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yesterday & TOMORROW Arrow vol 3 no 3 contents
About borderlands VOLUME 3 NUMBER 3, 2004


Yesterday And Tomorrow At The National Museum Of Australia

S.G. Foster
Australian National University


Not the National Museum

1. Some months before the new National Museum of Australia opened to the public in March 2001, members of the executive team considered a proposal that the museum change its name. The idea for a change had come from a branding consultant who had canvassed widely inside and outside the institution. Then a consultant designer, responsible for the museum’s current logo, discovered an Indigenous word which expressed the notion of ‘yesterday and tomorrow’ and thereby captured at least part of the museum’s vision statement: ‘Exploring the past, illuminating the present, imagining the future’.

2. The proposal did not get far. When it came before the museum’s Council, several members argued against it. The Chairman, Tony Staley, who was adept at despatching ideas he did not like in the most good-humoured manner, laughed the idea out of contention. What was wrong, he and others asked, with the existing title? The advocates of the change sulked or shrugged, depending on their level of enthusiasm for the rejected name, and got on with the frenetic task of readying the museum for opening [Sydney Morning Herald, 13 Sep 2000; Bills Digest No. 85 2000-01].

3. For present purposes, the actual name proposed does not matter. Its assumed benefits were that it relegated a problematic word to the rank of sub-title and substituted what was supposed to be a catchy and memorable alternative. New Zealand’s recently opened national museum, Te Papa Tongarewa, had shown the way. Te Papa, meaning ‘box of precious things’ (though sometimes mistakenly understood to mean ‘our place’), was an instant success, attracting international recognition and many more visitors than had been anticipated – and part of that success was attributed to the pithy and resonant title.

4. The problematic word that museum staff on both sides of the Tasman wished to avoid was ‘museum’. Market research confirmed what everybody knew, that the term was associated in the public mind with stuffiness and conventionality. The conviction that museums were dark and musty probably originated in Victorian England; but there were plenty of Australian examples of recent memory to confirm the stereotype: stolid and unwelcoming buildings, dour uniformed guards, rows of objects whose purpose was unashamedly didactic. The National Museum of Australia would be everything the ‘traditional’ museum was not: architecturally exuberant, with enthusiastic staff and dynamic displays, enhanced by the very latest that new technologies had to offer. It would embrace the by now well-established notion that museums were no longer temples but forums for debate, and indeed would go further, welcoming the idea that museums, in the words of its director, Dawn Casey, could be ‘agents of political and social change’ (Casey, 2002a). At least the proponents of a name change could take comfort in Prime Minister John Howard’s observation on opening day that the museum was ‘quite un-museum-like’.

5. There were also difficulties with the word ‘national’. These were anticipated in mid-1999 when the museum joined the Australian National University and Griffith University to convene a conference ‘National museums: negotiating histories’, which explored ‘the meanings and understandings of place, history, cultural diversity and citizenship as constructed by museums in postcolonial nations’ (McIntyre and Wehner, 2001: xiv). How should a museum with ‘national’ in the title (and funded entirely by the national government) go about representing the nation? How should it depict diverse experiences and give voice to diverse opinions? Who should decide what and what not to say?

6. Much of the debate over the next several years focused, sometimes explicitly, on these two words. Perhaps it was fitting that an institution charged with presenting national identity (though even this was contested, from contrary perspectives) should have so much difficulty with its own (see Pegrum and Associates, 1997; Fladmark, 2000; Anderson and Reeves, 1994: 117-120; Davison, 2002; Gore, 2002:14-17). In one corner were those who argued that the museum should be innovative, challenging and pluralist – as Dawn Casey put it, ‘a battleground of ideas and histories’ (Casey 2002b); in the other, less heavily populated but equally pugilistic, were those who believed it should educate and uplift, with a single and orderly view of the national past. One view, according to its critics, typified the contemporary evils of political correctness and ‘black armband history’; the other, presented in rarefied form by one member of Council, recalled Ruskin’s well-known dictum that a museum should ‘give example of perfect order and perfect elegance … to the disorderly and rude populace.’ (Evans, 1959: 323)

7. The minority on Council, who had the ear of the prime minister, had their way. Early in 2003, less than two years after opening, the government appointed a committee, chaired by sociologist and social commentator John Carroll, to enquire into the museum’s exhibitions and programs; and six months later the committee presented a report which government accepted as setting the museum’s future directions. The report acknowledged at the outset the need to take account of ‘different conceptions of the role of a national museum within its society’, and much of its subsequent discussion amounted to a teasing out of the meanings of ‘national’ and ‘museum’. As to ‘museum’, the committee implicitly distanced itself from the more extreme views on Council, accepting the conventional notions that museums should challenge and entertain, and ruling in effect that the National Museum should remain in the twenty-first century. But in exploring the word ‘national’, the committee revealed its own divisions, suggesting at one moment that exhibitions should portray controversy and diversity, but insisting at the next that there were ‘the primary themes and narratives of Australia’ which needed to be told in particular ways (Carroll Report, 2003: 6-14; Attwood, 2004).

