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Putting a value on museums: a question of evidence

by Paul Bentley


An edited version of this article appears in Museum Matters December 2009, published by Museums Australia (NSW).  

In October, the Federal Minister for the Arts Peter Garrett announced plans for the development of a national cultural policy. The spectre of future public belt tightening increases the need for the museums sector to make a compelling case when competing for the government dollar. What's a compelling case and how do you make one?


Image: National Windfarm Developers

Justifying public expenditure on museums is often tied up with measuring government spending on the arts and creativity. The British commentator on the creative economy, Charles Leadbeater, once described such as activities as ‘thin air businesses’ in which participation, rather than consumption or production, will underscore future value. For the American public anthropologist Robert Borofsky, (Cultural Possibilities, 1998), defining culture is akin to ‘engaging the wind’.

Engaging the wind has been the subject of numerous studies and commentaries. A few of them are considered in this article.

Overseas reports and commentary

In 1991, Arts Business Ltd, following a seminar sponsored by the Arts Council of England and Birmingham City Council, published a checklist of 99 indicators under 12 headings to guide public policy on the arts. It included both quantitative and subjective formulas for measuring funding programs, financial performance, employment and training, equal opportunities, innovation, audience building, quality, and economic impact. Some indicators could be relevant to future funding of museums – such as the ratio of centrally provided funds to locally provided funds, centrally provided subsidy per head per region, and training days per employer per annum.   

In 2007, the Department of Canadian Heritage published an Economic Impact Model for the Arts and Heritage as an online tool for “non-economists to calculate the economic impacts of expenditures on arts and heritage activities at the provincial, territorial and national levels.” The series of tables, available on the Canadian Heritage Information Network website at, generate reports for assessing impacts on regional economies, organisational spending, and visitor spending. 

Five years earlier, Michelle Reeves was critical, in her report Measuring the Social and Economic Impact of the Arts for the Arts Council of England, of a lack of conceptual clarity and narrow conceptualisations of social and economic impact, the reliance on self-reporting with little corroborating evidence, an over reliance on official statistics which often give a partial picture, and the lack of a common framework of research principles, assessment processes and standards for evaluation. She said there were simplistic and naïve explanations for attributing positive outcomes to arts projects. In putting forward a model for effective arts-impact evaluation, she acknowledged the sector’s tendency to rely primarily on aesthetic rationale and intrinsic values. But, “while these arguments are still valid”, she said, “changing policy priorities has meant that alone they are no longer strong enough to enable the arts to win more resources.” 

Australian commentary and surveys

Australian academic David Throsby has wrestled with cultural policy and associated metrics for more than 20 years.

In Economics and Culture (2000), he identified aesthetic, spiritual, social, historical, symbolic and authentic components of cultural value. These values must be respected, he said, even though they aren’t grounded in money and can’t be counted and weighed. The arts can never be reduced to figures. But economics, he said, is central to the way the arts are managed.

In Does Australia Need a Cultural Policy? (Platform Papers no 7, January 2006), he considered a number of overseas approaches to cultural policy before tracing the history of government patronage of the arts in Australia from 1818-19, when the poet Michael Massey Robson was granted two cows for his services as Poet Laureate. In the post-World War 11 expansion of government support for the arts, three public figures have stood out for their wide embrace of cultural policy: HC Coombs, EG Whitlam and PJ Keating.

Keating’s Creative Nation (1994) promoted itself as our first national cultural policy. Although it emphasised arts policy, it included preservation of Australia’s heritage. Throsby observed that one of its most ambitious aspects was its attempt to link cultural development with economic development. It provided “not only a rationale and advocacy for an active Commonwealth role in Australia’s cultural development, but also a set of proposals with resources attached for putting that role into effect.” 

Arts and heritage, he said, are core components of a cultural policy. However, we should avoid the risk of overemphasising economic value over cultural value. To support this conviction, he cited reports of Productivity Commission’s Inquiry into Conservation of Historic Heritage Places (2006), which entertain the proposition that heritage is, like the arts, an area where market failure occurs. Although heritage markets can deliver some direct-use benefits, the overwhelming source of real and measurable benefit lies outside the market. The benefit “derives particularly from the general contribution of heritage to the understanding and expression of Australian identity.”

