Museums in NSW, Issues of Policy, Equity and Access: Kylie Winkworth

The proposed move of the Powerhouse Museum to Parramatta has unleashed a passionate debate about cultural equity. This is overdue. However the faux privileged east versus deprived west construct around cultural equity for western Sydney misses bigger and more substantial issues in museum policy for NSW.

The NSW Government released an arts and cultural policy framework Create in NSW, in February 2015[1]. Unfortunately the policy takes as given the current structure and focus of the NSW government’s museums. The scope and shape of NSW collecting organisations is mostly an unexamined inheritance from the nineteenth century, and the result of ad hoc decisions. In its primary focus on cultural infrastructure the government’s policy has missed the chance to consider if the current structure of museums in NSW is equitable and fit for purpose in the 21st century. Museum structures, policies and programs need retuning to maximise the impact and returns from the community’s investment in museums. For example:

  • NSW is the only state or territory in Australia without a museum responsible for history. It is remarkable that the foundation colony of Australia has no museum with a mandate to collect and interpret the history of NSW, or even Sydney. Social history was part of the Powerhouse Museum from 1988, but NSW history has disappeared from its exhibitions, collecting, research priorities and staffing structure, and it is not formally part of the 1945 MAAS legislation.
  • Sydney has a small Museum of Sydney which is not really about Sydney, and a collection of historic houses and buildings managed by Sydney Living Museums. But it does not have a museum that tells the story of Sydney and NSW. The 2011 Planning Sydney’s Cultural Facilities review noted the relative lack of social history museums and suggested that Sydney does not capitalise on its strong cultural heritage. [2]
  • Cultural and heritage visitors spend almost twice as much as other international visitors. [3] This is not reflected in the government’s infrastructure spending priorities. The government has allocated just $600m for cultural infrastructure from the sale of the poles and wires electricity assets, but boosted its commitment to sporting stadiums from $600m to $1.6b. [4]
  • Over the last 20 years NSW has under-invested in culture infrastructure and this shows in its performance relative to other states. It has a lower per capita spend on culture than all other jurisdictions except Victoria; about $40 less per person.[5] In the years 2007-10 cultural spending in NSW decreased by 23%. Other states outperform NSW in attendance at blockbusters, with only two NSW exhibitions in the top ten, one of them the Powerhouse Museum’s Harry Potter exhibition. [6]
  • NSW is the only state that does not have either a dedicated migration museum, or a state museum with responsibility for collecting, research and interpreting migration history. [7] Yet the cultural diversity of NSW is one its great success stories and economic opportunities. And celebrating the migration stories of diverse communities builds community harmony and respect.
  • Economically important aspects of NSW history such as agriculture, mining and water are not exhibited or properly collected. The state’s mining collection is in storage. There is no mining or gold museum, although this has been an important part of the state’s economy since 1851. NSW has a shearing museum in Hay but no wool museum, even though NSW was the founding state for Australia’s wool industry.
  • Despite all the commercial development at Barangaroo, the promised cultural dividend in the form of an Indigenous Cultural Centre has not eventuated
  • Unlike other states where there is one art gallery, sometimes operating over two sites, Sydney city has two art museums: the Art Gallery of NSW and the MCA. The proposed Sydney Modern extension will double the size of the AGNSW in the domain at a cost of $400m, further concentrating all the art gallery facilities in the city centre. The project has been advanced by the NSW government, but there has been little debate about whether this is fair, equitable or justified.
  • Most of the Powerhouse Museum’s internationally significant collections of design and decorative arts are not on exhibition.[8] Design in all its forms and applications[9] is one of Sydney’s most important exports and it should be part of its image and brand as a global city. Most international cities have opened acclaimed design museums in the last three decades, but the decorative arts and design collections in the Powerhouse Museum are almost all in storage. [10] The PHM’s nationally significant collection of Australian decorative arts is in storage. In the last few years the museum has concentrated on Australian fashion. The work of just one fashion designer has dominated acquisitions for the last two years. A new design museum in Sydney would arguably have a greater cultural, tourism and economic impact than the proposed Sydney Modern development.
  • There are significant overlaps and duplication in NSW collecting institutions in many collecting areas. But there are no policy or funding incentives for the coordination or sharing of collections, expertise and exhibitions in areas such as Asian art, Indigenous culture, decorative arts, and design. NSW might be get better value from its cultural spend if the next major new cultural infrastructure investment was a collaborative cultural facility, with exhibition spaces for the state museums and library to present innovative new shows in areas of identified omissions.
  • Cultural success is not just about infrastructure. The capability and performance of NSW cultural institutions has been affected by more than 10 years of the compounding ‘efficiency dividend’. All the museums have had major redundancy programs, with the loss of experienced staff, research capacity and collections expertise. Staff numbers at the PHM have nearly halved over the last decade. Education staff at the Powerhouse shrunk from 17 people in 2005 to just 3 in 2015. In 2014 the museum’s acclaimed regional service program was gutted, experienced staff were made redundant, fewer visits are now made to regional NSW and most regional services from the museum now charge a fee.
  • In the 21st century digital access to collections is an important part of the soft architecture of effective museums. Online access to NSW collections is poor. While the Powerhouse led the way in the development of on-line access to collections, this edge has now been lost to Victoria, where the Victorian Collections website is attracting international attention. The landmark National Quilt Register website, which was funded by Arts NSW grants and developed by the PHM, has now been transferred to the National Wool Museum in Geelong. The Migration Heritage Centre’s website with extensive community histories has also been archived by MAAS and is no longer maintained.

