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South Australian Museum turns its back on PNG

Dr Barry Craig in the field in PNG
Dr Barry Craig in the field in PNG


NOOSA – Dr Barry Craig worked in the Telefomin area of Papua New Guinea and at the National Museum and Art Gallery in Port Moresby before moving to the South Australian Museum as curator of foreign ethnology, where he’s been for the past 22 years.

Strange as it may seem, the South Australian Museum has on permanent display a significant collection of objects from Papua New Guinea. It’s a real treasure.

But now it turns out that Dr Craig’s position, along with one in archaeology, has been abolished.

This leaves the Pacific collections and the Pacific Cultures Gallery without an experienced and qualified researcher and interpreter.

Dr Craig is slated to leave the museum three days before Christmas. He won’t be replaced and will be relocated elsewhere in the public service.

After acquiring a degree in Anthropology and a Diploma of Education in the early 1960s, Barry spent three years teaching at Telefomin, undertaking research on the culture of the region in his spare time.

In 1972–1973, after continuing his academic career in the USA, Barry did fieldwork in the upper Sepik and later became curator of anthropology at the PNG National Museum in 1980. He was appointed Curator of Foreign Ethnology at the South Australian Museum in 1995.

There is a considerable irony that Dr Craig has lost his job at the museum just as Australia is being urged to engage more with the Pacific.

The Pacific is a region where our presence has been more paternalistic than collegiate and where we have signally failed to show we are really interested in the region except as a strategic and commercial asset.

Readers who feel that the South Australian Museum is taking a big backwards step in getting rid of the expertise represented by Mr Craig are asked to communicate their concern to one or more of these people:

Jane Lomax-Smith, Chair of the Board of the South Australian Museum

Brian Oldman, Director, South Australian Museum

Dr John Carty, Head of Humanities, South Australian Museum


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Philip Fitzpatrick

As an addendum to the saga going on at the South Australian Museum Papua New Guineans should note that the Director of the National Museum and Art Gallery, Dr Andrew Moutu, was recently removed.

Andrew worked very closely with Barry on a number of projects. He is a highly qualified anthropologist and turned the NMAG round so that it became a viable institution again. Prior to that it had been used as a personal cash cow by the previous director.

Andrew led a campaign against the vandalism to the lintel at nearby Parliament House and salvaged the lintels and put them on display at the museum.

Peter O'Neill's wife, Lynda, is the patron of the NMAG.

I'm not sure why Andrew was given the boot but I suspect it has something to do with the upcoming APEC meeting. NMAG is to be a highlight for the visitors to that event and maybe an outspoken director was too much of a risk.

A court case has been launched seeking Andrew's reinstatement. Read about it here:

Eric Coote

It is a shame that Australian politics generally underestimates the importance and unique character of the Sahul region (PNG and Australian continental landmass).

People with an immense time history that may well span over 60,000 yrs of development free from the domination of other cultures with a conquering an/or land grabbing mindset.

In Europe we can trace our heritage through language derivation. This is impossible in Sahul as language origins much over 10,000 yrs old cannot be traced or defined.

We live amongst archaic peoples with a strong, time tested, unique and supportive take on life that all our attempts at suppression have so far failed to shake.

See Martyn Namorong and Bernard Narakobi in this blog

Thank you Keith and Philip for trying to influence the misdirected SAM attitude. I had a go too.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I received an email from Jane Lomax Smith, the Chair of the Museum Board this morning regarding the changes at the South Australian Museum and the threat to the Pacific collection and gallery and the axing of Barry's position.

It is a generic response so I suspect a lot of other people have received the same email.

I'm not particularly reassured by it. It seems to indicate that the philosophy of the Museum is to change from serious research to a kind of commercial circus. It's a trend that we've seen in other institutions, particularly universities, and it hasn't been for the best.

On a positive note I see that they are planning on extra lavatories.

I'm not sure what's happened to Barry. I think he's on leave and will then go on the redeployment list. Hopefully he'll let us know his new email address.

Jane's partner is/was a Native Title lawyer who I worked with for a long time. The lower case use of the word 'aboriginal' makes me think that Jane probably didn't write the email. I suspect it has come out of the minister's office.

Anyway, for what it's worth, here it is.

Dear Mr Fitzpatrick,

Thank you for your joint letter in support of the South Australian Museum and its staff.

I believe that there is only one Museum or Institution in Australia that can claim to have the biggest and best of any category of collection types on earth, and that is the South Australian Museum, where the Aboriginal Cultural Collection is widely accepted as quite literally the best in the world. Looking after this material, as well as the truly world class Pacific Cultures material is of paramount importance.

