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

About the author

Kylie Winkworth is a museum and heritage consultant and occasional advocate for regional collections. More about Kylie Winkworth

Let a thousand flowers bloom: museums in regional Australia
by Kylie Winkworth

The idea of the museum inspires Australians. Since the end of the Second World War, Australia has experienced an extraordinary flowering of museums and the accumulation of collections in nearly every rural town and village, in regional cities and many suburbs. From the more than 1000 local and provincial museums estimated by the Pigott Report in 1975, current numbers are probably more than 3000. [1] This is the most remarkable and sustained grass roots movement ever seen in Australia. While organisations such as the Country Women’s Association (CWA), the Red Cross, Scouts and more recent movements such Landcare also have a presence in more than a thousand towns and villages across Australia, these are mainly local branches of a parent organisation, sharing core objectives and a governance structure.

In contrast, the development of community museums [2] is a truly local initiative, forged by local enterprise, mad ambition, shared enthusiasm and millions of hours of volunteer work. Most of the museums in regional Australia were created with little or no government funding and that is how they continue to operate. The animating ideas behind these museums include preserving heritage places, researching local history, interpreting a way of life or industry, educating young people, demonstrating traditional skills, attracting tourists, creating a cultural facility for the community and collecting artefacts, archives and images as an enduring legacy for the future. They may be inspired by museums seen elsewhere in Australia or overseas, but the impetus and vision is driven by community passion and a sense of place. Unlike other environmental and community organisations, there is no head office-sponsored template for museums in rural and regional Australia. Affiliation with state and national organisations generally comes after the local campaign to create the museum. And where there might be one CWA or Landcare branch in a community, and one library, many towns and villages have multiple museums. [3]

There have been huge changes in museums since Pigott’s Report, but the core idea of a museum still inspires communities. Every state and national celebration is marked by the opening of new museums. The continuing growth of museums underlines the potency of the museum idea for regional communities. Pigott said they were the ‘bay window of local pride, especially when a town or district is declining in population’. [4] But if it was only about showing off there are many easier ways to make a display, like signing up for Tidy Towns.

Museum-making in regional Australia is based on a deep attachment to place and it is an expression of community self-belief. It is not just about celebrating the achievements of the past, but believing in the future, even or most particularly where the museum is based on a dying industry or way of life. Making a museum represents a collective commitment to a community in the present and for the future. It takes fundraising, advocacy, teamwork and the gift of family treasures and collections. Long before tax deductions, the Cultural Gifts program and opaque philanthropic trusts, museums in regional Australia were built through true philanthropy. People bought historic properties, took on personal loans and raised funds to restore or build museums. This work creates networks of affinity, trust and obligation between the museum, families, friends and service clubs, among others. In most cases these networks help sustain the museum over many decades, and sometimes across generations.

The result of so much work and local enterprise is the development of what are now important social institutions in their communities. The collections assembled over the last 50 years are significant historical and cultural assets. But the volunteer-managed museum movement is not recognised for its contribution to communities or its work in caring for the history and heritage of the district. While Landcare attracted some $500 million in funding between 1995 and 2000,[5] just a few years after its branding, there is little funding support for the museums and volunteers caring for heritage collections in regional Australia. Coupled with the continued growth in the numbers of museums, this is creating sustainability challenges for museum custodians and communities.

The history and heritage of each state and territory is exhibited in the types and content of their museums. In South Australia place-based museums auspiced by the National Trust were a dominant model. [6] Queensland favoured museums of moved buildings organised as pioneer villages, partly due to its heritage of timber buildings, which were traditionally relocated following mining booms and busts. Museums in regional NSW are predominantly historical society museums, generally in heritage buildings. Patterns of museum development reflect the influence of mentors and advocates. They visited museums in the region, reported on museums seen overseas and advised local committees. The lecturer Eric Dunlop was an influential proponent of the folk museum movement in NSW in the 1960s. [7] The legacy of his advice can still be seen in period room displays in many historical societies, influenced by his booklet about setting up local history museums. [8] Victoria’s regional museums are richly endowed with collections from the second half of the nineteenth century, evidencing the wealth in these communities drawn from goldmining and the pastoral industry.

