Curator, Asian Art
Art Gallery of South Australia
The most important resource for any museum is not its collections but its workers. To be successful museums need well-trained and committed staff. Skilled professionals can make the difference between the museum being a vital creative force in a community or languishing for want of imagination and support. The corporate goals of a museum may be said to be research, collections and exhibitions. Our understanding of the meaning of museum research, like the institution itself, is greatly changing. Research was once perceived to be the exclusive domain of the curator. Contemporary curatorial practice more and more consists of a whole range of activities, involving interest groups both inside and outside the museum [i]. The old fashioned concept of research being about measuring the dimensions of natural specimens or digging broken pottery out of holes in the ground, has expanded to encompass a range of various investigative skills by which museum workers support the presentation of programs to the client public.
Traditionally museums have been viewed as part of education. The invention of the first museums was based on ideals of expanding scientific and artistic knowledge, and research was a fundamental part of this process. The National Museum in Jakarta has its origin in the establishment of the Batavia Society of the Arts and Sciences in 1778. In the nineteenth century museums became prominent as part of the European adult education movement.
The role of museums as a vehicle for education has changed over time. In recent years museums have moved beyond a pedagogical framework to engage with the leisure and tourist industry, seeking to attract visitors through a special mixture of information and entertainment [ii]. Museums increasingly have to compete with other forms of leisure pastime and for limited resources such as government funding. Mike Archer, former director of the Australian museum, has observed the importance of that new concept ‘edutainment’ [iii].
The public has different reasons for making choices about their use of leisure time. It is pertinent to remember in the late 19th century, in Europe, the idea of the public museum evolved alongside the arcade and exhibition hall. These latter two eventually merged to become the modern shopping mall. The shopping mall has grown into a key focus of urban society in the 21st century yet museums have been largely marginalised. Certainly if we look around us in Indonesia, it is astonishing to see the popularity of shopping malls amongst families and young people. Count the number of people, even with limited spending resources, each day visiting Blok M compared to the National Museum. Yet ironically Indonesian museums contain some of the richest and most interesting heritage collections in the world.
Museum workers engaging in research, whether for collection or display development, need be mindful of the influences that affect people’s decisions about the use of leisure time. People are the only reason museums exist. This obvious point is often overlooked in the museum’s day-to-day activities, such as research. It is always a danger to think of a museum as an end in itself [iv].
Marilyn Hood lists six reasons for which adults make choices about their leisure activities and the first four are:
1. The opportunity for social interaction with other people.
2. A sense of doing something worthwhile.
3. A feeling of comfort and ease with one’s surroundings.
4. The challenge of new experiences.
The fifth choice is the opportunity to learn. Thus for most people social needs predominate over other criteria, including education, in choosing leisure options [v]. In this country this is apparent stepping through the door of either a museum or shopping mall. Visitors, whether domestic and international, usually arrive with a companion or in a group and prefer to share the experience with others.
The art of making people comfortable in museums is an important goal if we are to succeed in our mission to communicate an understanding of humanity and the environment through ideas and objects [vi]. If any patron, whether adult or child, enters a museum and feels intimidated, bored or frustrated then it is unlikely that he or she will enjoy the visit or return again. And we can be certain that no positive experience or new learning insight has been communicated.
“A museum should be like a leaky vessel or sponge within the community” meaning that ideas should seep in and be absorbed from all parts of the society [vii]. Museums have a long history of being formal places, where silence and decorum was the ideal. Much of this attitude derives from notions of intellectual knowledge in the European cultural tradition of a century and two ago when research was the provenance of the gentleman scholar. For the academic, and those seeking solitude and peace, this kind of museum environment was ideal. Today such an atmosphere is repressive and stifling for the average person looking for a quality leisure-time activity, especially in a society like Indonesia that enjoys the sense of ramai.
Shopping malls commenced their evolutionary life at the same time as the museum but as a species has been so much more successful adapting for survival in the modern world. Shopping malls are attractive to visitors because of their colour and diversity of content, a rich sensory environment appealing to sight, sound, touch and even smell, the use of architectural space to facilitate social exchange, and the easy readability of shop signs and merchandise labels. In comparison many museums appear to have determinedly eradicated those elements most of us find so enjoyable and have instead become dreary, unexciting spaces.
Research is a fundamental element for the successful development and promotion of a museum’s collection and exhibitions. Curatorial research is an important tool in formulating collection policies as useful guidelines for developing collections. Today most museums can no longer afford to collect randomly and the museum worker needs the skills to make informed decisions about acquisition priorities. Furthermore, in this age of globalisation museum objects travel as much as people [viii]. A local curator’s research knowledge is often essential for determining collection loans and the interpretation of these items to an overseas audience.
In former times objects acquired for museum collections were often documented only in terms of their physical description and basic provenance. The value of objects is not only in their authenticity, but also in their potential to enable us to understand about people and practices from the past [ix]. The tragedy of many great ethnographic collections made in Indonesia during the colonial era is that so little information was recorded about the actual makers and their own stories. No object is ever anonymous. Museum researchers nowadays need to be trained in a wide variety of skills, such as the appropriate techniques to sensitively document oral traditions and personal histories. It was the demand for stories and symbols directly relevant to audiences that became a key factor in the emergence of the study of social history. Increasingly social history is absorbing a range of outside disciplines, including the sciences, in order to create the kind of museum display visitors find so enjoyable [x].
It is important to understand ‘research’, often defined as collecting objective data, can not itself be the only basis for a successful exhibition. An exhibition that inspires and excites the visitor is more than just about facts. All information requires placement in a wider context to convey meaning. Research is an important feature in each step planning an exhibition, from the initial concept to the final project evaluation. It is the key tool for object selection, display design and interpretative material text.
