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SAM’s research realignment proposal

Charlie Gilchrist, Pressure continues over SA Museum plans, In Daily, 8 April 2024

South Australian Museum leaders continue to defend proposed changes to the Adelaide institution in the face of opposition from leading scientists, an upcoming protest and a parliamentary grilling.

SA Museum leaders were questioned by a committee at Old Parliament House, while a protest is planned for Parliament House steps. Photo: Google Maps.

InDaily has seen numerous letters sent to the state government by high-profile bodies and individuals in the science community, expressing deep concern about the proposed direction of the SA Museum.

InDaily reported in February that the museum proposed to abolish all 27 positions in the Research and Collections department and replace them with roles focusing on curatorial research.

Scientist and former museum director Tim Flannery warned the changes could “result in the death of an institution – one of the most important institutions in the state”.

Responses to the proposed changes were sent by the former Chief Scientists for South Australia, the Royal Society of South Australia for the Advancement of Science, Taxonomy Australia and several University of Adelaide faculty heads.

In their letter, the former Chief Scientists of South Australia Dr Leanna Read and Professor Don Bursill wrote that “the current budget deficits could jeopardise the viability of the Museum’s world-leading and irreplaceable collections along with the essential research capacity to exploit those collections”, while Taxonomy Australia said the changes will “have a significant detrimental impact on biodiversity discovery, both locally and at a national level”.

The authors of the University of Adelaide letter, which included a former Acting Director of the SA Museum, said the proposed restructure “will critically undermine the quality and integrity of the museum’s world-class collections and the research associated with these collections”.

Along with the letter-writing campaign, there will also be a protest at Parliament House this Saturday, with organisers writing that “proposed changes will devastate the Museum’s research capability and institutional knowledge, as well as staff capacity to care for the Museum’s irreplaceable assets, including its priceless collections”.

The backlash comes as SA Museum CEO Dr David Gaimster and Chair Kim Cheater were questioned by parliament’s Budget and Finance Committee.

Cheater told the committee at last week’s hearing that the museum’s priorities were a “transition from an academic to a curatorial model of research” and that the “collection’s management capability be strengthened”, along with a “greater investment by the Museum in digitisation”.

Throughout the hearing, committee members quoted from SA Museum meeting minutes obtained by an FOI request dating from March 2023 to December 2023, which InDaily has viewed.

Some questions asked related to the proposed restructure of the museum staff, changes to permanent exhibits, the repatriation of Indigenous remains and the recent Auditor-General’s Report that criticised the museum’s management of historic collections.

Cheater and Gaimster defended the SA Museum’s record and accused the media of peddling in misinformation, pointing to reports of the amount of research grant funding received directly by the museum and comments about the devaluation of natural science research, which Gaimster acknowledged has received a lot of attention.

Both Gaimster and Cheater denied that the museum leadership was downplaying the importance of the institution’s academic research, with Cheater claiming it was currently focused on a “very narrow field” and would shift from “an academic to a curatorial model of research”.

“Much of the museum’s academic output is published in scientific journals and only a limited amount is shared with South Australian audiences, and it has not significantly informed or changed the museum’s visitor experience over the past 20 years,” he said.

Cheater at one stage told the committee that he was unsure which staff members were interviewed during the review of the Research and Collections division, and was unable to say how many collections items have not been catalogued following the Auditor-General’s Report.

When InDaily spoke to scientists earlier, they said the academic research undertaken at the museum was critical to understanding and responding to climate change and had helped identify species at risk of extinction.

Dr Robert Hill, a former Head of Science at the SA Museum, told InDaily that “right at the moment, we’re going through a period of massive environmental change and it’s going to get a lot worse in the future”.

“If we don’t have a group of really well-trained people who are monitoring what’s going on, who can talk with authority…[then] we’ve lost our ability to protect against what I think will be one of the major challenges for future generations,” he said.

A large point of contention was whether adequate consultation had been undertaken with staff and relevant stakeholders about the proposed restructure.

Budget and Finance Committee member Tammy Franks noted that the SA Museum had received a letter from the State Aboriginal Heritage Committee – who were not consulted – expressing concern for the future of the museum’s Aboriginal Heritage and its Repatriation Manager and Family and Community History Consultant.

“In writing to express its concern about the apparent de-prioritisation of repatriation and Aboriginal family history research, the Committee decided to include the names of the above two SAM employees because they are well known to members and to the broader Aboriginal Community,” they said.

“Their experience and achievements in handling matters that are deeply painful for Aboriginal people cannot be readily replaced, especially by someone of limited skills and experience.”

Committee Chairperson Heidi Girolamo queried why museum management hadn’t told the Public Service Association of the proposed restructure earlier.

Cheater said staff and stakeholders had been consulted but acknowledged there had so far been no direct consultation with external stakeholders.

Gaimster said that consultation with staff and the PSA had not yet concluded as the union had lodged a dispute with the South Australian Employment Tribunal, which will go to conciliation.

The South Australian Museum. Photo: Charlie Gilchrist/InDaily.

There was also disagreement as to whether it was accurate to claim that permanent exhibits at the SA Museum had not changed in 20 years.

Franks pointed to a number of newer and updated exhibits including the transformation of the Mawson Gallery into the Australian Polar Collections gallery in 2017, with Gaimster saying he did not consider these to be major changes.

Another issue raised during the committee was the temporary suspension of collections services, meaning the museum was not currently accepting any new acquisitions, loan requests or requests to view collections.

Gaimster acknowledged that there were concerns that the museum would permanently stop collecting, but said it was a temporary measure to enable an audit of collections.

However, he said that the museum would focus on “refining” its collection priorities.

“The SA Museum is not a museum of last resort,” he said.

“Our collecting needs to be strategic, and it needs to be carefully planned so that we can align collecting with our strategic direction and with the resources that we have.”