8. The museum’s director set about preparing to implement the proposed changes. Before she had made much progress her contract expired and she was shown the door. The director’s position was advertised, and in the meantime an acting director got on with the job of interpreting and implementing what the committee referred to as ‘fundamental changes in direction’ (Carroll Report, 2003: 13).

First principles

9. In all these events there was nothing remarkable. Museums, and especially national museums, have long been contested ground. The nature of the contest, and the degree to which it impinges on the day to day functioning of the institution, varies in accordance with the will and skill of the director and the readiness of government and its political agents to determine what the museum should say and how it should say it (Luke, 2002; Trinca, 2003).

10. Yet this debate, which in one way or another absorbed so much of the National Museum’s energies before and after opening, distracted attention from a larger issue. The question was not so much how the National Museum should represent the nation, but whether it had the capacity to represent it convincingly at all. In other words, there has been much debate about what the museum ought to do, with insufficient attention to what it can do.

11. To appreciate the depth of the museum’s problems we need to go back to its founding charter. Many museums, national and otherwise, grow more or less by accident – a benefactor here, a building there, an irregular pattern of government involvement. The National Museum of Australia, however, had a clearly formulated foundation document. This was the Report of the Committee of Inquiry on Museums and National Collections, generally referred to by the name of its chair, Peter Pigott. Submitted in 1975, just after the dismissal of the Whitlam Labor government, the report and its recommendations were products of the cultural renaissance of the Whitlam era and a recognition that the federal government should play a leading role in the cultural life of the nation.

12. Pigott’s recommendations, which owed much to two members of the committee, the historian Geoffrey Blainey and archaeologist John Mulvaney, were wide-ranging and far-sighted, based on a thorough survey on museums in Australia and an acute reading of museological developments abroad. After weighing the strengths and deficiencies of the state museums, the committee recommended strongly in favour of ‘a comprehensive museum with a national responsibility or charter’. It said little about how the proposed museum would go about building up its collections; but there was no doubt that it would develop collections of national significance. By drawing links between natural and human history, and Aboriginal and European Australia, it would ‘mend several intellectual rifts which still affect those major museums founded in the nineteenth century’. The new museum ‘would, in no sense, duplicate an existing institution’ (Pigott Report, 1975: 70-71).

13. Parliament passed the necessary legislation in 1980, and the Museum of Australia – the name recommended by Pigott to avoid giving offence to the states, but also because ‘Australia’ was seen as implying ‘national’ (Pigott Report, 1975: 70; information from John Mulvaney) – began with inherited collections relating to Aboriginal Australia (which remain the most substantial and impressive component of the museum’s collections). Set up with a small staff in interim accommodation, with little or no budget for purchasing collections, it was then left to languish, until in 1996 Prime Minister Howard drew a connection between the political need to stimulate Canberra’s construction industry and the desirability of having a highly visible and lasting project to celebrate the forthcoming centenary of federation. Howard also believed that history had fallen into the wrong hands, and perhaps saw the museum as a potential weapon in his campaign to win back control of the past – though if that were the case, he was slow to assert control over the building project (see Curran, 2000: 5; Macintyre and Clark, 2003:136-139; Bolton, 2003). Whatever his reasons, his decision to have the museum ready for opening in 2001 meant that it was designed and built at breakneck speed, with the Pigott Report continuing to receive acknowledgement for much of its inspiration.

14. But much had changed since 1975. Two developments in particular altered the museum’s relationship to its founding document. One was the Howard government’s decision to shift the proposed museum from the broadacres site at Yarramundi Reach several kilometres from the city centre to a much smaller site, still beside the lake but closer to the city, then occupied by the Royal Canberra Hospital. The move had many opponents, including John Mulvaney, who recognised that the change would fundamentally alter the museum’s capacity to pursue the themes enunciated in the Pigott Report. It also ensured that the relatively small, enclosed museum would have much in common with its counterparts in the states, an outcome that the Pigott Report had explicitly tried to avoid. The eventual design offered about one tenth of the indoor display space projected by Pigott (Pigott Report, 1975: 77).

