Chapter 5. How can cultural sub-sectors respond? Three indicative case studies

Table of Contents

Micro-study of museums
Micro-study of indigenous arts and cultural policy
Micro-study of circus

This chapter examines some sub-sectors that have challenged prevailing policy approaches to the management of culture. We have already explored the plight of performing arts in the contemporary policy context. It was suggested that the management of performing arts entities had been buffeted by the key debates and issues in the arena of arts and cultural policy including: access and equity; audience development; community cultural development; cultural diversity; indigenous cultural production; national versus local culture; globalisation and cultural export; elite versus popular culture; electronic transformations of culture; and youth arts.

In the following pages I briefly explore several micro-studies of specific cultural sub-sectors: museums; indigenous arts and culture; and circus. These have been chosen because of the extent to which they challenge orthodox characterisations of — as well as contemporary approaches to policy-making for — the arts and cultural sector. The first study, on museums, examines the ‘crisis’ in the new ‘museology’. The second, on indigenous arts and culture, explores an area that has evolved from a marginal ethnographic interest into a major plank in national cultural policy and, moreover, has succeeded in balancing government support with commercial success. The third case study examines circus, which, as an ‘outsider’ genre, challenges many of the assumptions underpinning policy governing the mainstream arts and cultural sectors by developing an innovative and vibrant new artform that has revolutionised ideas about performance, spectacle, physical training, cultural export and audience development.

Micro-study of museums

Museums are a vexed area of cultural policy. In the West, museums developed partly as a consequence of European exploration and the collection of artefacts, natural objects and material culture from ‘exotic’ lands, places and peoples (Bennett 1995; Hooper-Greenhill 1995; Bennett, Trotter & McAlear 1996; Horne 1984; National Museum of Australia 2006). This coincided with the development of modern science and theories of evolution where a classificatory and taxonomic mentality structured the curation of collections into so-called ‘cabinets of curiosity’.

Traditional museums presented their collections in regimented displays of similar and different things, carefully identified by scientific names and classificatory details. The importance of museums paralleled the emergence in the nineteenth century of public institutions designed to support the development of modern notions of citizenship and democracy, education and enlightenment. Museums were ‘temples’ of auto-didacticism and pedagogy, rich resources of exotic objects and knowledge about ‘other-ness’ that fed into European notions of civility and the conquest of ‘primitive’ worlds.

But the fascination with displays of Egyptian mummies, dinosaur bones, taxonomies of butterflies, indigenous weapons, fishing equipment, fauna and flora, shrunken skulls and extinct and endangered animals and skeletons waned considerably during the twentieth century. By the 1960s, museums were regarded as dark, dusty, musty places filled with relics of the past. Museums were suddenly in crisis! The public was no longer enthralled and enchanted by such displays. A debate ensued about the purpose of museums, how they ought to be financed and who was their natural audience.

Why did museums exist? The earlier rationale of collection and curation was challenged by new approaches to knowledge and learning and a partial rejection of classificatory approaches to knowing about the world and the past. Critics demanded a modern political interpretation of objects and contextualisation of museum collections. The purpose of holding huge collections of objects was questioned and the cost of storage, curation and display became an issue. In particular, commentators and critics questioned why governments should pay to keep open expensive, unpopular cultural institutions that few wanted to visit and many found unsatisfying? Busloads of dragooned school children made up a good proportion of museum visitors but generally discretionary visitors were few and far between even when entry was free.

Critiques of museology in the 1970s generated a push for new approaches to museums that endorsed a reflexive approach to history and civilisation. Henceforward, museums would engage critical discourses addressing issues of race, class, colonisation, power relations and empowerment (van Oost 2006). Instead of simply looking at objects of history and presenting one (didactic) point of view to a passive audience, it was argued that museums should offer diverse perspectives and present material in ways that visitors could engage with in a hands-on interactive way. The new museums focused on national and cultural identities and difference as much as natural history and experimented with presenting ‘living history’ and aspects of everyday life and culture instead of the earlier focus on official and scientific perspectives. The result was a combination of new interpretive strategies and interactive exhibits, often using new technologies and active participation. The new museum became a place of entertainment where learning should take place through enjoyment not didacticism. ‘Thrills’ were built into experiential displays (such as real earthquake simulations, robotic dinosaurs, participatory re-creations of long-gone customs such as traditional classrooms and interactive digital ‘games’).

New museums were concerned with the environment, community, cultural diversity and the political shaping of culture. Inevitably, such museums were perceived as politicised, no longer just displaying things in a ‘neutral’ way but engaging with political debates and changing perspectives. Museums were expected to develop outreach programs (e.g. become part of visitor sightseeing schedules, appoint experts in residence, offer vacation programs for children, develop community projects with special interest groups, etc.) that engaged with their communities, digitalise collections and make them accessible to visitors (actual and virtual) and build new audiences. The emphasis was firmly on making museums entertaining spaces. The new museum was a kind of theme park.[1]

These changes have had critical significance for the funding and management of museums. Rather than depending on recurrent funding by government and scientific bodies, museums have been pushed into finding new sponsors and develop corporate, research and commercial partnerships. Managers, administrators, marketing staff, educational staff and volunteer guides have replaced the traditional staffing profile of museums with curators and scientists at the fore. But like hospitals and schools, museums rarely have professional managers and the ‘scientific’ faction versus the ‘educational’ faction often dominates internal politics. Curators tend to be the least heard group in the contemporary museum and are often employed on a contract basis. The value of storing collections away, hiding things that no-one ever gets to see, remains a sore point in museum management. A few museums, such as the Museum of Civilisation in Canada, have an open access storage facility where visitors themselves can explore the collection. Most museums however have warehouses full of ‘stuff’ well out of the public’s reach.

