Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Do Museums have a future?

The Welcome Map exhibit in the First Peoples exhibition at Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre at Melbourne Museum. Source: Museums Victoria.

Dr J Patrick Greene, OBE, Looking Forward, Do Museums Have a Future?, Insite Magazine, February to April 2017

After nearly fifteen years as CEO of Museums Victoria, Patrick Greene is moving on, but not before reflecting on what has been achieved and what lies ahead for museums as they evolve their relationship with audiences and respond to world events.

On 14 February 2017 I will step down from my position as Chief Executive Officer of Museums Victoria. It will be my fifteenth year in Melbourne, following nineteen years as Director of the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester and twelve years excavating the site of Norton Priory in Cheshire. I have a vantage point to examine the future of museums by examining where some current trends may take us.

A careful look at the history of what is now Museums Victoria reveals a story of advances and reverses, with good times interspersed with bad, but always the power to adapt and survive. The capacity to think of the long-term, especially where collections are concerned, means that each phase of the museum’s existence leaves an enhanced legacy for the next. The Museum is the product of the enterprise and determination of all who have worked for it throughout its existence.

From the outset the prospect of leading a museum with several sites and encyclopaedic collections and knowledge excited me, but I was all too aware that many large museums fall victim to silos, rivalries and departmentalism. The networked museum was the antidote and what a success it has been. It has embraced all of our activities, including research, communication, exhibitions, public programs, customer service, members, governance, and commercial ventures. Put simply, it is a culture of collaboration of ‘Teams and individuals working in different places and spaces to achieve shared goals and a shared
outcome.’

During the past fifteen years, numerous exhibitions have taken place, public programs have expanded enormously, there is a single collections database instead of fifty individual ones, over one million items are searchable on the Museums Victoria Collections database, hundreds of research papers have been published in refereed journals, a number of new planetarium shows have been developed and a range of awards have been won.

Our commercial side has also expanded–we took responsibility for the operation of the Royal Exhibition Building, the IMAX cinema and the Melbourne Museum carpark that had private sector operators previously, and have made a success of all of them. Of course we also operate shops, our ‘Museum Spaces’ venue hire business and touring exhibitions, all of which produce income that helps to sustain the museum’s activities.

So the lesson that I have learnt is that an organisation that has been around for more than a century and a half can be innovative and successful and therefore safeguard its future. Age is no barrier to doing so.

Museums are increasingly responding to challenges facing society, such as the rise in the number of people with dementia. At Museums Victoria, we are increasing our efforts, using the ‘creating dementia-friendly communities’ toolkit developed by Alzheimers Australia, applying it in aged care settings through our out-reach program.

Another example of a resource for a section of the audience who have particular needs is the ‘autism-friendly museum’ initiative that Museums Victoria has applied to all three of its museums, developed in partnership with Amaze/ Autism Australia. Advice on preparing for the visit, social stories to help visitors with autism, and the identification of quiet areas are all ingredients.

The way in which digital technologies are transforming so many aspects of our lives is astonishing in both impact and speed of change. The newspaper industry is struggling to survive and the future looks bleak for print journalism. Museums, on the other hand, have benefited. A good example is the first app that Museums Victoria developed, the Field Guide to Victorian Fauna that was launched in 2011.

The award-winning app has now been downloaded over 137,000 times, and has been rolled out across Australia on a collaborative basis with our colleague museums in the other states and territories. It has also been enhanced by crowd-sourcing images, birdsong and frog calls from the public.

Looking to the future, what else are we likely to see? Virtual Reality is something that has been about to happen on a big scale for at least a quarter of a century, but there are signs that this time it really will take off. It will be interesting to observe how museums utilise VR and whether the public want to experience it in a museum setting rather than their own sitting rooms.

Will the urge to create new museums ever stop? Again and again, the response to an anniversary, a notable person, a technological advance, a tourism opportunity and almost anything else is ‘Let’s create a museum about it.’ Luckily, there are organisations such as Museums Australia (Victoria) who can ask the hard questions, the most important being ‘do you realise what you are taking on?’ closely followed by ‘do you realise that, once established, the museum is with us forever?’

A very precious asset that museums possess is the way in which they are trusted sources of information. With that trust comes a responsibility to use it to benefit the community. The implications of a 1.5 degree rise in global temperatures are enormous; the implications of a 2.0 degree rise are terrifying. Museums are in a perfect position to spell out the issues for the local communities that they serve, for example by using historic records to demonstrate the impact of a warming climate on the locality. Museums Victoria’s planetarium show Our Lving Climate provides a vivid reminder of the precarious nature of life on Earth.

Museums also contribute to community cohesion, from active participants in the life of small rural communities to specific programs aimed at countering racism and extremism in an urban setting. Museums are also active in presenting the 50,000 year story of Indigenous Australians in ways that are respectful and enlightening.

In the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre in Melbourne Museum, the First Peoples exhibition continues to attract visitor’s social media comments, such as: “In Bunjilaka, the Museum tells the story of survival against the odds and celebrates vibrant Aboriginal cultures through performances, storytelling, artwork and more. It’s a beautiful experience with the story being told in many ways through objects as well as photographs, moving image etc. I enjoy the rest of the museum but this is always the highlight for me.“

The reason that Bunjilaka strikes such a chord with the people who experience it is because it results from an unparalleled partnership with Victoria’s Aboriginal communities. Museums have moved a great distance in the last few decades from a position that was highly protective of their knowledge authority to one that values the input of the people they serve. In my experience, a welcoming attitude to people with knowledge always pays dividends.

I am proud to be part of a remarkable international community that contributes so much value to our lives. My final comment is this: very few people understand the extent of the activities we undertake or know much about the skilled work that our members of staff and volunteers carry out. We are in the business of communication, so isn’t it time we became more effective at communicating our work and achievements?

Dr J Patrick Greene OBE, CEO, Museums Victoria. Visit Museums Victoria at: https://museumsvictoria.com.au

Council of Australasian Museum Directors, c/o Ms Daryl Karp, Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House PO Box 3934 Manuka, Australian Capital Territory 2603 Australia, © CAMD 2021
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