The ability of the museum worker to transform information, gained through research, into meaningful and interesting exhibitions is fundamental for the success of any exhibition. Display interpretation in museum practice means to translate objects or knowledge into a ‘language’ the visitor can understand. The root word interpres comes from the Latin language and means a negotiator or a mediator between two parties. Research forms the fundamental building blocks, expressed as display text, object labels and exhibition catalogues or brochures, to construct this bridge between collections and the public [xi].
Changes in the orientation of museums and the expectations of their visitors have brought a demand for a new perspective from museum staff [xii]. The appropriateness of conventional assumptions, bound by established educational hierarchies, about the definition of pure research is now coming into question. Museums, especially in smaller regional centres, often require a hybrid combination of skills from its staff and research needs to be a meaningful asset in this context.
Ian McShane, in his 2001 report on training needs for Western Australian museums, identified four key areas demanding attention for training [xiii]. Each area directly relates to the function of museum research and may be meaningful for the Indonesian context. These are:
• Skills in communication and interpretation.
• Visitor evaluation
• Cross-cultural awareness
• Computing skills
Improved skills in communication and interpretation are important for museum practice throughout the Australasian region, including Indonesia and Australia. McShane’s first point is fundamental for the survival of museums as a relevant cultural institution in the 21st century. The subsequent three training needs may be considered also as priority areas within a wider definition of research in museums. A greater understanding of the potential for collaborative projects with community organisations, such as LSM, may be added to additional staff skills in visitor evaluation research. This also includes the ability of museum workers to actively promote exhibitions and collections as useful tools for educational institutions like local schools.
The reference to cross cultural awareness in McShane’s report is an acknowledgment of the positive role museums can play in promoting understanding of differing ethnic identities in a multicultural society [xiv]. This has always been a far greater strength of Indonesian than Australian institutions. Indonesian regional museums, with their rich collections, document the astonishing wealth of tradition and material culture in the archipelago’s ethnic groups. These fascinating displays typically present a unilateral view appropriate for an audience that experienced the transition to the country’s nationhood. In the present era of globalisation museum training may need to nurture greater consciousness of the ‘border crossings’ of cultural histories, including the emergence of modern sub-cultures in the urban world of mega-cities. This is especially relevant for this period of regional autonomy when many museums are developing programs under the umbrella of changing policy directions by provincial governments whose focus is regional identity and the local community.
The fourth point, the need to develop computing skills, is relevant both in Indonesia and Australia. The use of electronic media in the office in Indonesia may not be as pervasive Australia, yet cyberspace has already become a ubiquitous part of life for a wide section of urban Indonesia. People enjoy using and communicating through email and the internet. Indonesian museum workers perhaps need be wary lest caught on the wrong side of the ‘digital divide’ in this country. The computer has enormous potential to become a major tool for developing and supporting museum professionalism in Indonesia. This is especially so in skills development where on-line training packages could be delivered to museum staff in regional centres.
Many Indonesian regional museums produce excellent small catalogues and reports on their collections and cultural heritage sites. The possibility for the computer to become a tool promoting this research, both nationally, and internationally, is apparent in the statistics for the Australian Museum website. In 1997 per month there were 6,000 visitors to this web site. By 1999 this numbered had climbed to 106,000 visitors per month and these figures have continued to grow until today. The skilful allocation of resources utilising the electronic medium has positive implications for all aspects of Indonesian museum practice, and for gaining tangible benefits in education programs and corporate sponsorship.
These four points from the McShane report define the primary directions where museum staff might further develop and extend their research skills. Ongoing professional development, such as training in accessing the electronic media (internet and email) for exhibition research, will create staff who are able to respond more effectively to changing workplace requirements. It will also maximise career opportunities and provide a greater incentive for attracting talent to the museum industry.
To assure their future, museums must also put themselves in a position where they are called upon to play new roles. A wide definition of research in museum training programs will facilitate the ability of these institutions to respond to such challenges. In the transition to regional autonomy in this country many communities have felt the impact of rapid economic and social change, and are seeking to articulate a more inclusive community identity and re-evaluate development strategies in areas such as tourism and education. Museums, as custodians of cultural heritage, are in a key position to assume a vital part in this process of social and cultural change.
[i]Sweet, J. ‘Suffocation or Liberation’ Museum National May 2002 p.15
[ii]McShane, I. Training for the Museum Profession in Western Australia – A Report for Museums Australia (Western Australia). November 2001 p.2
[iii]Archer, M. ‘Unlocking the Timezone’ The Bulletin 18 Jan. 2000 p. 38
[iv]Edson, G. and Dean, D. The Handbook For Museums Routledge. p.173. The writer acknowledges his debt to these authors in preparing this paper.
[v]Edson, G. and Dean, D. p.176 ibid.
[vi]Refer to amended Article 5.3 of the MA Constitution, formally adopted at the Annual General Meeting of Museums Australia on 22 March 2002.
[vii]Edson, G. and Dean, D. p.162 op. cit.
[viii]Davison, G. ‘Museums and National Identity.’ paper for Museums Australia National Conference, March 2002.
[ix]Coxall, H. ‘Towards inclusive text’ Museum Practice 2000 Vol.5, No.1, pp.56-58
[x]Windschuttle, K. ‘How Not To Run A Museum.’ Quadrant. September 2001 p.16.
[xi]Edson and Dean p.171 ibid.
[xii]McShane, I. Ibid.
[xiv]McShane’s comment on this training need specifically points to the necessity of Australian museums to support equal rights for Australian indigenous people and minority migrant groups.
*Dimuat pada Museografia, Vo. V No. 7, Juli 2011