Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Good times in WA and less good times in the UK

The announcement in May of the redevelopment of the WA Museum is good news, but has been a long term in coming. It had a false start along the way in 2008, when under Dawn Casey's directorship the Museum's relocation to the old Swan River powerstation was announced. Although the monies were about the same for the latter project, about half was going to be eaten up by site remediation. And it seems to be generally agreed in Perth that the powerstation was not a good site being off the tourist track and difficult to access.
So the new plan sounds a whole lot better way to spend the not inconsiderable sum of $428.3 million.  
What the good citizens of WA will get for their money is 23,000 m2 of museum, including various refurbished heritage buildings with 8,500 m2 of public spaces, themed around Being Western Australian, Discovering Western Australia and Exploring Our World, and 1,000m2 of temporary exhibition space.

As Australian museum projects go it dwarfs anything we have seen of late, which admittedly has tended to be new wings ($50m at MCA in 2012,  $45m at the Australian Museum in in 2008), is almost 4 times the cost of GOMA (2006) in Brisbane, is twice the cost of the National Museum (2001) and significantly more than the Melbourne Museum (1998). The challenge will be for the director, Alec Coles, to hold onto the funds over various budget cycles. There is no doubt that Coles is a smart political operator and much of the credit for getting this over the line is due to him, but Bill Bleathman, the able director of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, saw the promise of a similar sum whittled away to a paltry $30m for their current redevelopment.

From the largesse of WA’s booming mining driven economy to the other end of the spectrum, and it's interesting to see what happens to museums in an economy that is really being hit hard, namely the UK. The raw facts are that 42% of UK Museums Association member institutions have cut staff in the past year according to their most recent survey, and a quarter have had to close all or part of their sites. Bear in mind that this is what happened in 2011, after at least 2 years prior to that of a similar picture. But the good news is that out of adversity in true British fashion there are good things evolving (and it's not just the lift to the spirits that the Olympics is bringing).  The survey is peppered with comments such as " Challenge does foster resourcefulness", 'There is a more pragmatic approach to service delivery", ' the sector will emerge more radical and responsive to the social needs of the public', and 'being more entrepreneurial has to be good for museums and galleries in the long term'.  Add to this increasing visitor numbers, and 36% of members saying the quality of their services will increase over the coming year ( up from 13% the previous) and it all sounds positively rosy. To top it all, UK public support for the return of the Elgin marbles to Greece is on the decline, because there is real concern that Greece's dire financial state would mean they will be unable to properly care for them. Not sure that view is going to hold water in the long term, but for now it will keep the British Museum’s 6 million annual visitors (and rising) happy. 

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

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