15. The second development was the regeneration of museums throughout Australia. This had several origins, including increasing affluence, popular enthusiasm for heritage and the revival of museums around the world. Pigott had identified 16 major Australian museums and galleries, of which five were specifically art museums. The remaining 11 comprised the five designated state museums, two in Sydney (the Australian Museum and The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences), the Science Museum in Melbourne, the Queen Victoria Museum and Gallery in Launceston, the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, and the Northern Territory Museum and Art Gallery in Darwin. With the exception of the Australian War Memorial, which opened in 1941, all dated from the nineteenth century, and all except the Northern Territory Museum, destroyed by Cyclone Tracy, housed most or all of their exhibits on nineteenth century sites. (Pigott Report, 1975: Appendix III, Table 1)

16. Over the next 25 years, before the opening of the National Museum, all except the two Tasmanian museums moved to new sites, added substantial extensions, or underwent massive makeovers. The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in Sydney acquired 20,000 square metres of exhibition space in its new home in the Powerhouse, about three times the comparable space eventually allocated to the National Museum. Melbourne Museum at Carlton, which opened in 2000 and 2001, had 12,000 square metres. In 1974 staff employed in the eleven major museums totalled 1076, with smaller museums adding modestly to that number; in 2000 this figure had risen to around 7000 (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2000: 8560.0). Most state governments significantly increased their contributions to running costs. The overall effect of these changes was that the state museums were much better placed to conserve and exhibit their collections, and to add to them. If, as was often the case, they did not enjoy large acquisition budgets, at least they had the capacity to accept gifts, including those presented under tax incentive schemes (another innovation resulting from Pigott’s recommendations).

17. They also moved into fields that they had previously neglected. As Pigott reported, the state museums had been oriented to the natural sciences, though occasionally they had valuable collections in facets of applied science and technology. ‘It is fair to say that so far no museum in Australia has attempted, even on a moderate scale, to depict the history of Australia since the coming of the British.’ In the following years, however, the older museums began to catch up with what Pigott described as the ‘quickening public interest in Australia’s recent history’ (Pigott Report, 1975: 77) – and in doing so they encroached on the proposed national museum’s intended turf. Museum Victoria, for example, gave up the title National Museum of Victoria in 1983; but the new Melbourne Museum, the largest of its three campuses, boasted an ‘Australia Gallery’ which, even if it focused on Victoria, sent a signal that it was prepared to venture across borders.

18. Substantial new museums sprang up in capital cities and regional centres, sometimes as part of state museums, but from a visitor’s perspective standing on their own. Some focused on specific localities, such as Melbourne’s Living Museum of the West (1984), the Museum of Tropical Queensland in Townsville (1987) and the Museum of Sydney (1995). Others developed particular themes. Pigott had recommended a national maritime museum, which opened in Sydney in 1991. Immigration museums were established in Adelaide (1986) and Melbourne (1998). A Museum of Childhood opened in Perth in 1975 and a National Motor Museum near Adelaide, which had begun privately, was purchased by the South Australian government in 1976. Then there were halls of fame, most notably the Stockman’s Hall of Fame at Longreach (1988), house museums, ethnic museums and interpretative centres, many of which aspired to some of the functions of museums. In 1992 Old Parliament House opened in Canberra, initially as part of the National Museum but later standing apart, with designated responsibilities relating to political and social history.

19. Many of these museums were enthusiastic collectors. Together with the revivified state museums, they mopped up much of the material that was not already in major museum collections. Hence the Powerhouse acquired, among thousands of items, a collection of convict caps, an original Vegemite jar, a pair of shoes worn by pop-star Johnny O’Keefe, and an inkstand presented to future prime minister Sir George Reid on the day of Federation, all of which might have been equally well placed in a national museum.

20. Similarly, there was a revival of interest in small regional museums, often run by enthusiastic volunteers. Pigott estimated that over 1000 institutions called themselves museums, many of which had emerged in the preceding 15 years (Pigott Report, 1975: 71). Twenty-five years later there were about 2000 (ABS 2000:8560.0). This numerical increase was less significant, perhaps, than the qualitative change. With the help of organisations such as Museums Australia (1993) and the Museums and Galleries Foundation of New South Wales (1999), many (though certainly not all) of the smaller museums introduced or improved their professional practices – and hence their capacity to collect and conserve significant objects.

21. Beyond the museum sector, the major libraries continued to build up their collections, as well as their capacity to preserve them. There has never been an understanding that libraries should restrict themselves to documents and museums to artefacts; and while libraries have tended to focus on two-dimensional materials, museums have not seen themselves as being restricted to three. So the National Library and the state libraries added to their collections, further limiting the collecting options of the National Museum.

22. The end result is that, where the museum as it was imagined in 1975 could look forward to collecting within a wide field, two decades later many other institutions had been through with their harvesters or staked out particular claims. The National Museum therefore had to tread carefully lest it cause offence, as it did in the 1990s when it acquired a collection relating to bushwalking from a patch that one of the states regarded as its own. Who was to say whether bushwalking was predominantly of national or state significance? Money was not the necessarily the answer. In 2001 the museum bid for a skirt worn at Wimbledon by Evonne Goolagong that was being auctioned for charity at a regional centre. The museum bid to what it considered the object’s maximum value, but was rolled by a local entrepreneur who wished to donate it to a local sporting club. The local value was evidently higher than the national value. A larger collecting budget might have acquired the object, but at what cost to relations with the local community? In 2004 the museum caused great consternation in Victoria when it outbid the State Library for several documents relating to the foundation of Melbourne (Age, February 2004).

