Last week was the 2010 Museums Australia National Conference – “Interesting times for Collections” – hosted by Museums Australia (Victoria) at the University of Melbourne.
About 600 delegates from across Australia, along with a few international visitors, came to hear from an impressive list of speakers including a considerable number of international keynotes.
My first instalment of highlights, notes and observations (which will be in no particular order):
- Museums shouldn’t be afraid to have an opinion: Professor Richard Sandell from the University of Leicester opened proceedings with a keynote on the social role of museums from a human rights perspective. He drew upon case studies from the UK and USA showing how museums can play an important role in raising community awareness of marginalised perspectives including sensitive topics surrounding religion, sexuality and disability.
One case study clearly demonstrated that there was no such thing as a ‘neutral’ position – a single text panel in the Walt Whitman interpretive center in USA attracted simultanous protests from both gay rights groups and the Christian community, on the one hand for ‘erasing history’ and on the other for ‘implied sinfulness’. Prof. Sandell said that such controversy was not something that museums should shy away from. He went further, arguing that it was inappropriate for museums to duck controversial issues by ‘presenting all sides and letting visitors make up their minds’. In this there was an interesting parallel to Amanda Lohrey’s criticism of a lack of curatorial courage in exhibition authorship (as mentioned in a previous post).
- Does Australia need a museum diet? At the other end of the conference, during the closing plenaries, museum consultant Kylie Winkworth presented a challenging paper about the ‘political and policy vacuum’ which she believes is creating a sustainability crisis for smaller and regional museums. She argued that large scale capital developments in big cities are starving smaller museums of much-needed funds for improving care of and access to collections. She also warned that collections were being amassed haphazardly and unsustainably, with no serious discussion in the sector of deacessioning as the obvious corollary to sustainable collections development.
The audience gasped when Ms Winkworth presented figures showing that Australia has 1 museum per 7,500 people, whereas in the UK and US it is 24,000 and US 17,500 respectively. There was some debate on the #ma2010conf Twitter feed as to whether such a per capita comparison was helpful, but nonetheless it was a brave and provocative presentation. I thought there was also a lot of truth to her assertion that political leaders tend to prefer something shiny and new, with all the associated ribbon-cutting and prestige, rather than adequately fund that which already exists – but then is hardly an exclusively Australian problem.
- Exhibition ‘hardware’ vs ‘software’: observing a similar phenomenon, Susanna Siu from the Leisure and Cultural Services in Hong Kong confirmed that there is roughly 1 museum opening every 3 days in China at the moment. She described the current focus of museum development to be more on ‘hardware’ (i.e. statement buildings by celebrity architects) more than ‘software’ (which I took to mean collections, exhibitions and programs). I was reminded of the UK’s Millennium building boom in the late ’90s / early ’00s. How the China experience will pan out in the long run will be one to watch.
Over the coming few days I’ll go through my notes and add further posts – some sessions warrant a post all of their own so much more to come!