Category Archives: art galleries

Parramatta – The museum that never was ……. we are still talking about it 120 years later.

It’s often said that history repeats itself. The case for a museum in Parramatta is no exception, the conversation has been happening for more than 120 years and I’m sure that there is sufficient primary source material available to produce a PhD thesis on the subject.

Old Government House, Parramatta

Digitised newspaper articles from the past (via TROVE) reveal that as early as 1899, James Burns had suggested that Old Government House at Parramatta be made into a museum of Australian curiosities. He was willing to have his ships collect curiosities and rare items from the Pacific region, which his company traded with for business purposes.

Daily Telegraph  Saturday 1 July 1899

https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/239530843

A ground swell movement for a museum rose in response to Parramatta Council’s invitation for residents to come forward with ideas for commemorating the foundation of the city. People thought it appropriate to have a permanent structure to celebrate the city and to be passed on for the enjoyment of future generations.

An awareness for the need to preserve monuments and collect historical items relating to Parramatta in around 1888, the centenary of Parramatta’s foundation. Towards the end of the 19th century citizens of Parramatta began expressing a need for a museum to be built to commemorate the achievements of Parramatta and to provide an attraction for visitors to the area. In a letter to the editor of the Cumberland Argus, James Purser felt the “town would be deserving of such an institution being the oldest in Australia.”

http://ref.arc.parracity.nsw.gov.au/blog/2013/12/03/the-parramatta-and-district-historical-society-100-years-old-looking-back-to-its-beginnings/

A section of an article from 8 April 1905 rings true to the discussions we are having about a museum in Parramatta in 2020. There has been ongoing community debate for several years about whether or not the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (Powerhouse Museum) should be moved holus bolus to Parramatta. The conclusion is still the same – that Parramatta deserves to have a world class museum to reflect on the past and celebrate the present. It is a city of great cultural diversity with significant cultural heritage which needs to be preserved or repurposed rather than knocked down and redeveloped without much thought.

Questions about the Powerhouse move included the loss of heritage buildings to make way for the museum and whether the whole project has been sufficiently well thought out and will meet the needs of people living in Parramatta and Western Sydney. After all the years of talking, it would seem that Parramatta needs both a Powerhouse Museum satellite and its own Museum of Parramatta.

Saturday 8 April 1905

In 1905 there was opposition from Alderman Bartlett (Parramatta City Council) to the museum being built on the southern side of the Town Hall and whether the money could be better spent on subsidising a hospital ward. 

https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/85994942

At a meeting of Parramatta Council on Saturday 1 July 1911 to discuss the 50 year Jubilee celebrations, it was suggested that the foundation stone be laid for a Historical Museum the building of which should cost no more than £400 spread over a term of years. If only it had gone ahead at that time we may have an institution like the Australian Museum or the Art Gallery of NSW in Parramatta, but alas …… the talking continued.

On 3 July 1912,  Mr. J. H. Murray, one of the brothers of the Murray Brothers shopping emporium, raised the proposal to establish a local history association. Murray pointed out that “there were a number of ancient landmarks – Old Government House, the Observatory and others – which should be preserved in the interests of future generations.”

William Freame, a long term Parramatta Historian, wrote a letter to the Cumberland Argus in September 1913, noting that he was surprised that so little had been done to preserve Parramatta’s memorials and perpetuate its history.

From the City of Parramatta Research Services Blog 2013 quotes a letter by Freame to the Cumberland Argus in September 1913: 

“Look where I may, I see signs of vandalism, and the hand of the spoiler at work. And there were those, who would have turned its beautiful oak avenues into a highway for wood and brick carts, because of the stray coin or two they might have brought with them; And yet there has been so much that might have been done to preserve ‘Old Parramatta,’ and it has not been done. I remember the scores of old photographs and the several valuable engravings the late Mr. John Taylor possessed; where are they now?”

3 January 1925

https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/16202968

By 1925, there were so many newspaper articles being written about The Australian Museum and the War Museum (The Australian War Memorial Museum) in Sydney. It isn’t surprising that there remained a push for a museum at Parramatta as the city continued to grow in size. I have not been able to determine who wrote the anonymous letter to the Editor of the Cumberland Argus shown below. Perhaps some research into primary source material or the handwritten Council Minutes of the time could pinpoint the author.

23 January 1925

https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/103763750

The handwritten minutes of the City of Parramatta Council meetings from the 1930s mentions that one of the Misses Swann (from Elizabeth Farm, Parramatta) was involved in both the Parramatta Historical Society as well as  Parramatta Historical Museum Committee. The article below from the Cumberland Argus confirms that Miss Swann and both organisations came together in favour of building a museum in Parramatta. They also called for donations to the collection.

Thursday 14 November 1935

An article in the Sydney Morning Herald the following year again mentions that the committee is looking for material from the district and from several well known, old Parramattan families in particular.

Sydney Morning Herald Tuesday 31 March 1936

On Thursday 28 May 1936, The Cumberland Argus refers to the new Museum playing an important part in connecting people to the Sesquicentenary celebrations of Parramatta in 1938. “No doubt many overseas visitors will come to Parramatta during that year and that  material of historic value will be of appeal to these people”. It also mentions that in the United States of America, “there is not a state in the union without a historical museum and the oldest states have several museums” and that they are recognised as “an important element of cultural character”.

“Parramatta, the oldest town in the State Outside Sydney should be the first to set up a Historical Museum”. Daily Telegraph 29 June 1936

Then in August 1936, The Cumberland Argus reported on a dispute over the new museum and the “acrimonious exchanges” between  the Historical Museum Committee, Parramatta Council and The Parramatta Historical Society (PHS) which led to the PHS disassociating itself from the Parramatta Historical Museum Committee and developing a museum of its own.

Wed 2 November 1938

World War II intervened and there appears to be very little in the paper about a museum for Parramatta until 1948 when the subject was again discussed in the local newspaper. The following year Parramatta City Council accepted an offer from the estate of Sir Joseph Cook accepting his Windsor Court Dress and insignia of the Order of St Michael and St George. Many years later after the uniform went missing and was found in a council storeroom, Philip Ruddock called for a museum to be built in Parramatta. In 1949 Parramatta City Council tried to secure Old Government House as a permanent site for a museum but it was during the sixties that Old Government House was acquired and dedicated as a house museum after it was vacated by The King’s School. During the sixties there was a movement to protect some of Parramatta’s heritage buildings from developers. Too late for the buildings from The Vineyard and Subiaco Estate which were demolished to make way for a car park for Rheem Australia Pty Ltd.

Privy Council uniform made for Joseph Cook (Prime Minister 1913-1914) in 1914. The uniform consists of a jacket with tails, pair of trousers, cloak (now missing), ceremonial sash, ceremonial half sash (possibly for wearing with the cloak), sword and sword holster. The Privy Council uniform and ceremonial sword were worn on special occasions, such as the opening of Parliament. In 1918 Cook was presented with the insignia of the Order of St Michael and St George. The set consists of a collar and star, worn with the Privy Council uniform. Parramatta Heritage Centre. City of Parramatta Council collection.

Looking back, we can see how much the city of Parramatta has changed from a colonial settlement on Aboriginal land to a diverse and vibrant city in 2020. Our cultural heritage is constantly changing but it is important to reflect all the layers of history in a world class facility which brings people together and is a safe place to discuss all aspects of Australia’s past and to reflect how this has affected us and how we can move forward into the future. We have spoken about needing a museum and protecting our cultural heritage for too long. 120 years later – let’s act.

Extra reading

The articles below are the tip of the iceberg as far as truth and fiction about the Powerhouse move and the need for a significant museum in Parramatta. I think that the fact that the building of a museum has been argued about for more than 120 years shows that now is the time to get our act together to create a museum which showcases the history and cultural heritage of Parramatta, Western Sydney and NSW in all its glorious layers Indigenous, Colonial and Multicultural Australian.

The Parramatta and District Historical Society, 100 Years Old. Looking back to its beginnings.

The other side – why the Powerhouse should move west. https://visual.artshub.com.au/news-article/features/museums/gina-fairley/the-other-side-why-the-powerhouse-should-move-west-253455

Opinion: Parramatta Powerhouse Move better for Sydney  https://thechamber.com.au/Media/Opinion-Parramatta-Powerhouse-Move-Better-for-Syd

Trashing the Powerhouse Museum https://cityhubsydney.com.au/2020/01/trashing-the-powerhouse-museum/

How the Powerhouse was saved https://www.cultureheist.com.au/2020/07/08/how-the-powerhouse-was-saved/

Five Museum Ideas for Parramatta. Kylie Winkworth. https://powerhousemuseumalliance.com/museum-opportunities/five-museum-ideas-for-parramatta/

Concept – Museum of Parramatta https://museumwhisperings.blog/2019/10/19/concept-museum-of-parramatta/

Plea for History Museum at Parramatta https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/105736073

 

What does Australia look like in cultural institutions overseas? Part 2

In Part two of this post, I’d like to think more about the “decolonisation” of cultural institutions and how this could impact on Australia and the way it is viewed by visitors overseas. Do cultural institutions present Australian history and cultural heritage to reflect our ever evolving nation post British colonisation and including those who have migrated to Australia up to the present day?