23. Thus, for one reason or another, the museum has experienced significant constraints on its capacity to collect. Although the collections have grown since 1980, they are still modest, in quantity and quality, compared with some of the state collections.

Collecting for the future

24. ‘Museums are largely judged by the depth and quality of their collections’, wrote the historian Graeme Davison in his submission to the Carroll Committee (Davison submission to Carroll Report 2003). Other submissions argued along similar lines, recognising that much of the authority of a museum resides in its collections (Young, 2003). The committee agreed – ‘the NMA needs its own outstanding collection of objects’ – and suggested that it set goals to be achieved through targeted acquisition in five or ten years. At the end of ten years it should have acquired ‘a store of national treasures’, ‘a well-documented set of objects relating to priority areas’ (Carroll Report, 2003: 11, 53).

25. The committee did not suggest how large the store might be. Nor did it say where the objects might come from. The pickings are likely to be slim. There might yet appear a grand benefactor or vendor whose collections will transform the museum overnight, just as Rex Nan Kivell transformed the collections of the National Library from 1949. But the chances are remote. More probably the museum will have to acquire historical material from many different sources, as it has done in the past, through the acquisition of single objects or small groups of related objects, from individual vendors or donors. The holdings are also likely to expand through ‘contemporary collecting’, the acquisition of objects representative of contemporary society that are likely to gain significance with the passage of time. Some of these might eventually become national treasures, but not for many decades.

26. History museums are very different from art museums, which sometimes achieve renown on the basis of just a handful of works of art. Where the National Portrait Gallery, established just six years ago, might already to be said to have an ‘outstanding collection’ with around 750 portraits, a history museum demands, as Davison put it, depth as well as quality. Raw numbers can be misleading in a museum context: the fact that Museum Victoria, for example, holds over 16 million objects and the National Museum just 200,000 should not be taken at face value. (Museum Victoria holds 15 million objects that are classified as ‘natural history’, 360,000 as ‘science and technology’, 250,000 as ‘Indigenous cultures’ and 130,000 as ‘history’; the National Museum holds about 200,000 objects, 94,000 of which are stone tools.) Nevertheless, there is little doubt that in most areas the Victorian collections are much deeper and richer than those of the National Museum.

27. The National Museum might well benefit from the occasional collection windfall, perhaps from an overseas museum, a bankrupt business or another museum that decides to close its doors. And an infusion of funds, as suggested by the review, will help. But you cannot buy what is not there, or at least not available for sale. As I suggested earlier, when objects do come on the open market, a large budget will not ensure success. Furthermore, even if objects were acquired at a much increased pace, time is needed to process them, including research into their provenance and significance, without which museum objects are all but useless. There is little point in adding to the collections budget without increasing the numbers of curatorial and collections management staff, unless the purpose is merely to acquire more expensive objects without adding to their total number.

28. Whichever way you look at it, the process of collecting is likely to be laborious and slow. Except in the area of Aboriginal Australia, where the collections are already impressive, the time it will take for the museum to acquire an outstanding collection in the national context, perhaps halfway comparable with the collections of Museum Victoria or the National Library, is likely to be closer to 100 years than 10.

Opportunities for the present

29. Should the museum therefore cocoon itself for however many decades it takes to build a collection of depth and quality, revealing its splendour to the world only when its transformation is complete? Fortunately, there are other paths to greatness. At least three of them were well recognised inside and outside the museum long before opening.

30. First, the Aboriginal ethnographic collections provide in themselves sufficient basis for an outstanding museum. Experts in the field might debate the relative merits of collections in Canberra, Melbourne and Adelaide; but there is no doubt that the National Museum’s collection is exceptional. Former prime minister Paul Keating, who was implacably opposed to the idea of ‘another bloody great mausoleum by the lake’ (Watson, 2002: 134), nevertheless saw merit in a museum devoted entirely to Indigenous Australians. The museum exploited its collections skilfully in the First Australians Gallery, winning generous praise from the Carroll Committee.

31. Second, the museum decided that it would be judged to an extent on the quality of its public programs, and proclaimed itself from the outset a forum for debate. Here too it was impressive in the eyes of the Carroll Committee, and numbers attending diverse programs testified to their success. The programs for schools, in particular, drew in busloads of students and won warm applause from educators, while conferences or workshops on Australian megafauna, frontier conflict and southern deserts attracted interest well beyond the academy. Some public programs bore no obvious relation to the collections, suggesting that the museum might become better known as a venue than a forum. Nevertheless, its successes in this area helped redefine for many visitors the term ‘museum’. If there was no avoiding the word in the museum’s title, the next best thing was to change its meaning.

