Linking the nation's memory
Progressing the work of the Collections Council of Australia
by Margaret Birtley
This paper was presented as the Inaugural ANU National Collections Lecture at the Australian National University on 27 September 2005.
Abstract

The Collections Council of Australia believes that the cultural collections of Australia represent the essence of the past, present and future memory of this country; they shape our psyche, record our development and provide insight into our national spirit. Typically, these collections are preserved in institutions such as libraries, archives, galleries and museums. Supported by the Cultural Ministers' Council, the Collections Council aims to provide effective leadership for the collections sector, and to identify innovative ways in which collecting institutions might develop sustainable, significant and more accessible collections. Linking up the people and practices of the collections sector involves acknowledging professional differences while recognising common needs and shared interests. This paper describes some of the steps that are being taken by the Collections Council to advance the stability and sustainability of the collections sector.

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Introduction

In JK Rowling's imagined world of Harry Potter's Hogwarts school, a magic wand can borrow a person's memory from their brain so that it can be bottled and stored for later consultation. Then, at a convenient time and with appropriate friends or colleagues on hand, you can stir the memory into the 'pensieve', a dish in which memories can be revisited, inspected, and analysed. Through the magical powers of the pensieve, historical details that were once known only to the people who were part of the remembered event can be viewed by others who were not there at the time. Things that were lost or hidden can be revealed, and words that may have seemed inconsequential when first uttered can be reinterpreted in the light of other information.

In our world, there are no magic wands or pensieves. Human memories fade, and can be completely lost when people die; events can be mis-remembered or forgotten. But thanks to the careful work of our archives, galleries, libraries and museums, the evidence of past events and practices continues to be preserved. In Australia's cultural and scientific collections reside millions of things that document our past and present. The collections of Australia, distributed nationwide in diverse organisations, hold the evidence of significant memories relating to who we are, where we have come from, and how we make sense of our natural and cultural environments. Every exhibition of historical, artistic or scientific material in a gallery, museum, library or archive works as a sort of pensieve, giving the visitor insights into the past and present, and stimulating our thoughts about the future.

The Collections Council of Australia has an ambitious 'strap line' as part of its corporate image: Linking the nation's memory.

What does this phrase mean for this new organisation?

The web tool <dictionary.com> gives 11 meanings of 'memory'. Setting aside the definitions that are specific to biology, computer science, statistics, materials science and immunology, we have:

    1. the mental faculty of retaining and recalling past experience
    2. the act or an instance of remembering; recollection: spent the afternoon lost in memory
    3. all that a person can remember: it hasn't happened in my memory
    4. something remembered: pleasant childhood memories
    5. the fact of being remembered; remembrance: dedicated to their parents' memory
    6. the period of time covered by the remembrance or recollection of a person or group of persons: within the memory of humankind.

All these definitions relate to sentient creatures: people as individuals and in groups. So how can we claim that the nation has a memory?

I see the strap line as relating closely to the definitions 'all that a person can remember' and 'something remembered'. By anthropomorphising 'the nation', and by attributing to it the power to remember, our strap line is making a claim for collective memory, where 'the nation' implies 'all the people in Australia'.

The strap line is therefore saying: 'The Collections Council is linking up all that Australia can remember, i.e. all the things (events, utterances, practices, documents, objects and specimens) that are now, or might in the future be remembered by (people in) Australia, and by their successors in future generations'.

Putting it another way, the Collections Council aims to help collecting organisations link up the evidence that they hold with the memories, insights and thoughts of all Australians: in this generation, and in those that will follow.

A new organisation

The Collections Council is a new participant in the cultural heritage field. Its focus is on the movable cultural collections of Australia, which are typically preserved by archives, galleries, libraries and museums. Initiated and supported by the Cultural Ministers' Council, the Collections Council has been given a serious responsibility: to help the collections sector speak with one voice on matters of shared interest.

Our formal history is short. The company was officially incorporated on 27 September 2004, the board first met in late November 2004, and I commenced duties in late February 2005. The organisation was officially launched in Melbourne on 26 September 2005 by the Chair of the Cultural Ministers' Council, the Hon. Senator Rod Kemp, Minister for the Arts and Sport.

Although our history is short, we acknowledge our antecedents and precursors over the last 15 years in the form of earlier initiatives of the Cultural Ministers' Council. I am referring here to the former Heritage Collections Council and the National Collections Advisory Forum, all assisted by the Commonwealth's arts department, currently structured as the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts. This early history was set out by the Chair of the Collections Council, Sue Nattrass, at the Museums Australia conference in Sydney in May 2005. Her paper is accessible now on our website[1], along with a two-page account of our 'Origins and antecedents' (accessible from the About Us > The Collections Council page) and, for really busy people, a one-page summary that we've placed in the Media Room page.