Throsby cautioned against the use of hype in such a policy and of loading all responsibility on to the shoulders of governments. “We get the sort of society we make for ourselves. It is our  own cultural perceptions and aspirations that shape our destiny, not those of any government.”

He proposed a cultural accord rather than the “sort of magisterial cultural statement handed down by the Prime Minister, the Cabinet or a parliamentary committee” or “a single document or a single piece of legislation.”  Cultural policy, he said, is not a single definable thing but “a pervasive mixture that not only determines the immediate and obvious ways in which we practise our culture.”

Others have questioned whether it is the fit role of government to develop, protect and oversee a national culture. They have expressed doubts about the ability of bureaucracies to shape culture. They have questioned whether such policies actually lead to practical outcomes. But, with a new national cultural policy in the wind, those who have been critical appear as departing travellers viewed from the back window of a bus.

Several recent reports by the Australian Bureau of Statistics deserve special scrutiny by the museums sector.

Its Arts and Culture in Australia: A Statistical Overview is a suite of surveys and statistics, incorporating the most recent survey of museums as well as data on other topics such as tourism, household expenditure, funding by government and business, employment, and cultural industries and trade. This approach echoes the ABS suite of indicators released in 2003 about Australia’s knowledge-based economy and society (KBES). The suite was  preferred over a single report because the latter ran the risk of presenting an over-simplified and possibly misleading representation of the issues. The metrics in the KBES suite consisted of data on contexts, economic and social impacts, innovation and entrepreneurship, human capital, information communication and technology.

The ABS Arts and Cultural Heritage: an Information Development Plan, published in 2008, describing data gaps to inform future statistical development and research work.

Its Cultural Funding by Government, Australia, 2007-08 provides data on public funding for arts and cultural activities, facilities and services across the three levels of government. Total  government funding for cultural activities was $6.3 billion, to which the Australian Government contributed 37%, the state and territory governments 47% and local governments 16%. Environmental heritage received the largest proportion (28%).Libraries received over $1 billion or about 16% of funding, Other museums and cultural heritage programs received about $630 million (10%). The phrase “other museums” flags the fact that there are ambiguities within the figures because not all states and territories are consistent in the way the report data. In some jurisdictions art museum statistics are not bundled with other museums. 

The Australian Government allocated $1788 million of its cultural funding to arts activities and $571 million to heritage activities. It gave the bulk of its heritage funding on other museums and cultural heritage ($232 million or 41%). In contrast, the state and territory governments allocated most of their funds on heritage ($2,266 million or 77%). They spent $178 million on art museums, $365 million on other museums and cultural heritage, and $318 million on libraries. Local government allocated the majority of it cultural funding (65%) to libraries ($653 million). Variations within each state are worth noting, as are the proportions of funding per person. Out of a total of $297 per person, the Australian Government kicked in $111, the state and territory governments' contributed was $139 and local government cultural funding was $47.10 per person.

The ABS report Australian National Accounts: Non-Profit Institutions Satellite Account, 2006/07 reports that non-profit institutions contributed close to $43 billion (or 4%) to the Australians economy. The culture and recreation contribution to this figure was 16%. Volunteers contributed 623 million hours to non-profit institutions, equating to 317,200 full-time equivalent jobs. The economic value of these hours was estimated to be $14.6 billion.


To complement data published by the ABS, the Council of Australasian Museum Directors and Council of Australian Art Museum Directors have published statistics about the work of major museums and galleries. A survey conducted in 2007 by the Council of Australasian Archives and Records Authority in partnership with Australian Society of Archivists and Archives New Zealand, provides some understanding of museum collections controlled by archives, historical societies and related record-keeping agencies.

A recent special issue of Museum Management and Curatorship (volume 24, no 4, September 2009) is devoted to the value of museums. In this article, I’ve selected two essays for special attention.  