32. The third path to greatness was through technology. When the Pigott Committee submitted its report, Australians had just been introduced to colour television. Although the report declared that museums should be ‘both art-form and theatre’ (Pigott Report, 1975: 6), the committee could scarcely have imagined the technological opportunities available to museum staff 25 years later. Here the museum benefited from being long delayed. By the time the government gave the go-ahead for construction at its new site on Acton Peninsula, technology had begun to revolutionise thinking about exhibition design and presentation. If the National Museum was lacking in certain collection areas, at least it could lead the way in the use of new media to complement more traditional object displays. So a substantial percentage of the exhibitions budget was dedicated to innovative media (Casey, 2001: 4-5).

33. The problem with new media is that it is quickly becomes old. Unlike traditional objects, which often increase in interest with the passage of time, media has use-by dates. Audiences will quickly lose interest if there is old technology ‘on the shelves’ – unless the media themselves become and are portrayed as ‘museum pieces’. So frequent refreshment of media is essential. Sometimes this can be achieved through the replacement of content; at other times complete hardware installations must be overhauled or scrapped. Either way, the process is generally extremely expensive.

34. Furthermore, the National Museum was not designed to accommodate diverse and changing media displays over the long term. Museums can be designed and built to keep costs to a minimum. In Melbourne, for example, the Cinemedia building, part of the new Federation Square, contains a programmable space which allows exhibits to be reconfigured with relative ease. The architecture and design of the National Museum, however, makes little provision for technology changeover. The design of the introductory Circa Theatre, for example, matches technology precisely to content. The Carroll Review was critical of the content – but leaving those criticisms aside, the content surely has a limited life, partly because many of its allusions will become dated, but also because visitors after a number of years expect to experience something new. While it may be possible to develop new content to fit the technology, a more likely solution is to change content and technology entirely – at great expense.

35. In other words, without new money, or money drawn from another part of the institution, most of the media exhibits are likely to remain as they are for a long time.

Making the National Museum truly national

36. The problem with all these opportunities is that they are, in varying degrees, also available to state museums. Melbourne Museum, for example, has outstanding Aboriginal collections and dynamic public programs, and is committed to new technologies. This should not deter the National Museum from exploiting opportunities shared by other museums. But it should also be looking for ways to take advantage of its national status.

37. The Pigott Report identified a clear role for the National Museum. After nearly 30 years that role is no longer available, at least not to the extent or in the precise ways envisaged by Pigott. Yet there are national opportunities aplenty, for example, in the areas of research and exhibition development. The success of any initiative in these areas will depend on close collaboration with museums in the states, as well as other research institutions in Canberra and beyond. The Carroll Review recognised this in requiring the National Museum to ‘assume a cross-continent museum collaboration and leadership role, especially in generating and facilitating travelling exhibitions, and developing curatorial research’ (Carroll Report, 2003: 14).

38. During the years immediately before and after opening, the museum’s commitment to research was at best lukewarm, impeded initially by the all-consuming need to get the museum open on time and then by an ill-informed dictate from its financial masters that the museum should not engage in research. The museum had a clearly expressed research policy, but there was little opportunity to give it effect. The Carroll Review correctly noted the problem, observing that ‘the particular, curatorial, collections-based research which defines a museum’s growth and progress, in distinction to other cultural or educational institutions, may lose its relative priority’ (Carroll Report, 2003: 49).

39. Some state museums have also found it hard to maintain their commitment to research. Sometimes there are specific impediments, such as new building programs which have been allowed to push research to the background. All encounter the problem of museums taking on wider roles, including commercial activities and extensive public programs, which together cause research to recede in importance. Even with a determination to pursue research, the available resources will rarely meet the demands of collections: at best, some museums will have difficulty keeping up with essential research on new acquisitions; at worst, whole collections will be left to languish.

40. Collaboration will help provide a solution to a national problem. The National Museum has already benefited from links with the nearby Australian National University, and there is potential for working together more closely on collections-based research. But opportunities for collaboration among museums and other collecting institutions, though often discussed, have been so far little exploited (see Edwards, Reeves, Griffin in McMichael, 1991; Deakin University 2002: 93). Curators, conservators and others within museums who conduct research on collections have traditionally focused solely on their own museum’s collections, meaning that they are required to extend their research over a wide range of objects and formats. The days are long gone when a museum could dedicate a member of staff to researching and developing a single collection or collection format. The solution is for researchers to work across collections, through formal commitments to more than one museum or other collecting institution. Hence, rather than having half a dozen museum-based researchers working separately on a particular type of collection – say Aboriginal weapons or objects relating to post-war immigration – and competing against the demands of other collections, a few researchers based in different institutions could form cross-institutional partnerships, so that their individual research activities extend beyond the institution that houses them. This might not have been feasible 30 years ago; but now ease of travel and communication offers opportunities for making better use of resources and extending research expertise. A greater obstacle lies in political and bureaucratic arrangements between the Commonwealth and the states, though here too the difficulties are surmountable.

