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

About the authors

Des Griffin is currently Gerard Krefft Memorial Fellow, Australian Museum, an honorary position commemorating one of the early directors of the Museum. More about Des Griffin

Leon Paroissien AM is the Chair of Object: Australian Centre for Craft and Design in Sydney. More about Leon Paroissien

by Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien

Museums were established across many parts of the Australian continent during the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century. However it was in the latter part of the twentieth century that the greatest burgeoning of museums occurred. During these decades new institutions were established and new buildings constructed; there were numerous extensions to established museums, especially to art museums where steadily rising interest in the work of living artists had been stimulated by the Australia Council; collections were greatly expanded; and exhibitions played a major role in shaping the public profile of museums and the increasingly diverse character of their expanded audiences.

These decades also witnessed the consolidation of a sophisticated museum profession, the creation of a single national professional association – Museums Australia – and an active participation of Australian museum professionals in the international museum context. In October 1998 the General Conference and General Assembly of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) was held in Melbourne, reflecting the international museum profession’s growing knowledge of and interest in Australia’s museums and the work they accomplished. ‘Museums and Cultural Diversity’, the theme of the ICOM ’98 Conference, reflected a distinctive preoccupation of Australian museums in world terms, and fostered international focus on the crucial presence of Indigenous voices and emphases in Australia’s museums. This left an enduring impression on conference delegates.

However, much of the vision outlined in the 1975 Pigott Report on Australian museums commissioned by the Whitlam Labor Government still remains to be realised. This series of essays addresses many problems faced by museums in the twenty-first century, such as governance and funding issues, public debate about displays and temporary exhibitions, and learning in the museum context. These essays jointly seek to present a scholarly study of museums and museum practice that is also accessible to people outside the museum profession, who daily demonstrate their active interest in museums and their programs.

Anne-Marie Condé provides a detailed overview of the Pigott Report (The Committe of Inquiry on Museums and National Collections, 1974–75) that has been fundamental to the development of museums and museum practice in Australia.

Access to conservation expertise and facilities is of concern to all museums, regardless of their specialisations. The field of conservation in Australian museums has undergone a most significant transformation since the 1970s, when it was then identified as being in crisis and needing urgent attention. Indeed our training and specialised skills in conservation have undergone revolutionary transformation since that time.  The essay by Ian Cook, Jan Lyall, Colin Pearson and Robyn Sloggett, describe these developments in such a fundamentally important museum discipline.

From the first use of computers by museum people in the 1960s – astonishingly slow machines accessible by punched tape – computers and electronic devices of all kinds have come to dominate life in museums, as everywhere else, and not simply in size and computing power.

Des Griffin explores the challenge to museum in extending knowledge and understanding. Museums now don't just have websites, they use a variety of social media including Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, You Tube and various microblogging platforms designed to engage audiences, ultimately directing them back to the web page where they can respond to news about programs and events. Visitors real and virtual are urged to join with the museum in creating programs. The notion of the museum as authority is truly turned on its head.

Tim Hart from Museum Victoria and Martin Hallett from Arts Victoria review the participation by museums in Australia, significantly through the Heritage Collections Council established and funded by Museums Australia and the Cultural Ministers Council, in this revolution. Importantly, it is museums that have driven the changes: policies such as those launched by the Keating government as part of the broader arts agenda have mostly been marginal to Australian museums' progress.

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Cite as: Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien, 2011, 'Issues in museology: introduction', 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