1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2001  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 25/01/2001   
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Dawn Casey and Kirsten Wehner

Dawn Casey was appointed as Director of the National Museum of Australia in 1999. Prior to her appointment she was Chief General Manager of the Acton Peninsula Project Task Force, the body responsible for the construction of the new National Museum.

Ms Casey has wide-ranging experience in the management of indigenous and cultural heritage policy issues. As a member of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, she was responsible for the establishment of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation.

She has provided policy advice on issues associated with Australia's national cultural institutions and served as Chair of the Heritage Collections Committee, the body with responsibility for implementing specific programs to address issues of collection management, preservation and conservation, research and documentation, and access.

Ms Casey has received three Commonwealth Public Service Australia Day Medals for work of outstanding achievement.

Kirsten Wehner is currently a Content Developer at the National Museum of Australia and a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology, New York University, where she is preparing a dissertation on the development of the National Museum. Her research interests include museum and exhibition content and design, the role of museums and other media in negotiating cultural identities, and contemporary Australian cultural politics and popular culture.


Australia boasts over 1,700 museums, including museums housing collections of cultural and historical interest, art galleries, science centres, historic sites, house museums, outdoor museums and interpretation centres.1 Each year, more than 16 million visitors journey through these institutions, encountering and engaging with Australia’s cultural and natural heritage.2 Who are these visitors and why do they go to museums? What do they expect to find in a museum? What does a visitor take away with them after a day at a museum? In the 1990s, Australian museums have become increasingly interested in such questions. Positions have been created for staff dedicated to investigating museum audiences, sophisticated research and evaluation tools have been developed, and a Special Interest Group of the museum profession’s national association has been formed to work towards refining and improving means of knowing about museum audiences. In 1993-94, when the Council of Australian Museum Directors surveyed 23 participating institutions about their evaluation and visitor research activity, the museums indicated that they had completed 47 visitor research projects, 65 exhibition evaluations and another 15 associated program evaluations. Three years later, in 1996-97, the Council’s survey showed that the 20 participating institutions had conducted 121 visitor research studies, 86 exhibition evaluations and 78 program evaluations. Budget expenditure on visitor research and evaluation over the three years had increased by 3723

These figures seem to indicate an explosion in the attention museums are paying to their visitors in the last decade. Questions about who museum visitors are and what they do when visiting have, however, interested Australia’s museums since the first such institution was founded in the 1820s. Museums have always understood themselves to possess a dual mandate, to collect, research and preserve material evidence of people, cultures and environments and to interpret those collections for the education and sometimes entertainment of particular audiences. These two tasks have provided an ongoing dynamic at the heart of Australia’s museums, but the nature and relationship of each has changed significantly since the 1820s. How have museums in Australia imagined, constituted and sought to understand their audiences over this period, and what does this reveal of the changing ways museums have understood their role in and contributions to Australian society?

Colonial museums and ‘respectable individuals’

Australia’s first museums were established by the élite of colonial society, and they did not wait long after arriving in the new continent to get started. In the first century of European settlement in Australia, major museums, often associated with a library and an art gallery, were established in each of the metropolitan centres. The Australian Museum was founded in Sydney in 1827, and the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart in 1848. In the 1850s, the colonies of Victoria, Queensland and South Australia all established museums, and Western Australia followed suit in the early 1890s. By Federation in 1901, Australia’s cities already boasted significant museums, their edifices, sited prominently in the centre of town, declaring the rule of civilisation in the Antipodes.

These early museums were formed primarily through the efforts of clubs of amateur gentlemen scientists, such as the Philosophical Society of Australasia, the Philosophical Institute of Victoria and the Royal Society of Tasmania. Eager to institute in the colonies the organisations for enlightened discussion, scientific debate and serious research which had been their domain in Europe, these societies developed museum collections for their own edification and enjoyment, often housing them in part of the local university. Access to these early museums was restricted to members of the learned society, professors or students from associated universities, and other local or visiting members (usually male) of the educated class who might be granted permission through reputation or connection.

By the 1850s, the founders of Australia’s museums were petitioning colonial governments to provide public monies to construct significant buildings to house their institutions. In part, perhaps, this reflects the growth in museum collections up to this time, but more importantly, it also signals a profound change in the conception of the museum itself. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the notion of the museum as a technology for universal public education had gained a strong hold in the Australian colonies, imported primarily from England where the idea of a ‘public museum’ open to all had been developing since the 1830s. The idea of the museum as a cultural resource for the educated classes had been joined by the concept of the museum as a means of reforming the uneducated. At the heart of this new conception of the museum was a widespread concern among social reformers that what they saw as the depredations of the working classes were leading to social decline and political unrest. Exposing the working classes to the refining influences of science and art through institutions such as the museum, the library and the school was believed to be one way in which the working classes could be diverted from such behaviours. Time spent at the museum would, at its most practical, be time not spent at the public house or in other ‘common excitements’.

Working class men in particular were seen as the target of the museum’s civilising influence. Social philosophies of the time held that such men, through absorbing the principles of rational thought embodied in science and the examples of virtue and courage expressed in art, might be set on a road of self-improvement through which they would become the “prudent, thrifty and responsible heads of households” 4 The museum was a means by which the dissolute might become useful contributors to society and economy. Australia’s colonial governments were evidently persuaded relatively quickly of the social value of museums as, from the 1850s, they contributed funds to establish what are now the major State museums. Australia’s museums were, from the first, created as public institutions.