41. While there is significant variation among the institutions, most museums in the states are severely limited in their capacity to develop temporary and travelling exhibitions. The Queensland Museum, for example, has not produced a major new exhibition since 1997, and a more recent initiative was frustrated by a lack of funds. Where the National Museum has so far been relatively well supported to develop temporary exhibitions but lacks the (non-Aboriginal) collections on which to base them, the state museums have outstanding collections but insufficient resources to develop them. There is an ideal opportunity for the National Museum to collaborate with state institutions to develop travelling exhibitions, opening first in Brisbane, Adelaide, Canberra, a regional centre or wherever seems most appropriate, before travelling to other Australian and perhaps international venues. Some institutions are well able to put together temporary exhibitions themselves, and need no federal contribution. Others are likely to welcome the infrastructure and expertise that the National Museum should be able to offer. An ideal partnership would see National Museum staff working alongside staff of a state institution to develop a major exhibition based chiefly on the state institution’s collections, or the smaller exhibitions that are much in demand in regional centres.

42. This option has sometimes been rejected because it has been put forward as a substitute for permanent exhibitions, and hence a betrayal of the Pigott blueprint. But a collaborative approach to developing temporary exhibitions does not imply neglect of the permanent ones. The existing exhibitions should be maintained and refreshed. But they should not be extended until the collections have grown sufficiently to sustain them, perhaps to the point where 90 per cent of items on display are drawn from the museum’s own collections. At the same time, closer collaboration with other museums should make the task of identifying and borrowing loan items a good deal easier.

43. In the two years before opening, National Museum staff were exposed to a hot-house learning environment and acquired substantial expertise in various areas of exhibition development. This experience needs to be consolidated before it is lost for use in collaborative projects. Not all areas enjoy the same levels of expertise: in particular, the museum lacks expertise in exhibition design, a legacy in part of a decision to recruit designers from overseas. Without some skills in this area, the museum has little or no capacity to develop its own exhibition style and lacks an essential qualification for demonstrating leadership in exhibition development. Nor does it have the potential to assist in the cultivation of Australian exhibition design. Fortunately, this gap can be fairly easily remedied.

44. There is, however, a more formidable obstacle to leadership in creating temporary exhibitions: the museum’s extraordinary architecture.

Architectural constraints

45. The design and appearance of the National Museum have provoked strong responses since long before opening day. Visitors have consistently rated the building and architecture highest among those things they like about the museum. There have also been some vocal critics. Several issues have generated particular controversy, including the relationship of the building to the lake, the similarity of part of the building to the new Jewish Museum in Berlin, and the meaning of various symbolic elements, including the alleged allusion to the Holocaust. Recently, following critical comments by the review committee on the landscape feature, the Garden of Australian Dreams, debate has focused on moral rights, specifically the right of the landscape architects to have the integrity of their work preserved (Australian Institute of Landscape Architects, 2003; Keniger, 2003).

46. All this has distracted attention from an issue of even greater importance for the future of the museum: the practical question of whether the design of the building is well adapted to one of the museum’s primary functions, as defined in the Act of Parliament, to exhibit material relating to Australia and other countries. The building was designed by Melbourne architects Ashton Raggatt McDougall and Robert Peck von Hartel Trethowan, who won a design competition in 1997. The Draft Functional Brief required that they should design a museum that was ‘not monumental’, and that it should ‘reflect the content and meaning of the National Museum – as a place to discover what it means to be Australian’. Just as Pigott had done in 1975, the brief emphasised the need for flexibility: ‘the primary objective in the exhibition areas remains the guarantee of maximum flexibility for exhibition design and presentations’ (Pegrum and Associates, 1997: Pigott Report, 1975: 79). But in fact the requirements of display were placed low on the agenda. Just how low is well explained in an essay by Italian-based architect, editor and critic Deyan Sudjic, in a ‘promotional’ book published on behalf of the architects in 2002. Sudjic is frankly disdainful of the museum’s collections: ‘The museum has some original artefacts, but they are a mixed bunch.’ It is the architecture that matters: ‘The building itself is far more powerful than any object housed in it. The Museum has been designed with far more richly layered narrative intent than any of the exhibition designers’ story lines contained within it.’ The architects ‘have grabbed the reins and are telling the story.’ (Sudjic, 2002: 116)

47. There is some exaggeration here: the architects worked as part of an alliance, which required them to work in concert with designers, builders and others to achieve the most satisfactory results. Hence the design evolved, and the architects, sometimes reluctantly, gave way to the designers at various points. The point remains that the architecture took little account of what the exhibitions might become and how they might change. This is especially evident in the design of the First Australians Gallery, which openly copies, or ‘refers’, to Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin. As Sudjic remarks, ‘Libeskind’s structure was famously opened to the public long before a single exhibit was installed in it, making it more a memorial than a museum, and it proves that it can function perfectly well without any exhibits at all’ (Sudjic, 2002:116; Pes, 2002: 24-31). The question, however, should not be whether it can function perfectly well without exhibits, but whether it can function adequately with them.