The work of the Institute of Museum and Library Services

Marsha Semmel and Mamie Bittner explore definitions of public value based on the work of the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and other bodies in the United States. They describe past and current research that may “increase the collective knowledge of the strengths and core competences of museums, lead to new methodologies for improved museum practice and shape the arguments for the role of museums today as valuable community assets.” These include True Needs, True Partners: Museums Serving Schools (2002), Charting the Landscape, Mapping New Paths: Museums, Libraries and K-12 Learning (2004), Museum Data Collection Report and Analysis (2005), A Public Trust at Risk: the Heritage Health Index Report on the State of America’s Collections (2005), Museums in the Neighbourhood: Evaluating the Socio-economic Impact of Museums (2006), Connecting to Collections (2008), Interconnections: the IMLS National Study on the Use of Libraries, Museums and the Internet (2008), and Measuring the Non-Profit Bottom Line (2009). Future data requirements, they suggest, include work to define museums as a sector, studies that examine museums in a broader community context, continued research on learning, and research that deals with social sector effectiveness and value.

The IMLS report Exhibiting Public Value: Government Funding for Museums in the United States (2008), the first major review of museum public finance in the United States from federal, state and local government sources, provides an interesting comparison with the ABS studies highlighted in the broader Australian arts and cultural heritage setting. It noted the remarkable diversity of museums in terms of disciplines, attendances, resource needs, and geographic reach. This diversity was also reflected in the “patchwork of financial support, with institutions of all types reporting different combinations of revenue from earned income, private donations, government contributions, and institutional investments.” There was no consistent pattern of public support across the museum sector.

At the federal level, museums receive public funds from a wide variety of sources, including IMLS, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Science Foundation. Only IMLS provides direct support to museums in all 50 states, although 50% of competitive grants went to only five states. It was difficult to track and analyse data because of differences in the way the sector codifies museum grants. Although decentralised funding mechanisms in the cultural sector are seen as a way to increase citizen access to cultural programs, there was no federal-state partnership program with the goal of increasing the capacity to the museum sector as a whole. The lack of a definitive list of museums in the US made it difficult to assess how deeply federal-source dollars penetrate into the sector. 

Government support for museums by the states flowed through a variety of different agencies and funding mechanisms. Some states provided support through a single agency. Others provided support through multiple agencies for discipline-specific programs in the arts or humanities or for other state-wide initiatives. The level was influenced by different perceptions about museums and different fiscal conditions. State cultural agencies tend to serve the arts, humanities, heritage, libraries, and archives as distinct constituencies. There was no evidence that a federal-state funding partnership would galvanise support and administrative capacities at the state level. Although federal dollars may promote integration of the public cultural sector in some states, in others these federal dollars may prove a point of contention because they may challenge established agencies to develop new policies or to shift from discipline-focused practice in order to serve a broader cross section of museums.

At the local level, there were a variety of local government cultural funding mechanisms, the largest of which were driven by targeted tax initiatives. Although large local investments did not exist in every state, some provided support in excess of the amount distributed by federal agencies for the entire country. Concentrated investments may affect the character of a federal-state partnership for museum support. There is a question as to how the concentration of local initiatives might affect the ways in which states administer federal-state partnership funding.

The report said more information was needed to determine whether and how a new funding model, such as a population-based state grant, could make a significant impact in addressing any identified gaps in museum services. An assessment of the impact of new funding models will require additional discussion about the purpose of new funding strategies as well as more information about the size of the sector and the character of museum services to be delivered. The IMLS is working to address the need for more data and is developing a more robust museum research program in consultation with state, regional and national museum organizations and other relevant agencies and organisations.