Pigott’s chapter on ‘local and provincial’ museums discusses four main types of museums, ‘provincial and suburban art galleries … the string of small local institutions which provide ninety per cent of the self-styled museums, the large ‘living history’ or open-air folk museums, and … privately owned museums’. [9] On the ground there is considerable crossover between museum types in regional Australia. Many local history museums also have moved buildings and were framed around demonstrating rural skills and technology, just like the open-air museums. The blacksmith’s workshop is nearly ubiquitous in local history museums and pioneer villages, but is unfortunately rarely seen in action these days. In some former mining centres almost the whole town is a museum. [10]

Since the Museums in Australia report museum types have become more diverse and mutable. Museums in regional Australia include place-based museums, such as historic house museums, heritage sites and heritage centres;[11] halls of fame and theme museums on subjects including stockmen, mining, shearing, fishing, maritime, migrant communities, notable locals (think Don Bradman in Bowral or Slim Dusty in Kempsey), and even women; as well as railway, aviation and military museums; regional botanic gardens with collections; and keeping places and Indigenous heritage centres. Some state government museums still operate branch museums in regional cities. The Queensland Museum manages the Cobb and Co. Museum in Toowoomba, the Workshops Rail Museum in Ipswich and the Museum of Tropical Queensland in Townsville. The Western Australian Museum has branch museums in Albany, Geraldton and Kalgoorlie. However the majority of museums in regional Australia are volunteer-managed community museums, mainly heritage places or history museums. A smaller group of museums is managed by local government with paid professional staff; these are mostly regional galleries.

In addition to regional galleries new types of regional arts facilities are emerging, such as contemporary art spaces. Some, like Artspace in Mackay, also include historical displays. A number of Indigenous cultural centres have significant collections, such as Jilamara Arts and Crafts on Melville Island and Tjulyuru Cultural Centre in remote Warburton WA. There are galleries based in heritage places once owned by notable artists, such as Penrith Regional Gallery and the Lewers Bequest in the former home of Gerald and Margo Lewers; and Bundanon, based around Arthur Boyd’s home on the Shoalhaven in NSW. While there are a number of museums in regional Australia that style themselves as national museums, Bundanon Trust is the only museum in regional Australia to receive recurrent funding from the Australian government. Privately owned galleries operated by philanthropic trusts are a new addition to the cultural landscape, such as TarraWarra near Healesville in Victoria.

Convergence is also creating new hybrid museums, including co-located or combined museums, libraries and galleries. The City of Wanneroo just north of Perth has opened a combined library, museum and cultural centre in a purpose-built facility. The regional museum includes a community access exhibition space, an active schools program and a community history centre. A notable feature of some of the newer developments is an ABM name (anything but a museum), such as Crossing Place in Albury or Dogwood Crossing@Miles in Queensland. Converged museums are not in fact a new development but a rediscovery of an older museum form where natural history, historical collections and works of art were part of a single museum. Perhaps the best example of this type is the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in Launceston, established in 1891, the largest regional museum in Australia. Interestingly, redevelopment now underway will separate the art gallery on the original Royal Park site from the historical and natural history collections on display at the Inveresk site.

The living history or open-air museums have not fared well since Pigott, with the notable exception of Sovereign Hill at Ballarat. Two other examples discussed in the report have closed – Old Sydney Town and the Lachlan Vintage Village at Forbes. Other open-air museums are struggling. Sovereign Hill marked its 40th anniversary in 2010 and is admired for its focus on visitors and education. There are many reasons for the enduring success of Sovereign Hill when so many other museums of this type are in decline. Some of the critical success factors include a compelling story about the impact of the gold rush on Ballarat, a commitment to education, research and historical accuracy,[12] the use of new technology to create memorable visitor experiences, excellent leadership, paid professional staff and committed volunteers, and significant government grants to develop new facilities and renew the interpretation. Then there are the visitors – about 450,000 per year – making Sovereign Hill by far the most popular museum in regional Australia. It helps that Ballarat is an hour away from Melbourne, a city of four million people. And the region is a museum hot spot with a critical mass of other museums and attractions. Also in Ballarat is the Eureka Centre, opened in 1998 adjacent to the site of the rebellion. It is currently developing an Australian Centre for Democracy@Eureka with $11 million in funding from the Australian government and state and local governments.