Present day Australians. Image: abc.net

I would say that our Colonial past has synergy with other parts of the world colonised by the British – such as the United States, India, Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong. British Colonial Governors were regularly transferred to different parts of the British Empire and used convict labour to put their stamp onto the newly formed colonies. This period of history provides the earliest evidence of Australia’s changing cultural heritage post British settlement. After losing its American colonies in 1783, the British formed six colonies in Australia. They began to create a European-style “built environment” including townships, infrastructure and industries, large scale farming and trading between colonies and with other nations. 

History is Messy. Image: The Guardian

Calla Wahlquist from The Guardian wrote an article “History is Messy” about the National Galleries Victoria’s (NGV) concurrent shows called Colony (1770-1861) and Colony (Frontiers), exploring Australia’s complex colonial past and the art that emerged during and in response to this period. Presented concurrently, the two exhibitions offered parallel experiences of the settlement of Australia. Drawing from public and private collections across the country, Colony: Australia 1770–1861, brought together the most important examples of art and design produced during this period and surveyed the key settlements and development of life and culture in the colonies. Importantly, the exhibition acknowledged the impact of European settlement on Indigenous communities. Such an exhibition would have relevance in the UK and other Pacific nations that similarly were impacted by British explorers and colonists.

When the six colonies in Australia federated in 1901 and the Commonwealth of Australia was formed as part of the British Empire, there was widespread public support for the adoption of a national immigration policy and administration post Federation. Immigration was at the time administered separately by the states. All of the major parties involved in the new Federal Parliament held policies deliberately aimed at the exclusion of non-European migrants. The Immigration Restriction Act 1901, included a ‘dictation test’ for those seeking to immigrate that could be given in any European language, and was the beginning of what became known as the ‘White Australia Policy’. This policy remained virtually unchanged until after the Second World War.

Until 1949, Britain and Australia shared a common nationality code. The Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948 created an Australian citizenship and the conditions by which it could be acquired. An Australian citizen was also considered to be a British subject.The Australian Citizenship Amendment Act 1984 was aimed at removing discriminatory aspects of the Act in relation to sex, marital status and nationality. The English language requirement was changed from ‘adequate’ to ‘basic’ and applicants over 50 were exempted from the English language requirement. Of particular importance, the definition of the status of British subject was repealed in order for the Act to reflect the national identity of all Australians. By the end of the 1980s, the total number of migrants from Asia overtook the total number from the UK. 

250 years after James Cook’s arrival, what are we doing to ensure the quality control of this information about Australia’s history on the world stage? There is a great deal of chatter worldwide about whether or not cultural institutions and their collections can be “decolonised”. 

“To decolonise is to add context that has been deliberately ignored and stripped away over generations. There are many examples of the misrepresentation of objects in museum displays that have only been corrected after dialogue with source communities. And there are countless instances where interpretation still needs to be rectified and stories freshly told.”  (Sharon Heal – 2019 Policy article – UK Museums Association) 

I think that it’s about more than that. It’s about being honest, stripping back the imbalance of power that occurred in the past (often unknowingly), really looking at inadvertent racism or examining the way that we tread “softly, softly” on difficult subjects like “The Stolen Generation”, “Slavery in Australia” or the “White Australia Policy”. It’s about looking carefully at museum collections – empowering them by reinterpreting and researching them, perhaps even repatriating objects with significance to living cultures or changing direction to be more “inclusive”. It is critical to consider the present diversity of museum audiences when evaluating objects in specific collections – are they relevant for each museum’s vision for the future or are they stuck with interpretation that belonged to times past, older exhibitions and a different type of museum visitor.

Museums must be safe places for inter-generational learning and education, spaces for healing and reflection and a place where everyone feels welcome and the majority of visitors would want to return again and again. In the era of Covid-19 when cultural institutions are about to take a huge financial hit – getting your house in order is the best way to stay relevant when the doors to your institution reopen. 

The Washington Post defines decolonisation as “a process that institutions undergo to expand the perspectives they portray beyond those of the dominant cultural group, particularly white colonisers.”

There are several ways to promote Australia in cultural institutions overseas. The first and simplest method is to design travelling exhibitions in partnership with museums that may have objects in their collections which would enhance an existing exhibition or has had a direct connection which might be relevant  to the subject matter in the exhibition. 

Australia is very much a nation of migrants from 1788 until the present day. We have a number of good “Migration” museums and museums reflecting the migrant contribution to Australian culture around the country. Specific collections relating to our migrant history can be found at the Migration museums in Melbourne, Adelaide, and sections of the Australian National Maritime Museum (Sydney), National Museum of Australia (Canberra), National Archives of Australia (Canberra). There are also “specialist” museums such as Sydney Jewish Museum, Jewish Museum of Australia (Melbourne), Jewish Holocaust Centre (Melbourne) and “multicultural” museums e.g.  Multicultural Museums Victoria (MMV) an alliance  which is an Australian first including the Chinese Museum, Co.As.It Italian Historical Society & Museo Italiano, Hellenic Museum, Islamic Museum of Australia and the Jewish Museum of Australia. I doubt that many of these museums would have an opportunity to exhibit travelling exhibitions overseas which is a pity because I’m not certain how we are seen as Australians from a global perspective.

What’s on at Multicultural Museums Victoria.

 I’ve seen some sad misrepresentation of Australia in world class museums, but in direct contrast, I’ve been very proud to see one of our difficult stories connecting with audiences in the UK. I was lucky to visit “On Their Own – Britain’s Child Migrants”, a collaboration between the Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney and National Museums Liverpool in both Sydney and Liverpool, UK and observe the emotional audience response to the telling of this story from our difficult past.

Sometimes the absence of objects in museums overseas also tells a story about how Australia is seen on the world stage. If you look into the online collections and exhibition databases of major cultural institutions overseas, Australia is either not mentioned, poorly represented across layers of history and cultural diversity or aspects of the Australian collection have been vaguely researched or mislabeled or tagged as Australian when they are not, or the provenance is weak to say the least (see Part one of the post). This is an opportunity for Australian cultural institutions to support or partner with museums overseas to assist with researching collections or reinterpreting out of date displays.

For example, I have seen wonderful exhibitions of Fred William’s work in Australian galleries over many years and would love to have seen some of those beautifully curated exhibitions travel the world. The works would also lend themselves to digital or immersive experiences of the outback Australia. Of course Williams is only one of hundreds of 19th and 20th century Australian artists who would look good on the walls of cultural institutions in other parts of the world.

Fred Williams from the Tate Galleries UK Collection

Williams (b.1927) is one of my favourite Australian artists because his works are truly evocative of the Australian landscape. Fred is the first and only Australian artist to have exhibited at MoMA (New York) and this happened  in 1977- 43 years ago. Sadly there are few other references to Australian Art in the MoMA collection. The artists represented in the collection are – Leonard French b.1928, Tracey Moffat b.1960, Toba Khedori, b.1964, Sydney Nolan b.1917, Anton Bruehl b.1900 (born in Australia), Shaun Gladwell b.1972, and the University of Western Australia for their Pig Wings Project 2000-2001.

In the UK the Tate Gallery holds 30 of Fred Williams works and works by over 70 Australian artists including those  with Indigenous and Multicultural cultural heritage. 

I was excited to find 619 references to Australia in the online collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York but so many of these works were by Australian born artists who were more American or British in reality. Indigenous Australia seemed to be well represented in the online collection, but actually looking at these objects and artworks reveals that a large proportion are actually African, Indian, European, Fijian, South East Asian or from Papua New Guinea and New Zealand. 

In the British Museum collection online there are over 7,000 references to Australia but closer examination reveals that hundreds of these are objects from other countries which had been on loan to Australian Museums for exhibitions rather than actually being sourced from Australia. Thousands of objects are Indigenous Australian pieces – tools, weapons, bags, adornments, artwork, shields etc. There are more recent art works and decorative objects, coins and banknotes and photographs and colonial paintings and engravings but only one record for Multicultural Australia – Ithaca I; print; Aida Tomescu (Print made by); 1997 .

Aida Tomescu (1997) Ithaca I. AGNSW Collection. No image available for British Museum.

Australia’s Multicultural heritage is unique and an interesting part of the fabric of our nation and there are many stories in museums in Australia that could be shared world over. In 2011 Viv Szekeres wrote an article  ‘Museums and multiculturalism: too vague to understand, too important to ignore’ . To reflect our changing cultural heritage may require a rethink in collection practices – a more strategic collection practice in partnership with different communities.

The National Galleries Victoria presented a major exhibition of influential British artist, David Hockney, in 2016 at NGV International. The exhibition, curated by the NGV in collaboration with David Hockney and his studio, featured more than 700 works from the past decade of the artist’s career – some new and many never-before-seen in Australia – including paintings, digital drawings, photography and video works. We seem to do really well collaborating with overseas museums to highlight their collections but what about the reverse situation to highlight our Australian collections overseas? 