Questions about evidence

Carol Scott, a former President of Museums Australia, says in her Museum Management and Curatorship essay Exploring the Evidence Base for Museum Value, “The present time holds both threats and possibilities for museums. In a period of unprecedented economic crisis, monies are being diverted to fund and stabilise new recipients of the public purse. Correspondingly, some areas of the public sector, such as museums, may face static funding at best, or a decline in funding at works. The capacity to prove value may acquire increasing importance in the uncertain years to come. Within this climate, it is incumbent on the museum sector to be able to express its worth from a position of strength and to defend that position.” The concept of value is an evolving one. Developing an evidence base is a challenging task. There needs to be more rigour.

After exploring a typology of museum values, Scott considers indicators against three value dimensions in a series of tables as represented in the following simplified consolidation, with examples only of the list of measures she suggests.

Value dimension




Direct use. Indirect use. Willingness to engage. Non-use

eg Numbers of visitor attendances to museums annually, users of outreach programs, volunteers, members, visits per visitor per year, willingness to pay irrespective of direct use.


Recognition of trusted expertise. Building relationships. Attracting investment. Capacity to attract bequests and donations

eg Numbers of public enquiries, external projects, partnerships, the significance of projects, government grants, donations, bequests.


Providing educational resources. Knowledge building. Contribution to tourism. Contribution to local economy.

eg Number of school students visiting, partnerships with education bodies, adult educations programs, research publications, domestic tourists, international tourists, tourism awards, visitors by ethnicity and socio-economic status


Future efforts by Museums Australia will be shaped by two main contexts.

Changing government policies

At the National Press Club in October, when launching the process for developing a new cultural policy, Peter Garrett emphasised three themes: “keeping culture strong, engaging the community; and powering the young.” The National Cultural Policy website at solicits feedback on a discussion framework that  fleshes out the three main ideas as 10 principles. In the discussion framework the role of heritage organisations is implied rather than spelt out These consultative mechanisms will remain open until 1 February 2010. 

Government policy on culture finds a good companion with emerging policy on “social inclusion”. The ABS surveys have been joined by the Productivity Commission’s study on the contributions of the Australian not-for-profit sector to the Australian economy and society, which sets out to remove obstacles for maximising the contributions of the sector to society. The draft report recommends “smarter” regulation, building knowledge systems, developing the capacity of the sector, stimulating social investment, improving the effectiveness of direct government funding, removing impediments for better value government funded services, and building stronger, more effective relationships. The final report is due in December.

Changing economic circumstances

In assessing the impact of the global financial crises on the museum sector internationally, Jacques Attli (President of PlanetNet Finance) and James Chung (President of Reach Advisors), at the June 2009 meeting of the International Council of Museums in Paris, reflected on possible responses by museums. Jacques Attali was optimistic. Museums will remain real whatever happens, but they must learn to think on a global scale to take advantage of future economic growth. He says tomorrow’s museum must return to the concept of the “living museum” of the 19th century. James Chung noted the increased level of redundancies and the drastic decline in private funding in North American museums, which rely on private sources for 90% of their funding. Some American museums have been more resilient that others. To secure their future, they must adapt to the new audience demands and behaviours and they must work more efficiently.   

Although there is a sense in Australia that we have escaped the worst consequences of the crisis, there are signs for some pessimism. Among other funding cuts in the wind, the Cultural Ministers Council has just axed the under-funded Collections Council of Australia, the one arms-length collections sector body with responsibility for marshalling top level issues. The reasons for its closure have not been published. No alternative plan for an overarching catalyst has been flagged. The Government has announced that funding of its Cultural Portal will cease.


Museums Australia represents the interests of more than 1,184 museums that earn nearly $1 billion, employ 7,856 people who are paid, and attract over 30 million people to their buildings and over 63 million to their websites. Most of the money to sustain their operations (65%) is provided by governments. But a lot of the value is generated by the 23,426 people who are not paid any money. The association’s contribution to a national cultural policy on behalf of museums will revolve around a number of issues.

Getting the language right

The right kind of action is often driven by the right words. 