Regional galleries are thriving in larger regional cities. Positioned as part of local council cultural services, they are supported in some states by regional arts councils and savvy friends who are well-connected members of the elite in their community. Regional gallery organisations are influential mentors, providing advice about development, design and funding. Inter-council envy or emulation helps drive new gallery proposals. Local government funding is supplemented by grants from state arts departments and occasionally the Australia Council. Fundraising by the local arts society demonstrates community support. Many regional galleries are in purpose-built buildings or have contemporary extensions providing good facilities for collections, exhibitions and visitors. A notable feature of the regional gallery movement is management and funding by local government with paid professional staff. Volunteers are still an important part of their operations, but most regional galleries make a seamless transition from initial advocacy by local arts societies to a new building developed by the council with staff to manage programs of travelling exhibitions.

While local government has accepted libraries and even galleries as an integral part of its cultural services, it is less common for councils to manage historical museums. Many councils support their local museums with occasional grants, waiving rates, paying power bills and maintaining buildings, but there are relatively few historical museums that are the equivalent of regional galleries in staffing, funding, programs or buildings. It is difficult for local history museums to make the transition from a volunteer-managed operation to one funded and managed by local government with paid professional staff, particularly when the museum has been running for 40 or 50 years. [13] It may be that volunteer-managed museums are victims of their own self reliance, funding their operations by admission charges, running markets and stalls, selling crafts, jam, books and research services, offering heritage tours and getting help from service clubs to throw up a new shed. In some tourism areas on the coast a few historical museums are able to pay staff out of earned income.

Reviewing the past decade of museum development, it is evident that Australians far prefer to open new museums than fix the ones they already have. The Centenary of Federation in 2001 saw the opening of many new museums in communities that already had one or more museum crying out for investment and renewal. Australia’s passion for museum making, rather than museum fixing, is leading to unsustainable numbers of museums and the neglect of collections held in thousands of museums all over the country. In the UK there is about one museum for every 24,000 persons. The US has about one museum for every 17,500 people. Australia has about one museum for every 7458 persons. [14]

Given these figures, it is not surprising that the human and financial resources to sustain the legacy of the last 60 years of collecting in regional Australia are not keeping pace with decaying buildings and collections, aging volunteers, rising standards and the expectations of visitors. More importantly perhaps, the skills base for museum operations has shifted dramatically. In the 1960s and 1970s volunteer museums were essentially a hands-on operation, with an emphasis on manual skills – renovating buildings, constructing exhibits, moving large objects and buildings, restoring (or wrecking) the collection, and showcasing traditional rural skills. In general the book work of museum practice took a back seat, if it happened at all; hence the legacy of poorly documented and provenanced collections. In many ways these museums were an early manifestation of the community men’s shed movement. Museum management now requires a completely different skills set, one which is not so readily found in small communities, and which in many ways is less rewarding for the available volunteers, who may have left school at 15. We do not expect volunteer librarians to catalogue books, which are in any case of low intrinsic value, but we still expect volunteers in their 70s and 80s to catalogue irreplaceable heritage collections and meet ever more onerous museum standards. That so many volunteers manage to do this is extraordinary.

The sustainability crisis facing museums in regional Australia is exacerbated by a lack of policy and equitable funding structures for museums and heritage collections. Unlike the US and UK, which have well-resourced agencies to support collections in local and regional museums with significant grants,[15] our nearest equivalent, the Collections Council of Australia, was defunded in 2009. The Cultural Ministers Council (CMC), which made this decision, has overseen a succession of abandoned advisory bodies and lost policy opportunities for collections. [16] Despite its title, CMC has little interest in culture in regional Australia, apart from Indigenous culture. Its main focus is the arts in capital cities. In the last 10 years CMC commissioned the Nugent, Strong and Myer reports, which delivered tens of millions of dollars in recurrent funding for major performing arts organisations, orchestras and visual arts and crafts. CMC’s commissioned report on collections, the Key Needs Study, had no funding outcome for collections. [17] The main outcome was the creation of the Collections Council of Australia in 2004, with grandiose terms of reference relative to its modest budget. [18]

Funding for the Collections Australia Network (CAN), another CMC program, was also discontinued in 2010. [19] CAN is the main online gateway to regional collections and museums, and it offers useful resources for volunteers working with collections. A consultant’s report on future directions for CAN was never released. At a time when the Australian government is putting billions of dollars into the National Broadband Network, it is surprising that the main portal for discovering regional collections is now on ice. The digital divide between state and national museums and regional collections is set to widen with this decision.

