The Wolanski Foundation Project


Paper no 42









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by Paul Bentley


Article originally published in Museum Matters December 2006 and reprinted with kind permission of the publishers Museums Australia Inc NSW

Change is a river that carries many boats.

In November, museum directors from NSW and the ACT checked the flow of the river - and some of the boats - at a forum organised by Museums and Galleries NSW and the Museum of Sydney. In Times of Change: New Developments, arts consultant and broadcaster, Andrea Stretton, teased out views on changes affecting museums and galleries from a panel comprising Louise Douglas (National Museum of Australia), Dr Kevin Fewster (Powerhouse Museum), Frank Howarth (Australian Museum), Andrew Sayers (National Portrait Gallery), Nick Mitzevich (Newcastle Regional Art Gallery) and Fiona Winning (Performance Space).

Andrea posed two questions to the panellists: what are the biggest changes they face in their jobs and how are they dealing with the challenge? Several themes emerged.


Research has underpinned museum operations for centuries. It stimulated exploration in eras when much of the world waited to be discovered. It has informed the stories behind museum objects. The Australian Museum’s annual Eureka Prize reflects this tradition.

Now, an appreciation of market research and the benefits of mixing hard data with questionable opinion is causing organisational change in some institutions. According to Louise Douglas, an emphasis on research at the National Museum of Australia (NMA) is leading to organisational changes there. NMA priorities have been reordered. Some services have been cancelled or scaled back. The NMA and Australian Museum have embarked on a collaborative audience research project.

The changing nature of museum audiences has also attracted the eye of Nick Mitzevich at Newcastle Regional Art Gallery, where the different motivations of those under the age of 45 now figure in the gallery’s development plans normally geared to satisfying “the constant over-50s”.


The quietly uplifting stroll to the front door of the Foundation Dubuffet gallery. Photo: Bentley 

A spate of building projects is causing some directors to reflect on museum roles, the nature of the experience they provide, and changing workforce dynamics.

A new National Portrait Gallery building is scheduled to open in December 2008. For Andrew Sayers, this has meant dealing with creative tensions between staff, architects, government, board, builders and others. It has also meant grappling with the conundrum of whether to make the museum an architectural statement or to suppress architectural flamboyance. In his view, a good front door and a pleasurable museum experience are more important than a seductive building.

A good front door is also important to Nick Mitzevich. He is leading the charge for a new regional gallery building in Newcastle and was surprised to learn from street surveys conducted outside the present building that a large number of people not only didn’t know about the front door was but didn’t know where the gallery was. To garner support for the new building, his challenge has been to get buy-in from councillors and business people who tend to be preoccupied with more prosaic things. He has discovered the importance of adopting a business language, of emphasising commercial return as well as cultural and community benefits.

The Powerhouse Museum is creating a new role for its remote storage facility at Castle Hill. The museum has found that combining storage and display functions has stimulated new approaches for presenting exhibits and engaging audiences. It also bringing forth new pressures – more donations and more requests for information.

The Australian Museum faces the challenge of the $40 million redevelopment of a 178 year old building. Frank Howarth’s recipe for successful museum building projects consists of the following ingredients: a good masterplan, a persuasive bid for funds, good consultants, and good communication lacing the whole process.

Apart from the need to handle building projects with aplomb, maybe there are no firm rules when it comes to designing exteriors and interiors.

The new interior of the Orangerie in Paris serves the contemplative experience of savouring Monet's Water Lilies and other works. Photo: Bentley

IM Pei’s pyramid at the Louvre is the best front door of any museum in the world (although you can also enter by a side door at the end of a shopping mall). By way of contrast, the secret garden in front of the hard-to-find Foundation Dubuffet gallery — behind a typical door of a typical building in a typical street of Montparnasse — offers a quietly uplifting stroll to a gallery front door.

Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilboa and Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House have demonstrated that architecture can pull an audience all by itself. In many museums, though, modular and adaptable interiors give satisfying experiences without reference to building exteriors.

Specifications for interiors can quickly date.

The rebuilt interior of the recently re-opened Orangerie is a reminder that simplicity serves the contemplative experience of savouring paintings.

Whereas La Mente di Leonardo (the Mind of Leonardo) at the Uffizi in Florence — and several other gallery exhibitions currently in Europe — hint at new possibilities for bridging gallery and museum experiences in spaces that owe more to theatre.


