Make It So: Harnessing Technology to Provide Professional Development to Regional Museum Workers




Museums, Regions, Technology, Training

How to Cite

Wishart, A. (2019). Make It So: Harnessing Technology to Provide Professional Development to Regional Museum Workers. M/C Journal, 22(3).
Vol. 22 No. 3 (2019): regional
Published 2019-06-19


In regional Australia and New Zealand, museums and art galleries are increasingly becoming primary sites of cultural engagement. They are one of the key tourist attractions for regional towns and expected to generate much needed tourism revenue. In 2017 in New South Wales alone, there were three million visitors to regional galleries and museums (MGNSW 13). However, apart from those (partially) funded by local councils, they are often run on donations, good will, and the enthusiasm of volunteers. Regional museums and galleries provide some paid, and more unpaid, employment for ageing populations. While two-thirds of Australia’s population lives in capital cities, the remainder who live in regional towns are likely to be in the 60+ age cohort because people are choosing to retire away from the bustling, growing cities (ABS). At last count, there were about 3000 museums and galleries in Australia with about 80% of them located in regional areas (Scott). Over the last 40 years, this figure has tripled from the 1000 regional and provincial museums estimated by Peter Piggott in his 1975 report (24). According to a 2014 survey (Shaw and Davidson), New Zealand has about 470 museums and galleries and about 70% are located outside capital cities. The vast majority, 85%, have less than five, full-time paid staff, and more than half of these were run entirely by ageing volunteers. They are entrusted with managing the vast majority of the history and heritage collections of Australia and New Zealand. 

These ageing volunteers need a diverse range of skills and experience to care for and interpret collections. How do you find the time and budget for professional development for both paid staff and volunteers? Many professional development events are held in capital cities, which are often a significant distance from the regional museum—this adds substantially to the costs of attending and the time commitment required to get there. In addition, it is not uncommon for people working in regional museums to be responsible for everything—from security, collection management, conservation, research, interpretation and public programs to changing the light bulbs. While there are a large number of resources available online, following a manual is often more difficult than learning from other colleagues or learning in a more formal educational or vocational environment where you can receive timely feedback on your work. Further, a foundational level of prior knowledge and experience is often required to follow written instructions. 

This article will suggest some strategies for low cost professional development and networking. It involves planning, thinking strategically and forming partnerships with others in the region. It is time to harness the power of modern communications technology and use it as a tool for professional development. Some models of professional development in regional areas that have been implemented in the past will also be reviewed. The focus for this article is on training and professional development for workers in regional museums, heritage sites and keeping places. Regional art galleries have not been included because they tend to have separate regional networks and training opportunities. For example, there are professional development opportunities provided through the Art Galleries Association of Australia and their state branches. Regional galleries are also far more likely to have one or more paid staff members (Winkworth, Fixing the Slums 2). 

Regional Museums, Volunteers, and Social Capital

It is widely accepted that regional museums and galleries enhance social capital and reduce social isolation (Kelly 32; Burton and Griffin 328). However, while working in a regional museum or gallery can help to build friendship networks, it can also be professionally isolating. How do you benchmark what you do against other places if you are two or more hours drive from those places? How do you learn from other colleagues if all your colleagues are also isolated by the ‘tyranny of distance’ and struggling with the same lack of access to training? In 2017 in New South Wales alone, there were 8,629 active volunteers working in regional museums and galleries giving almost five million hours, which Museums and Galleries NSW calculated was worth over $150 million per annum in unpaid labour (MGNSW 1). Providing training and professional development to this group is an investment in Australia’s social and cultural capital.

