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Understanding Museums - Australian Museums and Museology: Edited by Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien

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Anne-Marie Condé is a curator at the National Museum of Australia. More about Anne-Marie Condé

‘The orphans of government’: The Committee of Inquiry on Museums and National Collections (The Pigott Report), 1974–75
by Anne-Marie Condé

In May 1965 the Australian published a feature article on historic preservation in Australia by journalist and poet Max Harris. He noted that ‘a vast national folk museum, preferably in Canberra’ had been suggested, ‘to enshrine Australia’s past’. Harris declared himself not in favour of the idea. Public finance, he said, should be kept in the hands of people in the states and in regional centres, many of them volunteers, who had already done so much to develop a sense of national historical consciousness. ‘Keep Canberra’s dead hand off the relics of Australia’s past’, he begged. [1]

And yet less than 10 years later, in April 1974, the Australian government established a Committee of Inquiry on Museums and National Collections. The museum sector, including the Museums Association of Australia, had been lobbying for it for years. Clearly there was a belief that Canberra did have a role to play in the museum field. In announcing the committee, Special Minister of State Lionel Bowen noted that, despite great public interest and dedicated service, the development of museums and collections had been piecemeal, and valuable collections were at great risk. Moreover, there was no institution committed to telling ‘the story of Australia to Australians’. The new committee would give particular attention to the establishment of a national museum, ‘not as a storehouse of things dead and past’, but a ‘living, dynamic institution’. [2]

This government was, of course, the Whitlam Labor government; one deeply committed to nation-building projects based on heritage. There was already in train a Committee of Inquiry into the National Estate, headed by Justice RM Hope. Bowen suggested to his Cabinet colleagues in relation to the museums inquiry that, beyond the cause of advancing knowledge and the spread of education in the longer term, the Inquiry would ‘provide a positive focus now for our growing national feeling.’ It would be, he added, a ‘move symbolic of the “new nationalism”’. [3]

A committee with broad experience was appointed. Its chairman, Peter Pigott, was a Sydney businessman who also held positions with the National Parks and Wildlife Foundation and similar organisations. His fellow committee members were Frank Talbot, Director of the Australian Museum; Geoffrey Blainey, Professor of Economic History at the University of Melbourne; RW Boswell, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission; Mrs Andrew Clayton, Member of the Executive Board of the National Parks and Wildlife Foundation; John Mulvaney, Professor of Pre-History at The Australian National University; DF Waterhouse, Chief of the Division of Entomology at CSIRO, FJ Waters, ex-General President of the Amalgamated Postal Workers’ Union of Australia; and EE Payne, who was seconded from the Department of the Special Minister of State to act as Executive Member. [4]

John Mulvaney headed a separate planning committee to investigate a ‘Gallery of Aboriginal Australia’. The reports of the two committees were tabled and published together.

The Committee of Inquiry’s Terms of Reference were:

  1. to advise on the scope, objectives and functions of an Australia Institute to develop, co-ordinate and foster collections, research and displays of historical, cultural and scientific material of national significance, giving particular attention to its relationship with Government and other institutions;
  2. to recommend steps to establish such an institute;
  3. in relation to the Australian Government’s direct field of responsibility and interest, to recommend measures which should be taken in the immediate future to:
    1. improve collection and conservation facilities for national material, with particular attention to research needs and training;
    2. ensure effective co-ordination of the Australian Government’s activities in this field;
    3. institute new developments and institutions, with particular attention to the establishment of a national museum of history in Canberra;
  4. to recommend longer term measures in the field of museums and collections, with particular attention to the Australian Government’s role in relation to state, local government and institutional authorities. [5]

The committee met formally 17 times, and visited 69 Australian collecting and exhibiting organisations. Members travelling overseas visited many other centres in the United States and Mexico, and the United Kingdom and Europe. Its members read over 400 public submissions and commissioned seven consultants to report on selected Australian museums outside metropolitan areas. The committee was supported by a Canberra-based secretariat which operated firstly at East Block in Parkes, and later at Mining Industry House on Northbourne Avenue. The committee’s Report was based in part on background papers written by its members and by the secretariat. Peter Pigott credited Geoffrey Blainey as the Report’s editor. [6]

