Leon Parossien AM is the Chair of Object: Australian Centre for Craft and Design in Sydney. More about Leon Paroissien
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
The following essays jointly recount a remarkable story of Australians’ commitment to their museums. This is reflected in exceptional local initiatives. Dedicated volunteers run many museums; local councils with professional staff govern others; and others again are co-located with libraries in cultural centres.
Many smaller-scale collections in comparison with our state or national institutions nevertheless contain regionally and nationally significant material – even iconic items revealing our natural, historic and cultural heritage.
In the case of art museums, particularly, there are numerous iconic works produced by Australian artists over two centuries, including some of our most famous figures, to be found in our regional galleries spread across the country. Regional art museums today with active collection policies in the contemporary area may even be acquiring works of equal significance to those being collected by our principal capital city institutions.
Margaret Rich’s account of regional art museums (or regional galleries) focuses on Victoria, where early local initiatives and state government encouragement and support set an example for other states to follow. In general, regional art museums have fared better throughout Australia than their fellow non-art museum institutions that house other kinds of historic heritage.
In the non-art museum area, the capacities of regional institutions to acquire, manage and develop interpretation and exhibitions of local historical material formed over many years – even to document local historical collections adequately at the level of a reliable inventory – presents an extremely varied picture at a national level. Kylie Winkworth, who has studied regional museums and their collections for many years, adds a cautionary judgement to her analysis of the proliferation of regional institutions: ‘Australians far prefer to open new museums than fix the ones they have’.
There has been no consistent rationale across Australia for government support for regional museums since they first emerged under varying colonial circumstances. Many still receive little or no financial assistance from any level of government today, while others may receive some direct or indirect support through their state museums. This strikingly varied situation creates sadly inequitable circumstances surrounding museums’ direct connection with and capacity to play a vital role in their communities’ cultural development and conservation of heritage at local levels across the nation.
The Australia Council meanwhile has provided a range of Australian government grants supportive of art museums over the years, while funding for touring exhibitions to all types of regional museums is available in some continuing Australian government programs of assistance: through Visions of Australia; and the National Collecting Institutions Touring and Outreach Program.
The 1975 Pigott Report on Australian museums recommended the creation of an Australian Museums Commission – based on models in the UK and elsewhere. This was envisaged as ‘a statutory authority employing its own small staff and enlisting, whenever possible, the advice and specialised services of other government agencies’.  No national instrument of support and advice of this kind has ever been established in Australia. Its absence has keenly disadvantaged Australia’s regional museums, since only through a national stimulus by the Australian government could comparative standards be raised, better equity be achieved, and other forms of support for regional cultural development be stimulated to match the amenities provided by state and national museums in capital cities. Such disparities in national envisioning and provision represent one of the deepest and most long-standing ‘social divides’ in the more equitable provision of cultural amenities for the benefit of all Australians.
Relatively few museums across regional Australia have purpose-designed buildings and facilities, let alone museum-standard environmental controls or satisfactory exhibition facilities. Many historical collections languish in parlous circumstances, without a permanent home and visibility.
Historically, the establishment of a museum and its subsequent growth and maintenance has usually resulted from the efforts of an individual or a group of enthusiasts. In spite of a surprising number of museums having been established in this way through the admirable initiative of citizens over more than two centuries, some important regional cities whose history and culture would seem to recommend themselves as sites for museums have yet to see even modest institutions established to celebrate their history.
Despite such discontinuities in provision, the essays in this section describe many instances of regional museums and their supporters developing expansive and innovative facilities and programs to make significant contributions to the cultural life of their community. Such accounts hold the promise that future years will bring a more equitable development of regional museums in a national perspective, unlocking civic potential and cultural development amenities at the local level in ways that could more closely echo the striking upsurge and successive redevelopments of virtually all substantial museums in Australia’s capital cities during the last four decades.