Inside Story

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“It’s a cultural thing — isn’t it?”

A parliamentary inquiry seems to be carefully avoiding the real challenge for Australia’s national museums, archives and libraries

David Stephens 5 September 2018 1737 words

Enlightening: an illuminated National Library of Australia on 1 March 2014. Vivian Harris/Flickr

Most visitors to museums and galleries care little for how these places are funded as long as they deliver a “fulfilling visitor experience,” in the cultural-industry jargon. But Canberra’s national institutions — places like the National Library and the National Gallery — are in grave danger of not delivering that experience; and senior executives in any of them will tell you this is due to lack of money. “We’re doing less with less because we have to operate with the capacity that we have and do the best that we can,” the director-general of the National Archives of Australia, David Fricker, said in March. “So without question we’re delivering fewer public services now than we were five years ago.”

And the response? Cue the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories, a twelve-member parliamentary committee chaired by Liberal MP Ben Morton. The committee held three little-noticed public hearings in June and August, at which Morton and his deputy, Labor’s Gai Brodtmann, did most of the questioning. (Only two other members attended on any day, and Morton himself was absent on 24 August, when his party’s leadership was being settled elsewhere in the building.)

Although one of the committee’s functions is to “conduct inquiries into matters relating to Canberra as the National Capital,” none of its forty or so inquiries over the past two decades has explicitly covered the national cultural institutions. The last time parliament looked at a comparable subject, in 2008, the Public Accounts Committee did nothing to alleviate the corrosive impact of the efficiency dividend, the annual cut in running costs (introduced in 1987–88) that has forced departments and authorities to do more with less.

This time, Morton and his fellow committee members were asked to:

inquire into and report on the range of innovative strategies that Canberra’s national institutions are using to maintain viability and relevance to sustainably grow their profile, visitor numbers, and revenue, including:
1. creating a strong brand and online presence;
2. experimenting with new forms of public engagement and audience participation;
3. conducting outreach outside of Canberra;
4. cultivating private sector support;
5. developing other income streams; and
6. ensuring the appropriateness of governance structures; and
any other relevant matter the Committee wishes to examine, including the process for establishing new institutions.

“Canberra’s national institutions are a major drawcard for the nation’s capital, attracting local, interstate and overseas visitors,” Morton said when the inquiry was announced. “They contribute significantly to the local economy and Canberra’s culture.” In other words, the inquiry is not primarily about funding at all — and certainly not about budget funding. It is about getting tourists into Canberra, “bums on seats” at travelling roadshows, and eyeballs in front of computer screens — and doing so while limiting as far as possible the calls on the budget.

The committee has no brief to look at whether the institutions are receiving enough public money. The message to institutions seems to be: given that there is not going to be much change in how the budget treats you, tell us what you are doing to make up the shortfall from other sources. Under cover of talking about tourism in Canberra, the inquiry really seems to be about pressuring institutions to bag more corporate dollars. Least of all is it about quality service and cultural heritage.

Surprisingly, neither the minister nor (as yet) the committee has defined which are “Canberra’s national institutions.” Nowhere in the committee’s documentation or in the public submissions is there an authoritative list, though most observers would include (to give them their full names) the National Gallery of Australia, the National Library of Australia, the National Museum of Australia, the National Portrait Gallery, the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House, the National Film and Sound Archive (all in the communications and the arts portfolio), and the National Archives of Australia (in the attorney-general’s portfolio, with service as well as cultural functions).

While the Australian War Memorial (in veterans’ affairs) has escaped some of the government’s efficiency strictures, it too was on the committee’s list. Other non–arts portfolio institutions, like the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (prime minister’s portfolio) and Questacon, the science education facility (part of the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science), counted themselves in by making submissions.

At its three hearings the committee heard from witnesses representing ten national institutions, eight Australian government departments and authorities, the ACT government, two ACT tourism promotion bodies, and the Community and Public Sector Union, or CPSU. Most national institutions’ submissions came to grips with the inquiry’s terms of reference but also ranged well beyond them. The other government submissions particularly stressed tourism aspects.

The hearings also focused sharply on visitor numbers (especially schoolchildren) and on Canberra tourism impacts and statistics, as well as on financial constraints (particularly from decades of the efficiency dividend) and what they were preventing the institutions from doing (digitisation of holdings, improved information technology, increased storage space, new buildings, generally providing optimal service). Private sector funding appeared only briefly in most submissions and was less often mentioned in the hearings, reflecting the relatively small amounts most of these institutions currently derive from private sources.