Andrew Sayers said that one of the benefits of a building project is that it focuses the energies of staff on the mission of the museum when their minds might otherwise be distracted by other things.

Possible distractions exist partly because of changing dynamics in the museum workforce. According to Kevin Fewster, the passion of the baby boomers who constitute a lage slice of the museum workforce makes them too conservative and proprietorial about their ideas. With the growth of project-based positions and contractors, loyalty to an organisation is diminishing and corporate memory is increasingly placed at risk. Museums and galleries need to manage the succession from one generation to another.

Other enterprises

Fiona Winning was the one panellist who didn’t work in a museum. She was a reminder that ideas for working museums can be found in other enterprises. As Director of Performance Space, she is leading her 25-year old company of 12 staff through the process of relocating to a new precinct and of forging relationships with other resident companies in Carriageworks, a $45 million state government funded centre for contemporary dance, music and theatre in the old Eveleigh rail yards in Sydney.

The loss of a dedicated space and the loss of autonomy led initially to a sense of disempowerment, which has now given way to a feeling of liberation as they map out uncertain territory with new players. No-one quite knows how Carriageworks will evolve. Creating a new future has therefore solicited openness and experimentation rather than a fixed plan, project management techniques and the comfort of past experience.


Kevin Fewster drew attention to the importance of social contexts for museums, which need to adopt a leadership role on many subjects.

Mentioned in passing at the forum, the theme has been fleshed out in the latest MAG magazine. Fiona Cameron, a research fellow with the Museum and Cultural Heritage Studies Centre for Cultural Research at the University of Western Sydney, in her article Safe Places for Unsafe Ideas said: “Our research suggests that many museums have a strong moralising and reforming task to perform as a system of social, cultural and self-development. On the one hand, audiences want an open debate and range of perspectives; on the other hand they require museums to set moral standards and reforming agendas that can be used to understand and evaluate societal conduct.”

In the same issue, Calab Williams from Sydney’s Justice and Police Museum put it another way: “Ideally museums should be places of light, where the dark, the difficult and the problematic can be admitted, freely debated and made visible in an environment that feels safe, non-exploitative, open, friendly and philosophically expansive.”

Government policy

Political contexts are no less important. The proposed amalgamation of the Powerhouse Museum and Australian Museum, described by Andrea Stretton as “the elephant in the room” was a silent reminder of the influence of Governments on museum strategy and operations.

Both Kevin Fewster and Frank Howarth, understandably, refrained from premature comment about developments, leaving the debate to others. But they did reflect on changing government expectations. In the major museums, there is an expanding requirement for self-generated income (now 25-40% instead of 10%) and ongoing pressures for more efficiency. Museums need to live with the realities of limited government funding and the competition for government funds from areas like health, education and roads. For Frank Howarth it means emphasising relevance. For Kevin Fewster it means exploring new relationships and being adaptable.

Not mentioned in the panel discussion was the emergence of the Collections Council of Australia (CCA) and the converging interests of museums, galleries, archives and libraries.

Modelled to some extent on the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) in the UK and the Institute of Museum and Libraries Services in the US, the CCA has been set up with less funding — in the words of CEO Margaret Birtley — to identify and support innovative and accountable ways in which collecting organisations might evolve.

Since 2001, the MLA has produced numerous reports on information and communications technology, benchmarks and performance indicators, visitors, educational roles, digital preservation, regional infrastructure and other subjects relevant to the four domains.

In 2002, it assessed the museum world in the UK as one in which where there was no common understanding, there was a high level of uncertainty about a range of issues, and there was tension about the different needs of large institutions and small, independent and volunteer-run museums.

Building on the generic advice in these reports, the CCA has got off to a flying start in defining local needs. National consultations and surveys are under way on collecting facilities and the development of regional hubs. Its report A Survey of Human and Financial Resources in Australian Conservation and Preservation, not surprisingly, found that there is a shortage of funds for collecting organisations to achieve a range of reasonable conservation and preservation goals, a shortage in the availability and suitability of conservation and preservation workers, and the probability that shortages of skilled conservation staff will intensify. Faced with competing demands of deteriorating collections, increased public access, and rapid technological change, it has recommended the development of integrated education, training and workforce planning by the four domains, promoting needs to appropriate stakeholders, and further research.

