Museum visits in Australia: breakdown by type

It’s taken me a while to get back to it, but here is another instalment of my review of the ABS Arts and Culture statistics for 2010 (previously referred to here and here).

Chapter 8 gets into museum attendance in more detail, breaking down visits to Art Galleries, Social History Museums, Historic Properties, and Natural, Science & Other Museums (in some cases categorised as ‘Art Galleries’ and ‘Everything Else’).

The ABS recognises a total of 1183 museums across Australia; 14% of which are Art Museums/ Public Galleries. The most common museum type is Social History Museums, comprising some 60% of the total.

In the 12 months leading up to when data were collected, 7.2 million people aged 15 years or over (45% of the population) visited museums or art galleries. (This figure and the age breakdowns are essentially the same as reported previously, so I won’t elaborate again here).

Approximately 55% of these museum and gallery visitors were women. The proportion of women rises to 57% in art galleries, falling to an average 53% to all other museums types.

The statistics also report total number of admissions to each museum type, and whether they are paid or free admissions, and I’ve reproduced and manipulated these figures (summarised below) to see what would emerge.

Australian museum types and attendance figures (Source: ABS, Arts and Culture Statistics 2010, Ch8)

NB: The base numbers this table is derived from came with a health warning, as things like free admissions are notoriously difficult to measure with confidence. There are also a number of caveats associated with the reported number of each museum type – so interpret these data with caution!

The first thing I did was take the reported figures for free and paid admission and see how the proportions of each compared by museum type. As you can see, Art Galleries lead the charge with 83% of admissions being free, whereas only 31% of entries at Historic Properties were free. (Given the typical operational and funding models of these respective organisations, there is no real surprise there).

Then I took the attendance figures and divided them by the number of museums in each category, to get a mean attendance for each. Taking this very crude measure, an ‘average’ Art Gallery attracts 78,500 visits a year and Natural/ Science/ Other museums attract 89,200 on average. This compares to 12,300 at Social History museums and 15,100 at Historic Properties. Again this makes intuitive sense, given the majority of the big state and national museums fall into one of the former two categories.

The final thing I did was to see what ‘share’ of the total museum attendance each museum type was attracting. This essentially reflects the same data but just in a slightly different way – and it shows that Art Galleries and Natural/ Science/ Other museums attract about 3x more visitors than if visitation were spread evenly among all museum types.

Ok, so no real surprises in those numbers. The real surprise for today came from back in Chapter 5, which was about employee earnings and hours worked in the cultural sector.

There are statistics for full-time adult non-managerial employees (i.e. excludes self-employed) in the broader ‘cultural’ sector. So pretty broad-brush stuff, but still some stark results. In the category of ‘arts professionals’  (which is not defined more specifically in this report), it reports that in August 2008 males were working an average of 33.2 hours per week, and earning $1,454 (in other words, $43.80/hr). By way of contrast, females at the same time were working 35.1 hours per week and earning $967 ($27.55 / hr). So for ostensibly the same category of work, women are earning only 63% as much as men.

The category is so general as to make it hard to draw conclusions, but the gap is so great it’s hard to interpret it in any other way but that women in the arts are being seriously underpaid relative to their male counterparts. And for a sector that has a reputation for being female-dominated, that really shocked me.

Inside Out

Last night was Museums Australia (SA)’s annual Panel event, which this year was on the theme Inside Out. The purpose of this theme was to look at how boundaries between the traditional “gatekeepers” of arts and culture were changing: bringing new types of art into museums; and taking museums’ collections into new types of settings and to new audiences. And of course, what are the implications of these changes?

Jaklyn Babington, the National Gallery’s Assistant Curator of International Prints and Drawings, talked about the new Space Invaders exhibition of street art. Street art encompasses a lot of different media beyond spray cans – there are stencils, paper cut-outs, stickers, even textiles. Jaklyn described how the boundaries between ‘street art’ and ‘public art’ are blurring, with many street artists working under two identities – their ‘street’ name when preserving their anonymity for legal reasons, and their real names when working in more conventional gallery settings. But this shifting of identities can cause problems with accessioning and crediting of work, particularly when street artists are used to staying under the radar for legal reasons. It can take a while to build trust.

