programs that are intellectually and emotionally appropriate for them.

Museums have deepened and broadened their understandings of the museum visitor, moving from simply collecting demographics which revealed little more than such observations that better educated and socio-economically advantaged people are more likely to visit museums, to catering for a diversity of interests and working to provide involving experiences based on substantial and regularly updated knowledge of the nature and reason for a visit.

Australian history

Major museums in Australia have only recently come to terms with social history, the stories of ordinary people as opposed to politicians, explorers and war heroes. Stories of contact between successive waves of immigrants and Australia’s original inhabitants have been increasingly researched and portrayed, as have stories of immigrants other than those from Britain and Ireland. Museums dedicated to migrants and their experiences have been established in Adelaide and Melbourne, while a ‘virtual’ Migration Heritage Centre for capturing immigrant experiences has been established in Sydney.

Many state museums now have extensive programs on a diversity of historical themes and people, and have learned to address (and include) contestation of their representations of the past. The National Museum’s opening exhibition of frontier conflict, incorporating oral history, drew criticism from some members of the Museum’s Council, although subsequent reviews found no evidence of systematic bias.

There is also contestation at a regional museum level. Peter Hiscock, a past director of Sovereign Hill open air museum in Ballarat, wrote about depicting the Eureka Stockade, when gold miners engaged in violent armed struggle with soldiers on the goldfields, ‘… an attempt to write anything about the Eureka Rebellion is akin to scratching an ant’s nest. Once disturbed, a horde of local historians emerge to bite one another’s bottoms. There are many experts.’ [19]

Museums and Indigenous peoples

In 1978 UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) sponsored a pivotal seminar, entitled ‘Preserving Indigenous Cultures’, in Adelaide, an event that brought together anthropologists and archaeologists, museum curators and Indigenous peoples from Australia and the Pacific. Organised by Robert Edwards (then Director of the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council), this gathering resulted in a number of important recommendations addressing principles and ethics concerning Indigenous people's cultural heritage management that were addressed to the Australian National Commission of UNESCO. [20] ‘The seminar recognised the rights of Indigenous peoples to pursue their own traditional lifestyle by retaining and developing their own cultural traditions.’ [21] Knowledgeable custodians who held the respect of their people and continued to live their traditions were recognised as the determining, dynamic force in the preservation of cultures, and it was established that museums should give priority to those custodians in exercising their role and customary practices without restriction or interference.

The Museums Association of Australia (MAA) conveyed the UNESCO seminar’s recommendations to directors of major state museums concerned with anthropology. State directors generally responded favourably to the recommendations, although some made the observation that these had already been museum policy for some time. The Australian Museum reported its adoption of a policy of return of human remains specifically, while another museum emphasised scientific values and proposed to return collection items only where a proof of ‘undeniable claim of ownership’ existed. [22]

The Australian Museum already had a well-established policy of return of significant cultural material to peoples of the Pacific and North America. This had led by 1988 to returns of material agreed through discussion with cultural representatives internationally. A number of museums were meanwhile moving well beyond previous practices, and meeting with Aboriginal peoples and discussing with them their cultural material and its place in the museum’s programs. A leader in this development was the South Australian Museum in its dealings with Pititjantjara people.

Through substantial and wide-ranging consultative discussions, the Council of Australian Museum Associations (CAMA) meanwhile developed a policy to guide all museums in their dealings with Indigenous peoples. Previous Possessions, New Obligations (PPNO), released in two stages in 1993, addressed all aspects of museum practice from collections management through to exhibition development, employment and governance. This policy also acknowledged that Indigenous peoples had primary rights in respect of control and interpretation of their culture, although there were multiple interests engaged in ownership of cultural property. PPNO supported ‘the right of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to self-determination in respect of cultural heritage matters’ and the essentiality of ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander involvement in management of collections and information, and their use in the public programs and communication of museums, including exhibitions, education and publications’. A complementary resolution was passed by the CAMA meeting of December 1993, on the eve of Museums Australia’s emergence the following year in January 1994. PPNO was subsequently revised and republished as Continuing Cultures, Ongoing Responsibilities. [23]