Unlike other community-run groups, the museums and heritage places which have emerged in regional Australia and New Zealand are not part of a national or state branch network. Volunteers who work for the Red Cross, Scouts or Landcare benefit from being part of a national organisation which provides funding, support workers, a website, governance structure, marketing, political advocacy and training (Winkworth, Let a Thousand Flowers” 11). In Australia and New Zealand, this role is undertaken by the Australian Museums and Galleries Association AMaGA (formerly Museums Australia) and Museums Aotearoa respectively. However, both of these groups operate at the macro policy level, for example organising annual conferences, publishing a journal and developing Indigenous policy frameworks, rather than the local, practical level. In 1995, due to their advocacy work, Landcare Australia received $500 million over five years from the federal government to fund 5000 Landcare groups, which are run by 120,000 volunteers (Oppenheimer 177). They argued successfully that the sustainable development of land resources started at the local level. What do we need to do to convince government of the need for sustainable development of our local and regional museum and heritage resources?

Training for Volunteers Working in Regional Museums: The Current Situation

Another barrier to training for regional museum workers is the assumption that the 70:20:10 model of professional development should apply. That is, 70% of one’s professional development is done ‘on the job’ by completing tasks and problem-solving; 20% is achieved by learning from mentors, coaches and role models and 10% is learnt from attending conferences and symposia and enrolling in formal courses of study. However, this model pre-supposes that there are people in your workplace whom you can learn from and who can show you how to complete a task, and that you are not destroying or damaging a precious, unique object if you happen to make a mistake.

Some museum volunteers come with skills in research, marketing, administration, customer service or photography, but very few come with specific museum skills like writing exhibition text, registering an acquisition or conserving artefacts. These skills need to be taught. As Kylie Winkworth has written, 

museum management now requires a [...] skills set, which is not so readily found in small communities, and which in many ways is less rewarding for the available volunteers, who may have left school at 15. We do not expect volunteer librarians to catalogue books, which are in any case of low intrinsic value, but we still expect volunteers in their 70s and 80s to catalogue irreplaceable heritage collections and meet ever more onerous museum standards. That so many volunteers manage to do this is extraordinary. (Let a Thousand Flowers” 13)

Workers in regional museums are constantly required to step outside their comfort zones and learn new skills with minimal professional support. While these challenging experiences can be very rewarding, they are also potentially damaging for our irreplaceable material cultural heritage.

Training for museum professionals has been on the agenda of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) since 1947 (Boylan 62). However, until 1996, their work focused on recommending curricula for new museum professionals and did not include life-long learning and on-going professional development. ICOM’s International Committee for the Training of Personnel (ICTOP) and the ICOM Executive has responded to this in their new curricula—ICOM Curricula Guidelines for Professional Museum Developmentbut this does not address the difficulties staff or volunteers working in regional areas face in accessing training.

In some parts of Australia, there are regional support and professional development programs in place. For example, in Queensland, there is the Museum Development Officer (MDO) network. However, because of the geographic size of the state and the spread of the museums, these five regionally based staff often have 60-80 museums or keeping places in their region needing support and so their time and expertise is spread very thinly. It is also predominantly a fee-for-service arrangement. That is, the museums have to pay for the MDO to come and deliver training. Usually this is done by the MDO working with a local museum to apply for a Regional Arts Development Fund (RADF) grant. 

In Victoria there is a roving curator program where eligible regional museums can apply to have a professional curator come and work with them for a few days to help the volunteers curate exhibitions. The roving curator can also provide advice on “develop[ing] high quality exhibitions for diverse audiences” via email, telephone and networking events. Tasmania operates a similar scheme but their two roving curators are available for up to 25 days of work each year with eligible museums, provided the local council makes a financial contribution. The New South Wales government supports the museum advisor program through which a museum professional will come to your museum for up to 20 days/year to give advice and hands-on training—provided your local council pays $7000, an amount that is matched by the state government—for this service. 

In 2010, in response to recommendations in the Dunn Report (2007), the Collections Council of Australia (CCA) established a pilot project with the City of Kalgoorlie-Boulder in Western Australia and $120,000 in funding from the Myer Foundation to trial the provision of a paid Collections Care Coordinator who would provide free training, expertise and support to local museums in the region. Tragically, CCA was de-funded by the Cultural Ministers Council the same year and the roll-out of a hub and spoke regional model was not supported by government due to the lack of an evidence base (Winkworth, Let a Thousand Flowers” 18). An evaluation of the trial project would have tested a different model of regional training and added to the evidence base.