Jaklyn and the Space Invaders exhibition (from the Australian)

Jaklyn also described how she has been working with street artists – whose work is inherently ephemeral – to translate their pieces into more robust media to meet the Gallery’s requirements (using archival paper, etc).

The process has had its challenges and detractors – the exhibition has polarised people, with some loving the fact the NGA has embraced this part of the arts culture, while others complaining that it is glorifying vandalism. There have also been some issues with the Gallery building being ‘tagged’ since the exhibition opened (supporting the Security Dept’s assertion that this kind of thing attracts the ‘wrong’ kind of people and will all end in tears), and some unconventional behaviour by artists (such as one getting naked and jumping into a water feature at the launch!).

Allison Russell, fresh from a Churchill Fellowship looking at Museums and Communities in the UK (documented in this excellent blog), spoke about Arts in Health: how museum collections are being used in healthcare settings. She spoke about how bringing collections into hospitals has a demonstrable impact on the recovery and wellbeing of patients. For instance the tactility of the objects, and the conversations around them, helps the memory of patients with dementia. Art can also help offset the cold and clinical nature of the surroundings.

Allison shared some poignant anecdotes: a patient who had suffered complete memory loss as the result of a nervous breakdown found the art on display at Flinders Medical Centre (Adelaide) helped her piece together her mind again. Allison also sat in on a session for Muslim women with profound disabilities at a museum in Leicester (UK).

While these types of interactions can prove utterly life-changing for some individuals, it can be hard to demonstrate and justify if the museum’s KPIs are based on attendance figures alone. Allison described the Generic Social Outcomes which have been developed in the UK to equip museums to measure these outcomes meaningfully. (These social outcomes are a companion to the Generic Learning Outcomes which were developed to embrace a more broad definition of learning than simply cognitive gain.)

Niki Vouis, Project Manager of Craftsouth, and Annalise Rees, artist in residence at SA Museum, gave their perspective on the partnerships between artists and the Museum which have been taking place for several years.

Niki Vouis talked about Inside SAM’s Place: the Laurosto collection which was staged at the Museum earlier this year. Inspired by the museum’s collection, local artists made a fictional collection of animals, artefacts and minerals of a 19th century explorer they called  “Sam Laurosto”. These objects were dispersed among the museum’s main collection, and visitors could follow the journey and exploits of the fictional Laurosto throughout the Museum’s permanent exhibitions.

One of the Laurosto collection's fictional creatures, by artists Tom Moore and Lauren Simeoni. Photo by Rachel Harris (from SA Museum Website)

Annalise spoke about the installation she has recently created: From my house to Antarctica. This work has drawn inspiration from the Museum’s Mawson collection and will involve students creating their own Antarctic adventure. Annalise hopes to be able to go to see Antarctica in the flesh sometime soon, to further advance her artistic inspiration.

Subsequent discussion was lively as the speakers and the audience explored some of the issues associated with unconventional collections and settings. How can we take museum staff and traditional audiences with us as we challenge conventions and boundaries? What are the implications for the cultural role of the museum as a source of “authority”? How do we balance depth of experience for a few, versus breadth of reach for the many?

I find the challenging of boundaries exciting, but even I’m still a bit conflicted. For instance I loved the concept of the Laurosto collection. In incorporating the art in with the main collections, I saw parallels with the Banksy vs the Bristol Museum exhibition, which took the UK by storm in the summer of 2009. But I’m also concerned about mixed messages – there is a lot of evidence to suggest that when people go to Natural History or Science museums, they aren’t expecting ‘art’ so therefore don’t really recognise it when they see it. Art in these settings tends to get taken literally, at face value. Does this matter if people don’t ‘get’ it? Maybe it doesn’t, but I do feel for the visitors that felt a bit cheated when they realised an object they were just marvelling at was fictional. And what of those visitors who didn’t realise at all? It makes me wonder if we need to make our intentions a bit clearer sometimes. Without, of course, resorting to big red arrows pointing at things saying ‘this is art’.