Regional Museums, Access and Equity
The cultural needs of the growing communities in western Sydney have properly attracted a lot of support. But the most glaring cultural inequality is not the disparity of cultural funding between the east and western Sydney, where at least the city museums are within relatively easy reach, but between Sydney and regional NSW where 30% of the population live. And of all the forms of arts and culture in regional NSW, museums face the most challenging barriers and entrenched discrimination in funding.

  • Of all the states and territories, NSW has the most city centric and inequitable funding structure for museums. Regional communities receive few benefits from their tax dollars invested in NSW government museums. Unlike Queensland, Western Australia, and the Northern Territory, all the NSW government museums are in the city,[11] and there are no regional branches to share collections and anchor important regional stories.[12]
  • The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences used to have a network of branch museums in regional cities such as Goulburn, Bathurst, Maitland, Albury and Broken Hill, but these were closed in the 1980s as the Powerhouse Museum project was under development. This has left NSW with a very unequal concentration of museum resources in Sydney, and no strategy to interpret stories of major significance for NSW history and its development.
  • The State Library of NSW has a state wide mission and supports the network of regional and community libraries. But there is no equivalent service mission for NSW government museums. While NSW government museums have modest regional programs, most of the museums’ budgets and resources are dedicated to city based museums and in recent years there has been a marked withdrawal of services and a loss of focus on state museums reaching a state wide audience.
  • Unlike other states, NSW has no regional museums with the critical mass or quality of infrastructure to do justice to important themes in NSW history. While Ballarat has built a significant tourism industry around its gold history, and NSW students go on excursions to Ballarat, the site of the first discovery of payable gold at Ophir near Orange is only marked by a few signs.
  • NSW does not have a strategy to develop ‘destination’ museums in regional NSW that might attract international visitors, or explore areas of interest to visitors such as Aboriginal culture, Chinese history, produce, food and wine. This contrasts with Queensland which invested $110m in developing a network of regional heritage trails, anchored by destination attractions such as the Waltzing Matilda Centre at Winton, the Stockman’s Hall of Fame at Longreach and the Barcaldine Heritage Centre.
  • There is no policy to coordinate or prioritise the interpretation of significant regional stories or destinations which are important for the history of NSW and which might underpin regional tourism. Key omissions include regional interpretations on wool, irrigation, farming, forests, mining and Aboriginal culture.
  • NSW is paying for the storage of extensive government-owned collections without a strategy to make these collections and make accessible on the ground or on-line in a way that will unlock the value of these collections. Some of these collections could well be housed in new or upgraded facilities in regional NSW where they would have most significance.
  • The government’s promise to develop a new museum in Parramatta is welcome. But at a likely cost of close to $1b for one museum just 23ks west of the city, the new museum will do little to address entrenched cultural inequality, particularly for communities in regional NSW. The government has not revealed if it has done a cost benefit analysis or considered the opportunity cost of sinking this much money into one museum for a community that is just 25 minutes from Sydney.
  • Although the Create in NSW policy framework and the 2014 State Infrastructure Strategy Update both commit to funding regional cultural infrastructure, the Arts Minister has since suggested that cultural infrastructure projects in western Sydney and regional NSW should be funded by local government. [13]
  • Already regional communities in NSW are triple taxed for culture, paying state and federal taxes to support state and national cultural institutions, from which they receive few benefits, and then funding cultural facilities in their region through council rates.