All these state-based models (except the aborted Collections Care hub in Western Australia) require small regional museums to compete with each other for access to a museum professional and to successfully apply for funding, usually from their local council or state government. If they are successful, the training that is delivered is a one-off, as they are unlikely to get a second slice of the regional pie.

An alternative to this competitive, fly-in fly-out, one-off model of professional development is to harness the technology and resources of local libraries and other cultural facilities in regional areas. This is what the Sydney Opera House Trust did in March 2019 to deliver their All about Women program of speakers via live streaming to 37 satellite sites throughout Australia and New Zealand.

Harnessing Technology and Using Regional Library Infrastructure to Provide Training: Scenario

Imagine the following scenario. It is a Monday morning in a regional library in Dubbo, New South Wales. Dubbo is 391 km or five hours drive by car from the nearest capital city (Sydney) and there are 50 regional museums within a 100 km radius. Ten people are gathered in a meeting room at the library watching a live stream of the keynote speakers who are presenting at their national museums conference. They are from five regional museums where they work as volunteers or part-time paid staff. They cannot afford to pay $2000, or more, to attend the conference, but they are happy to self-fund to drive for an hour or two to link up with other colleagues to listen to the presentations. 

They make notes and tweet in their questions using the conference twitter handle and hashtag. They have not been exposed to international speakers in the industry before and the ideas presented are fresh and stimulating. When the conference breaks for morning tea, they take a break too and get to know each other over a cuppa (provided free of charge by the library). Just as the networking sessions at conferences are vitally important for the delegates, they are even more important to address social isolation amongst this group. When they reconvene, they discuss their questions and agree to email the presenters with the questions that are unresolved. After the conference keynote sessions finish, the main conference (in the capital city) disperses into parallel sessions, which are no longer available via live stream.

To make the two-hour drive more worthwhile and continue their professional development, they have arranged to hold a significance assessment workshop as well. Each museum worker has brought along photographs of one item in their collection that they want to do more research on. Some of them have also brought the object, if it is small and robust enough to travel. They have downloaded copies of Significance 2.0 and read it before they arrived. They started to write significance reports but could not fully understand how to apply some of the criteria. They cannot afford to pay for professional workshop facilitators, but they have arranged for the local studies librarian to give them an hour of free training on using the library’s resources (online and onsite) to do research on the local area and local families. They learn more about Trove, Papers Past and other research tools which are available online. This is hands-on and computer-based skills training using their own laptops/tablets or the ones provided by the library. After the training with the librarian, they break into two groups and read each other’s significance reports and make suggestions. The day finishes with a cuppa at 2.30pm giving them time to drive home before the sun sets. They agree to exchange email addresses so they can keep in touch. 

All the volunteers and staff who attended these sessions in regional areas feel energised after these meetings. They no longer feel so isolated and like they are working in the dark. They feel supported just knowing that there are other people who are struggling with the same issues and constraints as they are. They are sick of talking about the lack of budget, expertise, training and resources and want to do something with what they have.

Bert (fictional name) decides that it is worth capitalising on this success. He emails the people who came to the session in Dubbo to ask them if they would like to do it again but focus on some different training needs. He asks them to choose two of the following three professional development options. First, they can choose to watch and discuss a recording of the keynote presentations from day two of the recent national conference. The conference organisers have uploaded digital recordings of the speakers’ presentations and the question time to the AMaGA website. This is an option for local libraries that do not have sufficient bandwidth to live stream video. The local library technician will help them cast the videos to a large screen. 

Second, they can each bring an object from their museum collection that they think needs conservation work. If the item is too fragile or big to move, they will bring digital photographs of it instead. Bert consulted their state-based museum and found some specialist conservators who have agreed to Skype or Facetime them in Dubbo free of charge, to give them expert advice about how to care for their objects, and most importantly, what not to do. The IT technician at Dubbo Library can set up their meeting room so that they can cast the Skype session onto a large smart screen TV. One week before the event, they will send a list of their objects and photographs of them to the conservator so that she can prepare, and they can make best use of her time. After this session, they will feel more confident about undertaking small cleaning and flattening treatments and know when they should not attempt a treatment themselves and need to call on the experts. 