CMC’s primary interest in the professional arts is mirrored in state government arts departments, whose policy and funding priorities are focused on professional contemporary arts practice. Volunteer-managed museums struggle to fit arts policy and funding boxes. Their work and collections are not respected in funding allocations. Over the last 10 years governments have lavished funding on new theme museums without collections, or with collections of low significance. New art spaces and regional galleries are well supported by government funding, although many collections are dominated by artists already represented in other galleries. However there is no policy or funding impetus to uplift community museums which hold unique and irreplaceable collections about the history and heritage of their district. Many of the historical museums developed in the 1950s and 1960s have objects and collections of national significance.

Museums and heritage collections are stranded between arts and heritage policy with little access to the kinds of funds available to the arts. [20] Arts Queensland for example has targeted grant programs for regional gallery development and exhibitions, but no funding program to foster local government investment in museums or assist community museums to make the transition to a regional museum. Various reports on museums commissioned by state government arts departments have done nothing to lift museums and heritage collections in regional areas out of cultural poverty. [21] One possible exception is Victoria’s Strengthening our Communities strategy, with $20 million in funding over four years. [22] However community collections are only one strand in an ambitious strategy. It is not clear if it will result in realistic investment in museum buildings and collections, as opposed to more advice.

Instead of policy and strategic development funds, most state governments support advisory services for museums in the regions. Some are managed out of state government museums; others are run through professional associations or by museum and gallery support agencies. After decades of funding of advisory services, there is no evidence that advice leads to more sustainable collections or the renewal of museums in regional Australia. In some ways it is little more than palliative care for dying museums and aging volunteers. Accreditation and standards programs are the current focus of the museum services industry. In other areas of community service, an emphasis on standards and accreditation in the 1990s led to a new compact between community organisations, volunteers and governments, with investment in new facilities and government funding to professionalise services such as Meals on Wheels and surf lifesaving. [23] But there is no equivalent compact for volunteer-managed museums; the responsibilities are all one way. [24] Standards have not led to corresponding pressure on governments to fix decrepit museum buildings and fund professional staff to work on collections with volunteers.

While volunteers working on Landcare projects have been showered with resources and professional support, there has been little recognition of the work of volunteers involved in collections care. There is no common branding for the plethora of regional and community museums and heritage places. Museums in regional Australia have not had the leadership and strategic advocacy which launched Landcare. When it comes to advocacy for rural and regional museums, museum service organisations generally ask first for more funds for advisory services. Most of the work of museum volunteers is done out of the public eye. Their steady work on archives and collections doesn’t leave a statement in the landscape like a row of poisoned willows. Yet volunteers in museums in regional Australia make a remarkable contribution to their communities. [25]

A look at the Manning Valley Historical Society provides a snapshot of the work of museum volunteers in Wingham, (population 4500) on the mid-north coast of NSW. The Society began in 1964 and the museum, which is open seven days a week, is in an historic shop purchased in 1974. It is the oldest commercial building in Wingham. The vernacular timber building would probably not have survived without the Society’s acquisition and restoration. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays there may be up to 20 volunteers at work on the collections, archives and building. Recent work in a three-month period includes researching the significance of the collection, reorganising the collection working space, documenting costumes for nomination to the Powerhouse Museum’s Australian Dress Register, updating the catalogue database, hosting school visits, digitising photographs, indexing local newspapers, contributing a regular history feature to the Wingham Chronicle and answering research enquiries. The Society’s archives are the most important local studies collection in the district and are used for all kinds of heritage studies and local history queries. In addition, the Society published its journal, which is issued three times a year, a newsletter and a new book, Postcards from the Front, in time for Anzac Day. Working with the tourism information centre, volunteers supplied copies of historic photographs and captions for interpretive signs. And they initiated a project to put historic photos of buildings and businesses in shop windows in Wingham. Museum volunteers were involved in fundraising for the Cancer Council, participating in the Biggest Morning Tea event. And volunteers helped organise the Scottish Festival, a three-day event initiated by the Historical Society. It is now a fixture on the tourism calendar of Wingham. Apart from economic development, tourism services and managing cultural assets, volunteer museums like the Manning Valley Historical Society generate other benefits for their communities, such as workplace training for the unemployed and social inclusion for older people and people with disabilities. A widow confided that the museum was her lifeline in coping with grief and loneliness after her husband’s death.