By the late 1990s, every major museum in Australia had redeveloped its collection display on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples, often through extensive consultation with Indigenous peoples themselves. Many of these collection-based exhibitions also addressed controversial issues such as frontier conflict, Indigenous imprisonment and removal of children from their parents. All heightened recognition of the richness of Indigenous cultures and the rights of people to their beliefs and traditional practices, as well as appropriate recognition of their contributions within the larger Australian mainstream of social development.

Following the adoption and publication of PPNO, the Australian government provided financial support to have a Museums Australia Standing Committee review requests for grants to Indigenous groups, to develop plans for requests and receipt of cultural material returned from museum collections. The Australian government itself meanwhile pursued the return of significant Indigenous material held internationally, especially skeletal remains and associated material in collections in overseas museums. Museums in Australia embarked on a continuing process and a series of returns, in some cases through extensive collaboration, both across the museums sector and through building increasing networks of ongoing collaboration with Indigenous communities.

Museums, including art museums, continued to acquire significant Indigenous artworks, and increasing attention was given to diverse short-term and special exhibitions. Vigorous programs of such exhibitions were in place by the late 1980s. Meanwhile Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people began to be employed in museums in responsible positions concerned with collections and exhibitions development.

Science and technology

Recent decades have seen unprecedented developments in science and technology, from space exploration, medical research and genetics to biodiversity studies. Research has generated greater focus on such issues within education generally. Reviews of science education, including through museums and science centres, identified the need for natural history museums to be supported to document biodiversity.

The rising concern for knowledge of science and technology, and well-documented claims that improvements in education in these disciplines were needed, helped drive a demand for science centres. The success of the Exploratorium established in 1979 by Frank Oppenheimer in the Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco, resulted in science centres springing up in other countries, including Australia’s National Science Centre, Questacon, sponsored in part by the Japanese government as part of the 1988 Bicentennial celebrations.

Similar science centres were developed in a number of cities around Australia. They proclaimed that they were ‘minds on’ as well as ‘hands on’ by comparison with the ‘static and unchanging’ regular museum displays with which almost everyone was familiar. Science centres were new and they did not hold collections. The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney opened a number of science exhibition displays based on the science centre model, while the Museum of Victoria developed a new branch facility, ‘Scienceworks’, located in an industrial suburb of Melbourne. Other museums also developed exhibitions based on this interpretative model of engaging with scientific phenomena, involving the employment of ‘explainers’ within exhibitions and helping visitors to gain insights from their experience. Smaller science centres gradually opened in a number of regional centres, but twenty years later most of these had closed.

Museums and the natural environment

Most state museums in Australia, even if also collecting history, technology, art and craft, were long-standing centres for the collection of natural history specimens and for research on the natural environment (excluding plants, dealt with by botanic gardens).

Larger natural history museums, meanwhile, assisted in management of their collections by the rapid expansion of computer technologies, cooperated with each other and with Australian government agencies in making advances in mapping previous and present distributions of the nation’s fauna. Through the funding of the Australian Biological Resources Study, established originally in 1974, complete catalogues of Australian fauna (and flora) were commenced.

Some museums also staged exhibitions addressing environmental issues, and advocated a greater concern with government measures to protect biological diversity and Australian landscapes and habitats on a national basis.

As more attention was given to collection management, natural history museums abandoned their reliance on research-trained curators who also had direct responsibility for collection management. Museums now appointed collection managers, many of whom gradually acquired advanced postgraduate degrees to enhance their standing in a highly tuned institutional research environment.

Information technology and social media

The proliferation of information technology has been amongst the most significant developments in museums in recent decades. At first gains were made in electronic recording of information about collections, although arguments about which categories of information should be included or excluded seemed interminable. Such advances paralleled those already being accomplished in digitisation of library and archive collections.