Throsby noted that “whether reactive or pro-active, cultural policy in Australia has almost always been interpreted as arts policy.” Chris Puplick, in Getting Ahead (Platform Papers no 18, October 2008), was critical of the confused and opaque rhetoric used in discussions about arts policy. “The slippery segues from art to culture to creativity, from creativity to output to productivity leave one in real danger of missing what the debate is all about. The looseness of terms and definition, the inexactness of measurements and the incomprehensibility of some of the jargon becomes mind-numbing.”

The Australian Bureau of Statistics, in its discussion paper Arts and Cultural Heritage: An Information Development Plan (2008), defined cultural heritage as “the preservation of culture through the collection and management of objects and ideas that represent ways of life of particular groups of people.” Cultural heritage, it said, includes activities generally associated with museums, art museums, libraries and archives.

This definition needs to be debated. Categorising museums, archives and libraries as ‘cultural heritage’ agents runs the risk of distorting their overall purpose and value. While cultural heritage is a central aspect of their function, it is important to emphasise their converging roles in providing access to information, producing cultural content and experiences, and contributing to educational, social, scientific, technological and economic agendas. Although arts and cultural heritage share common ground, it is important to differentiate some of the elements in case they call for different approaches.

Focussing on evidence

Lobbying for government support has tended to rely on broad brush strokes. Much energy is devoted to finessing words around visions, values, frameworks, and principles. Governments already think museums are valuable and they are prepared to pay about $660 million to keep them running. The case for money calls for more than rhetoric. 

The Collections Council of Australia made a number of recommendations to the ABS review of Service Industries Surveys in 2007 and 2008. It sought a more comprehensive sampling of archives, museums and galleries. In response to a recommendation that the ABS provide 'in principle' support for the Collections Council to create and manage a fixed list of Australian collection organisations, the ABS responded that “the way in which any particular industry wishes to manage its own industry data is a matter for that industry to determine.”

Adrienne Muir and Charles Oppenheim, when reviewing national information policies worldwide for the Chartered Institute of Libraries and Information Professionals in 2001, considered issues in three clusters – broad society issues, areas to which the library sector must contribute and areas of most pressing need, where the library and information profession should be seeking to achieve greatest change (such as skill and organisational capacity).

In developing future funding strategies for the museum sector, most gains are likely to come from focusing on the things over which it has some control.

Addressing technological imperatives

Technological developments and the Internet have changed the nature of game for museums. But museums are still, by and large, rooted in the past as standalone facilities with feudal information management practices.

Museums Australia is responding to this new challenge through a Digital Strategies Committee. Its work is likely to consider the changing contexts and opportunities, roles, strategies, capacity, capabilities and quality of existing efforts, information management practices, ICT infrastructure and training needs, research and economic imperatives. After an inaugural meeting in November, the committee will flesh out the issues in the new year.

Working in concert with others

Chris Puplick, in his Platform Papers essay, was critical of the lack of a single national arts body to coordinate and represent the arts sector as a whole. As a consequence, he said, “the sectoral interests of this vast constituency tend to focus on matters of immediate interest to themselves, often at the cost of others.”

In September Museums Australia organised a meeting with kindred organisations to explore ways of advancing common ground. Organisations represented included the Council of Australian Museum Directors, the Collections Council of Australia, the Federation of Australian Historical Societies, ICOM, and a number of state-based bodies. Museums Australia, on behalf of the group, subsequently prepared a statement on the value of museums to the Minister for the Arts before his National Press Club speech in October. The Group will be meeting again early in the new year to work on future steps. 

Summing up

Australia already has a cobbled-together national cultural policy costing $6.3 billion. Australian governments agree that museums are a good thing and they provide about $660 million to support museum operations.  

Museums Australia has a strategy for promoting opportunities in the education sector, local communities, and the digital economy. The prospect of increased funding for museums through a new cultural policy may have arrived at the wrong moment in history. At a time when the sector has not yet transformed its representative bodies into a unified force, advancing its interests in federated Australia may be akin to prosecuting the war in tribal Afghanistan.

The main challenge for the association will be to devise a vision that takes into account the money trail across the three levels of government. One of the critical tasks will be to gather evidence to influence the way future effort and funds will be spent by museums.


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