Considering the large number of museums and their range of work and services, it is arguable that more volunteer hours are worked in community museums in regional Australian than in any other charitable or community service. [26] Many of these museums are open six or seven days a week. This shows great dedication by volunteers, considering that many museum buildings are freezing in winter and stifling in summer. Some have no collection working space or kitchen facilities to make a cup of tea, or even toilets. Many museum buildings do not meet local government building codes. Most historical collections in regional Australia are housed in heritage buildings and sheds that fall well short of acceptable standards for collections or people. Rabbit warrens of small rooms in heritage buildings put the collections at risk. Some museums are in former government buildings like courthouses, jails and railway stations which have been foisted on local communities without funding for maintenance or adaptation. The lack of investment in buildings, exhibitions and people means that communities are not realising the educational and cultural potential inherent in the collections. Nor is the asset value of the collections being protected.

Without understanding this background, it is easy to disparage the shortcomings of historical museums in regional Australia. It is true that some volunteer-managed museums prefer keeping to sharing, that some are resistant to new ideas, wary of outsiders and have barely changed their displays since they opened 30 or 40 years ago. Too many museums in regional Australia look like antique shops without the prices. In the jumble of obsolete technology it can be hard to see the unique objects, local innovations and national treasures. They are criticised for their focus on pioneers, lack of interest in migrants – not true, and for insensitive exhibits about Aboriginal people. But there is too little recognition of the value of local history museums, the significance of their collections and the services provided by thousands of museum volunteers across Australia.

There are ready solutions for the challenges facing volunteer-managed historical museums. Pigott had the right idea, recommending regional networks with professional curators, and an Australian Museums Commission to coordinate funding and policy. Variations on this formula have been restated in other papers and policy proposals and it has been tried and tested overseas. [27]

So what is the case for sustaining museums in regional and rural Australia? It is a fact that regional communities are taxed three times for cultural facilities. They fund state and Australian government collecting organisations through their taxes, and are taxed again for cultural facilities through local government rates. If the funding disparity for museums was reflected in education or health it would cause an outcry. Years of cost shifting onto local government makes it harder for councils to develop cultural facilities. Of course state and national collections are important for all Australians. But fairness, economic development and liveable communities mean there should be equitable funding for regional towns and cities to support museums about their history, culture and place. Collections should merit investment based on their significance, not accidents of geography. People should not have to live in Ballarat or marginal seats to get funding for museum development and renewal. Nor should funding for museums and cultural facilities in regional Australia be based on trickle-down economics, with volunteer-managed collections at the bottom of the heap. What’s required is a tripartite partnership between the Australian government, the states and local government.

When public culture is already dominated by city-centric media, images and opinion, it is all the more important that diversity is fostered in museum culture and collections. Regional collections hold unique objects, images, ideas and histories. There are many aspects of Australian history that are not well represented in state and national collections, or in mainstream libraries and archives. Collections about mining, transport and agriculture are best understood in their regional context, connected with the place where the work was done and the objects were used. These are vital industries that powered Australia, transformed the environment and underpinned the prosperity of Australian cities. They merit professional curation and interpretation.

The history of frontier conflict and cooperation between Indigenous people and explorers and settlers is hidden in small museums all over the country. In the Cairns Historical Society 400 glass plate negatives taken by Alfred Atkinson include stunning images of Indigenous people in the district. Important histories of migration and settlement are intimately connected with specific geographies in every corner of Australia. Broome, for example, was excised from the reach of the White Australia Act to keep the pearling industry going. In 1900 it was an extraordinary cultural melting pot. This is one of the stories in the collection of the Broome Historical Society. In far north Queensland, museum collections illuminate the contribution and culture of Chinese migrants who flocked to the Palmer River goldfields. And in southern NSW the experience of ordinary rural working women is captured in the humble objects they made and used in daily life. Visionary collecting by the Pioneer Women’s Hut at Tumbarumba has given these women and their stories a place in history.

Every region in the country, in its environmental and cultural diversity, is an important part of the mosaic that makes the nation. Australia’s remarkable history, people and cultures are documented in the distributed national collection held in museums across the country. The collections are a credit to the enterprise and foresight of thousands of volunteers, and the generosity of Australian families. Building these collections was an expression of trust and optimism in the future of their communities. They recognised their place in a larger national picture. It’s an open question whether museum policy makers will do the same and secure the future of these museums.