The idea of the museum as a tool of public education and improvement entailed a new relationship between the museum and its visitors. The audience for any museum now ideally included all members of society, and the success of a museum depended not only on its collections but also on the number of people it attracted. Visitor numbers could now provide some measure of how effectively the museum was fulfilling its mandate to enlighten and civilise all sectors of society. In 1859, for example, when the Royal Society of Tasmania petitioned the colonial Governor for funds to construct a building to house a ‘national museum of natural history and the arts’, together with the Society’s library, it cited the fact that the number of visitors to its existing premises had doubled in two years. This was evidence, the Society argued, of the value of the museum in "stimulating and promoting mental culture and intellectual improvement".5 It appears, however, that although many museums kept statistics on the number of visitors, the methodology of collection was never anything but impressionistic. A favourite technique for measuring visitors was to count numbers of visitors over bank holidays or weekends, the most popular visiting times for working class people, and to use these numbers to assess how effectively the museum was fulfilling its educational mandate. The well-to-do middle and upper classes, it seems, were safely assumed to be already dutifully visiting.

The museum’s new understanding of its audience as the entire general public created new challenges for the institution. It now had to get new visitors in the door, drawing the working classes away from their everyday amusements such as the circus and the vaudeville and teaching them to enjoy the restrained satisfaction of acquiring new knowledge. Museum curators clearly wished to distance their institutions from these plebeian entertainments. Anxious to maintain the air of scientific endeavour and civilised authority which they took as their mission, they also recognised the problems of attracting visitors. Museums experimented with new display techniques such as dioramas and panoramas, designed to impress visitors with new viewpoints and interesting subjects. Australia’s museums became some of the first to develop what later became known as ‘outreach programs’ designed to bring the museum to social groups who would not regularly visit. And by the 1880s, children became seen less as unsavoury nuisances and more as ideal visitors upon whom the civilising mission of the museum could be effected through targeted education programs.6

Australia’s colonial museums also participated in the creation of displays for the international exhibitions and worlds fairs of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These extravaganzas, often combining sideshow with scientific exhibition, drew a diverse crowd. The upper classes enjoyed the curiosities of the world as did the working classes, and the mercantile middle class perhaps saw new opportunities for trade and industry. In keeping with this diverse audience, displays representing the various Australian colonies at international exhibitions tended to combine specimens of the continent’s unusual flora and fauna, Aboriginal artefacts, and examples of the colonies’ natural resources and primary industries such as wool and gold. The colonial museums often participated in such events, sometimes by supplying artefacts for exhibition and advising on display and sometimes absorbing the contents of displays into their collections after the major exhibition closed. Through such work, museums showed themselves as places of potential interest to a wide variety of people. They became the repositories of the rare and curious, and sources of information about economic opportunities in the Australian colonies, while maintaining their association with scientific education.

Beyond their commitment to educating the general public, Australia’s museums continued their commitment to a long established audience. Australia’s first museums were primarily natural history museums, dedicated to developing large collections of the geological, floral and faunal resources of the continent. These museums encapsulated the Victorian enthusiasm for collecting, ordering and preserving the natural world within a unified system of classification. The process of cataloguing the new continent’s natural history was a process of incorporating what appeared to European eyes ‘new’ forms of life into established European scientific taxonomies. In understanding their collecting work in this way, Australia’s colonial museums implicitly recreated an international scientific community as their audience. This was a community, moreover, with its centre in Europe. This is abundantly evident in the considerable passage of specimens of indigenous species or geological formations from the Australian colonies to the collections of European museums, and the dissemination of European systems of thought through the practice of science.

Australia’s colonial museums thus positioned themselves between two audiences. On the one hand, the ‘public’, often thought of as an undifferentiated mass requiring enlightenment and needing to be attracted, and on the other hand, a scholarly community of scientists and intellectuals who would provide the resources for enlightenment and education. At times, museums were evidently squeezed between the two as, throughout the nineteenth century, critics charged museums both with abandoning intellectual rigour in favour of the lowest common denominator and of alienating visitors through being high-brow and inaccessible. Despite these pressures, the colonial museum remained a place where the educated expert would provide information, and the uneducated everyday visitor would absorb it. There was no sense that all members of the audience should have access to the museum in terms of the museum representing and speaking to their own particular interests and concerns.

Evolving an audience

The focus of Australia’s early museums on natural history gained strength throughout the nineteenth century. Practices of exhibition emphasised the display of collections of flora and fauna, and mineralogical and geological specimens, according to scientific systems of classification which demonstrated typological relationships. Frederick McCoy, for example, the first director of the National Museum of Victoria, stipulated that the specimens of the Museum’s palaeontological collections would be
      "… first divided into geological groups or periods according to the distribution in time and analogous to the distribution in space indicated by the arrangement of the collections of specimens of the living species. The fossils of each formation are then arranged in zoological systematic order, and fully named with genus, species, locality and formation"7

Such exhibitions were seen to embody and communicate the principles of order, rationality and considered examination which lay at the heart of enlightened thinking and behaviour. These exhibitions were seen as one of the tools through which the masses might learn such attitudes and self-disciplines; and they consequently rested at the heart of the museum’s ‘civilising mission’.8