In almost every museum, the capacity of computers to manipulate large data sets and provide random access, and to store and manipulate images, revolutionised collection management. Efforts were made, promoted by the HCC and later by other bodies, to integrate the independent data formats of different museums to allow federated access to information about collections in all museums through a single portal. Visions of children in classrooms being able to access the images of objects in museum collections and information about them were promoted. Art museums, history museums and natural history museums faced similar challenges.

Greater progress in digitisation of collections has been made with some types of collections than others, and arguments about proprietary rights to certain information in state natural history museums have led to little information on animals being universally available. Meanwhile the National Library, through electronic feeds from cooperating art museums, as well as archives, libraries and some museums and history and heritage organisations, provides a huge collection of images for public access. Digitisation of images, adoption of standards for content management, digital asset management and query protocols have become essential management tools for all advanced museums today.

Every substantial museum now has its own website, some providing information not only about purposes, scope, history, collections, programs and of course its shop facilities, but also access to the collections themselves, sometimes including virtual tours of exhibitions. In recent years information technology has allowed more flexible access to the diverse ways that users access information about individual collection items. This has led to virtual visitors contributing new or revised information about items in collections.

The increasing availability of technology allowing transformation of digital information over radio and cable to hand-held devices – personal digital assistants (PDAs) – soon led to exhibition tours being available on museum websites and in museum exhibitions. ‘The watchword in planning the museum tour would be “Design for Experience, Not for Hardware”. [24] Software today assists visitors to capture images and record their own impressions about objects in museums and thereby construct their own tour – even their own virtual exhibitions. All of this has led to decreasing control by the museums community of how visitors utilise or access museums, their collections and their information. Although some museum professionals have expressed concern about this loss of control, the reality is that, in learning terms, the museum and its staff never did have the control they presumed that they had.

Museums that have taken advantage of these new technologies now encourage actual and virtual visitors to collaborate with each other, seeking contributions – through ‘crowd sourcing’ – of commentary and imagery to develop new interpretations and even promotions. Sites such as Facebook and Twitter encourage social networking and exchanges of views, and sometimes advance independent initiatives and discussion amongst interested people and specialised cohorts within the broader community.

Governance, funding and management

Museums in Australia, by and large, are still substantially government-funded. Originally established by colonial and state governments, they were governed by boards of trustees from their conception. Staff members were meanwhile subject to Public Service conditions of employment. In the 1960s it was common for board members to be appointed for their knowledge of one of the museum’s disciplines. Since the 1970s, however, board members have increasingly been appointed for their presumed knowledge – through business and other backgrounds – of how organisations should be run; or they are considered to be potentially useful in raising funds from the private sector.

It is now clear, however, through studies both of museums internationally and in Australia, that better performing museums are those where the executive has strong domain knowledge, and where there is at least a reasonable degree of separation from government through substantial delegation of responsibilities to shape resource allocation and performance. [25]

Changes in museum governance and management in recent decades have tended to reflect the adoption of perceived business practices by governments themselves. This certainly has resulted in greater accountability and transparency. However, it also carried the expectation that museums would readily make the transition to earning more of their own funds annually, even yielding ‘efficiency dividends’. Successive reductions in government allocations, however, have periodically increased pressures on museums to cut core operational budgets and develop alternative funding resources privately. Some governments determined that general admission charges should be imposed, leading to a decline in visitor numbers. Gradually, however, decisions regarding admission charges became the responsibility of museums themselves and the response has tended towards free admission, limiting entry charges to major exhibitions while also generating revenue-earning services. 

Museum professionals have steadily become more highly trained over four decades, not only in the various museum disciplines and education, but also in new fields of specialisation such as management, conservation, collection management, communications, public programming, marketing and merchandising. There has been a greater employment of project teams to address new objectives. Organisational structures have tended to evolve steadily in response to management practice changes in the corporate sector, in government, and in universities – for example, incorporating additional levels of managers who may or may not have specialised ‘domain knowledge’. These changes often provide critical new sources of administrative support where needed. However there are accompanying dangers in distancing museum directors and senior managers from the core roles of museums in their mission and in their responsibilities for upholding public trust, on which the enduring community service and civic values of museums depend critically.