1 There are no accurate statistics about the numbers of museums in Australia, let alone regional Australia. Most forms of museum census rely on responses to surveys that may not generate an accurate response rate from small organisations. In Western Australia in 2004, a survey of 250 collecting organisations elicited 143 responses. The Collections Council of Australia (CCA) began to document numbers of collecting organisations before it was defunded, including museums, galleries, libraries and archives. Its unpublished Australian Collecting Organisations Register includes approximately 5000 collecting organisations. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) survey just 1329 museums, of which 12 per cent are art galleries and the remaining 88 per cent are classified as `other museums’. Its methodology excludes the vast majority of volunteer-managed museums. Arts Victoria lists 740 community museums and 18 regional galleries. Museums and Gallery Services Queensland identifies 408 heritage places including museums, galleries and keeping places. Museums and Galleries NSW identifies 586 museums, keeping places and galleries in NSW, not counting state and national institutions. Most of these statistics underestimate museum numbers, as many surveys do not count heritage place museums, many of which have significant in situ collections.

2 The term ‘community museum’ refers to volunteer-managed museums such as historical societies, while a regional museum is generally managed by local government with paid trained museum staff, supported by volunteers.

3 The small town of Hay in south-western NSW, with less than 3000 people, has five museums. Goulburn in NSW has five museums including the regional gallery managed by council, an historical society and the National Trust house museum of Riversdale. Probably only one of these is counted by the ABS. Goulburn’s museum mix of historical society, house museum, heritage places and a newer regional gallery with paid professional staff is representative of the museum profile of many older regional towns.

4 PH Pigott, Museums in Australia 1975, Report of the Committee of Inquiry on Museums and National Collections including the Report of the Planning Committee on the Gallery of Aboriginal Australia, AGPS, 1975, p. 24.

5 Quoted in Melanie Oppenheimer, Volunteering, why we can’t survive without it, University of NSW Press, 2008, p. 177.

6 By 1990 the South Australian National Trust managed 61 museums and 97 historic buildings. Carol Cosgrove and Susan Marsden, Challenging Times, National Trust of South Australia 50th Year History, National Trust of South Australia, p. 132.

7 Nicole McLennan, ‘Eric Dunlop and the origins of Australia’s folk museums’, Recollections, Vol. 1, No.2.

8 EW Dunlop, Local Historical Museums in Australia, The Royal Australian Historical Society, 1968. McLennan notes this booklet was sent free of charge to all affiliates with the RAHS and that the Society also earned $405 from sales in the first two years after its publication, suggesting a high demand for its advice.

9 Pigott, Museums in Australia, p. 19.

10 For example Mt Morgan in Queensland, Burra in South Australia, Hill End in NSW.

11 With the crossover between Hope’s Committee of Inquiry into the National Estate and Pigott’s Report on museums underway at the same time, a decision was made to leave heritage place museums to Hope. This led to a disastrous split in policy making and funding for heritage places and collections that continues to the present.

12 Graeme Davison calls Sovereign Hill a ‘pleasure resort rather than a real mining town. It has many shopkeepers but few miners, several entertainers but no prostitutes, a picturesque school-house but no undertaker’. The dirty reality of an 1850s mining site cannot be reproduced in a form suitable for family outings in the twenty-first century, nevertheless Sovereign Hill is based on extensive historical research which animates every facet of its interpretation. Graeme Davison, The Use and Abuse of Australian History, Allen and Unwin, 2000, p. 170.

13 One example of this transition is the Museum of the Riverina, created through a partnership between the Wagga Wagga and District Historical Society and Wagga City Council. The Historical Society transferred its collection and building to Council in return for Council employing professional staff and investing in the collection, exhibitions and building. Showing what can be done with a little investment and professional staff, the Museum won its category in the ABC’s 2008 Regional Museum Competition. See

14 These figures are derived by dividing the population figures by the estimated number of museums. For the UK museum numbers see For the US museum numbers see For a comment on the number of Australian collecting organisations see There is no accurate census of museum numbers in Australia. I estimate the number at a conservative 3,000, see note 1. This may be an underestimation. Local and regional surveys show higher numbers of museums than statistics compiled by state agencies. For example, the New South Wales the town of Hay has one museum for every 527 people, while the village of Carcoar in central New South Wales has 1 museum for every 43 people!

