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Cultural infrastructure & valuing care & respect

Kylie Message, The future of Australian museums: What we mean when we say the humanities are at risk, ABC News, 12 June 2024

If the pathways and pipelines that support the staff and researchers of our internationally significant museums are destroyed due to lack of funding, what message does this send about the way culture should be valued as a core part of our national future? (chameleonseye / iStock Editorial / Getty Images).

I recently attended a conference of leaders in the humanities from across the globe. Held at the University of California, Berkeley, the theme of the gathering was “… at RiskIt aimed to examine the multiple challenges encountered by scholars operating within increasingly hostile environments across the world, as well as how the humanities enable as well as foreclose forms of risk. As I sat listening, my phone was pinging with emails from colleagues in Australia about the ongoing problems facing the South Australian Museum and the proposed axing of the museum studies program at the University of Queensland (UQ).

The split-screen experience led me to propose that we work backwards from the questions “What kind of world do we want?” and “What kind of society do we want?” It seems to me that this approach leads swiftly to the question “What kind of university do we want?” — which in turn requires us to identify the infrastructure required to deliver the answers. The flip side of articulating what is necessary is a better understanding of the effect that the long-term systematic chipping away of humanities and cultural infrastructures is having in Australia.

In short, rather than being “nice to have” optional extras, universities and museums are necessary for the production and sustainability of the cultural and educational work that is fundamental to societies that value care and respect. The question “Where do the humanities begin and end?” is also relevant because it foregrounds the understanding that the cultural sector has often sought ongoing support by arguing it is an intrinsic or instrumental public good. But what if what was once considered a public good (such as democracy) is now weaponised as “woke” by those seeking to oppress democracy — in the name of preserving “traditional” values?

Cultural infrastructure: a legacy of underfunding

Many of the risks facing the cultural and higher education sectors in Australia have arisen from and been compounded by decades of underfunding of core cultural and educational infrastructure. Despite representing itself as having spear-headed a course correction, the Albanese government’s impact has been limited and patchy. I have written previouslyabout the federal government’s new National Cultural Policy, Revive: A Place for Every Story, a Story for Every Place, and the provisions included in federal budget 2023-24 for the cultural sector. For my interests here, it is notable that Budget 2024-25 provided $53.8 million to establish and expand service at First Nations language centres, and $115.2 million to Australia’s eight national screen, music, performing arts, and dance training organisations.

The university sector’s gains in the 2024-25 Budget were similarly targeted and modest, directed primarily at establishing new regulatory bodies and contributing to HECS/HELP relief and student income support to begin the process of delivering on the Australian Universities Accord. Maintenance level funding was provided for research activities through the Research Support Program, Research Training Program, and the Australian Research Council.

Universities Australia Chair Professor David Lloyd responded by emphasising the causal link between infrastructure funding and our national futures. Achieving the Albanese government’s goals of its Future Made in Australia agenda will require, he explained, investment in research and development as well as graduates prepared for changing requirements of the skilled workforce.

What’s behind the disappearance of museum studies?

Other factors, including waning support for the public value propositions of museums and the humanities research fields, may have contributed to an institutional decline in confidence in the South Australian Museum and the projected closure of UQ’s museum studies program. However, there has been significant public protest against these proposals, suggesting that inadequate funding for core business remains the primary problem.

The South Australian Museum has appeared to mask the reality of continued underfunding by hitching its wagon to a narrative of “reinvention”. Rather than addressing rising costs and inadequate government funds, CEO David Gaimster defendedthe institution’s removal of research capabilities in favour of public engagement on the grounds that the museum is “not a university”. The reasons given by the University of Queensland for the phasing out of its coursework postgraduate programs in museum studies are “challenges relating to enrolments, staffing and market differentiation”. In a context of escalating living costs, the reduction of enrolments in one-and-a-half year Masters programs that in 2024 have tuition costs of $34,000 for a domestic student and $61,680 for an international student, is hardly surprising.

Current proposals to cut programs at the University of Queensland and programs and staff at the South Australian Museum are not isolated examples. In Queensland alone, 2023 saw proposals to shutter James Cook University’s Creative Arts program and to close the Griffith University Art Museum. Previous cuts had already been taken at Queensland College of the Arts. Further south, in New South Wales, Sydney College of the Arts at the University of Sydney has been facing and protesting consistent underfunding, restructuring and cutbacks for years, while Macquarie University’s museum studies programs were closed a decade earlier.

Threats of cuts and closures are serious but too infrequently understood as representing the much larger systemic failure of government at all levels to support cultural and tertiary education infrastructures, particularly in regional Australia. Even though regional higher education is a stated government priority and articulated as a priority area for the Universities Accord, and despite the fact that regional universities are regarded as engines of their community, Victoria Kuttainen argues:

‘regional university arts and humanities programs have been gutted by decades of underfunding, by a revolving door of institutional restructures and degree makeovers … and by the broader government diversion of funding and resources to larger metropolitan institutions.’

The reduction in cultural infrastructure, educational opportunities, and human capacity that will result from the closure of museum studies at the University of Queensland led students and the cultural sector to protest that, should the proposal go ahead, the state of Queensland will have no tertiary course in this field. The “big and dynamic sector full of career opportunities” including “400 museums and galleries across regional, remote and metropolitan Queensland” that the University of Queensland’s promotional materialshighlight as a recruitment tool for this exact course will now have no in-state opportunities for professional training or accreditation.

This is how museums wither and die

Beyond the immediate consequences that the University of Queensland proposal would have on future workforce development, there is the subsequent problem of research training. Museum studies is not exclusively a skill-based course. It is an interdisciplinary research field that emerged out of humanities disciplines including anthropology, history, and literary studies. It shares with these fields the commitment to provide the critical and creative thinking capabilities required for higher degree scholarship and research programs — including the PhDs that generate the knowledge required to explore and ensure national futures.

Moreover, museum studies scholars recognise that museums, like universities, are key sites of research and innovation. This sentiment is reiterated by internationally renowned Australian scientist, Tim Flannery, former director of the South Australian Museum (1999-2006). He put it bluntly when he said, “the collections are there for research, and without research, the collections wither and die, and with that the museum withers and dies”.

We need to ask what the consequences will be if the pathways to higher degree research are reduced as a result of the axing of graduate courses at the University of Queensland, and if the museum that would have been ideal for hosting the government’s much-hyped initiative for industry placements for PhD students no longer sees itself as a research institution. Students who once would have taken these placements will not have the foundational research skills to enter the PhD programs in the first place.

If government funding of the cultural sector continues to be selective and piecemeal as it has been over the last two federal budgets, museums will find themselves needing to choose between paying for the repair of leaking roofs and staff members who can supervise intern students — if there are any courses left to credential museum work, that is.

If First Nations students want to extend the practical skills they’ve been provided with through government support of target training providers, where are they to go if there are no longer any local or state degree-awarding programs in existence? Although much has been said about the fact that Australia’s richest universities do the poorest job at recruiting Indigenous students, other commentators have observed that many regional students — not exclusively First Nations — prefer to study at a local university. While their options for doing this are becoming impossibly limited, Federal Education Minister Jason Clare said in a recent National Press Club speech, “We all pay a price for this: the cost of all these kids missing out.”

If our pathways and pipelines to support the staff and researchers of our internationally significant museums are obliterated because of lack of funding, what message does this send about the way culture should be valued as a core part of our collective national future? This is perhaps the greatest risk of all.

Kylie Message is Professor of Public Humanities and Director of the Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University. She is the author of books including Museums and Social Activism: Engaged ProtestCollecting Activism, Archiving Occupy Wall Street, and Museums and Racism.