The new role for museums as educators of the public also emphasised the importance of art, sculpture, literature and other products of ‘civilisation’ in refining the morals and sentiments of working people. Art and culture would improve ‘taste’, while natural history taught ‘reason’. This emphasis on the possibilities of high culture led almost every Australian colony to found, between the 1860s and 1900, public art galleries and museums of applied arts, science and technology. These new museums, and particularly the museums of applied arts, science and technology, also represented a continuation of an alternative museum tradition in the Australian colonies. From the 1830s to the 1860s, Mechanics Institutes flourished in Australia, offering labourers and the less well-to-do middle classes lessons and lectures in both technical and intellectual subjects. Attached to these Institutes were often small collections of objects, art and books, providing teaching and cultural resources. As the larger metropolitan museums (and libraries) were founded and developed a public education mandate, the collections of urban Institutes tended to be absorbed by them. Some Institutes, and particularly rural ones, persisted longer, often until governments created colony- or State-wide technical schooling organisations and libraries to take up and extend the work of the Institutes.9

After the 1860s, the collection and exhibition practices of all these museums came to be increasingly shaped by theories of natural and social selection, succession and progress deriving from evolutionary thinking. Exhibitions of art and culture were important in declaring the common heritage of Australian and European society through bringing the masterpieces, or at least copies of masterpieces, of European civilisation to Australia. Natural history and particularly ethnological collections and exhibitions, however, carried the primary burden of communicating concepts of social evolution.

Australia’s colonial museums had collected Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artefacts, and sometimes human remains, since their foundation, understanding Australia’s Indigenous inhabitants as part of the curious natural history of the continent. After the 1860s, as ideas about social evolution gained wider acceptance, museums rapidly increased the size of these ethnological collections. Aboriginal people came to be seen as part of a ‘nature’ which would inevitably be destroyed by the advance of white civilisation, or as members of a ‘primitive’ race who would naturally be superseded by more ‘highly developed’ human races. These ideas were embodied in exhibitions expressing principles of hierarchical categorisation and succession and positioning men of white European extraction, or their artistic, cultural and technological products, at the hierarchical apex. Museum visitors were implicitly addressed as the inheritors of the progressive triumph of superior races.

Australia’s colonial museums thus displayed and validated the perspectives and experiences of a very limited group of people - educated, white European men. Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, although not formally excluded, clearly only found their way into the museum as dead specimens of a ‘primitive’ people, or were represented through their artefacts displayed as ‘simple technologies’. There was no sense in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people constituted a part of the audience imagined by the museum. Other groups, such as women and non-European ethnic minorities, were more complexly addressed. White women at least were evidently regarded as a part of the museum audience, but their specific interests and knowledges were rarely addressed. By the turn of the century, American feminists in particular began to argue that although museums purported to offer a universal representation of the world - its natural, social and cultural development - they failed to address women or accord sufficient attention to their art and culture. Museums, first-wave feminists proclaimed, were missing out on half the world.10

Discovering national history

When Australia celebrated its federation in 1901, the efforts of the colonial élites had ensured that the new nation boasted a good number of well-established museums. Dedicated to natural history, ethnology, art and technology, and informed by ideas about evolutionary progress and public education, these museums formed a network of collecting and exhibiting institutions that bound Australia firmly to the Empire. Australian museums were interested in representing Australia as a distinct place, developing displays for local and international exhibitions of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These displays focused on what was rare, curious and exciting about Australia, as defined by metropolitan European eyes. Collections of Aboriginal artefacts, for example, were displayed as markers of Australia as a unique location, as well as in contrast to the fruits of Australian colonisation. Collections of unusual faunal species and displays of mineral wealth similarly presented Australia as the land of things one would never find in Europe.

Representations of Australia in museums and at world exhibitions demonstrated a nascent sense of national difference, but it was not a sense of identity based around either a narrative of Australian human history or the Australian nation. Unlike the exhibitions of contemporary European museums, Australian exhibitions did not reflect on the qualities and courses of the past hundred years of life in Australia, but rather on how far the nation had come since European colonisation.11 It was the accomplishment of civilisation rather than the character of Australian society that mattered. Not one colonial museum held a significant collection of historical material, although some odd relics had found their way into the natural history museums,12 and by 1908 the Commonwealth Government had accumulated a haphazard ‘national collection’ of historic artefacts. These small collections focused on those men seen as the founding fathers of Australia: explorers, politicians, and scientists. Of course, the large collections of Aboriginal artefacts held by Australia’s museums were themselves historical objects, testaments not only to centuries of Indigenous experience in the continent but also to the more immediate history of colonisation. It was not until the decades after the 1960s, however, that museum professionals and the broader public would come to think of Aboriginal history in the same way as they understood human history more generally.

The buildup of national sentiment in Australia as the colonies approached federation generated a number of proposals for a national museum, although these contained little more than a glimmer of interest in exploring the human history of the continent rather than asserting the success of Australian society. In 1887, for example, Henry Parkes proposed a Memorial State House for Sydney’s Centennial Park that would celebrate the centenary of colonial settlement. The monument would include a great hall containing documents and relics illustrating the historical, material and industrial stages of the Colony’s progress, and the “customs, languages and ethnological characteristics of the aboriginal races of Australia”. 13 A second proposal at the time of Federation suggested a grand arch standing in Sydney which might contain a room for historical records and curios. In 1902, Arthur Woodward, Head of the Art Department at the Bendigo School of Mines, proposed a museum, to be located in the federal capital, covering archaeology, paintings, prints and drawings, Australian and natural history, and a portrait gallery; and Walter Burley Griffin’s plan for Canberra included a monument storing archives and relics and located on Capital Hill. None of these projects ever got off the ground.