15 The Museum, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) in the UK and the Institute of Museum and Library Services in the US develop policy for collections and provide significant grants to local and regional museums. Since the election of a new Conservative UK government, the MLA has been defunded and its responsibilities transferred to the Arts Council. However it seems certain that its well regarded ‘Renaissance in the Regions’ program, which supports museums and libraries, will be sustained.

16 For example Australia’s Heritage Collections; National Conservation and Preservation Policy and Strategy, Cultural Ministers Council and Heritage Collections Council, 1998; sensible policies and strategies which have mainly been ignored. Collections advisory bodies initiated and abandoned by CMC include the Heritage Collections Working Group 1990–93; the Heritage Collections Committee 1994–96; the Heritage Collections Council 1997–2001; and the Collections Council of Australia 2004–2009.

17 Deakin University, Cultural Heritage Centre for Asia and the Pacific, A study into the key needs of collecting institutions in the heritage sector, Cultural Ministers Council, Canberra, 2002.

18 The budget was around $400,000 per annum. The writer was a director of the CCA.

19 The Powerhouse Museum, which managed development of the CAN website, has agreed to keep the site live, but no new material can be added. This is a blow to those museums in regional Australia who were using CAN to share their collections with a wider audience.

20 There is no equivalent to the Australia Council for museums or collections. The Australian government makes a small contribution to regional collections through the Community Heritage Grants (CHG) Program. And its much-criticised stimulus funding is also supporting some community museums in heritage buildings to undertake urgent capital works. Unfortunately this is one-off funding. Apart from the CHG Program, collections are the one aspect of culture that the Australian government does not support through policy or funding, except for items lucky enough to land in Australian government collections.

21 See for example, Jane Lennon, Hidden Heritage, a development plan for museums in Queensland 1995–2001, Arts Queensland; and Museum Policy Reference Group, Developing a Way Forward for Western Australia’s Heritage Collections and Collectors, Department of Culture and the Arts, 2005. While these reports make many sound recommendations, they have not led to significant new investment in museum buildings, interpretation and professional staff. In the case of Queensland, Hidden Heritage led to the funding of Museum Development Officer positions in some regions, but it has had little practical impact on the funding and renewal of community museums. In the same period a number of new regional galleries were opened with paid professional staff and significant grants from Arts Queensland. In NSW the Carr government funded a strategy to develop a network of regional museums, which in turn were to support volunteer-managed museums and collections in the region – a hub and spoke museum model. This policy was abandoned by the Iemma/Rees/Keneally governments. The dedicated museum grant program was abolished and direct grants to museums have declined by 60 to 80 per cent. Some $700,000 per annum that was tagged for capital works and salary subsidies for regional museums appears to have been reallocated to other areas of the arts. See also Anne Dunn, The Dunn Report: A report on the concept of regional collections hubs, Collections Council of Australia, Adelaide, 2007. This led to a trial regional hub in the Kalgoorlie/Boulder region of WA, running in 2010–11, with funding from the Myer Foundation, but a wider rollout of the CollectionsCare regional hub concept was not supported by the Australian government.

23 These changes in the relationship between volunteer organisations and government are discussed in Oppenheimer, Volunteering, chapter 7, p. 151.

24 In some states, accreditation or completing a standards program makes museums eligible to apply for certain grants, but the funds available are modest.

25 The ABC’s Regional Museums Award web pages provide an interesting summary of the many ways that museums are working with their communities. See

26 While there may be greater numbers of volunteers involved in sporting activities, museum volunteering is often a seven-day-a-week operation over 363 days a year. Active members of volunteer museums commit more hours to their work on a weekly and year-round basis, without the seasonal fluctuations of volunteering in sporting organisations. It is not unusual for museum committee members to put in 30 or 40 hours a week of voluntary work.

27 Pigott Report, p. 28; Dunn, The Dunn Report; and Kylie Winkworth, ‘Fixing the Slums of Australian Museums’, Museums Australia Conference, 2005.

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Cite as: Kylie Winkworth, 2011, 'Let a thousand flowers bloom: museums in regional Australia', in Understanding Museums: Australian museums and museology, Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien (eds), National Museum of Australia, published online at ISBN 978-1-876944-92-6