At the end of this chapter you should understand:
what kinds of networks exist; and
how particular networks can help you.
No matter where you live, there is always someone you can contact who has the skills you need to solve a problem. Sometimes that person can be found in the neighbourhood, or in a community of fellow enthusiasts. At other times you may have to call on someone with specialist knowledge and expertise.
In order to draw on this knowledge and expertise, you have to know it exists, and whom to contact to gain access to it. Networking provides this sort of information exchange. Networking puts people with similar interests, but perhaps different backgrounds, in touch. It provides opportunities for sharing and the exchange of knowledge, expertise and resources.
Establishing good networks gives you access to a pool of specialist people and services, which you might not normally find in a small museum, gallery or library. Networks enhance the effectiveness of your museum by increasing your opportunities and enriching your resource base. They can also be a useful way of strengthening the ties between your museum, gallery or library and your local community.
There are museums, galleries, libraries, local history collections and private collections in every region of Australia. It is useful to know which of these are in your region, how they can be contacted and what sort of collections they hold. It is also helpful to know what problems you have in common and how others work to overcome these problems.
You may be able to help each other with new ideas, buying materials cooperatively, swapping skills and pooling resources.
Directories are useful for finding out about collecting institutions and, therefore, are good sources to consult when you are building your networks of contacts. There are nation-wide as well as State directories covering museums and galleries, art institutions and libraries.
Australian Museums On Line (AMOL), the Internet Web site devoted to museums and galleries, contains the National Directory of Australian Museums and Galleries. This directory provides details for more than 800 museums and galleries of all types and sizes, and expects to eventually include all museums and galleries in Australia. Entries are continually added to the Directory, so it is always up to date. The Australia Council, about every two years produces the publication Ozarts, a directory of art institutions and people. The Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA) publishes the Directory of Australian Special Libraries (now in its 9th edition) every two to three years; and national directories of public libraries and reference libraries are produced by Auslib Press in Adelaide.
Most States have, or are preparing, directories of museums, grouped by region. Some have also prepared directories of historical societies and other collecting agencies. These directories are not always updated regularly, so you should check for the latest editions. If you wish to obtain copies of these directories, simply contact the relevant State branch of Museums Australia Inc. The branches will either be able to supply you with a copy of their directory or put you in touch with a supplier.
Libraries, too, have established very good networks throughout the country. If you wish to know more about library networks, contact your State branch of ALIA.
There are a number of other regional networks operating at both formal and informal levels. Some State branches of Museums Australia have set up regional chapters to assist those who are distant from metropolitan centres. The Regional Galleries Association has branches in New South Wales and Queensland; and there is a Public Galleries Association of Victoria. There are also branches of the Royal Historical Society and the National Trust in most States. The Australian Museums On Line Internet site includes the Australian Museums Forum, which acts as an electronic network. Users can make contact with other museum workers, share common problems and solutions, or discuss issues of concern. To find out more about Australian Museums On Line, contact the AMOL Coordination Unit at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, or your State branch of Museums Australia Inc.
Whatever you collect—art works, costume, dolls, militaria, phonographs, porcelain, objects associated generally with local history, sport, medicine, transport and so on—other people and institutions collect them as well. They have a specialist interest in the subject and some will have expert knowledge about the management and conservation of these collections. Often a casual conversation can save you many hours of work by putting you in touch with just the person or supplier you have been searching for.
Many groups of enthusiasts have already formed associations, and meet regularly and hold functions and events, as well as exchange information and ideas through publications. There is a myriad of specialist organisations you might be interested in joining. Perhaps the easiest way of determining which ones are most relevant to you would be to make use of your local library or council. They often maintain lists of local associations and interest groups.