Information technology

Most panellists viewed information and communications technology as one of the main challenges and one of the main opportunities for museums and galleries.

Frank Howarth urged the audience to embrace it, but not to become a slave to it. “Watch out for bandwagons,” he said, “and balance the real with the virtual.” The Australian Museum website now attracts 24 million visits annually, compared with 300,000 who come through the front door. At the Powerhouse Museum, which is in the process of making available 70,000 digital objects online, web usage has increased threefold in last 6 months. Louis Douglas warned that online hits don’t necessarily lead to museum visits. And it is probably also worth pointing out that only a small percentage of website visitors will be satisfied ones.

The Institute of Museum and Library Services has just published its report Status of Technology and Digitisation in the Nation’s Museums and Libraries assessing the state of play in the United States. No doubt mirroring the circumstances in Australia, the survey reported dramatic progress in use of technology and digitisation activities since the previous survey in 2001, although small museums and public libraries still lag behind their larger counterparts. The larger libraries and archives still lead the way. Many technology and digitisation activities are not supported by institutional plans and policies. While collaborative digitisation efforts are underway, they are not yet widespread. Only a small proportion of museums and libraries assess user and visitor needs for digitising collections and services.

The lack of business plans, poor coordination, and competing interests echo conclusions in numerous other reports published over the past few years — such as Diane Zorich’s A Survey of Digital Cultural Heritage Initiatives and Their Sustainability Concerns for the Council on Library and Information Resources in the US, reports relating to the National Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program managed by the Library of Congress, and the European Commission’s Digicult Report.

The CCA has set a course to build on past Government-led efforts going back to the Creative Nation agenda and subsequent Ozeculture conferences, among other Australian initiatives. Its Summit on Digital Collections, held in August, took stock of activities in libraries, archives, museums and galleries and a report it is expected soon. This will no doubt encourage museums, lagging behind the other domains, to tool up by developing websites and systems, as well as give some direction to the more critical area of interoperability and managing structural, descriptive, preservation and administrative metadata in a cross-sectoral world.

Summing up

Are today’s changes any different to yesterday’s changes? It was a question posed by Andrea Stretton, but, with time running out, was a question not fully explored.

For many working in today’s topsy-turvy word, change can be as daunting as that experienced by Billy Budd, when he was transferred from the happy atmosphere of the Rights-of-Man to the poisonous environment of HMS Indomitable, before meeting an ironic fate at the hands of the jealous, enigmatic Master Clegg.

The American comedian Milton Berle once implied that change is over-rated: “I’ve been in this business for a long time — I was on television when it was called radio.”

The management guru Charles Handy, in The Empty Raincoat, drew on the sigmoid curve to explain the ebb and flow of civilisations, countries, companies and personal relationships. .

The sigmoid curve

Things begin slowly, experimentally, then they wax and wane. By the time they reach point A, people travelling up the path must exercise forced discontentment and reinvent themselves to avoid point B and find the next sigmoid curve. The past is not necessarily the best fertiliser of the next curve, but it should not be abandoned too quickly. New directions draw on continuity. New ideas must co-exist with the old.

For Picasso, discontentment was part of a routine: “I’m like a river that rolls on, dragging with it trees that grow too close to the banks or dead calves one might have thrown into it or any kind of microbes that might develop in it…it’s the movement of painting that interests me.”

For collecting institutions, the impetus for change can give rise to unrealistic expectations.

MLA has already alluded to its limited capacity for making a difference in the converging world of museums, galleries, archives and libraries.

Change will only work, it says, if supported by all the stakeholders. “Some goals will take years to reach and there will undoubtedly be setbacks along the way. The profession will need perseverance and determination to work its way through them.”

Further reading

Birtley, Margaret. Linking the nation's memory: progressing the work of the Collections Council of Australia (reCollections (National Museum of Australia), v.1 no.1 Mar 2006: 83-91).

Collections Council of Australia. Conservation survey 2006: a survey of human and financial resources in Australian conservation and preservation / VM Bullock, MM Birtley, CJ Jenkins. Available from

Institute of Museum and Library Services. Status of Technology and Digitization in the Nation’s Museums and Libraries, 2006.


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