Useful references

What does it mean to decolonize a museum?

Who’s afraid of decolonisation?

Decolonising museums

The ‘decolonization’ of the American museum – The

White Australia policy

Australia’s hidden history of slavery: the government divides to conquer

The Stolen Generations

Understanding Museums – Museums and multiculturalism

Decolonizing the Museum Mind

Museums Association UK  Collections 2030 DISCUSSION PAPER 

FRED WILLIAMS : INFINITE HORIZONS –

What does Australia look like in cultural institutions overseas? Part 1

https://naturalhistory.si.edu/exhibits/beauty-rich-and-rare

I read a post on LinkedIn about the first major Australian exhibition at The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. Beauty Rich and Rare was developed over a two year period by The National Library of Australia (NLA) and digital storytellers AGB Events (creators of Sydney’s Vivid festival) and is on show until 5th July 2020. It marks the 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook’s arrival on Australian shores and is an immersive sound and light display featuring original illustrations, charts, and a digital version of Joseph Banks’ journal. The exhibition was shown at the NLA in Canberra concurrently with Cook and the Pacific which examined the legacy of Cook from different angles – “the great navigator, sailor and commander” and from the perspective of the Indigenous people of the Pacific. Cook’s Pacific encounters were a two-way exchange with island nations – nations that had different languages and a unique cultural heritage. Today Cook and the impact of his voyages continues to resonate powerfully across the Pacific.

Beauty Rich and Rare Exhibit at the Smithsonian Institute National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC on December 18, 2019. (Photo by Richie Downs / Asico Photo)

Recently I’ve undertaken a FutureLearn course (online) called “Confronting Captain Cook: Memorialisation in Museums and Public Places” by the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. The information presented has led me to think more critically about Cook’s voyages and their unresolved impact on the history of the  Pacific region (including Australia), and the way in which such historical encounters and Pacific peoples are represented in cultural institutions around the world.

As an Australian, I’d like to know more about the way that Australia is viewed by curators and visitors in museums overseas. The representation of Australia in foreign collections started with Cook and other foreign explorers and the need to gather evidence of “the natural world” and human civilisation (or lack thereof according to European standards) on their voyages. Explorers kept journals and gathered a variety of objects and specimens – both cultural and scientific (including flora, fauna and geological specimens). Curiosities from other lands were collected by institutions in both a “wunderkammer” and scientific sense, without the benefit of context, cultural interpretation or significance to living cultures – without the input which we demand for objects acquired in museums today. 

Art Gallery of NSW collection. The English Channel (2015) Michael Parekowhai. New Zealand. Cook reflecting on his legacy in a contemporary world.

Historic collections should be open to further research, interpretation and rethinking because artefacts are meaningless without specific scientific research or cultural knowledge being attached to them. In particular, Indigenous Australian objects were taken or sourced without Aboriginal voices and meanings, without knowledge of cultural significance and importance attached to them. Some items would still be relevant in 2020 to living Indigenous cultures and should be considered for repatriation rather than remaining stuck in glass cases and conservation stores across the world.

It is shocking to realise that for more than 150 years Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ancestral remains and sacred objects were removed from their communities and placed in museums, universities and private collections overseas. Jennifer Beer from the Aboriginal Heritage Council of Victoria sums it up in these words:

“Secret and sacred objects are a big part of who we are. They carry stories that shape us, and we, and future generations, in turn shape them. They need to be with their rightful custodians so they can keep carrying our stories and our connection with them.”

I want to see Australia’s rich cultural heritage represented in cultural institutions around the world. I’d love to see historic figures, artworks and artefacts given the respect that they deserve on the world stage but honestly this is not occurring in many cultural institutions without appropriate staff, policies and procedures for reviewing historic collections in the contemporary world.

Looking at museum collections online to examine the way Australia is viewed in cultural institutions internationally is an enormous project in itself and would take many years of research. In this post I have sampled a handful of museums presenting Indigenous Australian cultural heritage (tangible and intangible) – one of the oldest in the world dating back 60,000 years. 

The National Museum of Australia has published some work on the subject for Australian Museums under Understanding Museums: Australian museums and museology called “Indigenous People and Museums” which speaks critically about indigenous collections, culture and art and repatriation of objects under certain circumstances. Perhaps the information needs a further push to curators and conservators of Indigenous Australian collections in other parts of the world as well as Australia. 

Secret or sacred objects are secret or sacred according to Aboriginal tradition. Aboriginal Traditional Owners determine which Aboriginal objects are secret or sacred.

Secret or sacred objects include items:

  • associated with a traditional burial
  • created for ceremonial, religious or burial purposes
  • used or seen only by certain people
  • sourced from or containing materials that only certain members of the community can use or see

There are some brilliant offerings and interpretation in Australian museums and galleries and there are a number of articles and guidelines available online which have thoughtful discussion regarding Indigenous engagement, Continuous culture and ongoing responsibilities

Indigenous Australian Artwork by Ningura Napurrula ( Western Desert artist) at the Musee du quai Branly

I had great hopes for Musee Quai Branly in Paris, but in spite of Architect Jean Nouvel’s original concept for the museum, the more I read about it, the less convinced I am that the museum hits the mark for the people that it was supposed to champion. One of the most interesting articles that I’ve read is written by Alexandra Sauvage in reCollections, Vol 2,Number 2 called  Narratives of colonisation: The Musée du quai Branly in context. Sauvage points out that:

 “Whereas museums tend more and more to collaborate with Indigenous peoples in the preservation of collections and the development of exhibitions, the Musée du quai Branly proposes a complicated, marginalising and (most) un-traditional way for Indigenous communities to benefit from their cultural heritage. Clearly, everything indicates that it was a political choice to ignore the 30-year-long fruitful dialogue between anthropologists, curators and Indigenous peoples that has taken place worldwide, a dialogue ‘between cultures’ that has informed museum policies for the last decades. Instead of following this general path, the efforts of the MQB are directed to promoting the ‘aesthetics’ of the collections.”

Musee du quai Branly – Indigenous Australian Artworks

On a more positive note, The Indigenous Repatriation Program has so far led to the return of more than 1,480 Indigenous Australian ancestral remains, with more than 1,200 coming from the UK. In 2019, the ancestral remains of 37 Aboriginal people were returned to Australia from London’s Natural History Museum. Narungga community representatives were part of a delegation receiving the remains of an ancestor who will be cared for at the South Australian Museum until the community is ready to conduct a reburial ceremony. The Museum will also look after another seven repatriated ancestral remains. The remaining 29 ancestral remains will go to the National Museum of Australia until the Ngarrindjeri, Far West Coast, Kaurna and Flinders Ranges communities are ready to lay them to rest.

Sacred Indigenous artefacts have been returned to traditional owners in Central Australia after spending almost a century in United States museums. The objects were displayed in Illinois after being taken in the 1920s. Due to their nature, the  items cannot be revealed or seen by the public for cultural reasons. Elders spent months liaising for the return of 42 Aranda and Bardi Jawi objects, which arrived in Sydney from the Illinois State Museum.

The items were the first of many to be returned as part of a project that coincides with this year’s 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook’s first voyage to Australia. Project leader Christopher Simpson, from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), said the goal was returning items to country, not putting them on the shelf of another museum.

The Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples at AMNH, New York

In The American Museum Of Natural History , New York City, Australia is represented within The Margaret Mead Hall Of Pacific Peoples. The museum has more than 25,000 ethnographic objects from the Pacific in its online database. Of these, 3,400 have originated from Indigenous Australian communities.

I was surprised to cross reference the objects with the registration catalogue to see who had donated the objects and the year that they had been donated – many items donated in the early 1900s. There was often a lack of useful information recorded and provenance was even more surprising. Objects had been exchanged from other museums including The Australian Museum, Museum of Florence, etc. as well as from private donors, often anthropologists and archaeologists who had worked in Australia with Indigenous communities.

There are still many contentious items in museums all over the world. I am not an Indigenous Australian, but I am a museum professional who sees no sense in objects which belong to living cultures being placed in storage or incorrectly displayed when they have significance and a part to play in modern day Aboriginal Australian cultural practice and heritage. How do we, as professionals, continue to raise awareness in cultural institutions around the world about the significance of these objects which need further research and evaluation?