Funding remains an issue. Recurrent funding and block grants have been replaced by project funding and case funding. Internally, the lion’s share of the budget now goes on administration with tiny amounts on curating and mounting new exhibitions. Research sections are under-funded and oriented towards in-house research rather than research through public engagement. Partnership arrangements can be successful but are often project-specific or unstable (annual or short-term arrangements) and they fluctuate depending on levels of popular interest and prevailing economic conditions.

It is also important to distinguish different kinds of museums and their financial needs and arrangements. Each has a specific profile that shapes performance and viability.

To name some, these include: national museums (National Museum of Australia, Te Papa, Museum of Civilisation); living history museums (Skansen in Stockholm, Sovereign Hill in Ballarat, Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia); community museums (Jondaryan in Queensland — home of the famous shearers’ strike, Tambo Museum in Queensland — known for its teddy bears, Whitby Museum in Northeast Yorkshire — known for the mummified ‘hand of glory’); specialist museums (maritime museums; Victoria and Albert Museum, London; portrait galleries); art museums (the Guggenheim Museums in New York and Biboa; the Getty Museum in Los Angeles); industrial museums (Ironbridge in the Severn Gorge, England; the Ipswich Railway Museum in Queensland); cultural heritage museums (Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in Alberta); social history museums (Hanseatic Museum in Bergen; Viking Museum in York; Nederlands Openluchtmuseum in Arnhem); technological museums (Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, MAK in Vienna, Ars Electronica Center in Linz; Global Arts Link, Ipswich, Queensland); science museums (Questacon in Canberra); natural history museums (The Smithsonian; La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles); museums of antiquity (The Pergamon Museum in Berlin, the British Museum in London); and so on.

Museums pose significant problems for cultural policy since there is significant infrastructure to maintain, costly collections, political accountability as well as specific issues associated with management, display and visitation. Since the retreat from automatic state patronage of major cultural institutions, no simple solution has emerged to effectively manage the museum sector.

The poignant story of the ‘crisis’ of the National Museum of Australia highlights these dilemmas. Talked about since 1928, and reactivated by the Pigott Report in 1975 (Report of the Committee of Inquiry on Museums and National Collections 1975), the NMA finally opened in 2001 on the banks of Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra. Given its new-ness, the NMA was never conceived as a monument to the past and scientific collections, rather it was intended to reflect Australia’s ‘contemporary mood of nationalism’ by ‘capturing the plurality of knowledge and experience of its people’ (McCarthy 2004).

The building, designed in the shape of a rainbow serpent, was far smaller than originally envisaged and, although its collection was small, it could not accommodate more than a fraction of the objects in its collection. The establishment of the NMA as a national cultural institution was at odds with dominant government ideology in a number of respects, particularly in its rejection of ‘the Howard government’s celebratory position on Australian history and national identity … and modernist-linear … interpretation’ of Australian history (McCarthy 2004). What should a national collection consist of? Should it be housed in a single building? How should it display and make accessible its collection? How should it relate to national identity?

The NMA chose to organise its collection around three themes — land, nation and people — and use interactive and digital technology, where possible, to engage visitors. It also stressed the diversity of Australia’s population, in particular, emphasising indigenous culture and peoples (Casey 1999). This led to a government-led attack on the institution accusing it of presenting a ‘black armband view of history’ resulting in the departure of the inaugural (indigenous) director, Dawn Casey, and prompting a re-evaluation of the role and form of the museum (Carroll report 2005; Review of the National Museum of Australia 2005).

The review rejected the NMA’s pluralist version of Australian history and called for a ‘consensus’ account that emphasised the Australian characteristics of ‘inclusiveness, a ‘fair-go’ ethos, a distrust of extremisms and civic common sense’ (Review of the NMA 2003:4). This amounted to presenting a ‘celebratory narrative’ of Australia centred on the figure of Captain James Cook and downplaying the colonial struggles and conflict between indigenous Australians and European settlers (McCarthy 2004). Mc Carthy concludes that:

The NMA was to be a dialogue between nation and national identity. The political dilemma came when this dialogue became pluralist: wanting to include people’s history, being postmodernist in the architecture and post-colonial in its indigenous sensibilities. All three influences challenged the agenda of the Howard government. Pluralism was a threat because it was associated with diversity and multiculturalism. Postmodernism was a threat because it challenged the government’s claims of linear advancement under the neo-liberal agenda. Post-colonialism was a threat because it not only raised the whole character of settler history but also pointed to the on-going plight of the indigenous people as a result of their dispossession. For all these reasons, the attack on the NMA was sustained and successful in stifling dissent.

This episode demonstrates the inherent fragility of the new museology under current governance arrangements in which cultural institutions are subject to the government’s dominant political orthodoxy via appointed boards of management.