  • In recent years major cultural infrastructure projects in regional NSW are being built with no capital contribution from the NSW government. The new $10.5m Murray Art Museum Albury (MAMA) which opened in 2015 was two thirds funded by council and the community. The soon to open $8m Orange Regional Museum is funded through rates and a grant from the federal government. The $18m Dubbo convention centre was built by council with no contribution from the state government.
  • Funding for regional cultural infrastructure is at token levels. The Arts NSW 2016 regional cultural infrastructure grant round allocated just $385,000. The biggest grant was $60,000. [14]
  • In contrast to regional NSW, western Sydney cultural infrastructure has been relatively well supported, via the previous Labor government’s $30m Western Sydney Arts Strategy, which funded the development of major cultural infrastructure in Casula, Campbelltown, Penrith and Parramatta. Between 2002-2010, western Sydney attracted $55m in cultural infrastructure funding.[15]
  • In other states such as Victoria, and some museum projects in WA, new regional cultural infrastructure is built through a three-way partnership funding model between the federal, state and local government; for example the Museum of Australian Democracy in Ballarat.
  • The Rebuilding NSW State Infrastructure NSW Strategy promised that the state government would actively collaborate with local government around opportunities for cultural facilities in regional centres. [16] So far there has not been any announcement on partnership funding opportunities.
  • The policy also said that $300m would be set aside for regional and environmental tourism facilities. At present it seems that most of this funding has been badged to transport infrastructure upgrades, such as airports, leaving cultural infrastructure out in the cold.
  • The most disadvantaged cultural organisations in NSW are the more than 300 volunteer managed community museums and historical societies. These museums are not even mentioned in the Create in NSW policy. These are the oldest and most numerous cultural organisations in NSW with the most volunteers working in sometimes decrepit and not fit for purpose buildings, caring for irreplaceable heritage collections which tell the stories of their communities, and they have little access to funding and support. Many of the volunteers are in the 70s and 80s and are working 40 hours a week to keep the museum going on a miniscule budget of $3,000 or so a year. They wonder what will happen to the museum when they die as in many cases there is no next generation of volunteers to take over.
  • Most museums in regional NSW operate with no or limited support from their council. Unlike the well-established network of regional galleries, managed by councils with paid staff, there are just a handful of council managed regional museums with paid staff, (Tweed, Newcastle, Orange, Wagga Wagga, and Bathurst). There are well-founded concerns that funding support for museums from local government will be further constrained as a result of amalgamations. Volunteer managed museums have a difficult pathway to transition into a more secure council-funded regional museum.
  • Despite their numbers and relative disadvantage, museums and collections in NSW secured a tiny share of the Arts NSW 2016 Arts and Cultural Development Program grants, just 1.13% of the funding. [17] There were no regional partnership grants to museums, and no museum projects were funded in round 1 of the projects grants. Since the art form specific grants were consolidated into a single fund, museums have had difficulty securing grants in a program which is tailored to professional arts practice.
  • Other funding sources for museums and collections have tiny grants. The last Museums and Galleries NSW grant round in 2015 had only $48,000 available for the more than 300 community museums across regional NSW with the largest grant just $7,500.[18] The small VIM grant program had just $20,000 to distribute to volunteer museums with a maximum grant of $2,000. [19]
  • The absence of a policy and appropriate funding framework for museums in regional NSW imperils their future and the security of their collections. Culture doesn’t come out of a vacuum; it comes out of local stories, people and a sense of place. Most of these unique stories and their related collections are held in community museums managed by volunteers. They need better programs of support to secure their future and share their collections and stories with new generations of visitors.