One element of our history is important to note. The Heritage Collections Council evolved in response to 'grass-roots' pressure from museum and gallery practitioners in the late 1980s, through the then Council of Australian Museum Associations. By 2001, when the Cultural Ministers' Council commissioned A Study into the Key Needs of Collecting Institutions in the Heritage Sector [2], the research brief extended the field of view so that four distinct types of collecting institution (museums, galleries, libraries and archives) were considered equally within the one report. The study discovered that these organisations shared many 'needs' in common, including a need to overcome the lack of nationwide coordination for collecting institutions and collections. Thus, with advice from the National Collections Advisory Forum, the Cultural Ministers' Council resolved in February 2004 to establish a national industry body to provide nationwide coordination for collections issues, and to represent the shared interests of collecting organisations. This new body is the Collections Council of Australia.

New potential

The development of the Collections Council of Australia has some international parallels. For example, in the United States there is the Institute of Museum and Library Services, while in the United Kingdom there is the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council. Both these organisations are funded by their respective governments to support the work of heritage collecting organisations. The Collections Council of Australia is therefore part of a larger trend that seeks to identify and support innovative and accountable ways in which collecting organisations might evolve.

The Collections Council aims, through its forthcoming work, to help Australian collecting organisations develop sustainable, significant and accessible collections. This statement is not meant to imply, in any way, that the collecting organisations are not well run. The key needs study did identify, however, that many organisations are resource-poor, and concerned that they are not yet achieving their potential.

Existing collections

The Collections Council observes that the cultural collections of Australia are central to the Australian sense of identity and are at the core of community life. Collections reflect our diversity of cultures, beliefs, and connections with the land. The Council believes that collections represent the essence of the past, present and future memory of the country; they shape our psyche, record our development, provide insight into our national spirit, and inspire us for the future. They can be found in institutions such as libraries and knowledge centres, archives, galleries, museums, Indigenous keeping places and historical societies, and at heritage places. They can also be found in community, corporate and civic spaces; within scientific and educational organisations; and in private hands. They may be movable, or fixed in location. They include living things in botanical and zoological collections. They are tangible or virtual. Many collections help to record and document intangible heritage practices. Wherever they are, and whatever their nature, they are preserved and protected because of their identifiable significance to current and future Australians.

New vocabulary

The diversity of collection type, material, location, context and significance is well recognised within the different branches of the collections world. Each professional group employs its own vocabulary to describe this diversity. For example, libraries are most comfortable talking about books, newspapers, and other printed materials, and use a specialist vocabulary to identify things in their collections that do not fit well with their basic scheme. Two of their specialist terms are 'realia', describing 'three-dimensional objects from real life'[3], and 'ephemera', a term that recognises material that was not produced with long-term preservation in mind (usually two-dimensional, printed materials such as bus tickets or advertising fliers). In museums, by contrast, collection items can be named as objects, artefacts, items or specimens, and there is usually little concern to distinguish whether the object has two or three dimensions, and whether it was built to last or not. Art museums/galleries may prefer to use the term 'works of art'. Archivists tend to refer to 'documents' and 'records'.

This diversity of professional vocabulary is not a major problem, but the Collections Council's ability to work effectively with people in different collecting areas may be limited if we choose the wrong words to communicate our ideas: words that seem alien to the ideas and practice of the individuals in that area. I am keen to produce a glossary of terms that will help us communicate easily with all in the collections sector.

While on the topic of vocabulary, there is a new term that I have introduced to the Collections Council. This paper has already referred to the 'collections sector'. But I'm sure you've been in different conversations and heard or used the terms 'museums sector', 'archives sector', 'galleries sector', 'libraries sector'. Rather than call each of these areas a 'sub-sector' of the larger collections zone, we have adopted (from the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council in the United Kingdom) the term 'domain'. Each of the four major 'domains' comprising the collections 'sector' (archives, galleries, libraries, and museums) is diverse in nature, different in structure and at a different stage of development. Each has unique issues but there is also a commonality of needs. There is significant potential for organisations to work collaboratively for improved outcomes for all within the sector, as well as for communities and governments.

New challenge

The Collections Council believes that everyone in the Australian community has interest, however modest, in collections, and recent television programs suggest that this interest is growing.