The Australian War Memorial has recently attracted fire for its corporate donations, particularly those from arms manufacturers and an unindicted co-conspirator in a bribery case. Memorial representatives spoke (at length) about visitor numbers, new programs, expansion plans ($500 million worth), financial constraints and digitisation. Director Brendan Nelson argued (as he often does) for the special status of the Memorial: “It is not until you come to the Australian War Memorial that you really understand who we are, what makes us tick as Australians.” The Memorial, he added, was also a museum, an archive and “a sacred place.”

In more than eight pages of transcript (about forty-five minutes’ worth of testimony) Nelson uttered just two brief sentences on private funding. Nor did the committee press the matter, despite its terms of reference about “private sector support” and “other income streams.” (The Memorial’s eleven-page submission contained a couple of paragraphs on sponsorship and donations.)

Then there were the submitters who were not invited to appear at the hearings. The committee received seventy-six submissions, nine of them from national institutions and another six from friends’ groups, volunteers or partners of the institutions. Three submissions came from other Australian government departments and authorities and another sixteen from the ACT government, ACT tourism bodies, ACT community groups, ACT universities, and politicians, ACT and federal. Here, tourism and its impacts featured heavily. On the funding side, the ACT government and two Green members of the ACT Legislative Assembly opposed an excessive reliance on private sources.

But thirty-nine submissions, or just over half, came from individuals (eighteen in all, among them an ANU history professor and three former senior bureaucrats, one a former director of the Australian War Memorial), interest groups and peak bodies in the cultural field (fourteen, including the Australian Academy of Science, Museums Galleries Australia, or MGA, and the National Association for the Visual Arts), and professional associations and unions (seven, including the Australian Historical Association, the Australian Society of Archivists, and the CPSU). Three confidential submissions were also made.

Of these thirty-nine, just one, the CPSU, was asked to appear at the public hearings, where its representatives discussed the effects of funding constraints and the suggestion that significant private sector donors sometimes influenced the direction of exhibitions. On the other hand, five of the Australian government departments or authorities that appeared had not lodged submissions at all.

Collectively, the thirty-nine submitters presented the perspective of users and committed supporters of the national institutions, people who used to run them or work in them, and experts in delivering cultural product. Many of their submissions showed evidence of deep thought and years of involvement. They tended to say less about tourism and visitor numbers and more about national heritage and service quality.

Peak cultural bodies like GLAM Peak (GLAM standing for galleries, libraries, archives and museums) and MGA criticised the effects of the efficiency dividend, and questioned whether it was appropriate for cultural institutions. Users of the National Archives complained of declining service quality. Given the War Memorial’s recent record, the organisation I am involved in, Honest History, called for codes of practice to govern corporate donations, while MGA insisted that “diversifying income cannot replace an adequate level of operational funding.”

Of course, whom the committee invites to a public hearing is entirely its own decision; and it might also draw evidence from its visits to institutions or from submissions that were not followed up at the public hearings. But it seems to have missed a great opportunity to probe user experience. And it will be interesting to see how far its report delves into those submissions that warn about the hazards of non-budget funding.

Can the committee find a way of balancing the responsibility of governments to fund institutions established by parliament in trust for the nation with the constraints imposed by an element of external funding? The direction of questioning at the hearings suggests that it doesn’t see delineating the necessary safeguards as its main goal. And, of course, even if the committee strikes a wise balance, will government take any notice?

Ben Morton put an interesting question to a number of witnesses. Summarised, he asked: what is the point of national cultural institutions? The witnesses, senior executives from the institutions, mostly answered with words about keeping national memories, preserving national heritage, and maintaining national collections.

Worthy objectives all, but Morton’s question sounds very like one a Department of Finance officer might ask in budget discussions, while noting the precedents for Canberra institutions — especially supposedly “sacred” ones — chasing the corporate dollar. For their part, Finance representatives appearing before the committee avoided answering questions about the efficiency dividend, saying it was a matter for government.

Even more important than the source of funding, though, is the purpose to which it is put. The submission from the Australian Society of Archivists made this point well: “The challenge for our national institutions, though, is not how innovative they are in overcoming funding shortfalls or boosting user numbers, but how they can create, protect and make accessible Australia’s collective memory in the face of major digital and technological change and development, and not simply as a tourist attraction.” ●

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