SA history body weighs into SA Museum debate

The History Council of South Australia has entered the debate around the SA Museum’s future, calling for “an end to destabilising public attacks aimed at derailing the renewal process”.

Apr 12, 2024, updated Apr 12, 2024
The History Council of South Australia has weighed into the debate about the SA Museum's future. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

The History Council of South Australia has weighed into the debate about the SA Museum's future. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

HCSA president Matt Fitzpatrick said that a campaign against proposed SA Museum reforms had generated publicity but “precious little insight”.

Former SA Museum director and scientist Tim Flannery has warned that reforms including changes to research could destroy the institution, while hundreds have signed an open letter to Premier Peter Malinauskas protesting the moves.

Fitzpatrick said in a press release: “The question that remains unanswered by their recent open letter is what has happened to our museum?”

He said that underfunding by Labor and Liberal governments meant the SA Museum “is simply no longer fit for purpose.”

“Starved of revenue, it has staggered on well past the point when something should have been done to rescue it,” he said.

“The museum’s collections remain a mystery to all but those who work behind its locked doors. Its research rarely reaches out beyond a handful of scientists.

“Its displays, supposed to engage the public, are embarrassingly antiquated. To enter the museum now is to be disappointed by a tired, unchanging and frankly uninteresting institution with its best days behind it.”

Fitzpatrick said that continuing with the museum’s “broken operating model means handing over an impoverished museum to future generations”.

“We could not blame them if they simply shuttered its doors rather than bear the expense of carrying out the renewal we would not undertake when we had the chance,” he said.

“The museum and those who love it find themselves at a crossroads. Either they can embrace renewal, find ways to constructively engage with the modernisation of its practices and help open it up to the public. Or they can condemn the museum to continue its insular irrelevance.”

Asked by InDaily why the HCSA was entering the debate, Fitzpatrick said it “has a role to play in ensuring that all of the cultural institutions in South Australia are looked after and that the debate surrounding those institutions is a civil and considered one, and we thought that it was important to become involved”.

“The Museum, of course, is a receptacle for South Australian history. In broad terms, not only natural history, but history more broadly also falls under our remit,” he said.

Professor Allan Pring, a signatory to the open letter, disagreed that the museum was irrelevant, saying it received 700,000 visitors a year

He added that until relatively recently the SA Museum ran open days where the public could take a tour and view the behind-the-scenes collections.

“I think most people who work in the research part of the museum would welcome that opportunity to happen again because we’re very proud of the vast collections and the interesting stories that are in individual specimens,” he said.

“The Museum of South Australia has something like 5 million specimens – biological specimens and geological specimens – and a lot of them are either very small or they’re just not really suitable for a long-term permanent display.”

He said that 70 per cent of museum publications were open access and that museum staff also wrote articles published in outlets such as The Conversation.

Pring did not think the Museum was adequately consulting the public and that is was expensive and time-consuming to redo exhibitions.

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“They’re not talking specifically about what they’re going to do in reimagining and how they’re going to fund it,” he said.

“The people who work at the museum – the researchers, the curator and the collection manager – all wanted to be able to do more to bring our stories to the general public, but it’s about finding the funds to be able to do that.

“[The SA Museum leadership] are talking about wholesale change to the museum but there are no details released.”

Pring called on the SA Museum leadership to release details about the proposed change, including the review of the Research and Collections department that has informed the proposed restructure.

InDaily also asked Fitzpatrick why the HCSA did not view the backlash against proposed changes at the SA Museum as a genuine grassroots campaign.

He referred to the open letter published in The Advertiser: “It’s not every grassroots campaign that can afford two pages of advertising in the state’s only newspaper to make their point,” he said.

“I’m quite sure that many of the people who signed onto that hold serious concerns about the museum, and in fact, all of us hold very serious concerns about the museum and I’d say about 80 per cent of our hopes and aspirations for the museum are exactly the same.

“What prompted us to make the statement was that we’re concerned that the debate was headed off in the wrong direction – precisely the wrong direction – just at the moment in which the museum has a real chance to undergo some very necessary renewal.

“The museum leadership and the new director are being attacked for having just begun the process and I thought it was a poorly conceived approach – it was neither constructive nor necessary.”

Pring said he would not characterise the backlash against proposed changes at the SA Museum as a well-funded campaign.

“I mean, some people have made donations to help cover the cost of the open letter,” he said.

“It’s a group of people with a common interest from a diverse range of backgrounds who are all passionately interested in the museum.”

Pring said that the open letter showed widespread support for the campaign against the proposed reforms, adding that “[t]en years ago the South Australian Museum was the premier natural history museum in Australia and one of the best small museums in the world.”

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