We are conscious that there are many existing and well-developed organisations that already contribute positively to the sector. Linking the people and practices of the collections sector involves acknowledging professional differences while recognising shared interests.

Ian Galloway, Director of the Queensland Museum, comments that the Collections Council must have a clear sense of purpose, and avoid duplicating the work already being done by the institutions.[4]

I want to assure the collections sector that we seek to complement (not duplicate) their activities. To do this, we will undertake projects that fit within our own terms of reference and company objectives. We are aware that any projects we undertake need to address real challenges that face the sector. Being an independent body, we may be able to work in ways that others perhaps may not.

We respect and want to work with the groups and individuals that we have identified as our key stakeholders:

Category As represented by
Community Individuals or groups as visitors (actual and virtual) to collections, donors to collecting organisations, students and researchers, members of special interest groups and learned societies.
Government Members of the Cultural Ministers' Council, elected representatives and departmental and agency personnel in Commonwealth, state and local jurisdictions.
Collecting organisations People who work for collecting organisations as staff, volunteers, managers, members of governing and fundraising bodies, and the membership of friends or members groups.
Professional associations Subscribers to membership organisations that represent the personnel, institutions and professional interests of the collections sector (e.g. Australian Library and Information Association, Australian Society of Archivists, Museums Australia, Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material, Australian Registrars Committee).
Industry councils Peak bodies formed by the alliance of organisations with shared interests (e.g. Council of Australasian Archives and Records Authorities, Council of Australasian Museum Directors, Council of Australian Art Museum Directors, Council of Australian State Libraries, Council of Australian University Libraries, Regional Cultural Alliance, Federation of Australian Historical Societies, Australian Council of National Trusts, National Cultural Heritage Forum).
Service providers (individuals) Independent/freelance workers in the collections sector, operating as contractors or consultants.
Service providers (institutions) Organisations that supply services (e.g. conservation, education, training, information and communications technology, design, display, marketing, tourism, ticketing, transport, catering, retail, curriculum development, publishing, construction) to collecting organisations.
Media People working in print media, radio, TV and the web.
Funding bodies Public or philanthropic entities.
Other collectors Private or corporate collectors, working individually or in groups, who are not part of a collecting organisation.
Collections Council of Australia Ltd Members, directors and staff.

New directions

The Collections Council will work in several new directions to achieve its objectives.[5] We will undertake research to demonstrate the economic, cultural and social benefits of the sector, and will develop a communications strategy that ensures that the value and contribution of collections to the community is recognised. We want it to be understood that collecting organisations:

  • are gathering places for people
  • spark creativity and innovation, contribute to regional economic development, inspire curiosity and stimulate learning
  • raise the understanding of Australia and its people, at home and internationally.

The range and diversity of the collecting organisations is vast and there is unevenness in standards, in the stage of development and conservation of collections, in access to trained personnel, and in infrastructure. These disparities must, we believe, be diminished, as some of the smaller institutions are constantly concerned for their future viability.

For collecting organisations to achieve their potential, we need to promote broader collaboration within and across the domains. To foster this, the Collections Council will help build networks that organisations can be part of, and this in turn will help them to raise their standards. For example, we plan to facilitate the setting up, initially, of a 'Regional Hub' in each state and territory in areas with a critical mass of collections activity, taking note of the work of case studies that have already been undertaken, and developing that work.

A skills needs analysis of each hub will enable strategies to be developed to fill the gaps that emerge in the range of skills present. Collections require custodians with research, curatorial, interpretive, conservation and digitisation skills; the skills to identify the significance of items or collections, to develop collection and deaccession policies, and to record the stories of collections. Access to these skills will enhance the professionalism of the sector.

The Collections Council will advocate, to all three levels of government, the need for these Regional Hubs, and for Regional Collections Officers, to provide or facilitate the availability of skills resources, tailored to the needs of participating organisations, and to encourage cross-domain activities.

To support the Officers and the Regional Hubs, the Collections Council will investigate engaging a Regional Hubs Officer to optimise information-sharing, communication and the use of resources, in the furtherance of the model.

The libraries domain has already achieved high collection management standards and accessibility through Kinetica and the Libraries Australia web portal. This draws attention to the need for all collections to have access to such online and virtual networks. Karen Quinlan, Director of the Bendigo Art Gallery in Victoria, remarks that 'an urgent priority is a national database of collections'. She suggested that the current ad hoc approach to locating material for exhibitions is 'all a guessing game'.[6] We believe that the Collections Australia Network (CAN) is the strategic tool that can help the domains reach high standards over time. CAN offers the ability to promulgate collection management software, online training and learning, discussion, forums and skill sharing. It also means that organisations can list their collections, and the rich stories that support them, on the network, thus making the information widely accessible.