There are also professional networks you can turn to for help. Professional networks are made up of, and include:
- professional associations such as: Museums Australia; the Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material (AICCM); the Australian Registrars Committee; the Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA); and the Art Libraries Society of Australia/New Zealand (ARLIS ANZ). Most professional associations have national headquarters and representatives in various States;
- State and Commonwealth collecting institutions, such as museums, galleries and libraries. Within these institutions you will usually find curatorial, registration, design and conservation expertise. While the staff of these institutions may not be able to provide extensive help, they can generally provide basic advice, and point you in the right direction to get further support and assistance. Examples of such institutions are the museums and art galleries of the Northern Territory, the History Trust of South Australia, the Western Australian Museum, and the State Library of New South Wales;
- other government agencies, private companies and consultants who carry out specialised work on a fee-for-service basis. Usually you have to pay for work to be done by these organisations; but you can generally get good advice and they will point you in the right direction if they are unable to give you further support and assistance. Examples of such organisations are Artlab Australia; the State Library of New South Wales Conservation Access, and the Ian Potter Art Conservation Service, University of Melbourne.
Within every local community there are potential networks for collecting institutions. These may well overlap with the networks we have described as regional networks and interest networks. There are also other groups whose primary interest is not museums, galleries or libraries and their collections, but who are very interested in the role your museum, gallery or library plays in the local community and who want to make a contribution to this. Some examples are:
sister institutions, such as a local museum and local history collection;
schools, secondary and primary;
local businesses which may be prepared to promote museums, carry displays and provide sponsorship;
churches, government agencies, sporting associations, and allied groups such as field naturalists;
service clubs such as Apex and Rotary; and
correctional services institutions.
What networks can do
Some organisations make a point of publishing information, particularly on more complex matters. For example, the Pichi Richi Railway Preservation Society recently restored to operating condition Car No. 90, a narrow-gauge, wooden-bodied passenger car which once served on the northern railway division in South Australia.
The Society produced a detailed report of the project, including photographs at every stage showing the dismantling of the carriage, repairs to the steel underframe, the replacing of structural timbers and studwork, refitting the roof and external cladding and painting and refitting the interior, including specifications for matching timber.
This report now forms part of the Society’s permanent records, and is available for loan to other railway historical groups.
Within communities, it should also be possible to build up information about local tradespeople and the particular skills they can bring to conservation projects. Local historical collections and local museums could work out the areas in which each will collect. They could then exchange objects, where appropriate, and refer donations to the most suitable of the organisations.
By combining and pooling resources, collecting institutions can achieve together what they could not achieve individually. Below are some projects which a network may well be able to achieve:
- sharing the cost of bringing a specialist conservator to a region for a workshop, or for visits to each participating institution;
- purchase of equipment for conservation, for example, bulk-buying of acid-free tissue, archival boxes, UV-treated acrylic or low-UV fluorescent lights, polyethylene film, acid-free mounting board, mannequins and leather dressing, all cheaper when purchased in bulk;
- clubbing together to buy a large freezer for fumigation purposes;
- thermohygrographs, UV light monitors and light meters;
- constructing major capital facilities, such as a large storage shed, which can be shared by participating institutions; and
- sharing in the cost of items, such as the purchase or leasing of photocopiers, computers or drafting equipment.
Providing local expertise
Local expertise is particularly useful when museums want more information about some of the objects in their collections. Normally there are people in any community who have personal memories of many unidentified or poorly recorded objects in museum collections. Interviews with those people will quickly overcome this problem.
There are also people with useful trade and craft skills such as masonry, carpentry, electrical work, building maintenance or display construction work, or more esoteric knowledge, for example, about Victorian gardens, or local history generally.
Schoolteachers are often invaluable, not only for their help in historical research but also in scriptwriting, an essential skill not used to the full in many local museums. Science teachers could help identify chemical damage to objects.
Council staff may well have useful information on early surveys, subdivisions and settlement of towns and districts. They can also give practical advice on such matters as stormwater disposal, accounting and contract tendering. Further, they can make museums aware of relevant planning regulations, main street programs, funding sources and potential donors to museum collections.