Useful references:

Augustus Earle (1793─1838), Portrait of Bungaree, a Native of New South Wales, with Fort Macquarie, Sydney Harbour, in Background c.1826, Rex Nan Kivell Collection, NLA.GOV.AU/NLA.CAT-VN313278
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Narratives of Colonisation:The Musée du quai Branly in context. https://recollections.nma.gov.au/issues/vol_2_no2/papers/narratives_of_colonisation

Under Western Eyes’: a short analysis of the reception of Aboriginal art in France through the press. https://journals.openedition.org/actesbranly/581?lang=en

The Creation of Indigenous Collections in Melbourne: How Kenneth Clark, Charles Mountford, and Leonhard Adam Interrogated Australian Indigeneity https://journals.openedition.org/actesbranly/332?lang=en

Indigenous People and Museums. https://nma.gov.au/research/understanding-museums/_lib/pdf/Understanding-Museums_Indigenous_people_and_museums.pdf

Continuous Cultures, Ongoing Responsibilities. https://www.nma.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0020/3296/ccor_final_feb_05.pdf

Reuniting Indigenous ‘sticks’ with their stories: the museum on a mission to give back . https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/mar/04/reuniting-indigenous-sticks-with-their-stories-the-museum-on-a-mission-to-give-back

Hooper-Greenhill, E. (1999). The educational role of the museum. London: Routledge.

Eilean Hooper-Greenhill (2000). Changing Values in the Art Museum: rethinking communication and learning, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 6:1, 9-31, DOI: 10.1080/135272500363715

Hodge, R., D’Souza, W., & Rivière, G.H. (2009). The museum as a Communicator: A semiotic analysis of the Western Australian Museum Aboriginal Gallery, Perth.

Helena Robinson (2017) Is cultural democracy possible in a museum? Critical reflections on Indigenous engagement in the development of the exhibition “Encounters: Revealing Stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Objects from the British Museum”, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 23:9, 860-874, DOI: 10.1080/13527258.2017.1300931

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-11-07/indigenous-artefact-repatriation-nt/11677810

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-05-11/british-museum-battle-for-stolen-indigenous-gweagal-shield/11085534

Concept – Museum of Parramatta

I like to visit museums when I travel. Some of my favourites have been specific museums unique to the place that I’m visiting like The Little Museum of Dublin , The Museum of Liverpool and the New York Historical Society Museum.

The Little Museum of Dublin. Picture by Lonely Planet

What I know about Parramatta is that it’s not just about stadiums, new high rise development, Parramatta Eels and Western Sydney Wanderers. In my opinion, the City of Parramatta has a rich cultural heritage which could be a more significant tourist attraction and contribute greatly to building the community and economy of Western Sydney.

The City of Parramatta Council has a culturally significant collection of objects and archives dating back to the earliest days of council (1861), and archaeological evidence dating back to much earlier times. Parramatta’s historical layers provide the perfect inspiration for its own unique museum which I’m calling “The Museum of Parramatta”, not to be confused with the new MAAS Museum (which is a completely different concept) coming to Western Sydney in the future. 

Kaolin Pipe stems and bowls from the collection of the City of Parramatta

In my mind, Australia has three distinct layers of history which make it what it is today. It is too late to undo the colonisation of Australia by the British, but we can look harder at our history, dissect it and present it in new and better informed ways. History is not fixed – it is open to further research and interpretation from primary sources and definitely open to further discussion. I would say that the City of Parramatta is the perfect place to examine and discuss Australian history by exploring further its Indigenous layer, Colonial layer and its waves of migration or the Multicultural layer.

I envisage that The Museum of Parramatta would use 4 spaces to present the Parramatta story – past and present – a story of its First Nations people dating back 40,000+ years, to the arrival of Europeans and the successive waves of migration from 1788 until the present. The museum will also need a functional space for permanent exhibitions, travelling or changing temporary exhibitions and for the public to access Parramatta’s history using onsite digital resources similar to and building upon those available in the existing Parramatta Local Studies Library.

Aboriginal Warriors by Joseph Lycett (1815-1822). National Library of Australia Collection

Space 1. Our First Australians

Starting at the beginning, I have imagined that Space 1 would need to be created in consultation with local Indigenous groups. We need to know Australian history from an indigenous perspective – we are all still learning the facts about our past. How did Aboriginal people live in Parramatta? What were their totems? What animals and foods were special to them? What was the impact that Colonial settlement had on the cultural practices on Indigenous groups already living in Parramatta and surrounding areas. The story goes back much further than Colonial settlement in Australia to more than 40,000 years ago. Who were the standout Aboriginal characters – individuals who were important local leaders and who managed to straddle both worlds at that time of first contact? Some of the stories will be hard to hear but they need to be told. Australians must think more critically about the past rather than continuing to look at history from a Eurocentric perspective.

Two Aborigines spearing eels by Joseph Lycett (c1817). National Library of Australia collection.

What about Indigenous Parramattan communities today? Where are the communities? What are the local languages spoken? Which part of local cultural heritage are the communities willing to share with us today? Are there objects in the City of Parramatta collection or in other cultural institutions that may be appropriate to use to tell their stories? Several Indigenous cultural experiences are already available through Discover Parramatta and perhaps these could enhance the museum experience in Space 1.

I recently participated in an online FutureLearn Course called Confronting Captain Cook: Memorialisation in Museums and Public Spaces which examines both sides of Captain Cook’s encounters with First Nations People in the Pacific and and how various societies related differently to his legacy. This reinforced my ideas about a need for Space 1 in the Museum of Parramatta.

The English Channel (2015) by Michael Parekowhai. Captain Cook reflecting on his legacy in a contemporary world. How do Pacific nations view him now , 250 years after their first encounter?

Space 2. The Colonial Years and birth of Parramatta Council

This area would be used to unpack Parramatta’s Colonial layer. There is plenty of archaeological and archival evidence to support learning about the built environment, but sadly there has been a significant loss of the “intact’ heritage buildings from Colonial times as a result of neglect, “progress” and development. Much of this destruction occurred before the Heritage Act was introduced in 1977. There are a number of significant sites in Parramatta which could be cross promoted through The Museum of Parramatta such as Old Government House and Experiment Farm Cottage (National Trust of Australia), Elizabeth Farm (Sydney Living Museums), Hambledon Cottage, Parramatta Female Factory Precinct, Lancer Barracks ………and the list goes on (see more detail at the end of this post).

Space 2 could utilise the objects from the City of Parramatta’s collection of archaeological and culturally significant material as well as its Archives. It will be a great space to tell the stories of Parramatta’s early history using the collection as tangible evidence of the past. 

One of the many Expeditions for the City of Parramatta DigiVol project

The current City of Parramatta DigiVol project has a team of 120 volunteers transcribing the Parramatta Council Minutes from 1862-1945. The minutes tell of the everyday issues facing a new rapidly growing town. When the minutes become searchable primary source, it will bring the Councillors and the people of Parramatta’s past to life. TROVE is also a wonderful resource for reading news from the early days of Parramatta via the old newspapers in digitised form.

The team at Parramatta Heritage and Visitor Information Centre has researched so much about the city’s past which is available via their blog posts. Another significant body of work was researching all the Parramattans involved in the Great War . The team has produced a range of publications on the subject and also a travelling touchtable resource for the public to access.

Space 3. Waves of Migration

Successive waves of migration have shaped the culture and identity of Parramatta. It is home to many people with different pasts, and it is important to recognise that there are connections between the city of Parramatta and the new migrant communities that now call Parramatta home. We know that Chinese people migrated to NSW in the earliest days of the colony. Indian and Lebanese people also came very early on when the colony formed and have participated in the growth and cultural heritage of Parramatta and NSW.

Australia Day at Parramatta

The ‘Waves of People’ report was produced by Western Sydney University for the City of Parramatta. The research recounts the history of Parramatta’s inhabitants – from the generations of Darug families living along the Parramatta River and Australia’s first inland European settlement, to the waves of migrants and refugees from all over the world who made a home here.

“It is the accumulation of stories and experiences inscribed in built form that gives a place its distinct identity. Such stories are not only for the culturally sensitive: they drive real-estate investment too. When a city is rebuilt from scratch, we risk losing these stories and connections.” (The Conversation : Reimagining Parramatta)

As well as connecting to the past, Parramatta’s calendar is filled with festivals such as – Parramasala, Diwali, Lunar New Year, ParraLanes and Winterfest to name just a few. These festivals build on Parramatta’s Cultural Heritage and help to bring the community together in the present.

Celebrating Holi at Parramatta

Space 4. Changing exhibitions

This space is essential for presenting temporary exhibitions or travelling exhibitions from other cultural institutions to engage with local and wider audiences of The Museum of Parramatta. The area would provide a safe meeting place for discussion on contentious issues, talks and events. It needs to have banks of computers to be available for research and discovery. The area would be well supported by the existing Local Studies Library, allowing visitors to research in depth information about Parramatta and their connections to the area. It should also host a searchable map of Parramatta to showcase all the amazing historic buildings, house museums and small volunteer run museums in the local area (some mentioned previously and also see the links below).

Final Words

Maybe I’m dreaming, but I believe that Parramatta is worthy of its own purpose built museum (or a museum reimagined in an existing heritage space e.g. Fleet Street Precinct, Old Kings School, Willow Grove) to showcase the history of this city. Parramatta deserves The Museum of Parramatta as well as a satellite of the Museum of Applied Arts and Science (Powerhouse Museum – an existing cultural institution being transplanted in Parramatta). It deserves a well thought out museum of its own to take a more critical look at Australian History from a Parramatta perspective.