Review: Beaconsfield Mine and Heritage Centre

Like many people, I doubt I would ever have heard of Beaconsfield had it not been for the mine collapse of Anzac Day 2006, which claimed the life of one miner and trapped another two underground. It took 14 days for rescuers to free the miners from nearly one kilometre below ground, while their families and the world’s media watched.

Brant Webb and Todd Russell emerge triumphunt after their rescue
Just another day at the 'office': the same shaft access on the day of my visit

Given the significance of this site in recent history, a trip to Beaconsfield was the field trip I chose to go on as part of the Interpretation Australia National Symposium. (I should say here that while I was aware of the Beaconsfield disaster at the time, I was living in the UK and it didn’t get the same blanket media coverage as it did locally. So I felt a sense of familiarity, but also a sense of distance compared to my fellow visitors who could recall a more immediate connection to the dramatic events as they unfolded.)

Beaconsfield Mine and Heritage Centre is distinctive in that there is both a historic and an operational gold mine right next to each other, separated only by high wire fences. While the Heritage Centre was operational before the infamous incident (as the Grubb Shaft Gold & Heritage Museum), in the wake of the tragedy a Federal grant was allocated to expand upon the site and rebrand the museum. Not surprisingly, visitor numbers have increased dramatically since the collapse due to the site’s notoriety (which probably counts as an example of Dark Tourism).

The old and the new: the head of the historic Grubb Shaft with the modern equivalent in the background

The Mine Rescue Exhibition

Not surprisingly, this is the drawcard of the site and the most powerful part of the visitor experience. There is a rich seam of content (pardon the pun): a dramatic storyline, emotionally compelling anecdotes and a narrative thread of human resilience and comraderie in the face of huge adversity.

The space is fairly dark and minimalist in design; greys punctuated by accents of yellow reminiscent of the colours of an industrial site. This bare-bones functional design works well with the content, letting the relatively few objects and sparse text come to the fore.

Overview of the Rescue exhibition area

For me the most memorable exhibit was the Interactive Tunnel. This is a crawlthrough which, part-way along, includes a section where you can stand up into a space reminiscent of the claustrophobic environment where the miners were trapped (the actual space they were trapped in was only about 1.5-2 cubic metres and too small to stand up in). The area is in semidarkness, surrounded by a cage holding back a mass of rocks. There is a soundscape of the creaking of rocks as the underground realm ‘breathes’. The thing that really completes it in my opinion is the fact that the hole you stand up through is just a little bit too small – feeling the sides of the hole pushing against your shoulders really enhances the sense of claustrophobia.

View of the interactive tunnel entrance from the mezzanine above

Interpretive text and images present the circumstances of the incident and a day-by-day account of the dramatic rescue, explaining the difficult circumstances of the rescue and how the men were finally reached. These people’s stories are presented minimally but powerfully:

This quote from Rex Johnson, the rescue co-ordinator, brought a tear to my eye

The other star objects are the overalls of the miners which show the tears from when they had to cut themselves free from rubble using stanley knives. (I hope those were the real overalls because I’d feel so cheated if they were mocked up!)

The thing that lets the exhibition down is that it seems a bit muddled in the way that it’s organised – several of us found ourselves reading panels titled “Day 6” without having seen anything about Days 1-5. Looking around the space again, I suspect that nearly all of us entered the exhibition backwards compared to what the designers presumably intended.

When you approach the exhibition entry, there are two possible points of entry to the space beyond. The one that looks the most direct and is the most visually attractive (it displays a colourful scarf over 2km long which was made by members of the public during the rescue vigil) is the one we went through, but looking back I think this was meant to be the conclusion to the experience. I’d contend that this is an example of a visitor flow which had a logic ‘in plan’ which didn’t quite translate to the physical reality and the other visual and spatial cues that visitors follow.*

The Entrance to the exhibition - the path on the left is the one we all took but I suspect this is the 'end' of the exhibition. (I don't think the agricultural machinery is usually there - another exhibit is having a refit - but this might have been another factor in our navigation)

I think the interpretive challenge with this exhibition is that it is actually telling two stories: that of the collapse and the subsequent ordeal of the trapped miners; and that of the rescue attempts and associated media frenzy above ground. I wonder if this exhibition might have worked better if these two stories were made more clearly separate, with visitors being told which ‘side’ of the story they were experiencing, perhaps with the two ‘meeting’ in the middle for the climactic story of the miners reaching the surface.