Providing voluntary labour
Over ninety per cent of local museums rely entirely on voluntary labour. In the case of local history museums, this labour is drawn predominantly from the local community. Some of the tasks volunteers may do:
carry out research on the collections;
plan and set up displays;
develop a conservation plan and implement it;
restore objects in the collections, for example, horse-drawn vehicles, farm machinery, costumes or stationary engines; and
share the roster in the shop or on the front desk.
Local museums could not function without this volunteer support. All sections of the community contribute, but statistics show that it is mainly those in the 50-plus age-bracket.
In addition to voluntary labour, museums can often gain access to unskilled labour through Correctional Services programs. Under these programs, people who are required to undertake a prescribed number of community service hours work for approved community groups.
Provided appropriate supervision can be found, this can be an invaluable way of getting done those difficult jobs that require extra assistance: shifting heavy machinery and equipment, grounds maintenance or some conservation work, for example.
School students also are often willing to provide unskilled labour. Museums have developed useful links with schools whereby students carry out restoration work on, say, a selected piece of farm machinery.
This is a marvellous way of encouraging students to develop interest and pride in their own heritage, particularly when the finished exhibit is placed on display with acknowledgment of the people who restored it.
One museum which has established very strong links with its school community is to be found at Kimba, on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia. All Year Nine students undertake a local history project, whether it be a biography of a local person or business, oral history interviews, recording a small collection of historical objects or a family history project. When the project is completed, the student makes a presentation, at the museum, to the rest of the class and members of the museum. The project is then marked and handed to the museum for safekeeping.
This program has been a great success for the museum and students alike.
Providing facilities for displays
Often local museums have very restricted space for exhibitions. One solution has been for museums to set up temporary exhibitions in local businesses: in restaurants, banks, post offices, dry cleaners, estate agent offices and the like.
These displays can be marvellous conversation pieces; they are good for business, as well as useful for promoting the museum within its own community and serving to reinforce the notion that history is part of the life of the community.
Displays like these can also give messages to customers about the role of history in their everyday lives, and the importance for everyone of conserving the things that matter to them.
It should be borne in mind when considering setting up such an exhibition that the conservation and security risks should be assessed first. Light sources, fluctuations in relative humidity, whether or not locked showcases would be necessary and whether the objects are too fragile or valuable are all points to be considered.
If you have further problems relating to networking in a museum environment, contact a conservator. Conservators can offer advice and practical solutions.
A regional museum network is useful because:
a) it gives you information about all the museums in your region and who the contact people are;
b) it will help you cut down on the duplication of collections;
c) it will allow museums to club together to buy conservation supplies or hire expertise;
d) it will help promote a regional identity as well as a local identity;
e) all of the above.
What local institutions are there beside museums which could form part of a museum’s network?
Yours is one of three museums in the same region which collect costume. You can each allocate $1,000 towards improving the way they are cared for. What would be the best course of action for you to take?
a) Each buy in supplies of acid-free tissue, Dacron, boxes and shelving.
b) Pool resources and buy the supplies in bulk.
c) Remove all objects from direct or reflected sunlight.
d) Pool resources and hire a textiles conservator to help each museum set conservation priorities for its own costume collections.
e) All of the above.
Answers to self-evaluation quiz
Answer: e). It is important to know what other museums exist in any region and who runs them. It will provide better knowledge about each other’s collections and provide opportunities for economies of scale and joint ventures. Regional networks can also broaden the way we view community history, which can be seen in a regional context as well as a local one.
Answer: Some examples include local councils, schools, local businesses churches and service clubs. All of these can provide people and resources useful to local museums. For example, councils may be prepared to meet some of the museum’s administrative costs, on the grounds that they are providing an important community service. Schoolteachers have valuable skills, as do service clubs.
Answer: d). All these steps would improve the situation, but networking provides an opportunity to obtain expert advice on site. Museums acting individually are less likely to be in a position to do this.