Want to think  more critically about Parramatta’ history and cultural heritage? Explore the links below.

City of Parramatta Archive Council Collection

City of Parramatta Heritage Centre

City of Parramatta Collections

Parramatta Stories

Old Government House, Parramatta

Elizabeth Farm

Hambledon Cottage

Experiment Farm

Fleet Street Heritage Precinct

Parramatta Park

The Dairy Precinct

Lancer Barracks, Parramatta

Brislington Medical and Nursing Museum

Female Factory, Parramatta

Female Orphan School, Parramatta

The Conversation : Reimagining Parramatta https://theconversation.com/reimagining-parramatta-a-place-to-discover-australias-many-stories-100652

Audience Research 101

Why should cultural institutions do audience research?

Competition in the “museum world” is tough. It doesn’t matter how exclusive your collection is, or how famous your brand, there is competition from other cultural institutions, big and small, as well as any number of other distractions (sport, relaxation, leisure pursuits) competing for a share of potential visitors and even the most committed members’  valuable time. Face to face audience research into visitor experiences within the museum provides useful information that can be fed back into program development, museum policy and strategic planning for the future.

The front foyer of the newly rebranded MU-SEA-UM (Australian National Maritime Museum) at Darling Harbour

It is not enough to just happily count numbers of visitors through the door. Numbers on their own can be quite misleading without the qualitative data supporting visitor behaviour (including  visitor observation and tracking – see  separate post) during the  visit and feedback from visitors about their personal experiences inside your cultural institution and why they may or may not come back in the future.

Impressionists from Monet to Cezanne at Palazzo degli Esami in Rome

Visitor Feedback Surveys

Certainly, visitor feedback is key to keeping audiences engaged with your museum and your brand. If you welcome feedback, audiences feel appreciated and valued, whether it’s about the collection, upcoming or current exhibitions, kids activities, programs, eating spaces  or the state of the bathrooms!

Once you have direct communication with visitors, you can benefit enormously from their feedback (both positive and negative), but firstly, the organisation needs to be specific as possible about  what it wants to know in order for the feedback to be beneficial.

Preparing  your audience research objective

Modern Masters from The Hermitage at the Art Gallery of NSW

Feedback survey questions usually require a brainstorming session in order to define the aims of the survey. Once the aims have been determined, it becomes easier to write the survey questions. It’s impossible to retrieve and analyse data that has not been collected and there is no point in collecting data that staff have no use for.  Think carefully –

  • How will the information be used?
  • What do staff want to find out about their visitors?

Visitor feedback  survey objectives need to be clearly defined. Keep them simple and specific. Try to minimise bias in the questions.  Visitor surveys are research. Research on museum visitors can determine specifics such as:

  • Where are your visitors from? Are they alone or with friends/ family?
  • Are they likely to return to your institution – this may be affected by accessibility. Are visitors local or from overseas/interstate? Are they already members, repeat visitors or first timers?
  • What are their interests? These may be specific to your museum collection, a particular exhibition or just a family outing?
  • What do people like or dislike about your museum collection, exhibitions, program and activities? Embrace both sides as an opportunity to think critically about what you offer and the way you offer it.

Also be conscious that research on people who do not visit the museum can be useful  to determine why people don’t come, particularly the local community on your doorstep.

Using results

Constant self-reflection and improvement will  encourage more visitors through the door. Use the findings from visitor feedback surveys to help with the planning and implementation of improvements to the “people interface” –  Front of House, museum spaces and services (including facilities, cafe, museum shop etc.). Listening to and responding to the feedback findings will ensure the success of future marketing, promotional and public relations campaigns.

The solid evidence produced by analysing survey results will add credibility to your case when pitching to potential sponsors or funding sources to support future projects.

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Clip boards at the ready. Many museums choose iPads for surveying. The importance thing is to use tools which allow engagement with the visitor. You may learn something extra during the exchange.

Tips  for Survey staff on real time Surveying of Visitors

  • Take time to absorb the museum atmosphere on the day. Move around the museum spaces and work out the best spots  to catch people.
  • Choose people carefully. There is no point in asking a parent with a screaming child or people preoccupied with something inside the museum where they are unlikely to want to be disturbed.
  • Introduce yourself to visitors being surveyed and tell them what you are doing emphasising that the museum needs their feedback to try to improve or find out their opinion on “(whatever)” depending upon the survey aim – ticket pricing, accessibility, current exhibition content and future exhibition topics ……..
  • Encourage each visitor to fill out the form themselves if possible but try to ensure that all pages are filled out
  • Add “in-house” predetermined requirements such as completion time, date etc. to each survey
  • Try to sample broadly
  • Don’t worry about knockbacks, if you are friendly then visitors might participate next time or at another cultural institution when they have more time.
  • Write down anecdotal comments which you think may add value to the survey being carried out even if  the feedback isn’t relevant to the questions
  • Set yourself a target based on past experience – some days are better than others depending on the flow and mood of the museum visitors on the day in question and on the length of the survey.
  • Offer an incentive for their time. e.g. a coffee voucher, discount for next visit or even a voucher for the museum shop.
  • Thank them for their participation

Further reading for those people thinking about visitors to cultural institutions – what visitors think and why they may or may not visit our cultural institutions.

  • Potential visitors to cultural institutions are spending more time on the couch instead

https://www.colleendilen.com/2018/09/19/potential-visitors-cultural-entities-spending-time-couch-instead-data-update/

  • Couch potatoes, Television Consumption and Museum Visitation

https://musdigi.wordpress.com/

  • Are we asking the right questions?

https://musdigi.wordpress.com/2018/09/07/are-we-asking-the-right-questions-compassconference-day-one-reflections/

  • 10 reasons to visit a museum

https://www.colleendilen.com/2009/07/31/10-reasons-to-visit-a-museum/

  • 21 Reasons why I hate Museums

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/lists/21-reasons-why-I-hate-museums/

  • Why don’t people visit museums more often?

https://rereeti.wordpress.com/2015/02/03/why-dont-people-visit-museums-more-often/

  • How to encourage people to visit museums more often

https://medium.com/@miaeveliina/how-can-we-encourage-those-who-rarely-visit-museums-to-do-so-more-often-441c27cf4770

  • The drop in museum visitors reveals a nation without aspiration or hope

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2017/feb/02/drop-uk-museum-attendance

  • Audience Research 101 – #museumeval

https://musdigi.wordpress.com/2016/09/16/audience-research-101-museumeval/

  • Visitor research at Te Papa

https://www.tepapa.govt.nz/sites/default/files/4-visitors-survey_0.pdf

 

Group tour of Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli outside Rome. UNESCO World Heritage site.

The NGV Triennial Giving Art to the People

Pae White’s colourful installation drawing in all ages

The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) is Australia’s oldest and possibly most well loved museum of art, founded in 1861. Its mission statement  – “To illuminate life by collecting, preserving and presenting great art” and perhaps the unwritten mission of “giving it to the people”.

NGV Triennial 15 December 2017-15 April 2018

In 2016 the NGV was the 19th most popular art gallery in the world with more than 2.6 million visitors across its two campuses. The ranking places the gallery in the company of Paris’s Musee d’Orsay and New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Visitors flock to the NGV Triennial in Melbourne

The NGV is not only Australia’s most popular art gallery, but one of the top 20 most visited art museums worldwide as revealed by the U.K’s  The Art Newspaper in its latest survey of global art museum attendance. Not a bad effort for a small country on the world stage. Australia’s population is around 24.8 million compared with the U.S.A.’s 326.8 million and U.K.’s  66.6 million people. This ranking was based on visitation to “Van Gogh and the seasons” from the 2017 Winter exhibition. (Note that another Australian art museum on the list was the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art with its 2016/17 Summer exhibition – Sugar spin: You, me, art and Everything.)

Yayoi Kusama’s Obliteration Rooms are always popular with visitors

The NGV held forty-nine exhibitions during 2016-17, including major retrospectives of international and Australian artists and designers, as well as focused displays of works in the NGV collection. The quality and variety of audience engagement initiatives presented in support of these exhibitions was extensive. They offered guided tours, audio tours, mobile phone apps, talks, lecture series and workshops as well as social events – such as the Friday Night events (aimed at capturing more of the younger audiences after work), the Summer Sundays music series and the NGV Kids Summer festival and supporting Kids spaces for some of the major exhibitions. For example – as part of the exhibition Andy Warhol / Ai Weiwei (2015-2016), NGV Kids presented Studio Cats, a large-scale installation especially for children and families to draw upon creative connections between the two artists and their mutual love of cats.

The Gallery aims to present programmes that engage visitors in meaningful cultural experiences and to keep them coming back.

According to their audience research data, The National Gallery of Victoria enjoys one of the highest community participation rates in the world. 70% of their visitors are local from Melbourne and regional Victoria unlike many other international art museums where the majority of visitors are incoming tourists. This also indicates that the locals keep coming back which is what every cultural institution needs to strive for. This is what Nina Simon talks about most recently in The Art of Relevance but also in The Participatory Museum and her Museum 2.0 Blog.

