Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Psst! It’s just a theory, but here’s one idea that puts the muse in museum
Agood sod-turning is always a pleasure. But sod-turning by a minister locked into a stupid war of his own making while an election looms makes compulsive viewing, as the turnout at Bob Debus’s recent launch of the Australian Museum’s new building showed. Debus was serious, intent, focused. So many sods to turn, so little time.
The key to starting a stupid war and surviving it, though, as George Dubya now knows to his cost, is having a reliable exit strategy in your knapsack. Any exit strategy, really. Either that, or you pick fights you can win.
And let’s be clear. This is a stupid war. The Iemma Government’s proposal to merge NSW’s two most significant museums, the Australian and the Powerhouse, has all the hallmarks of a bureaucrat’s lunch-hour daydream that accidentally fell into the minister’s papers, acquiring a life it was never meant to have. And while said Government, having perfected the black arts of silencing staff, picking press and dampening debate, isn’t exactly saddled with an embedded media corps, it must be wishing it had packed that exit plan.
Unlike Museum Victoria which, as a tripartite museum, is often cited as a model, the Australian Museum and the Powerhouse have not sprouted from a single root but are discrete centres of excellence. But this is precisely what bothers our politicians, who are so far down the road of threadbare monetarism as to feel the very existence of major publicly funded institutions as an indictment, rather than a source of pride, much as an oyster might feel its pearl, or a bulb its flower, as symbols merely of waste.
The Australian is the nation’s oldest museum; the Powerhouse, at 22,000 square metres, is our largest. And apart from the word museum, that’s it for shared ground. The two institutions have different histories, campuses, priorities, systems and mandates. The Australian is a natural history museum, sixth-oldest in the world, devoting a third of its budget and half of its energies to research. It is not university-type research, but primary taxonomy and inventory of our biodiversity – so that we can at least assess its vanishing, or otherwise. (The splendid 2002 survey of introduced marine species in Sydney Harbour is a good example).
The Powerhouse is a design and technology museum dominated by a vast and somewhat haphazard collection of remarkable thingummybobs and a bent for fabulous shows.
Marrying the two is like merging London’s Natural History Museum with the Victoria & Albert. Or, to quote former Australian Museum Trust chairman Robin Williams, like merging the Swans and Rabbitohs, on the grounds that it’s all football.
Another obvious model is the Smithsonian. But the former Australia Museum director Dr Frank Talbot, who left to run the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, described a similar merger there as a disaster. Other scientists from the Smithsonian – and from Sydney and Wollongong universities, from the Australian Marine Sciences Association, the University of Texas Marine Science Institute, the Royal Ontario Museum, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California – have written to Debus, anxious for the Australian Museum’s future research.
Which may be what impelled Debus – who, you will notice, has his exit plan in place – to assure the assembled sod watchers the other day that “there is nothing … that will ever be allowed to jeopardise the scientific research conducted by the [Australian] Museum” and that “any rumour to the contrary will do nothing to cause me or the Government to deviate from that position”.
The staff is unconvinced. Indeed, so serious are the rumblings in the ranks that several scientists claim to have been threatened with the sack if they speak out, and at least one is believed to have accepted a post abroad rather than deal with the uncertainty.
So what’s the point, again? If it’s money they want to save, it may be worth noting that Museum Victoria spends more government dollars ($71 million in the 2004-05 financial year) for fewer visitors than the Australian ($23 million) and the Powerhouse ($36 million) together.
Then again, maybe it was never about money. As Debus said in July a museum merger is “better even than money”. What, to the NSW ALP, could qualify?
Consider this enchanting conspiracy theory. Each museum is covered by its own act and statutory trust. The trusts – chaired by Dr Brian Sherman (Australian) and Dr Nick Pappas (Powerhouse) – are strictly advisory. But the merger would require a new act, and although such legislation is still undrafted, among the options circulated is a corporate-type board, with proper executive powers. Well, natch.
So perhaps, goes the whisper, the real subplot is to shift the Australian into the Powerhouse’s vast canyons and flog the College Street pile. To who? Well, Sydney Grammar is the pudgy boy next door, with the bulging pockets and cosy board overlaps to support such a theory.
But relax. Parliament is out. An election is on. Nothing can be done for months, giving plenty of time to find that exit plan. Meanwhile, well, there are all those sods need turning.