This year has been one of considerable change for the National Museum of Australia, with my appointment as Director and the development of a new strategic plan for the organisation. In both cases, these changes have presented the organisation with opportunities to review its operations and enhance its capacity to deal with present and future challenges. The Museum has also worked hard over the course of the year to engage its visitors and audiences in ways that involve them directly in its work, and better represent the public value of the organisation in wider society.
Strategic planning workshops were held throughout the Museum in the second half of 2013, involving staff in creating a new vision for the institution to carry it forward through the next four years. The ideas contributed in these forums were refined by the senior executive staff, with direction and advice from the Museum’s Council, and brought together in a new document, the Museum’s Strategic Plan for 2014–2018. That document commits the Museum to:
- take the lead in researching, documenting and expressing the nation’s history
- cherish our stories about the forces that have formed modern Australia
- listen and act in brokering ‘two-way’ engagement with our audiences and visitors
- create a ‘must-see’ destination that makes people want to see us first
- work smarter to exploit opportunities through efficient organisation and processes.
The Museum’s new strategic plan outlines a series of performance targets for the organisation to achieve by the end of the 2017–18 financial year. Flowing from that, the Museum has redrafted its business planning systems, and now has a connected, tiered approach to implementing its plans. Individual staff performance plans are connected to business unit plans, which in turn feed into divisional and, ultimately, corporate plans for the organisation.
This means that the Museum is ready for the new requirements of the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013 (PGPA Act), which came into force on 1 July 2014. The Act establishes a new Commonwealth financial framework to replace the Commonwealth Authorities and Companies Act 1997, under which the Museum previously operated. Our established approaches to performance and risk management, together with overhauled planning processes, ensure the organisation is well placed to deal with its responsibilities and obligations under the PGPA Act.
The Museum also refined its collections development and research priorities over the year, and implemented new plans in each of these areas to ensure its resources are used effectively. The new Collections Development Framework outlines nine diverse priority collection projects on subjects such as ‘Innovation in Australian agriculture’, ‘Songlines’ and ‘The Australian expatriate experience’, that describe the focus of the Museum’s acquisition activities through 2015. Similarly, the new Research Framework includes 10 key areas for study by Museum scholars over the course of five years, from 2013 to 2017. These plans are complementary, and show the Museum’s ongoing commitment to representing, documenting and studying Australian history and experience.
Work on building and making accessible the National Historical Collection continued throughout the year. Key acquisitions included an Australian Light Horse uniform from the First World War, a large painting by Christopher Pease entitled Panoramic View of Minang Boojar (Minang Land), explorer John McDouall Stuart’s watch and papers, and artworks by glass artist Jenni Kemarre Martiniello. In addition, the Museum developed a new online collections search tool, the ‘Collection explorer’, that allows for dynamic online search and browsing of 70,000 objects from the National Historical Collection and photographic collections. The explorer creates a seamless web interface for the online catalogue and digital asset database, providing a new window into the Museum’s remarkable collections.
The National Museum is only ever as good as the programs and experiences it offers visitors and audiences. Two major temporary exhibitions, Glorious Days: Australia 1913 and Old Masters: Australia’s Great Bark Artists, displayed the Museum’s ideas and collections to appreciative audiences through the year. Accompanying both exhibitions were high-quality publications that were a credit to the Museum’s curatorial and publications staff. Glorious Days depicted life in Australia in that tumultuous year before the First World War changed lives forever. Old Masters highlighted some of the best works in the Museum’s bark painting collection — the largest known collection anywhere in the world. These paintings are Australian treasures, works depicting the land from which they originate, that show the strength and beliefs of Arnhem Land communities.
Considerable changes were also made in our permanent galleries, evidence of the Museum’s continued commitment to ensuring these spaces are home to dynamic displays that relate the stories of nation. As well as refreshing the content of each gallery, through object changeovers, the Museum completely redeveloped its Torres Strait Islander gallery with a new exhibition Lag, Meta, Aus: Home in the Torres Strait. The exhibition reveals the diversity of Torres Strait Islander cultures and shows magnificent collections from the Museum’s growing holdings in this area. A smaller exhibition, On Country, which opened in the course of the year in the nearby Focus Gallery, highlighted the land care and management work of Indigenous communities around the country, from the Northern Territory to Tasmania.
A great deal of work was also undertaken on recalibrating the future exhibition program, with a particular emphasis on re-establishing the National Museum’s touring exhibitions and international relationships. Central to this was the ongoing collaborative program with the British Museum for planned twin London–Canberra exhibitions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artefacts in 2015. The exhibitions will feature some of the rare early collections of the British Museum set alongside contemporary works from the collections of the National Museum of Australia. The two museums have also agreed to work together on future exhibition projects, and signed an agreement in June for major exhibitions in Canberra in 2016 and 2018.
In addition, we are working with counterparts in Denmark and China on exhibition exchanges between our countries in coming years. We also collaborated with the Australian Embassy in Turkey to develop and trial a new digital system for supplying displays to Australian diplomatic missions abroad. All these projects are aimed at ensuring we bring the best Australian museum content to audiences overseas, as well as working actively to bring great collections from abroad to these shores. Such efforts connect our culture to the world and help drive global interest in this country, not least in inbound tourist markets.
Digital content continues to be an area of growth and development at the Museum, as we work to meet the interests of audiences in a world increasingly ‘living digitally’. A new program with the National Australia Day Council and Twitter saw the Museum ‘live curate’ a dynamic digital display of images contributed via social media by Australians across the country. The partners asked people to tweet photographs of how they were celebrating Australia Day, and a team of Museum staff then curated the exhibition in real time over the course of 24 hours, creating a stream of images shown on the screen in the Museum’s Main Hall, as well as online. More than 30,000 images were contributed to the site over the course of the day, revealing the appetite of Australians for being actively engaged in creating — as well as consuming — experiences offered by the Museum.
The National Museum has had the benefit of its expert, committed staff in dealing with the myriad challenges and opportunities that emerged during the year. At the same time, the Museum has had excellent support from its Council and Chair, who have discharged their governance responsibilities with great care, diligence and consideration. The sense of shared endeavour in the Museum community — between volunteers, staff, management and Council — is very strong, and greatly to the Museum’s benefit. I thank the staff of the Ministry for the Arts, and the Attorney-General and his office for their assistance and help. I also thank all those involved in the life of the Museum for the unstinting support I have enjoyed since my appointment. Together, we are intent on making the Museum the first port of call when people want to learn what it means to live in this country, by expanding our knowledge of the past in ways that help us deal with present and future challenges.
Dr Mathew Trinca
Director, National Museum of Australia