The 1920s saw two further proposals for national museums, although these retreated further from any interest in national history. By 1924 Professor Colin Mackenzie had secured government funds to build a National Museum of Australian Zoology displaying the comparative anatomy of Australian fauna. Opened in 1931 as the Australian Institute of Anatomy, the institution focused on natural history and ethnological collections. In 1927, A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Sydney, also proposed a national museum focusing on ethnology, primarily Australian but encompassing eventually "all peoples and ages of the world". The museum was designed to prevent the ongoing export of Australian ethnological collections to Europe and also to function as a resource for anthropological research. When Radcliffe-Brown’s proposal was submitted to Cabinet, a Departmental submission suggested that the museum should encompass not only ethnological material but also "articles of historic interest and articles Australian in character", such as a Cobb & Co coach owned by the Government and Charles Sturt’s surveying equipment.14 An inquiry into the proposal, however, reduced the museum again to a focus on natural history, and eventually the project foundered in the face of the 1930s Depression.

This lack of sustained interest in Australia’s history since 1788 derived perhaps from the fact that Australians felt little direct connection to the kinds of events which, at the time, were understood to constitute history. European museums housed objects of classical antiquity, royalty, imperial conquest, nation formation and war. Australians, however, brought little consciousness of their national identity to their experience of such events until the war of 1914-18. Moreover, the study of Australian history was born at a time when history was understood as a discipline of words, and a discipline dedicated to calculating the progress of civilisation and the formation of the state. Written or printed evidence, records, correspondence, documents, registers and census data were constituted as the key material remains of history in Australia. 15 It is perhaps consequently unsurprising that the first major museum which explicitly took the historical experience of Australians as its focus was the Australian War Memorial.

Developed since 1918 and eventually opened in its permanent home in Canberra in 1941, the Australian War Memorial was intended both to commemorate the sacrifice of Australians in war and to present the experience of Australian servicemen (and, to a lesser extent, women). This latter function was to be achieved through extensive exhibitions of objects, images and dioramas evoking the experience of battle. The War Memorial was to be a place to which returned veterans could bring their families to help explain to them what they had experienced, and a focus for grieving for widows and parents whose husbands, lovers and children had not returned home. 16 The Memorial emphasised the subject of patriotic sacrifice within the frame of the Australian nation, its displays centred around the figure of a serviceman who, while of European stock and still rather fond of England, was definitively Australian. 17 As such, the Memorial became the first major museum in Australia to explicitly imagine its audience as a national community, rather than an imperial or a racial one.

Audiences and their behaviours

Apart from the establishment of the Australian War Memorial, it appears from the available research that there was little substantive change in the way Australia’s museums understood their purpose and character between the close of the nineteenth century and the middle of the twentieth. In the 1950s, Australia’s major museums were mostly still presenting exhibitions informed by the ideas of social and natural evolution and racial progress that had emerged in the previous century. Museums continued to assert that such representations encapsulated the natural and human worlds. Australian museums also continued to understand themselves as primarily institutions for public education, as arenas where the knowledgeable few might create technologies which would encourage the rest of society to rational enjoyment, greater knowledge and improved sentiment. From the 1920s, however, Australian museums began to envisage the process of education in which they were engaged, and particularly the audiences which they were educating, in new ways. The process of education was no longer assumed, or estimated from the fact of people visiting the museum, but itself became a subject of analysis.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, museum professionals, and especially those in the United States, began to look at what visitors actually did in the museum and particularly within exhibitions themselves, and what they derived from the experience of visiting. Inspired by new methods and ideas in psychology and education that emphasised experimental research and statistical analysis of behaviour, visitor research began with simply observing and recording what people did in museum exhibitions. Early research identified phenomena such as ‘museum fatigue’, generated by exhibitions requiring too much effort to apprehend and understand, and was concerned to identify how to make museums more enjoyable and comfortable experiences by altering exhibit design.18

Studies of the 1920s and into the 1930s employed hidden observers to record how visitors moved through exhibitions, identifying how long they paused in front of particular objects and whether exits distracted visitors from the exhibits. Experimentally minded researchers persuaded museums to design maze-like exhibitions in which observers could record visitors’ reactions to various spatial and aesthetic qualities. These studies stimulated new approaches to exhibition design as they encouraged an understanding of the exhibition as an environment for processing visitors. Museums sought new techniques, such as the division of exhibition space into cells or chambers, and the use of clear organisational plans, to direct and hold visitors at the most important parts of the exhibition. The time visitors spent observing or dwelling in one area was equated with the visitors’ absorption of knowledge from that area.19

These early studies constituted the first steps in the development of exhibition evaluation methodologies designed to establish what visitors were actually learning during their visits to museums. As evaluation emerged as a distinct practice in the late 1950s, the earlier focus on visitor observation was largely replaced by survey research designed to elicit visitor parameters and their attitudes to exhibitions, and to estimate the amount and nature of information visitors derived or retained from museums programs. During the 1960s, primarily through the work of the American researchers Harris Schettel and C.G. Screven, this practice was formalised as an evaluation process demanding the prior clarification of the cognitive or affective objectives of an exhibition, a statement of practical behavioural objectives for the exhibition, and the measurement of the achievement of those objectives.20 This approach to evaluation, which dominated museums through the 1960s and is still a powerful influence, tended to see exhibitions as extensions of the school or book and focused almost exclusively on learning objectives. Visitors were understood as essentially the passive recipients of the museum’s educational message, and the museum retained a vision of itself as a technology for the transmission of expert knowledge to a relatively uneducated visitor. Evaluation was simply providing information on how to better effect that transmission.