48. The story is familiar in new museums around the world: container versus contents, buildings versus collections, medium versus message. English art dealer, author and publisher Karsten Schubert warns that ‘With so much emphasis recently on museum architecture, the issue of displays can become dangerously sidelined.’ The Guggenheim museums, one by Frank Lloyd Wright in Manhattan, the other and more recent by Frank Gehry in Bilbao, are ‘two of the greatest architectural icons of our century’. Yet both, says Schubert, ‘as far as their purpose is concerned’ are ‘deeply dysfunctional’ (Schubert, 2000: 123). London-based architecture and design critic Hugh Pearman listed in 1991 a string of museums where the building was more important than the content: ‘It is time we owned up to the fact that all these fine architects are designing adult playpens’(McKean, 2000: 89).

49. This is not the place to investigate the relationship between the architects and their brief (see Museum National Nov-Dec 1999: 6-9]. Nor is it necessary here to question whether the design of the building should take precedence over its contents. After all, would visitors flock to Bilbao if it were not for Frank Gehry? Would Australians come in such numbers to the National Museum if its architecture were more conventional? Suffice it to say that, however highly the National Museum rates in the world of architecture, it offers its curators and designers, often quite literally, little room to move.

50. The impact of architecture on design was frankly acknowledged by the American team responsible for designing the permanent exhibitions. ‘Our greatest conceived weakness of the project’, said the lead designer Scott Guerin, ‘was the fact that the building was already quite far along in design and we worried how the complex architecture would work with a story that was nearly a year away from definition’ (Anway and Guerin, 2002: 164). Guerin and his colleagues responded to the evolving narratives and lists of objects, and attempted to match them to the architecture. Yet here too the outcome imposed constraints. Their primary task was to design exhibitions for 2001. They took little account of future requirements, including the necessity to replace within two years, for one reason or another, some 50 per cent of objects on display, and the need to revisit existing displays to ensure that the exhibitions remained vital and engaging. This difficulty was compounded by a decision, taken partly for financial reasons, to construct showcases appropriate to the needs of the moment, rather than proprietary cases that had greater flexibility. Thus a discrete component of the First Australians Gallery was set aside to tell the story of Torres Strait Islanders, and designed to accommodate an outstanding collection on loan from Cambridge University’s Museum of Anthropology. The cabinets were built accordingly. But when the collection moved on to Cairns after six months, the museum was hard pressed to come up with objects for a substitute display.

Making do

51. The inescapable conclusion is that, while the museum announces its concern with ‘yesterday and tomorrow’, its architecture and design fix it emphatically in the present. The interior design can and no doubt will be changed. The architecture, however, will continue to govern the shape and influence the content of the permanent galleries. It will also limit the museum’s capacity to assume a national role through developing and mounting temporary exhibitions, except for exhibitions developed chiefly for other venues.

52. The architectural plans provided for three temporary exhibition spaces: one vast space of a little under 1000 square metres, intended for ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions; and two smaller spaces contiguous with the permanent galleries and referred to as ‘Focus Galleries’. The large space is satisfactory for large exhibitions; but with only one point of visitor access (or more precisely, two adjacent points) it offers little flexibility for mounting two or more smaller exhibitions, unless they are on directly related themes. An imaginative designer needs to devise various ways of dividing the space into two or three while maintaining an acceptable visitor flow.

53. The Focus Galleries are both uncompromising spaces. Like the building as a whole, both are bent and twisted, making it difficult to accept travelling exhibitions or create exhibitions that will easily travel, with minimal change, to more conventional spaces. And both ‘bleed’ into their ‘parent’ galleries, making it difficult or impossible to create a distinct identity and ambience for particular exhibitions that do not relate well to their surrounds. This applies particularly to the First Australians Focus Gallery, which is indistinguishable from its permanent surrounds.