For any Cultural Institution, the collection remains  fundamental to the audience engagement and education strategy. The thoughtful curation and presentation of historical and contemporary collections is a key museum management strategy for continuing and ongoing audience engagement. Colleen Dilenschneider regularly writes about this in her Know Your Own Bone Blog (most recently in Special Exhibits vs. Permanent Collections (DATA) and previously in Death by Curation).The NGV strategy is to ensure that its collection is accessible to the widest possible audience who may be unable to visit the museum through the ongoing work of the NGV Digitisation Project which is still progressing.

I have to disclose that I am already a big fan of the NGV and the way that they design their spaces. I visit the NGV each time that I am in Melbourne, so over many years have enjoyed both Summer and Winter exhibitions as well as taking time to learn about the permanent collection shown across both campuses (St Kilda Road and the Ian Potter Centre in Federation Square). On my recent visit I took in the inaugural Triennial at the National Gallery Victoria which on the surface (without actual audience data analysis) appears to be a great success. What I enjoyed most about this free experience was seeing the diversity of visitors attending the exhibition and the way that the work of 100 contemporary artists, architects and designers from 32 countries was juxtaposed against the existing works from the collection – which was great exposure.

Audience engagement with the art at NGV Triennial

I think that there is currently a cultural revival happening worldwide despite Government funding cuts trying to choke the Arts into submission. Creativity and cultural heritage feed the soul when so much about modern life seems to do the opposite. Now is a better time than ever for cultural institutions to offer their prospective audiences something new and different, to  re-energise and maybe even reinterpret their collections to be more inclusive, to build community and feed the souls that are weary of modern life and meaningless 24 hour connectedness to media, social media and globalised sameness. Keep leading the way National Gallery of Victoria and hopefully other cultural institutions in Australia will follow or at least just lift their game a notch.

Interesting reading:

Cultural Heritage and the City

Cultural heritage as a driver of economic growth and social inclusion

Creative Country

The value of culture

“The Museum is our backyard….” Do you have families visiting your cultural institution weekly?

Throwing back to this post about apartment dwelling families and Cultural Institutions in the city. Are you doing enough for frequent visitors with children?

As cities become more crowded and less green, we see families shut away in high density spaces looking for a place to take their children to escape the four walls of the apartment.

Families want to have fun together, learn together and enjoy different experiences. It’s a perfect time for the museum and gallery sector to step up and encourage local families through their doors, not once but many times a year. It’s important to think about the regular, repeat visitors and not just those once in a lifetime and single exhibition visitors but many museums seem to be exhibition focussed.

If I was a weekly or fortnightly visitor, how would I see your museum space? I would definitely be looking for different things when compared with a single exhibition visitor. Food for thought?

Museum Whisperings

 

 

One of the most interesting facts that I have learned from visitor studies at the Australian Museum, Sydney, was that many “inner city dwellers” use the museum as their backyard (metaphorically speaking of course).

I found that a number of families live in apartments in the inner city and have taken out  membership to several cultural institutions and that they regularly bring children to come and play at the Australian Museum. I don’t mean running around kind of play but definitely spending hours at the museum (to escape their apartments) in the Search and Discover section of the museum or participating in craft activities (when available) at Kids Space. This was quite a revelation to me because I’ve never lived in a small flat with children. My four kids were brought up in the suburbs, 20 kilometres away from the city and had access to a backyard, local…

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The importance of Tracking and Observing Visitors in Cultural Institutions

I’m not a big fan of measuring the success of visitation to cultural institutions by simply counting the numbers of people through the doors. I don’t believe that numbers alone give a true picture of visitor engagement and they certainly won’t give any indication of the way that visitors respond to the various spaces within a given cultural institution.

I confess that I love tracking visitors inside museum spaces because I always have preconceived ideas about what is going on inside various galleries and exhibitions and I am constantly surprised by what is actually happening when I analyse my results. On one occasion, I was observing visitors passing through a newly opened exhibition. I was thinking how good it was that there were so many families coming into the museum for this exhibition and I expected certain outcomes from my tracking and feedback studies for the following reasons:

  1. Because it was a brand new exhibition space
  2. Because it was school holidays and wet weather
  3. Because it was free of charge to visit.

The tracking process  that I use involves mapping the exhibition floor plan, then adding objects to that map, numbered within a cluster group or individually, depending upon their size and the size of the gallery overall. I use a technique learned from Dr Lynda Kelly  involving timed entry and exit points, visitor groupings (individual, couple, family group), age groupings and an observational scale based on Judy Diamond’s chapter on observational tools to record the movement of people, using four categories for visitor engagement:

  • Ignore (I)
  • Skim (S)
  • Attend (A)
  • Engage (E)

Visitors who pass within two metres of an object or text panel but fail to stop are listed as Ignore (I). Visitors who look briefly at an object or text panel but fail to stop are listed as Skim (S) but those who stop briefly with both feet for two seconds are listed as Attend (A). Those visitors who stop and actively read text panels or look at displays are listed as Engage (E).

For the exercise mentioned above, what surprised me when I actually observed the individual visitors and tracked their pathway, was that what I thought I saw was not what was happening at all. When I analysed my results, I found that people weren’t really in the gallery for very long and definitely did not engage with the exhibits for a significant time period which was a lost learning opportunity. However, there were lots of “oohs” and “ahhs” and expressions of awe and wonder and very many photos taken of kids with various objects. Sadly, in most cases their curiosity was not sufficiently aroused for them to engage with the objects on a deeper level – by reading the associated text panels and using the interactive materials.

I’m not going to address the importance of  engagement for Transformative Learning outcomes in this blog post because it has been well covered in the literature and other museum blogs (see Dr Lynda Kelly’s blog posts for information on TL as well as a review of the literature). Secondly, when I track visitors, I don’t usually look at the cultural diversity of the audience but more their age group and the effects of their group status on how they move through the spaces. Again, a better brain than mine, Colleen Dilenschneider talks about misinterpreting or not interpreting data on diversity correctly in her recent post “Why Some Cultural Organisations Overestimate Success in welcoming Diverse Visitors” for those who want to think about visitors in an even broader sense.

The advantage of carrying out observational and tracking studies is that institutions can combine the collected data with visitor feedback surveys to get to know their audiences better and form a clearer picture of how people spend time within their walls. Such studies can highlight the parts of an exhibition or permanent space which are not being seen, being used properly or are not engaging visitors at all. Sometimes problem areas can be tweaked by making small changes to the space –  improved interior design, better text panels, signage, IT/general maintenance or even small changes to sound and lighting. It is interesting to see where people spend the most or least amount of time as they move through a cultural institution or specific exhibition. Other details can be recorded as well – such as:

  • Is there a particular item that is really popular with visitors?
  • Where do people stop and read text panels?
  • Are interactive displays working and easy to use?
  • Are there any blockages with the general flow of visitors?
  • Are there any blockages because of audio tours, queueing or people taking photographs?
  • In the case of couples and groups – is there some discussion about particular objects, interactives or related topics?
  • Are there any visitor comments which should be recorded as feedback to Front of House, Marketing or  Curatorial Management?

Visitors are usually unaware that they are being observed. Observers are often mistaken for floor staff and visitors may ask questions or give feedback just because they are there. Understanding how visitors use different spaces within a museum can help to identify the strengths, weaknesses, and possibilities in that institution’s engagement strategy. I’ve often noticed that it’s the unexpected spaces, guided tours and participatory events in museums that occupy visitors for longer. What is it that keeps bringing visitors back time and time again? Exhibitions come and go but the permanent galleries, regular programmes and new innovations keep people coming back. For the younger visitors (particularly 3-12 age group), cultural institutions offering:

  • Curriculum focussed school programmes
  • Kid’s trails and activities
  • Learning and discovery rooms
  • Creative kids spaces
  • Touch trolleys

seem far more popular with families than cultural institutions without family programmes. For younger visitors – creating art and craft, touching and examining objects, interactive play, conducting scientific experiments, being able to ask supervising staff a variety of thoughtful questions, interacting with living specimens, dressing up in costumes, enthusiastically following some kind of trail or just reading books and looking things up on the computers seems to enhance their participation. At other times I have observed docents leading school groups through gallery spaces and getting much better engagement and learning outcomes for children (in support of their school curriculum) than children passing through with families.

For adults – well designed, aesthetically pleasing interior spaces, themed talks, guided tours, after hours events and workshops can add value to the overall visitor experience. Perhaps this kind of engagement appears less threatening on the surface but is still focussed on learning and engagement. MuseumHack posted a recent article “Why Design is Important to Your Museum”. For me the key quote is that:

“In the age of the Internet, museums can benefit

from applying this principle of design to their

spaces, as well as the services they offer. What

makes museums unique is no longer the information

they contain, but rather the context they offer to the

objects within their collections.”