Another minor gripe – there was a wall of newspaper headlines showing press coverage of the rescue events. But I was disappointed that this seemed to include only Tasmanian papers, which to me felt a bit parochial. I would have liked to seen more about media coverage from further afield, given it was an event that attracted national and even international attention. However I appreciate that copyright constraints, project timescales, etc. might have made this a non-starter.

The Heritage Site

The rest of the site is dedicated to interpreting the ruins surrounding the old Grubb Shaft, and an area which is effectively a local history museum which doesn’t have a lot to do with the mine itself. It was interesting comparing notes on the level of detail of interpretation with some fellow field-trippers, many who were from national parks and so with little prior knowledge of industrial heritage.

A nice outdoor interactive where visitors can play 'workhorse'

Ideally, I think the non-mining content would be better presented at another site, to allow a more coherent storyline to come through and to preserve the sense of place of the actual mine.  But I can see on a practical level why the situation has arisen as it has (and there were some classics on display – such as a table of women’s magazines from the 1950s and 60s, as well as a typically 1960s documentary on the construction of the nearby Batman Bridge). I don’t think it helped that the first area you encounter after crossing the ‘paywall’ includes a lot of industrial equipment and collections which are not connected to mining (which confused a few of us at first).

The site is currently undergoing some further redevelopments, including a 3D immersive experience to interpret the gold mining process itself, which will fill an important gap in the current storyline of the site. I hope there is also the opportunity to address some of the ‘disconnects’ in the way the non-mining related spaces are presented as part of this process.

* The visual and spatial cues of an exhibition space, and how these affect the way people interact with exhibitions and their content, will be a major focus of my PhD research in Visitor Experience which I am starting in February next year. So expect more posts on topics such as this!

Interpretation Australia Symposium Wrap

Last week I joined some 150 fellow interpretation professionals in Launceston for the 2010 IA National Symposium. This was the third IA conference / symposium* I had been to, so there was a good mix of familiar faces and new people to get to know. This post is intended as an overview; I’ve already posted a summary of the workshop I ran and I will cover the field trip (to the Beaconsfield Mine and Heritage Centre) in a separate post. So, without further ado:

Things I learned & things I liked:

  • Zoos Victoria’s Connect – Understand – Act model of interpretation to encourage behaviour change in visitors (as presented by Scott Killeen).  Interpretive activities are designed to fit into at least one of these three categories and there have been some promising signs of behavioural change, at least in the short term (petition signing and phone recycling scheme takeup).
  • Catherine McCarthy (San Antonio, TX) stated that “Heritage sites change at a different pace from technology”. While this is no great revelation, it was a neat way of putting it and a lot of interpretive issues stem from this simple fact. And it’s something which is only going to increase in significance as technological advances accelerate. Plus her presentation raised a few question marks about technological / infrastructural differences and how they might affect interpretation. (She described cellphone-based audio tours and reported quite a high takeup rate compared to what I would expect. But then again this probably says more about the difference in cellphone tariffs between the US and Australia than anything else. In any case, I think the cellphone-based tour will be overtaken well before it even takes off here, by the smartphone App and the downloadable podcast.)
  • Zoos Victoria / Healesville Sanctuary have a superhero called CrapMan. Inspired, brave and memorable.
  • Peter Grant’s (TAS Parks and Wildlife) analogy of interpretation using a jug of ice water. The water itself is the easy content; the ice is the harder, pointer topics; and the water vapour in the atmosphere represents all the non-obvious meanings. The interpreter plays the role of the jug, allowing this meaning to condense and be appreciated. (The rest of Peter’s plenary focused on the inner journey of the interpreter, relating our job as an extension of the internal quest for meaning.)
  • The term ‘disintermediation’ to describe the impact that social media and mobile devices are having on how visitors interact with culture. (And Wikipedia tells me this term is over 40 years old!).
  • Kate Stone (National Film & Sound Archive) alerted us to some interesting websites and social media initiatives. New to me was Ushahidi, a crowdsourcing web platform which arose out of civil unrest in Kenya and was used by citizen journalists to map outbreaks of violence. (Ushahidi means “testimony” in Swahili.  As an aside I wonder if it shares any linguistic roots with the Arabic shahada, which means, among other things, “witness”?).  Also NLA’s Trove website, which brings together books, newspapers, journals, images, video maps and so on together into a single searchable site with an emphasis on Australian content.
  • (this one is new as it seemed to have disappeared from my original notes) Dillon Kombumerri, Australia’s first Indigenous architect, gave a thought-provoking presentation on some of his work which has sought to address Aboriginal disadvantage through culturally-sensitive design. The thing that stuck in my mind was his observation that in Aboriginal culture, people identify with Country first, then Family, then as an Individual. It occurs to me that the ‘European’ colonial culture is more or less the exact opposite of this, particularly in its more recent, highly individualistic, incarnations. I fear this is just one of many examples of how completely different cultural perspectives present a real barrier to mutual understanding and reconciliation. And I don’t know what the answer is.
  • Dr Jody Steele’s (Port Arthur Historic Site) informative and entertaining introduction to the world of public archaology:
Mel Loe and Jen Fry (with Peter Grant in support role) help Dr Jody Steele demonstrate archeological geophysics

Things I noticed

  • The diversity of delegates: the symposium brought together academics, tourism operators, park rangers, designers, historic sites, museums, local government, architects and a wide variety of consultants, to name but a few. The breadth of fields represented in a relatively small number of people would outstrip that seen in your average museums conference, I’d wager.
  • Heritage Interpretation is a hard field to pin down, and not everyone practicing interpretation would self-identify as such. (As a case in point, I started out in Science Communication and at the time had no idea what Interpretation was, even though there are very clear parallels and overlaps.) The upside of this lack of neat definitions is that it allows people from diverse backgrounds to learn from each other in the broad church which is Interpretation. The huge downside is that it can sometimes be hard to convince  category-driven thinkers (e.g. bean counters and property developers) that interpretation is something to be valued and appropriately paid for. (Made worse by the fact that we tend to do our job out of vocation and tend not to be very good at selling ourselves!)
  • Despite (or because of?) the points above, there appear to be some surprising disconnects between the Interpretation and Museum worlds, at least based on my experience. Freeman Tilden was dubbed by one speaker as the “Einstein of Interpretation” and his seminal work Interpreting our Heritage (1957) is often cited by interpreters, 50+ years on. However I don’t think the name has ever come up in museums circles, and I wouldn’t be surprised if mentioning Tilden at a museums conference would attract a lot of blank looks. Conversely, there were a few concepts introduced at the symposium which are reasonably well-worn territory in museums circles, but seemed to be quite new to several delegates (but perhaps I’m just showing my age here?)
  • A couple of the plenary speakers really divided the crowd: some delegates thought they were fantastic; others were left scratching their head wondering what all the fuss was about. I think this probably relates to my first point, in that we are such a diverse crowd and probably bring markedly different expectations to a conference such as this. It could also be that some speakers were better at weaving their presentation into a coherent story.

*I’m really not sure what the difference between a conference and symposium is meant to be. The OED definition of a ‘conference’ is “a meeting or discussion, especially a regular one held by an association or organisation”; whereas a ‘symposium’ is “a conference or meeting to discuss a particular subject” (or “an ancient Greek drinking party”, apparently, but I digress . . .) I think the intended distinction is that a ‘conference’ is a more formal meeting with peer reviewed papers, etc; while a ‘symposium’ is more practice led and hands-on. In my experience, however, I’ve not noticed any real difference. Perhaps if I had been to heavily academic conferences I might.  But, to be perfectly honest, I just found the distinction a bit confusing.