1 Report of the Committee of Inquiry on Museums and National Collections including the Report of the Planning Committee on the Gallery of Aboriginal Australia (the Piggott Report), AGPS, Canberra, 1975, p.5.

2 The 1974 Report on the National Estate (the Hope Report) made recommendations on immovable heritage.

3 Pigott Report, p. 12.

4 Pigott Report, p. 6.

5 Pigott Report, p. 6.

6 Pigott Report, p. 4.

7 Pigott Report, p. 3.

8 The Pigott Report recommended a Museum of Australian Biography

9 Australia announced in 1983 that it would become a party to the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property of 14 November 1970 (generally referred to as the 1970 UNESCO Convention) and the Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act of 1986 gave effect to the Convention. Australia notified UNESCO of its ‘agreement’ to be a party to the Convention in October 1989: it was the 64th nation to do so.

10 Three of the 11 founding members of the Council’s Visual Arts Board were museum directors; another was a member of the International Council of the Museum of Modern Art in New York; and a further member (a consultant member appointed by the Board) and the founding Board director were subsequently directors of major art museums.

11 Australian Council for the Arts First Annual Report 1973, Australian Council for the Arts, Sydney, 1974.

12 Australian Council for the Arts Report 1973, pp. 85–86.

13 Australian Gallery Directors Council Report and Review 1979,  p. 7. This body went into liquidation in 1980.

14 A personal account of the development of policies for museums in Australia is available at ‘Museums in Australia from Pigott to Carroll’ (

15 What Price Heritage?, Department of Finance, Canberra, 1989, p. 3.

16 What Price Heritage?, p. 12.

17 The CMC notified the withdrawal of support for the Collections Council in late 2009.

18 See Learning from Museums: Visitor Experiences and the Making of Meaning, John H Falk and Lynn D Dierking, Altamira, Walnut Creek CA, 2000.

19 Peter Hiscock, ‘Look into my eyes – read my lips: people facing people’, paper presented at the Museums Australia Conference: Fringe Benefits: community, culture and communication, Albury, May 1999, quoted by Andrew Simpson, ‘What mattered then, what matters now’, Museums Australia Magazine 18 (1), September 2009, p.  21.

20 Robert Edwards and Jenny Stewart (eds), Preserving Indigenous Cultures: a new role for museums, AGPS, Canberra, 1980.

21 Seminar Recommendations, in Edwards and Stewart, Preserving Indigenous Cultures, p.  9.

22 Correspondence with Museums Association President Professor Barry Reynolds and CAMD members, November 1980 through February 1981, CAMD Archives, Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, consulted February 2010.

23 Museums Australia, Canberra.

24 Peter Samis, ‘Visual Velcro: hooking the visitor’, Museum News, November/December 2007, pp.  57–62, 68–73).

25 Des Griffin, 'Advancing museums', Museum Management and Curatorship, 23(1), pp. 43–61, 2008;  Edmund Capon, Director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, said, ‘I don't care what anybody says about all these layers of accountability, administration, financial and legal expertise it is said we need to run an art museum, I say rubbish. The only thing you really need is your curatorial credibilities, commonsense and the will. The amount of jargon and rubbish that's talked about museum management is enough to, well ignore it. You don't study being the director of a museum, you do it.’, Lyndall Crisp, ‘Director's Pluck – Capon masterminded rebirth of Gallery’, Australian Financial Review, 27 November 2003.

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Cite as: Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien, 2011, 'Museums in Australia: from a new era to a new century', in Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien (eds), Understanding Museums: Australian Museums and Museology, National Museum of Australia, published online at ISBN 978-1-876944-92-6