My observations have strengthened my opinion that visitors like to see the presence of facilitators, invigilators, educators, security and guides in the gallery or exhibition space and not a total DIY experience. Generally, I have observed that visitors:

  • stop to ask questions or for directions or assistance
  • might ask for extra information about a display or gallery
  • might have their own narrative to share triggered by seeing an object on display
  • may have feedback for the museum about their visit.

It seems a pity when the audience is captive in the space, not to utilise that opportunity for engagement and feedback and to build relationships with the public, particularly when museums and galleries are striving to be “must see” and “repeat” destinations. I can’t see the point of developing growth and management strategies for cultural institutions without measuring audience engagement and feedback. Pen and paper studies are time consuming but relatively cheap to conduct and actually give a true snapshot of what is going on at a given time and space. Perhaps  museums could learn from the mistakes of the department stores in the current economic climate. It may be that cutting floor staff numbers will not increase profits and will definitely detract from visitor engagement.

Further Reading:

Australian Museum. Tracking and Observation Studies. https://australianmuseum.net.au/uploads/documents/9301/tracking_studies.pdf

Steven S. Yalowitz & Kerry Bronnenkant.Timing and Tracking:Unlocking Visitor Behavior http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10645570902769134

Museum Team at USS Constitution  http://www.familylearningforum.org/evaluation/types-of-evaluation/timing-tracking.htm

Isaac Arnsdorf. The Museum is watching you. Online Wall Street Journal (2010) https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704554104575435463594652730

The Heritage Dilemma

I worry about the preservation of the world’s “cultural heritage”. To me, it’s a dilemma on a grand scale. I personally value cultural heritage – not just my own, but what I have seen in my travels and learned from others with different backgrounds. I also value art galleries and museums and all kinds of cultural institutions, but what about all the people who don’t? Is there a way to connect a higher proportion of world’s population to their heritage and does it matter in the long term?

Blue Mountains National Park, NSW, Australia

I have just completed an online course with FutureLearn called Cultural Heritage and the City from the European University Institute which got me thinking about cultural heritage in the first place. What does it mean to people and how can policy can be developed or improved in order to protect heritage for future generations? Ask yourself – “Who is responsible for protecting the world’s cultural heritage?” The course defined heritage as “the past which informs the present and the relationship that a community constructs with that past”. This includes specific places, religious or cultural practices and traditions where heritage provides a framework within which people are socialised.

Washington D.C., USA. The Post Office has been leased to Trump Hotels for 60 years. This heritage site has been renovated and repurposed but will not be lost to the State’s heritage portfolio.

On the world stage, cultural heritage is about more than just protecting sites, buildings and objects. There is also an “ intangible” facet which helps to build community through language, music or ritual which may be part of the local way of doing things (e.g. food preparation, welcome ceremonies, wearing of significant clothing etc.) I believe that everyone has a stake in the protection of heritage whether it’s on our doorstep or far away in places which may more vulnerable to destructive forces outside the control of the local population and heritage authorities.

Bluestone Lane cafe has started business in a New York church.

I concede that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs comes into play when considering why people value and connect to cultural heritage. People are time poor, under financial and personal stress, others are barely surviving in war zones or refugee camps or living in areas where they feel disconnected to their surroundings. Why would the preservation of cultural heritage be at the the top of their “list of priorities” even if UNESCO says so? Why is heritage important to us anyway?

Brighton Beach, Melbourne. These heritage beach boxes have become valuable real estate but are also a big tourist draw card.

In a homogenous society like Japan where the greatest proportion of residents have shared cultural values, is it any easier to develop protection and promotion strategies for the preservation of cultural heritage? The culture in Japan is ancient and deep rooted but after the Great Fire in Tokyo and WWII, the process of modernisation conflicted with some of the old values set by the declining aristocracy and religious authorities. Emiko Kakikuchi Ph.D writes, “After WWII, Japan’s heritage was treated as a national asset, but remained a relatively small part of society for a long time. However the importance of heritage values has recently been increasingly recognised and protection measures diversified as Japan has matured in terms of its society and economy. Today heritage is being integrated and linked closely with community development, and its protection is being carried out not only by government but also by various stakeholders.”

Indigenous Australian Rock Art in the Flinders Ranges, South Australia dates back thousands of years before Colonial settlement.

In my own country, Australia, there are contentious layers of cultural heritage and so who takes responsibility for its preservation overall? The Indigenous Australian layer dates back more than 40,000 and possibly 60,000 years. Aboriginal cultural heritage has historically been inextricably tied to the Australian landscape with Indigenous Songlines having been coded and embedded into the natural environment and passed down over time through stories, dance and song by community elders.

Carriageworks, Redfern, Sydney – repurposed train sheds now used  for events, as an exhibition and for weekend markets.

A second colonial heritage layer was laid down after the British established a penal colony in Sydney in 1788. Over time, other settlers arrived and became established, adding to European cultural heritage and introducing an ever changing built environment which is less than 230 years old. Such changes have directly and indirectly caused major damage to Indigenous Australians’ heritage (“tangible” and “intangible”) in inverse proportion to the growth of the European population in Australia.

More recently, a third layer has come into play – a newer migrant layer represented by many different cultures including Greeks, Italians, several waves of Lebanese migration, Maltese, German, Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian and others from Afghanistan, Syria, Africa, Iran, Sri Lanka etc (too many to mention actually). I’m calling this the multicultural layer of heritage. Each group has brought distinct languages and their own cultural heritage to be worked into the existing Australian heritage tapestry.

The course modules explored ways to protect, enhance and engage with communities in the future, as urban environments change and eat into historic built environments and significant natural landscapes? How can newly arrived migrants and refugees be connected to the heritage of the country that they are now living in, the country that they now call “home”? Have they brought their own heritage values in the “intangible” sense and left the “tangible” behind? Will they be willing to engage with new values in the future?

Some migrant connections to Australian history are real and “tangible”. For instance, both Parramatta and Sydney can demonstrate historic connections to Indigenous Australians, Colonial Australians and other migrant communities. There is both archaeological and material evidence to support these historical links in found objects, social history collections (clothing, utensils, letters etc.) as well as written research (newspapers, photographs and paper records from the past). We know that many First Nations people were well known in the colony. Bennelong and King Bungaree slipped back and forth between two cultures. Pemulwuy was notorious for his resistance activities against colonial settlement.There were Chinese market gardens in Parramatta and Sydney during colonial times and the colonials imported tea, silks and porcelain from China.They also accessed Indian cottons, muslins and spices for everyday use. There is evidence that Indian nationals came to Australia from British colonies in India as staff of the Colonial Government Officers. The Lebanese also came to Australia in colonial times as hawkers and traders who sold ribbons, lace and cloth for women’s and men’s clothing.

The trick is to find ways of connecting contemporary life with existing cultural heritage and formulating appropriate policies for the protection of heritage into the future. There may be special places which merit absolute protection under law, such as “intact” wilderness areas or particular and significant built areas. In urban settings, I believe that it is also possible to develop heritage strategies which allow for new urban development through the repurposing of some heritage spaces, finding new uses and new connections with the past enabling the community to value heritage in a more vibrant and attractive city.

There are many examples of cultural heritage capacity building using events which have been integrated into the strategies of cities. These may range from large events (such as the Olympics, World Expositions, Biennales and Triennals) to smaller events such as festivals held in Australia, for example – Chinese New Year, Parramasala, Festival of Sydney, Sculpture by the Sea or the Vivid Light Festival. The increased number of festivals in Australia and overseas demonstrates ways that we can celebrate our existing heritage as well as creating new cultural heritage for the future. Such events can be compared to an exhibition in a museum or art gallery. You may have regular attendees but you want to be more “inclusive” and attract new audiences to share with you. The “festival audience” is attracted by the content or theme, but in attending that festival might learn more about a different culture or heritage place which they would not normally embrace. Inadvertently, some of that cultural heritage may be infused into festival goers but it was not the original draw card.

“Disruption” is a buzz word heard in the business world but it can also be applied to heritage places and cultural institutions. I like the way that the “Off” movement was created in parallel to the European Capital of Culture programme in Marseille in 2013. “Off” challenged the official discourse of the ECC project, running grass roots and paradoxical programmes harnessing the cultural heritage of Marseille. The aim was to direct the audience towards appreciating Marseille’s cultural heritage by being “inclusive” rather than elitist.

I think that more cultural institutions, heritage organisations and festival organisers need to think about opening their doors to wider audiences to start conversations about heritage without making people feel uncomfortable about attending events. Museum Hack has been a disruptive force within the museum sector in the USA by enticing a new and different kind of audience to visit cultural institutions. They have managed to break the mould and attract “atypical” visitors into a range of institutions who were not reaching out to millenials.

A number of public events and festivals are open to the public free of charge. Behind this idea is the fact that cultural heritage belongs to everyone and should be accessible to people regardless of the socio-economic status of the community being focussed on. Even institutions that rely on permanent entry fees and special exhibition fees to stay afloat, occasionally offer free entry days to the public in an effort to broaden their audience reach. Communities that have faced the heritage dilemma head-on have reported that developing a strong heritage policy has helped them to build community by educating local people to feel a part of their history and to build a common future. Heritage protection has contributed to regional job creation and economic growth worldwide. There is growing emphasis on the economic impact of heritage activities and that by protecting cultural heritage, cities can boost their local economy through the provision of hospitality as well as cultural services.