Interpretation Australia Workshop Slides

Last Thursday, as part of the Interpretation Australia National Symposium in Launceston, I presented a 2-hour workshop called “Interpreter as advocate”. This presentation, which I’ve alluded to in this earlier post, was about all the so called “non-interpretive” activities which affect the visitor experience and, ultimately, the message we’re trying to communicate.

I received some great feedback on the day and I’m glad that participants found the workshop thought-provoking and came away energised with new ideas. I’m hoping to continue this conversation on the forum on the IA website, and to this end I’ll post something there soon.

The main point of this post is that several people requested a copy of my presentation, which I’ve attached as a PDF here. Now if I were to do this presentation again I’d probably make a few tweaks and changes. But so that it is a faithful record of the day, I’ve uploded it unchanged.

For those of you who weren’t at the workshop, these slides will probably not be 100% self-explanatory. But whether you were there or not if you have any questions, or would be interested in me coming to your organisation to run something similar, then please do get in touch.


On Saturday, I was lucky enough to be in the live audience of the inaugural TEDxAdelaide event, which was organised by Bridge 8 and held at the RiAus.

For the uninitiated, TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design; and goes by the strapline “Ideas Worth Spreading”. TED conferences have been happening for over 20 years now, with hundred of talks being recorded and posted online.

The ‘x’ bit refers to the fact that this was an independently organised TED event – local convenors take the basic TED format, branding and guidelines to run their own show. These TEDx events have spread like wildfire across the world – on Saturday alone Adelaide was one of some eight cities staging TEDx events.

So what sorts of things are talked about at a TEDx event? The Adelaide event had the theme “Ideas on the Edge” and there was an emphasis on Adelaide-based speakers, showcasing local talent and creativity. We had the technological (Christian Sandor’s augmented reality combining real and virtual worlds); emotional (Wend Lear teaching Palestinean teenagers how to create powerful photoessays – not a dry eye in the house!); “fancy-that!” facts (Frank Grutzner presenting complicated dance of 10 – count them! – platypus sex chromosomes); societal (Jodie Benveniste on how we could be better parents if we stopped trying to be perfect ones); as well as perspectives from surprising places (for instance Nick Palousis started out by confessing he was a ‘non-greenie’, only to go on to present an elegant manifesto for how Industry could take a leaf or two from Nature’s book).

There were also Burundian musicians, a documentary on the making of an Urban Art festival, and the whole day was punctuated by a fast-paced twitter stream from the audience (nearly 2000 #TEDxADL tweets over the course of the day).

I won’t go into details of speakers or presentations as this is all on the TEDxAdelaide website, plus podcasts of all the talks are being uploaded as I write. There is also a flickr stream, forum and much more online which will doubtless grow over the coming days – so check it out for yourself. . .

At drinks after the event, participants were keen to continue the conversation and it was great to meet so many interesting and passionate people. Many people agreed that Adelaide is the right size of city to bring together different skills, expertises and perspectives in creative ways: much smaller and the diversity wouldn’t be there in the first place; much bigger and the “two-degrees-of-separation rule” that can bridge cultural and disciplinary divides would no longer work.

In other words, Adelaide dreamers, creators and thinkers are less constrained by categorical boundaries because they have to be – the only way to get a critical mass together is to look over a few fences and see what other people are doing.

This brings me to one of the main underlying themes that jumped out at me during the day – sometimes things just defy categorisation and we need to be comfortable with that. This is not to say that categorisation is a bad thing – we can’t be experts at everything and categorisation has allowed specialisation and thus the great expansion of the sum of human knowledge. But at this stage of human history, there are probably numerous instances where categorisation is more of a hindrance than a help. There were so many examples of this over the course of the day – people challenging assumptions and testing boundaries and thus breaking into new ground. I can think of no better summary for this than to quote one of the most re-tweeted tweets from the day:

I think when people started to regard art & engineering as separate disciplines is pretty well when the world jumped the shark. (MoMcKinnon, we thank you for that pearl of wisdom!)