The committee’s investigations extended from Australian government and state museums, collections and galleries to university museums, and local, private and open-air museums. If suspicions were aroused within the museum profession by the fact that only one member of the committee was a full-time museum practitioner, there were benefits. [7] In common with the general public, most committee members would rarely have been behind the scenes in a major museum, and the shock of what they found had a powerful effect on the published Report. Deterioration of collections housed in basements and other storage areas could be acute. Collections spilled out into cellars and corridors, were stacked against external walls and hot water-pipes, and crammed into galvanised iron sheds. Only 10 per cent of museum storage space was temperature controlled. Few museums had the space for conservation laboratories and there were fewer than 10 professionally trained conservators in Australia. The Report is liberally illustrated with photographs contrasting spacious and inviting museum displays – at the Australian War Memorial, for instance – with ghastly storage conditions behind and beneath. The committee recommended the establishment of a Cultural Materials Conservation Institute, and postgraduate training for conservators. [8]

Perhaps the next most striking aspect of the Australian museum sector for the committee was the hundreds of small museums that had been founded in the previous 15 years. This was a ‘popular and vigorous grass-roots movement’, it thought, arising from a curiosity about everyday life in the past that was not being satisfied by the major state museums. [9] Dozens of these museums made submissions to the inquiry, and dozens more were visited by the committee or surveyed by its consultants, some of whom became weary and footsore in their work. ‘The sun never sets on the homespun proliferation of museums throughout the land’, one of them reported. [10]

Problems of definition troubled the committee. What could be counted as a museum? Where did the new outdoor ‘living history’ museums fit into its investigations? [11] The committee did include a discussion of outdoor museums in its Report, drawing largely on the findings of Ann Bickford, a Sydney-based museologist who visited Old Sydney Town and Lachlan Vintage Village for the committee. On the basis of Bickford’s scathing views of these places in particular, the committee recommended against government support for outdoor museums such as these unless qualified professionals were engaged as advisors. Likewise, it recommended that regional associations or networks of small museums could provide an effective channel for Australian government support, but only if they were supported by professional curators.

Still, the committee admired the work of the volunteers who ‘humbly and generously gave their best’ in small museums. These were the people whose work Max Harris had been keen to protect from the ‘dead hand of Canberra’ in 1965. The committee did indeed urge against imposing any bureaucratic plan to centralise local museums into a ‘grand regional museum’. [12]

Many submissions to the committee came from people and organisations advocating the establishment of specialist ‘national’ museums, especially on aspects of technology and natural history. It recommended just three: a national maritime museum in Sydney, a national aviation museum in a place such as Albury-Wodonga, and a museum of Australian biography in Canberra. [13] Among other major recommendations was legislation protecting shipwrecks along the Australian coast; encouraging the donation of items of national significance to museums and like authorities; and preventing the export of certain kinds of cultural property. The committee’s proposal for an ‘Australian Museums Commission’ as a statutory authority to advise government and co-ordinate federal expenditure on museums and art galleries was especially ambitious. It had been foreshadowed that such an organisation could be modelled along the lines of the Smithsonian Institution in the United States, but the committee recommended instead that the Commission be independent of the administration of a national museum complex. [14]

Most famously, the committee recommended the establishment of a national museum in Canberra. Its linked themes ought to be the Australian environment, Aboriginal history, and the history of Europeans in Australia. The argument for a major display of Aboriginal history, the committee said, was ‘overwhelming’, for the era of the white man in Australia had occupied mere moments of time compared to Aboriginal history. However, it believed that a major treatment of the history of Europeans in Australia was also needed. No museum in Australia had attempted it. And rather than duplicate the state museums’ natural history collections and exhibitions, the new museum could interpret the natural environment in a different way, to show that ‘the history of man in Australia’ – Aboriginal and European – ‘is tied to natural history’ in a ‘web of interaction’. [15]

The committee suggested a site for the museum west of Black Mountain, where there would be plenty of space for outdoor exhibition areas and activities, on-site storage, and space for conservation, research, education and parking. ‘[W]e have taken a long-term view of the museum’s development’, the committee declared. ‘A living museum will never be completed.’ [16] However, it took a long time for this museum even to get underway. Its legislation was enacted in 1980, and the building finally opened – not on the site proposed by the committee, but on Acton Peninsula – in 2001.