Harbour Sculpture Exhibition at Clarke’s Point, Hunters Hill connecting business and community. Artists aim to present, support and encourage contemporary Australian sculpture that reflects the history and place of sculpture in Australia.

Celebrating Chinese New Year 2017 at Sydney Opera House. Bringing the population of Sydney together with overseas tourists to the heritage icon to celebrate the year of the Rooster on Sydney Harbour.

Chinese Year of the Rooster at Sydney Opera House 2017 attracted many visitors to the city.

Repurposed  Industrial heritage at Ballast Point Park, Birchgrove. Between 1788 and 1800, the point was used as a fishing and hunting ground for European settlers and as a source of ballast for ships returning unladen to Europe. The A$16m project included demolition and decontamination of the derelict industrial site with construction of steel stairways, recycled building rubble walls, artworks, shade structures, wind turbines and Australian native gardens.

The Tramsheds at Harold Park in Sydney, Australia – a repurposed industrial site which housed the former historic Rozelle Tram Depot. This restoration includes a dining precinct as well as 7 community-based retailers. The site now attracts local community as well as visitors from other parts of Sydney.

The heritage dilemma must be faced head-on if we are to manage the sites and traditions that remain in an uncertain world under pressure from an ever increasing and shifting population worldwide. I guess that the heritage dilemma can not be sorted out in a single blog post.

Useful further reading: UNESCO report on Culture and Sustainable Urban Development – understanding how the tension between heritage preservation and urban development has been resolved in practicehttp://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0024/002459/245999e.pdf

Change and grow 21st century museum audiences.

The good thing about not working for a single museum (and believe me there are not many advantages to being a contract or casual worker) is that you get to see things as an outsider and are well placed to think critically about cultural institutions that don’t employ you. As an onlooker, I am always thinking about audience engagement at the museums, art galleries and heritage spaces that I visit (particularly the ones for which I have a paid yearly membership). In my paid employment, I have been lucky to have been supervised by one of the best – Dr Lynda Kelly (CEO Lynda Kelly Networks and formerly Head of Learning at The Australian National Maritime Museum) who embraces digital engagement in cultural spaces and advocates the importance of evaluating the museum audience experience at every point of contact – before, during and after the visit. I am also a big fan of Colleen Dilenschneider and her blog (and new website), “Know Your Own Bone” and 3 minute YouTube videos  (for those who don’t have time to read) which give tremendous insight into cultural organisations, their audiences and their markets. Kelly and Dilenschneider really make you think about museums in the 21st century and how they will grow their actual and online  visitor numbers to protect the future of their cultural organisations.

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There are some current “disruptive techniques” available for the marketing and presentation of new experiences to keep current visitors actively involved in cultural organisations whilst growing new audiences and developing new community relationships. The MuseumNext  conference held in Melbourne, Australia earlier this year had speakers from all over the globe sharing their knowledge and experience with participants. The main topic for discussion was “risk”. Museums, like other cultural organisations, need to take more risks if they want to grow their audiences. This is not about putting collections or staff in any danger, but about “thinking outside the box” and doing things a little differently. It is also not about cutting staff and  handing over the reigns to an external consultant who really doesn’t know the museum or the value of specific collections let alone understand the overworked  back of house functions (curatorial, education, conservation, research and volunteers). It is about best practice and the collective future for museums and better ways to interpret and present collections, by engaging and changing the perception of existing audiences, creating new audiences in the physical museum space and online, embracing technology, encouraging visitor participation and fostering innovation within cultural institutions worldwide.

Taking calculated risks can also be interpreted as “disruption” in cultural institutions. Organisations like to think that they have a “vision” and strategic plan for the future but 

  • are activities being done the way that they were always done?
  • are audiences the same as they always were?
  • are the needs of the staff more important, equal to or less important than those of the audiences?
  • is the marketing function bringing superficial numbers through the door more important than the curatorial and back of house functions who maintain collections, design exhibitions, create educational programs and digital content behind the scenes?
  • Is the team behind the scenes as harmonious and cohesive as the face being presented to the public?
  • is the institution well funded and well managed with strong leadership and direction?

There are so many issues to consider and the issues will vary depending upon the size of the organisation, the collection involved, the existing membership base and the statutory and funding model for the cultural institution in question.

For the 21st Century Museum engaging new and different audiences is critical. How does an organisation like Museum Hack become a “disruptive force” in an established cultural institution? They look with new eyes. They work with organisations “to create new content, strengthen existing programs, build social media prowess, reach new audiences, and increase relevance and engagement”. They set out to engage new audiences and increase audience diversity by thinking outside the box – encouraging a new relationship between visitors and the collections in the museum space and for this interaction to be about learning and fun.

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It could be argued that many museums put time and effort into curating their spaces and educating the public but unless the output is measured and analysed then the “facts and figures” may be misleading. Counting numbers through the door and anecdotal observations are not sufficient in comparison to quantitative results from well orchestrated visitor studies and qualitative reports gleaned from well designed visitor feedback surveys. Ceri Jones’s review article on “Enhancing our understanding of museum audiences: visitor studies in the 21st century” quotes David Fleming as saying  that “ if museums are to be serious about their social role, understanding the needs, motivations and expectations of visitors (and non-visitors) is critical to their mission, values and decision-making processes (Fleming 2012)”.

While academics in the museum industry may not like the style of Nina Simon’s new book, Art Of Relevance, I love the way she writes about cultural institutions and the need for them to remain relevant with audiences into the future if they want to survive. I particularly like the way she looks at “insiders” and “outsiders”, which is what Michelle Obama spoke about at the opening of the new Whitney Museum extension that I mentioned in my previous post. Obama spoke about the way that some sectors of the community feel that they don’t belong or wouldn’t be represented in their local cultural institutions and Simon speaks about finding “new doors” to open which makes people feel welcome rather than left outside.

In 2016, Chloe Hodge wrote an editorial for Artsy, “As Attention Spans Dwindle, How Does a Museum Capture New Audiences?” which gives examples of three museums adopting new approaches to engaging new audiences and building relationships with the local community. Panama’s Biomuseo has used architecture and design to try to draw in the locals to engage with the biodiversity of their environment in a country without any true museum culture. The environmentally sustainable building aims to reconnect locals with the outdoors and encourages visitors to act on their social conscience by protecting their plant and animal species and thinking about Panama’s global responsibilities.

Berlin’s Museum Island (Museum für Islamische Kunst, the Bode, Pergamon, and the Deutsches Historisches Museum (DHM)) have adopted a programme used by Museum für Islamische Kunst and a group of Syrian archeology students who became asylum seekers in 2011. “Multaqa: Museum as Meeting Point,” involves the training of Syrian and Iraqui refugees as museum guides and their weekly tours in the Arabic language have opened up the museum collections as conversation starters for refugees who have been disconnected from their own countries. A spokesperson for DHM explains that “When the refugees see images of a completely destroyed Germany and then compare this to what we have now, it gives them hope that Syria, in particular, might once again be a working state. We in Germany tend to forget that Europe was once, too, divided by religious wars and the whole continent destroyed.”

In London’s East End, The Victoria and Albert Museum was seen as partly being to blame for the loss of social housing and the gentrification of the area used for the London Olympics. They are now employing and training East Londoners to ensure that the museum is a product of the area, with a broad appeal for local audiences who can relate to local staff. Three worthwhile innovative strategies chosen by Hodge for discussion in her piece.

There are other ideas for smaller institutions with little budget for large marketing campaigns. Parramatta’s Riverside Theatre has been subsidising the cost of a theatre tickets to disadvantaged young people and running workshops in the arts for people with disabilities by asking theatre goers to donate to the Riverside Theatre’s education programme. Being proactive in engaging new audiences who might otherwise have been left outside the door is one way to ensure the future of the cultural institution, particularly when the experience is a positive one.

Hannah Hethmon wrote about inexpensive social media marketing for smaller cultural institutions in her blog post “Guerilla Marketing Tips for small museums”. She speaks about investing time and energy rather than money to attract new audiences using social media tools which target visitors who are not regulars and may be persuaded to visit by an influencer that they follow on Pinterest, Instagram or Facebook to visit a museum in response to a post which calls them to action.

Museums in the 21st century have to fight hard for a slice of the recreational dollar. In Australia, there are demographic changes to the cities, changes in cultural diversity, generational changes and changing in access to technology which affect the way cultural organisations are viewed and valued by the population in general. To grow in the future, cultural organisations must know how they are placed with respect to all of the above and take some risks in the future to remain relevant to their current audiences and to attract new visitors. It won’t just be about sharing collections and heritage spaces and places but about exchanging knowledge, being safe places to visit, being affordable and welcoming to everyone.