Another unifying theme was that of working with human nature, not against it. Humans are creatures of habit and inertia, and the decisions we make are just as much “paths of least resistance” as they are active choices. So it’s not just the nature of the choice that’s important, but the context in which that choice is made and presented. Environmental scientist Tim Jarvis introduced the concept of Choice architecture. By making certain decisions ‘opt-out’ rather than ‘opt-in’ (for instance selecting green energy sources or allowing organ donation), take-up rates can be dramatically increased. In a similar vein, marketing scientist (no I didn’t know they existed either) Byron Sharp blew apart some marketing myths about brand loyalty, describing our loyalties as “polygamous” and as much about what’s available as what we feel a personal affinity to.

There’s so much I could say, but I’d like to round this post up by relating the lessons from TEDxAdelaide to my main interests: culture and the visitor experience. Firstly, the idea of categories and boundaries is something we will increasingly have to grapple with – the definition of culture: who defines it, creates it, and ‘owns’ it is rapidly changing. What will this mean for traditional cultural ‘authority figures’ such as museums? Secondly, if you’re trying to connect with people, you really can’t get away with not understanding how they tick. If changing the design of tick-boxes on a form can dramatically affect the choices people make, what seemingly minor changes could heritage sites make to dramatically change the level of audience engagement?

One final note – someone asked me at the end of my day what my favourite session was. I said I think it’s too soon to know – my head was so full of ideas – and it probably still is. It will be those ideas and concepts that stick which are the most important, and only time will tell which they are.

Funding of Australian Museums & Heritage

I’m again having a closer look at the Australian Bureau of Statistics overview of Arts & Culture in Australia (which I initially referred to here).

Chapter 4 looks at funding of the Australian Cultural sector, which takes into account Government funding of inter alia, cultural heritage, performing arts, literature, broadcasting, multimedia.

I’ve looked in particular at the funding figures for “art museums”, “other museums and cultural heritage” and “environmental heritage”, which together would encompass museums, historic sites, national parks and so forth. The total amount of Government funding of these, across all three levels of Government, adds up to over $2.5 billion per annum:

Government funding of heritage (Source: ABS)

From FY2007-08 to 2008-09, total heritage funding at Federal level increased from $604.8 million to $729.8 million (a 21% increase), but this hasn’t been broken down by category (‘Heritage’ includes the categories listed above plus libraries and archives). They did say however, that it represented an 18% increase in funding per person for heritage.

The state-by-state breakdown of funding changes between 2007/08 and 2008/09 presents a far more complex picture:

Changes in state funding - figures from Table 4.3, ABS report

The ABS report shows figures from both years. I’ve re-resented the figures as a percentage change (percentages are based on the 2007/08 amount), and have coloured large (ie. >6%) increases in green, and large decreases in red. (Sorry this is all rather complicated!) But interesting – the rather modest changes in the bottom-line totals betray a far-from-uniform national picture.

In NSW (and to a lesser extent WA), it looks like significant funds have been taken from built heritage in order to fund increases to environmental heritage (which shows only a modest % increase because it’s a much larger pot to start with). Victoria, TAS and NT seem to have done more or less the opposite. And then in Qld and SA, there have been across-the-board increases.

Does anyone have the inside story of what’s going on here? I’m wondering whether large capital projects are skewing the figures in some instances, because they will artificially inflate the figures for a given year. Or are there other explanations?

Local government funding is similarly broken down, but there are several caveats associated with the data so I won’t elaborate here.

The final observation I’ll note about funding is the reported funding mix of museums:

Museums Income Sources (source: ABS)

Not surprisingly, some two thirds of income comes from Government sources, either Local, State or Federal. Although it’s not explicitly mentioned, the 24% figure is presumably income from ticket sales, retail, and so forth. Sponsorship and donations are a relatively minor part of the funding mix. No huge surprises there. The only cultural organisation to receive a significant amount of funding from sponsorship is ‘Performing arts festivals’, with this accounting for nearly one quarter of their total income.