Kylie Winkworth,  June 2016

[3] 2014 State Infrastructure Strategy Update, p116
[4] Of the $600m in the cultural infrastructure fund $341m has already been allocated to the Sydney Opera House ($202m) and Walsh Bay ($139m), leaving only $259m for cultural infrastructure projects in rest of Sydney and NSW.
[5] However unlike NSW Victoria has had major investment in its museums in the last 20 years including the Melbourne Museum, the expansion and redesign of the NGV, and the Ian Potter Centre at Federation Square.
[6]Recreation and Arts Baseline Report, prepared by Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC) for Infrastructure NSW, 2012
[7] The Powerhouse Museum closed the acclaimed NSW Migration Heritage Centre which worked in partnership with communities and councils across NSW, even though it had dedicated recurrent funding of $370,000pa. This award winning virtual museum model was one of the most successful innovations in recent Australian museum history. Its partnership model has driven significant contributions from local government, and it has garnered national and international attention as an alternative to the proliferation of ethno specific migration museums. The NSW Migration Heritage Centre’s innovative model of collaborative regional partnerships to document and interpret the migration heritage of NSW has now been copied by Queensland, while the PHM has closed the MHC.
[8] In Queensland and Victoria design collections are held in the state art galleries but in NSW design collections are held principally in the PHM, but are also found in the Art Gallery of NSW, the State Library, the Australian Museum, and SLM, without any institution doing justice to the subject. Even collections relating to a major building like the Sydney Opera House are scattered across several institutions.
[9] Design includes architecture, graphic design and branding, games, interiors, gardens, film, theatre, decorative arts, the crafts and object design, design for the digital and virtual world, fashion and textiles, industrial and product design, engineering, transport and communications, entertainment, and urban design. It is vital for the 21st century economy and issues such as innovation, new materials, environmental design and sustainability.
[10] The government argues the new museum in Parramatta created from the sale and demolition of the Powerhouse Museum will have 40% more objects on display than the Ultimo museum. MAAS records that the PHM had 8,000 objects on display in 2015. If this is increased by 40% this will be 11,200 objects on display in the new museum at Parramatta. There are 500,000 objects in the MAAS collections so the new Parramatta museum will still only display 2.24% of the collection, leaving more than 97% of the collection in storage.
[11] The lone exception is Meroogal, an historic house at Nowra.
[12] Other states operate networks of regional branch museums. For example the WA museum in Perth, includes the WA Maritime Museum in Fremantle, and museums in Albany, Geraldton, and Kalgoorlie Boulder. The Queensland Museum has regional branches in the Workshops Rail Museum at Ipswich, the Cobb and Co Museum in Toowoomba and the Museum of Tropical Queensland in Townsville, and a museum of Lands Mapping and Surveying. Each in their own ways makes a major contribution to the economy and cultural life of their city. They are highly regarded and well supported by their communities. Townsville is a major tourist attraction and an international leader in research on coral reefs; Cobb and Co has a fine collection of horse drawn vehicles and has an innovative heritage trades partnership with the technical college; the Ipswich Rail Workshops are also highly regarded for their education, hands on and family programs and in keeping rail heritage skills alive.
[16] Section 4.5, p.48.