It is somewhat unclear how influential these early evaluative studies were in Australian museums, although the predominantly American methodologies were certainly being implemented by the 1970s. By the 1960s, Australian museums had also started to investigate their visitors in another way. Museums began trying to establish who their visitors were and why they visited, employing survey questionnaires, sometimes supported by interview, to develop complete sociographic profiles of visitors. The first major survey conducted by the Australian Museum in 1976, for example, sought to establish general patterns of visitation, frequency of visit, associated visiting habits, place of residence of the visitor, method of travel to the Museum, source of information about the Museum, and preferences for certain exhibitions. Place of residence was used to deduce the socioeconomic status of visitors, and data on age and ethnic background was gathered through observation. 21 These early systematic surveys were devoted to gathering quantitative data from which generalisations about the typical museum visitor might be drawn.

The development of visitor studies was driven by the continuing need for museums to demonstrate that they were attracting a significant portion of the general public, and that people were actually learning something, given contemporary understandings of education, when they visited. Both of these criteria were central to their continued life as public institutions, and statistical data on visitors were often understood to be useful in disproving the public’s supposed image of the museum as a boring and irrelevant place. The increasing profile, from the 1960s, of marketing as a profession and practice also had a significant impact on Australian museums’ attitudes to visitors. From a marketing perspective, visitor research was important as a tool for devising policies and strategies that would enable museums to better tailor their programs to their audiences, both people who were already visitors, and eventually those who were not. Marketing, based on visitor research, became seen as one of the most important tools through which museums could attract the widest possible range and greatest possible number of visitors.

Disturbingly for Australian museums, the data provided by visitor research seemed to indicate that museums were far from fulfilling their public educational mandate. Studies confirmed what seemed to have been implicitly understood in the nineteenth century - that visitors to museums tended to be restricted to people who were well-educated and came from higher than average socioeconomic backgrounds. One interpretation was that museums were in fact discriminating against people without the educational and cultural skills needed to apprehend and enjoy museum displays. In addition, evaluation studies seemed to suggest that visitors were not merely absorbing information from exhibitions, but were supplying as much as receiving meanings and understandings. This evidence made it very difficult to demonstrate behavioural changes occasioned by the museum visit. Until the 1970s, Australian museums tended to continue responding to these results by seeking to bend the population to their will, understanding that methods of marketing and display were inadequate to the educational task and needed to be improved, rather than considering that museums were failing because they did not address the contemporary interests of diverse social groups.

The museum transformed

Between the 1970s and the end of the twentieth century Australian museums began a profound transformation in their collecting and exhibitionary practices that derived from a new understanding of the relationship between museums and their publics. By the 1970s, museum practices which emphasised, often exclusively, the perspectives, experiences and interests of educated, white men were being challenged in a number of ways. Challenges from within museums tended to draw on a new body of museum scholarship that focused on the ways that museum exhibitions addressed and validated limited notions of who their visitors were and partial visions of history and society. Critics argued that these practices alienated potential visitors who felt, upon visiting the museum, excluded and derided rather than incorporated into an encompassing story of the world.22

Museums also faced often vehement criticisms from the variety of new social movements which gathered momentum during the 1970s. The women’s movement led the way in many respects, following feminists of the late nineteenth century in arguing that if public museums were going to claim to represent the entire range of human knowledge, they needed to pay more attention to women’s culture and experience. Similar arguments were made, with equal fervour, by working class movements, minority ethnic communities and Indigenous Australians. The challenges these groups sent out to museums entailed not only calls that they be accorded equal representation in the museum, but also that there be improved opportunities for women, working class communities, ethnic minorities and Indigenous people to participate in governing museum collections and in producing museum exhibitions and programs.23

Indigenous challenges to Australian museum practice have been perhaps the most telling and required the greatest changes. In most Australian museums of the 1960s, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples tended still to figure only as representing ‘stages’ in hierarchies of cultural or racial evolution. Indigenous Australians were understood as essentially people outside of time, their cultures frozen beyond history and consequently an anachronism in the contemporary world. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artefacts were displayed exclusively in terms of European-Australian cultural understandings. By the 1980s, Australian museums were beginning to understand the negative impact such representations and appropriations were having on the cultural and material conditions of Indigenous people. From this period, museums began to accede to demands and sometimes initiated programs to incorporate Indigenous protocols and understandings into museum practices. Repatriation programs started to return human remains to Aboriginal communities for burial. Secret/sacred objects were removed from public display and collection storage reconfigured to respect Indigenous classifications. Consultation processes with Indigenous communities and employment initiatives were established to include Indigenous people in museum decision making.

It was not until the 1990s, however, that Australian museum exhibition practices really began to reflect new understandings of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as historical actors and participants in living, continuing cultures. In 1993, the Australian Museum opened a new Indigenous Australians gallery focusing on contemporary issues of importance to Aboriginal people such as cultural heritage, land and social justice. In 1999, the Western Australian Museum opened its refurbished Aboriginal gallery looking at continuity and innovation in Aboriginal cultures. In 2000, the South Australian Museum opened a new Aboriginal gallery redeploying its extensive ethnographic collections, and Museum Victoria also opened Bunilaka, its Aboriginal Centre, exploring the historical experiences and contemporary cultures and issues of Victorian Indigenous people. All these exhibitions emphasise the ongoing adaptation of Aboriginal peoples, their distinct location and interests within Australian society, and their participation in the broader history shaping contemporary Australia.

