Category Archives: GLAM sector

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?

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