54. These problems can be partially surmounted, but only through a radical rethinking of the exhibition spaces as a whole. This might involve abandoning those spaces as Focus Galleries, making the space available to their surrounding exhibitions, and looking elsewhere for more satisfactory substitutes. So, for example, the space currently dedicated to Torres Strait Islanders might become a temporary exhibitions gallery, open to a wide range of imported or home-grown exhibitions. Torres Strait Islanders should have a smaller permanent presence elsewhere in the First Australians Gallery, with first option on a temporary gallery for travelling exhibitions and claims on a larger permanent space as objects are acquired over the years. The mezzanine area currently occupied by the Horizons Gallery and bypassed by many visitors might also be set aside for temporary exhibitions, including displays featuring particular immigration experiences and ethnic groups. The broader immigration story might be incorporated into the Nation Gallery, including the row of showcases that currently present a chronology of Australia from 1788. The national chronology never fitted happily into nine cabinets, each accommodating two events. The story of immigration, however, is much better suited to this form of telling; or perhaps the nine divisions could be used to display, on a rotating basis, the diversity of modern Australia’s ethnic origins. If these changes have the overall effect of reducing the overall space given over to permanent exhibitions, so much the better. The long-term challenge is to invent mechanisms for adaptability, so that refreshment is cheap and easy.

55. There are many other options, none entirely without drawbacks. The ones I have mentioned are sufficient to indicate the sort of rethinking that the museum must undertake if it is overcome internal obstacles and assume a national role.

Object lessons

56. In an address to the Association of Art Historians in London in 1995, Michael Conforti, director of the Clark Art Institute in Massachusetts, identified four ‘stabilizing mechanisms’ which he saw as keys to institutional survival. These were founding charters and missions statements written at the time of the museum’s formation; the institution’s governance and professional structure; its permanent collections; and its architectural skin. ‘From empirical observation’, he declared, ‘I have come to believe that the museum can change only in the context of, and often in conflict with, its stabilizing mechanisms.’ Each of the four had the capacity to limit the museum’s flexibility and constrict its initiatives (Conforti, 1998: 341-342).

57. Although Conforti was referring to art museums in Berlin, New York and London, his four keys to institutional survival have wider application. Each provokes questions in relation to where the National Museum has come from and where it is heading. To what extent do problems of governance and professional structure undermine the institution’s effectiveness? An analysis of governance issues will go far beyond the recalcitrance of individual council members. How should the museum develop its collections in the context of a collecting sector that has been reshaped over the past 30 years? How does the so-called National Historical Collection relate to collections in other institutions? How should the museum confront the seemingly intractable problems created by its complex architecture? If major changes are considered necessary, how might these conflict with the moral rights of the architects? What lessons can we learn about the relationship between architects, designers and museum professionals in planning ‘creative spaces’? Do architectural competitions for museum projects produce the best results? Also, the National Museum is uniquely well placed for examining the benefits and drawbacks of project alliancing.

58. Finally, how relevant are the museum’s founding charters? In its submission to the Carroll Review, the museum traced its origins to the Pigott Report, the National Museum Act of 1980, and a charter produced by the Interim Council in 1982 to guide the implementation of the Act. The submission acknowledged unambiguously the museum’s debt to Pigott: ‘From the Pigott report right up to the opening of the building at Acton, the concept behind the National Museum of Australia has remained constant’ (National Museum Submission to the Carroll Report, 2003: 7). Furthermore, the submission averred that the Act of Parliament was still relevant, and required no amendment.

59. The museum in 2003, challenged by the possibility of an adverse review, was keen to emphasise a direct line between past and present. Certainly, Pigott’s influence could still be seen in various ways, including the ‘land, nation, people’ themes; the commitment to a dedicated gallery where Indigenous people can tell their own stories; the readiness to display controversial issues; and above all, the notion that there is a place for a museum committed to collecting objects and telling stories relating to the whole nation. But the museum had also changed direction in various ways, most obviously in relation to its location, shape and size. Beyond the museum, the sector, as we have seen, had changed substantially, in ways that impinged directly on the National Museum’s capacity to fulfil its original charters. Those charters remain relevant – but only in the context of the museum’s ensuing history. Taken in isolation, they can prove a formidable obstacle to change.

60. The key to any museum’s survival is its adaptability. The Pigott Committee recognised this when they referred to the changing functions of museums, noting that before the end of the century some functions currently carried out by museums might better be served in other ways, while new needs might best be satisfied by museums (Pigott Report, 1975: 17). As Karsten Schubert puts it, the museum has been from the outset ‘the subject of close scrutiny and perpetual critique and revision. … Its very success is the result of exceptional flexibility and capacity to adapt – a capacity other cultural institutions do not share’ (Schubert, 2000: 11). Museums must be responsive, whether to changes in community expectations, museological trends, technological opportunities, or the requirements of political paymasters. The National Museum can and will change. But in order to do so it will have to find its way around some significant obstacles, rethink its role and functions, and look far beyond the demands of the latest review.


Stephen Foster is Professor of Museum Studies, Heritage and Collections at The Australian National University. He was previously General Manager, Content Development and Technology, at the National Museum of Australia. Email:

Author's note

The paper was submitted in May 2004. I thank Bain Attwood, Craddock Morton, John Mulvaney, Peter Spearritt and Susan Tonkin for their comments on earlier drafts.


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