As these new exhibitions indicate, Australian museums since the 1970s have responded to criticisms about access and representation in a new way. Rather than reverting, as they had done in previous decades, to attempts to convert excluded social groups to élite interests in culture and science, Australian museums began to see themselves as needing to cater equally to the cultural interests and preferences of all sectors of the population. In many ways, this change reflects museums adapting to the changing character of Australia as the country came to embrace ethnic and cultural diversity as a core element of its society. This change required in museums, however, a quite profound reconceptualisation of their mandate. Museums continued to understand themselves as essentially institutions of public education, but the public to which they spoke was no longer an undifferentiated mass. The public was composed of a range of different audiences, each with different interests and experiences. More radically, the public now not only represented an audience, but was also possessed of cultural rights of access to the museum. The museum’s mandate was now to ensure that those rights were satisfied through according equal representation to all the diverse social groups. The education function of the museum became less to disseminate a single view of history and culture, but rather to offer up multiple visions and to promote tolerance and acceptance of those different visions.

This new appreciation of the diverse interests of the public explains, at least in part, the emergence in Australia since the 1970s of a variety of smaller museums, often catering to the interests of specific groups in the general population. Institutions such as local history museums, Melbourne’s Chinese and Jewish museums, and museums dedicated to a specific industry or way of life, have flourished over the last few decades. Some Indigenous communities have established local keeping places, often built around collections repatriated from larger museums. Like the major museums, these smaller institutions seek to educate the wider public about the distinctive experiences of specific social groups while providing a focus for local culture.

The drive for Australia’s museums to respond to the interests and experiences of diverse social groups also stimulated the emergence in museums, since the 1980s, of collections and exhibitions devoted to the social, cultural and technological history of nineteenth and twentieth century Australia. In part, this new field of practice represents museums attempting to speak more closely to subjects of interest and relevance to ordinary Australians; but it must also be seen as a response to the changing priorities of Australian public culture.24 Since the 1970s, history has emerged as a key arena through which Australians negotiate senses of national identity. The focus for historiography in Australia has shifted from detailing Australia’s connections to England to exploring the specific dynamics, challenges and problems of Australian societies. It is unsurprising that museums, as sites of collective memory, should engage with these new questions.

In addition, the development of national and international tourism has created new audiences for Australian museums. The numbers of international visitors to museums vary considerably depending on where the museum is located within Australia, but for high profile institutions, and especially those in cities such as Sydney, anecdotal evidence suggests that up to a quarter of total visitors are international tourists. Unlike local visitors who may engage with a museum in multiple ways over several visits, visitors on tour expect a concise experience through which they can glean a coherent understanding of the locality they are visiting. Since the 1970s, this experience has come increasingly to be framed in terms of the local or national culture or history, and Australian museums are consequently increasingly interested in creating exhibitions that can meet this expectation.

Australia’s museums have consequently encountered the end of the twentieth century with a revised public education mandate. Rather than disseminating élite notions of science and culture and speaking exclusively to an assumed white male visitor, museums now attempt to represent and speak to a diversity of people, interests and viewpoints. This new commitment to representing diversity raises potential conflicts for Australian museums. As public institutions, they must now answer both to a diverse public and to the specific governments which fund them. It is the nature of democratic society that these two will not always agree, and contemporary museums often find themselves attempting to answer both masters. In addition, the complexities of exploring social, natural and historical diversity are often poorly served by museums seeking to create quick, coherent experiences for tourists.

The audience figures

The transformations occurring in Australian museums since the 1970s have been accompanied by an explosion of interest in understanding and examining museum visitors and the professionalisation of visitor research. In 1991, the first permanent position for an evaluation and visitor research coordinator was created at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. In 1994, the Australian Museum and Museum Victoria followed suit, and in 1996, the Australian War Memorial made a further appointment. These designated positions represent in many respects the tip of the iceberg, as evaluation and visitor research are also now habitually carried out by other staff and by consultant research companies. Evaluation of exhibitions, both establishing prior visitor expectations and interests and assessing visitor experience at the exhibition, is now quite widely carried out. Much of this research tends to remain, however, poorly disseminated within the museum profession generally, with the results of studies tending to lodge within institutions rather than contributing to the broader development of knowledge about museum visitors. The first national conference devoted to visitor research, for example, was held in Australia only in 1995. This lack of communication of results between museums derives, perhaps, from the fact that museums are reluctant to share information obtained through commercial consultancies, or from the atmosphere of competition between museums as leisure choices that is generated by scarcity of funding to museums generally.

The development of visitor research since the early 1990s has grown in part from the revision of the public museum’s mandate described above. Museums worldwide now enshrine equity and access to collections for all social groups as part of their core mandate. Maximum participation from all members and sectors of the community is desired, and is sometimes captured as a requirement in government policies applying to museums. The New South Wales Government’s Charter of Principles of Cultural Diversity, for example, requires public institutions to ensure that their programs and services make possible maximum participation from all sectors of the community. Museums’ new attention to equity and access recreates the ‘public’ as a potential audience who, as they have been since the nineteenth century, need to be attracted to the museum. A substantial body of research now attends not only to sectors of the audience who become visitors, but also to potential audiences who do not visit. During the 1990s, a number of large scale audience surveys have focused on people who do not visit museums, attempting to discover the social characteristics, cultural horizons, attitudes and interests of non-visitors. The impetus behind these ‘barrier studies’ has been explicitly to turn non-visitors into visitors.25

While these studies are motivated in part by principles of equity and access, visitor research is also driven by the more mundane need to demonstrate the utility of museums as public institutions in order to guarantee their continued funding. The ‘public good’ of a museum is no longer, if it ever was, unquestioned, and museums continue to need to respond to claims that they are the province of a small, privileged group of cultural élites. This requirement to maximise the number of visitors to the museum has gained considerable weight as the notion of a ‘cultural industry’ encompassing museums has developed. In the early 1980s, the federal Cultural Ministers’ Council, dedicated to developing Australia’s cultural industry, began to realise the lack of reliable statistical data on the activities of institutions such as museums. With their support, the Australian Bureau of Statistics established the National Centre for Culture and Recreation Statistics in 1991. One of its activities is to undertake surveys on attendance at cultural venues such as museums. The periodic availability of official statistics means that museums must now increasingly argue for their value in quantitative rather than qualitative terms.