Third, they could choose to have a training session with the council’s grants officer on writing grant applications. As he assesses grant applications, he can tell them what local councils look for in a successful grant application. He can also inform them about some of the grants that might be relevant to them. After the formal training, there will be an opportunity for them to exchange information about the grants they have applied for in the past—sometimes finding out what’s available can be difficult—and work in small groups to critique each other’s grant applications.

The group chooses options two and three, as they want more practical skills development. They take a break in the middle of the day for lunch, which gives them the opportunity to exchange anecdotes from their volunteer work and listen to and support each other. They feel validated and affirmed. They have gained new skills and don’t feel so isolated. Before they leave, Alice agrees to get in touch with everyone to organise their next regional training day.

Harnessing Technology and Using Regional Library Infrastructure to Provide Training: Benefits

These scenarios need not be futuristic. The training needs are real, as is the desire to learn and the capacity of libraries to support regional groups. While funding for regional museums has stagnated or declined in recent years, libraries have been surging ahead. In August 2018, the New South Wales Government announced an “historic investment” of $60 million into all 370 public libraries that would “transform the way NSW’s public libraries deliver much-needed services, especially in regional areas” (Smith). Libraries are equipped and charged with the responsibility of enabling local community groups to make best use of their resources. Most state and national museum workers are keen to share their expertise with their regional colleagues: funding and distance are often the only barriers. 

These scenarios allow national conference keynote speakers to reach a much larger audience than the conference attendees. While this strategy might reduce the number of workers from regional areas who pay to attend conferences, the reality is that due to distance, other volunteer commitments, expense and family responsibilities, they probably would not attend anyway. Most regional museums and galleries and their staff might be asset-rich, but they are cash-poor, and the only way their workers get to attend conferences is if they win a bursary or grant. 

In 2005, Winkworth said: “the future for community museums is to locate them within local government as an integral part of the cultural, educational and economic infrastructure of the community, just like libraries and galleries” (Fixing the Slums 7). Fourteen years on, very little progress has been made in this direction. Those museums which have been integrated into the local council infrastructure, such as at Orange and Wagga Wagga in western New South Wales, are doing much better than those that are still stuck in cultural poverty and trying to operate independently.

However, the co-location and convergence of museums, libraries and archives is only successful if it is well managed. Helena Robinson has examined the impact on museum collection management and interpretation of five local government funded, converged collecting institutions in Australia and New Zealand and found that the process is complex and does not necessarily result in “optimal” cross-disciplinary expertise or best practice outcomes (14158).


Robinson’s research, however, did not consider community-based collecting institutions using regional libraries as sites for training and networking. By harnessing local library resources and making better use of existing communications technology it is possible to create regional hubs for professional development and collegiate support, which are not reliant on grants. If the current competitive, fly-in fly-out, self-funded model of providing professional development and support to regional museums continues, then the future for our cultural heritage collections and the dedicated volunteers who care for them is bleak. Alternatively, the scenarios I have described give regional museum workers agency to address their own professional development needs. This in no way removes the need for leadership, advocacy and coordination by national representative bodies such as AMaGA and Museums Aotearoa. If AMaGA partnered with the Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA) to stream their conference keynote sessions to strategically located regional libraries and used some of their annual funding from the Department of Communication and the Arts to pay for museum professionals to travel to some of those sites to deliver training, they would be investing in the nation’s social and cultural capital and addressing the professional development needs of regional museum workers. This would also increase the sustainability of our cultural heritage collections, which are valuable economic assets.


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Author Biography

Alison Wishart, Arts Centre Melbourne

Alison Wishart has worked as a volunteer, curator and/or collection manager since 2002 at a variety of museums and libraries based in regional towns and capital cities in eastern Australia. Some of her roles have involved working for small specialist museums as the only paid staff member and working with museums in regional towns.She has a BA (Hons) from the University of Queensland and a Masters in Cultural Heritage (majoring in Museum Studies) from Deakin University.