The Whitlam government fell just days after the Pigott Report was tabled. The ensuing political chaos and financial stringencies had a harsh effect on many of the committee’s recommendations. In particular, the ‘Australian Museums Commission’, that according to Pigott himself was the most immediate and pressing priority,[17] was never established. Moreover, even as the Report was published there was criticism about the expense incurred by the Inquiry’s processes. The Pigott Inquiry was said to have cost the taxpayer $202,476, according to a report in the Australian. Peter Pigott snapped back in a letter to the Editor that, in purchasing a copy of the Report, readers would find it ‘the best $3.00 they are likely to spend.’ His committee had disbanded, he said, and it was what happened next that mattered. ‘Museums in Australia have been the orphans of Government in Australia for 148 years [and] it is time they were adopted and cared for.’ [18]


1 Max Harris, ‘History on the Hoof’, Australian, 1 May 1965, p. 9. This piece is quoted by Stefan Petrow in ‘Sanitising or celebrating the past? The Van Diemen’s Land Memorial Folk Museum, 1957–2007’, reCollections: journal of the National Museum of Australia, Vol. 4, No. 2, available at (accessed 17 May 2010).

2 ‘Statement by the Honourable Lionel Bowen MP, Special Minister of State’, 10 April 1974, A7461, 74/135, pp. 2–3. All archival material referred to in this chapter is held by the National Archives of Australia.

3 ‘National Collections’, Cabinet Submission No. 846, 12 December 1973, A5915, 846, p. 1.

4 ‘Statement by the Honourable Lionel Bowen MP … ‘, pp. 1–2.; and Commonwealth of Australia, Museums in Australia 1975: Report of the Committee of Inquiry on Museums and National Collections including the Report of the Planning Committee on the Gallery of Aboriginal Australia,Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra,1975, [p. iii].

5 Museums in Australia 1975, p. 1.

6 Peter H Pigott, letter to the Editor of the Australian, 8 December 1975 (published 11 December 1975), A7461, 74/135.

7 [Peter Pigott], ‘Notes on the background of the Committee of Inquiry for use in speech at opening of Museums Association Conference’ [November 1974], A7461, 74/135, p. 5.

8 Museums in Australia, p. 41, and recommendations 2.9 and 2.10, p. 3.

9 Museums in Australia, p. 21 and p. 71.

10 Frank Strahan, ‘Consultant’s summary report of a survey of museums in the Albury-Wodonga region, and of two museum projects in Gippsland’, 26 June 1975, A7461, 75/77, p. 5. Frank Strahan was University Archivist at the University of Melbourne.

11 Peter Ryan, ‘Folk Museums’, paper No. 8, A7461, 75/15 part 1; Museums in Australia, p. 7.

12 Museums in Australia, pp. 19–29. See also Anne Bickford’s consultant’s report, A7461, 75/77. On the Pigott committee's analysis of country museums in Australia, see Anne-Marie Condé, 'A "vigorous cultural movement": the Pigott Inquiry and country museums in Australia, 1975', reCollections: journal of the National Museum of Australia, Vol. 6, No. 2, available at (accessed 14 September 2011).

13 Museums in Australia, p. 4.

14 ‘National Collections’, Cabinet Submission no. 846, 12 December 1973, A5915, 846, p. 3; Museums in Australia, p. 57.

15 Museums in Australia, pp. 71–2.

16 Museums in Australia, p. 79.

17 Telex, Peter H Pigott to Prime Minister, 16 December 1975, A1209, 75/1024, ff.13-14.

18 Letter to the Editor of the Australian, 8 December 1975 (published 11 December 1975), A7461, 74/135. The published letter was edited, and did not include the $3.00 or the 148 years remarks.

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Cite as: Anne-Marie Condé, 2011, ‘“The orphans of government”: The Committee of Inquiry on Museums and National Collections (The Pigott Report), 1974–75’, in Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien (eds), Understanding Museums: Australian Museums and Museology, National Museum of Australia, published online at
ISBN 978-1-876944-92-6