In addition, in recent decades Australian museums have increasingly needed to develop audiences in order to increase revenue from non-governmental sources. In part, this derives from efforts to curtail government spending on public institutions, but it also reflects the great diversification and number of museums in Australia. Museums are coming to see themselves as competitors in a field of options through which people may spend their leisure dollars, and research into who visits and why, and especially who doesn’t visit and why, is important to any one museum and all museums securing and increasing market share. The trend to view visitor research in this way has been strengthened by the increasing influence of marketing and corporate development programs within Australian museums over the last few decades.

Figures on visitors to Australian museums collected by the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicate that 20% of Australians aged 15 and over visited a museum and 21% visited an art museum (i.e. non-commercial art gallery) during the year ending April 1999 (see the section Museum and art museum attendance in the Culture and recreation chapter). Total attendance figures of more than 16 million visitors per year indicate that some people visit a museum or art museum more than once per year. Attendance at art museums peaks between 45 and 54 years, while attendance at other types of museums peaks between 35 and 44 years of age. For the latter, these figures may correlate to parents taking their children to museums, as family visitation is very common. The ABS figures do not include visits by people under 15, but attendance figures for National Museum of Australia venues indicate that visits by school children, as part of organised school programs, account for a high percentage of total museum attendances. It appears that museum visitors from Australia continue to be drawn from higher than average educational backgrounds, with 46% of people with a Bachelor's degree visiting an art museum and 36% visiting other types of museums during the year ending April 1999. In contrast, people with trade qualifications, apprenticeships or no qualifications are the least likely to visit. (Note that there are no consolidated statistics on the socio-demographic profiles of international tourists.)26

The development of evaluation studies within museums has also grown significantly since the 1970s. While sometimes still informed by scientistic modes of assessing behavioural change and learning outcomes in visitors, exhibition evaluation also sometimes incorporates a more open-ended vision of the role of the museum in learning and a less mechanistic vision of the visitor. Visitors are now often understood to take an active role in interpreting the material of exhibitions, bringing to the museum attitudes, ideas and expectations, and knowledge, through which they construct responses to museum programs.27 The development of ‘front-end evaluation’ in which ideas and prototypes for exhibitions are introduced to potential audiences to gauge interest, expectations and existing knowledge, has facilitated the emergence of ‘audience advocates’ in museums. These staff work to ensure that a vision of the visitor is at the centre of any museum development. The museum’s role in learning is more frequently, or at least ideally, understood not as a technology for the transmission of information, but as a facilitator for stimulating inquiry and discovery over the long term. These understandings of visitors and of learning tend often to sit at odds with the needs of museum administrators to demonstrate measurable behavioural outcomes from exhibition visits.

The growth in visitor research, and the factors driving it, have resulted in Australian museums becoming increasingly ‘visitor focused’. A century ago, museums were concerned to distance themselves from the excitements and pleasures of ‘entertainments’. At the close of the twentieth century, museums’ interest in attracting increased numbers of visitors, and especially visitors uncomfortable with the sober display techniques of traditional museums, has led museums to reintroduce techniques more often associated with entertainment than education. The use of multimedia and computer technology, stronger reliance on narrative, and different aesthetics of colour and sound, indicate museums’ attempts to move closer to the styles of popular culture. Australian museums now attempt to integrate their traditional pedagogic function with the concept of visitors having fun, being moved, and feeling excited.


In March 2001, the National Museum of Australia will open its new exhibition showcase in Canberra as part of Australia’s celebrations of its centenary of Federation. Opening almost two hundred years after museums were founded in Australia, the National Museum will encapsulate in some ways much of that history. The Museum will focus on Aboriginal history and culture, Australian history since European settlement in Australia, and the continent’s environmental history, integrating these three themes to tell the ‘stories of Australia’. The National Museum claims some of the nineteenth century heritage of Australian museums, drawing on the ethnological collections of the Australian Institute of Anatomy which it acquired in the 1980s, but weaving these into contemporary stories about the continuity and experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and peoples. Incorporating some of the earliest government collections of historical artefacts, the Museum will follow developments since the 1980s to explore the social history of Australia’s people. And regarding Australia’s environment in a new way, the National Museum will examine the continent’s natural history in the context of how people from many different backgrounds have forged connections on and with the land, and how the land has shaped Australians’ diverse experiences.

Consciousness of the ‘visitor’ sits at the heart of the National Museum. The institution seeks to reach out and speak to all Australians, bringing a sense of the diversity of Australian society and history to all its exhibitions. The Museum’s programs are designed to be as accessible as possible, attempting to incorporate even audiences distant from the physical exhibitions through technologies such as broadcast and computer media. Information about visitors, their interests and attitudes, have informed exhibition development, influencing the Museum’s character and aesthetic. The Museum, remains, however, acutely aware of its role as an institution for public education, seeking to disseminate information about the forces which shaped Australia historically and as it is today, and taking seriously its mandate to encourage visitors to reflect on their role within the Australian nation. Like all of Australia’s contemporary museums, the National Museum of Australia will be required to both educate and entertain, to reach and be relevant to all sectors of Australian society while also maintaining an intellectual rigour in its programs and providing an accessible experience for international tourists. Ongoing investigation of its actual and potential audiences, assessments of their experiences in the Museum, and exploration of how the Museum can become more relevant, exciting and interesting for them, will be an important aspect of the National Museum’s ongoing development.