We acknowledge that not all collecting organisations currently have access to computers, to the necessary telecommunications infrastructure, or to computer-literate staff. The Collections Council will work with governments to access monies so that these organisations can individually, or through a Regional Hub, achieve the infrastructure to gain full benefit from CAN.

Over time, in the medium to long term, as standards of management and care of collections improve right across the sector, benchmarks for collecting organisations will be developed and promoted. Richard Mulvaney, Director of the Bradman Museum in Bowral, New South Wales, observes that a code of practice is 'always an enviable goal'. He warms to the idea of the Council encouraging 'themed exhibitions' that draw on distributed collections nationwide and 'literally take the country to the city'.[7]

The question of the universal accessibility of our widely dispersed collections can best be addressed by their digitisation. The Collections Council will consult the peak bodies of the four domains, and plans to develop a policy for the digitisation of the distributed national collections. We will then advise governments of the need for digitisation, and the benefits that will flow from it. In particular, we will emphasise the benefits of connecting collections in ways that are easily accessible to broad audiences and collecting agencies.

We will urge collecting organisations to work across the domains to develop content that is relevant to the needs and expectations of audiences. We want to encourage the ongoing development of programs that are exciting and educational, and that tell stories of interest to these audiences.

We will act as a forum for ideas and initiatives that bring together communities and collections. We will convene an annual conference or seminars program, and an awards program for the sector, to advance cross-domain collaboration.

The board of the Collections Council understands that it has a critical role to play in ensuring that Australia has significant and diverse collections, distributed nationwide, that are central to the national identity and vibrant community life. The vision of the Collections Council is for collections to be stable and sustainable, clearly defined, universally accessible, used and valued by communities and developed collaboratively by collecting organisations. The Collections Council will have achieved this vision when:

  • the people of Australia have ready access, both physically and virtually, to the significant collections and objects that exist nationally, regionally and locally, and are aware of their importance
  • collections serve audiences by offering access to significant content and to well researched, relevant, inspiring programs and experiences that achieve lifelong learning outcomes
  • the distributed national collections are able to be understood across domain and organisational boundaries, and bring together communities and collections, and the learning which is possible from collaborations between audiences, organisations and the collecting domains
  • the important role of collections in ensuring the cultural, social, educational, intellectual, environmental, creative and economic wellbeing of communities large and small is widely known and recognised
  • the collecting organisations read the changing needs of the communities they serve and adapt to them with integrity
  • the unique characteristics and histories of individual collecting organisations are respected
  • consistent quality standards in the management of collections are, over time, achieved in the different domains of the sector.
Fostering future memory ...

Joanna Sassoon, an archivist and historian working at the State Records Office of Western Australia, identifies the need to better understand 'the social and cultural processes by which archival memory is created, shaped and preserved in a range of institutions'.[8] Her article draws attention to the dilemma faced by each collecting organisation as it decides what to collect and preserve, and what to reveal (or conceal) through its exhibitions, publications and other programs. Individual institutions do indeed bear a heavy responsibility as they make such decisions about selection, inclusion and exclusion.

Linking many institutions, via networks such as the Regional Hubs and through the online gateways, may be a tool for enriching and extending the availability of information that contributes to this archival memory.

The Collections Council recognises that the richness and diversity of collections can encourage a heightened sense of community and nation, and that the collections, in turn, are capable of delivering significant economic, cultural and social returns. The contribution of communities to the care, management, research and interpretation of their collections is integral to safeguarding and enhancing this important heritage.

The Collections Council has a crucial role to play in ensuring the stability and sustainability of an integrated and robust collections sector, and of thus contributing to the linking of the nation's memory.

Endnotes

1 <www.collectionscouncil.com.au>
2 Deakin University, A Study into the Key Needs of Collecting Institutions in the Heritage Sector, <www.collectionsaustralia.net/sectorinfo/2253.html>
3 Wikipedia, 'Realia' entry, <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Realia>, accessed 1 September 2005.
4 S Horsburgh, 'Collective effort aims to put country's treasures in order', Australian, 27 September 2005, p. 14.
5 This overview is based on announcements made by the Chair at the Council's launch event.
6 S Horsburgh, loc. cit.
7 ibid.
8 J Sassoon, 'Phantoms of remembrance: libraries and archives as "the collective memory"', Public History Review, no. 10, 2003, p. 55.



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