Let's not pretend that Museums Australia is only 22 years old

#MA2015Syd Conference blog

An invitation for a chat

I’m interested in the history of Museums Australia and I’m attending the national conference in Sydney 21-24 May. If you share this interest, collar me during the breaks and let’s have chat.

My interest in the history was sparked by involvement in the NSW Branch from 2000 to 2012. After a discussion with two of the association’s respected stalwarts at last year’s Launceston conference, I delved into the archives of one of our major museums. And, in the past few weeks, I’ve been assisting the NSW branch officer Gay Hendriksen to organise and document the records of the branch ahead of their transfer to the State Library of NSW. The fading minute book to the left is the branch's seminal document.

A history of Museums Australia

My contention is that, although 1993 is widely touted as the year we were established, it was actually 1937.

After World War One, lingering British interest in the empire joined up with American money in 1931, when the Museum Association in London, with financial support from the Carnegie Corporation in New York, began a survey of museums in the dominions. Further substantial grants from the Corporation were allocated for the development of the museums in Australia and New Zealand and a meeting of museums and galleries at Melbourne in May 1936.

The new Art Galleries and Museums Association of Australia and New Zealand (AGMAANZ) held its first meeting in Auckland on 19 January 1937. After the birth, there were growing pains caused by the Second World War, the tyranny of distance, and the frustrations of the Australian art gallery directors. In 1955, AGMAANZ agreed to a request that New Zealand be dropped from the association’s name because the New Zealanders were firing away on all cylinders and didn’t want to be encumbered by the sluggish Australians, weighed down by a federal system. In 1958, the association changed its name to the Museums Association of Australia (MAA) to reflect a narrower reality in the minds of some members.

Despite the loss of the New Zealanders and some art gallery representatives, the association continued to embrace all interests. In 1969, the first state branch – New South Wales -- held its first meeting on 14 April 1969. One of the guest speakers in a meeting that followed was Daniel Thomas, who as Curator of the Art Gallery of NSW gave an address on the similarities between art galleries and museums. How entertaining it was last year in Launceston to hear him speak again.

The art gallery directors continued to seek a dedicated forum when they established the Art Galleries Association of Australia in 1965. Then, in the 1970s, after spending a lot of effort turning one into two, discussions began on the benefits of amalgamation. The discussions continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s, as the development of more museums prompted more specialist interests and the need for separate councils of directors to drive relationships, especially with governments.

History turns on a squeaky wheel. Companies sometimes change their names. The Art Galleries and Museums Association of Australia and New Zealand is the mother of Museums Australia. There’s a constant line between the two. The objectives and membership of Museums Australia are much the same as they were in 1937. Splinter groups, in the spirit of common sense, returned to it in 1993.

A call for further action

It is preaching to the converted to say that history is important. We like to bust myths.

The history of Museums Australia awaits further action. Past Museums Australia presidents are among those who have registered their frustration at not being able to easily find vital information about the past. Tony Sweeney, Director of the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, offered one of the best lines at last year’s Launceston conference when he urged us to look backwards to experience “the shock of old”. When you look backwards, tribal dynamics and human nature are revealed as foibles. The ways of the past often point to the way ahead.

A more thorough and accurate history will depend on how we organise our records. The digital age brings with it the need to unravel new conundrums: the ambiguities of official and personal records, the increasing use of emails in multiple channels, the decline in printed newsletters, and the unavoidable reliance on websites. In 20 years time, tracking the narrative may be more problematic in the wonderful but dodgy digital universe in which web pages disappear quickly.

Intangible history needs to be documented. Existing records show the signposts and milestones. But they often miss the undercurrents.

Very few people are mentioned in this blog. Yet it is the people – those who have led the national body and those who have galvanised action at a local level – whose efforts need to be savoured. It is something that comes through when you go through the papers. When you handle the files, the names of the museums, historical societies and other enterprises assisted by the NSW branch give you a full appreciation of the role all of them have played in preserving and drawing attention to our cultural heritage. 

A number of things tempt further action. Recordkeeping principles promulgated throughout the association. A survey of personal papers of major players scattered in institutions and private collections throughout country. Accumulating different perspectives on what happened to correct inevitable misconceptions in the narrative. And trumpeting the honour roll.

The 80th anniversary is less than two years away.

See you at this year's conference! It is only less than two weeks away.

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