1 Cultural Ministers Council Statistics Working Group 1993, cited in Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Department of Communications and the Arts 1997, Cultural Trends in Australia: A statistical overview , Commonwealth of Australia, p. 51.

2 Museums Australia Inc. 1996, cited in Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Department of Communications and the Arts 1997, Cultural Trends in Australia: A statistical overview, Commonwealth of Australia, p. 53.

3 Carol Scott 1998, The Long and Winding Road: Evaluation and visitor research in museums in Australia and New Zealand, paper presented to the Visitor Centre Stage: Action for the Future conference.

4 Tony Bennett, “The Museum and the Citizen”, in T. Bennett, R. Trotter & D. McAlear (eds), Museums and Citizenship: A resource book, Memoirs of the Queensland Museum 1996. South Brisbane: Queensland Museum, p. 6.

5 Ian McShane, “Building a National Museum of Australia: A history”, Public History Review, 7, 1998, p. 77.

6 Tony Bennett, “The Museum and the Citizen”, in T. Bennett, R. Trotter & D. McAlear (eds), Museums and Citizenship: A resource book, Memoirs of the Queensland Museum 1996. South Brisbane: Queensland Museum, p. 11.

7 McCoy, n.d. (c.1856), cited in David Goodman, “Fear of Circuses: Founding the National Museum of Victoria”, in David Boswell & Jessica Evans (eds) 1999, Representing the Nation: A reader. London: Routledge, p. 265.

8 David Goodman, “Fear of Circuses: Founding the National Museum of Victoria”, in David Boswell & Jessica Evans (eds) 1999, Representing the Nation: A reader. London: Routledge, p. 265.

9 M. Talbot 1992, A Chance to Read: A history of the Institutes movement in South Australia, Adelaide: Libraries Board of South Australia; P. Candy & J. Laurent (eds) 1994, Pioneering Culture: Mechanics Institutes and schools of art in Australia, Adelaide: Auslib Press.

10 K. McCarthy 1991, Women’s Culture: American philanthropy and art, 1830-1930, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press; J. Weimann 1981, The Fair Women: The story of The Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exhibition, Chicago, 1893, Chicago: Academy Chicago.

11 Kimberley Webber, “Constructing Australia’s Past: The development of historical collections, 1888-1938” in Patricia Summerfield (ed.) 1986, Proceedings of the Council of Australian Museum Associations Conference, Perth WA, pp. 155-173.

12 Chris Healy 1997, From the Ruins of Colonialism: History as Social Memory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 86n.

13 Ian McShane, “Building a National Museum of Australia: A history”, Public History Review 7, 1998, p. 78.

14 Ian McShane, “Building a National Museum of Australia: A history”, Public History Review 7, 1998, p. 81.

15 Chris Healy 1997, From the Ruins of Colonialism: History as Social Memory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 88.

16 Michael McKernan 1991, Here is Their Spirit: A history of the Australian War Memorial, 1917-1990, St Lucia: University of Queensland Press in association with the Australian War Memorial.

17 Ken Inglis, “A sacred place: the making of the Australian War Memorial”, War and Society 3(2): 99-126.

18 Benjamin Gilman, “Museum fatigue”, The Scientific Monthly, 1916, 12: 62-74.

19 See for example, Arthur Melton et al. 1935, Experimental Studies of the Education of Children in a Museum of Science, New Series, no. 15, Washington D.C.: American Association of Museums; Edward Robinson 1928, The Behavior of the Museum Visitor, New Series no. 5, Washington DC: American Association of Museums Monograph.

20 Bernard Schiele, “Creative interaction of visitor and exhibition”, in Don Thompson et al. (eds.) 1992, Visitor Studies: Theory, Research and Practice, volume 5. Jacksonville, Alabama: The Visitor Studies Association, p. 32.

21 D.J.G. Griffin, The Australian Museum Visitor 1976, The Australian Museum Trust, Sydney, p. 4.

22 Peter Vergo (ed.) 1989, The New Museology, London: Reaktion Books; Ivan Karp & Steven Lavine (eds) 1991, Exhibiting Cultures: The poetics and politics of museum display, Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution.

23 Tony Bennett, Robin Trotter & Donna McAlear 1996, Museums and Citizenship: A resource book, Memoirs of the Queensland Museum 39(1), Queensland Museum; Margaret Anderson & Andrew Reeves, “Contested Identities: Museums and the nation in Australia”, in Flora Kaplan (ed.) 1994, Museums and the Making of “Ourselves”: The role of objects in national identity, London and New York: Leicester University Press, pp. 78-124.

24 Margaret Anderson, “Selling the past: History in museums in the 1990s”, in J. Rickard & P. Spearritt (eds) 1991, Packaging the Past? Public Histories, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, pp. 130-141.

25 Tony Bennett, Chilla Bulbeck & Mark Finnane 1991, Accessing the Past, Brisbane: Griffith University; Tony Bennett 1994, The Reluctant Museum Visitor: A study of non-goers to history museums and art galleries, Australia Council.

26 Australian Bureau of Statistics 1999, Attendance at Selected Cultural Venues (4114.0), Canberra.

27 Carol Scott, “Evaluation and Visitor Research in Australia: Developments and trends”, Visitor Behaviour, 1997, 12(3-4): 22-23.