I will address the issues that you and others have raised to give a broader context of the changes that are occurring, as several matters have been misunderstood.

The Museum’s science leadership team developed the overarching Museum Science Strategy and subsequent decisions on the roles in the restructure. This restructure has been endorsed by the Board and will see several positions abolished and replaced by the same number of staff acting in different roles.

It would be incorrect to suggest that the restructure had been designed to save money or to result in fewer staff. The restructure sought to provide different skill sets and will result in identified and specific curators across more of the material collections.

Some correspondents have highlighted the financial constraints that we, like all museums face. For some time the Board has sought to reduce the impact of these challenges by reconfiguring the museum’s management to become more commercial. As a result, fundraising has increased fivefold in the past three years.

These funds are used to support scientific research, and acquire items for the collection. In addition, all of our exhibitions and outreach programs are supported through sponsorship.

The aboriginal trainees and curatorial staff recently recruited are not part of the restructure or replacing previous staff members but part of a separate programme to provide early career opportunities in a tight job market. We are proud of this strategy, which assists early career academics through benefaction. To make our budgets go further, we have also sought joint appointments with universities and been able to recruit senior academics.

We have continued to create new knowledge based on our collections and remain Australia’s pre-eminent research and publishing Museum, gaining a larger proportion of national research grants than other museums. This year, South Australian Museum based research has won a prestigious Eureka Science prize and incidentally our exhibitions, a South Australian Tourism Prize.

Our exhibitions are being recognized as cutting edge and are now touring nationally and increasingly overseas. The Opals Exhibition has been to Qatar and we are sending Yidaki, which is part of our increased focus on aboriginal culture, to Japan next year.

The changes to date have resulted in a more vibrant, outward looking, engaging institution, and increased visitor numbers.

I am confident that the Scientists leading the Research and Collections will continue to deliver in ways that will make South Australians proud but we still need to do more.

Everybody notices the poor and in some cases, historic infrastructure that houses the Museum and many academics know that our storage is below standard and a potential risk to our collections. The Museum is actively working towards improved infrastructure not just for visitors but for our stored collections in ways that will also allow more digital collection support and access.

In relation to changes in the layout of the Museum, it is no secret that the Museum has sought funding to create a
1000 sq m gallery space, which would allow the museum to both display and create travelling blockbusters. An extension to the building and redesign of the internal and in some cases, outdated displays, would be a welcome part of that proposition which could also,for instance provide better visitor amenities such as school facilities and more lavatories. Whilst previous election commitments have allowed the development of an external design , these propositions have not received funding and have not progressed.

Whilst the North Terrace Building is overdue for refurbishment , the Board has identified the far more pressing need to physically care for our collections and lack of accessibility to them by aboriginal communities. I am pleased therefore that the State Government has begun a process to examine proposals to better protect and utilise these stored collections. So watch this space.

Seeing the passion and commitment of Museum supporters to their institution makes me optimistic that they will support further Government investment in improving the South Australian Museum infrastructure.

Thank you for your comments and support for the South Australian Museum

Yours sincerely


Jane Lomax-Smith BSc MBBS FRCPA PhD
South Australian Museum
North Terrace, Adelaide SA 5000
P: +61 (8) 8207 7391

Philip Fitzpatrick

That seems to be the standard response to everyone Arthur.

It also seems to misrepresent the situation.

When I last looked there were only four Humanities collections, not five. There is foreign ethnology (Barry's area), Aboriginal, human biology and archaeology.

With Barry gone responsibility for foreign ethnology, including the Pacific collection, has been added to the supervising senior collection manager's role (Alice Beale). So instead of supervising four collection managers she now also has to look after one of the collections. She won't be able to do that adequately I suspect and will have no scope for research or maintaining the vital contacts that Barry established such as the one with the PNG National Museum.

Another curious anomaly is that the Aboriginal sacred objects collections will now be managed by a woman who won't actually be allowed to see or touch the objects.

Barry was offered either one or two days work a week, a separation package or an honorary role where he would work for free. Clearly a Hobson's choice. It's pretty obvious that the Museum wants him out.

So the Pacific collection, including all the PNG material, has been shoved to one side in a little nook that everyone can ignore.

Of particular interest to you would be the collections from the PNG islands region that the Museum holds and displays. Most of that came from New Ireland and was collected immediately after WW1, mainly from departing Germans. That's a big chunk of islands' cultural traditions now under threat.

Such are the depredations of career bureaucrats.

Arthur Williams

I got a reply this morning from Museum's John Carty---

"Thanks for your letter, and for your passionate engagement with the South Australian Museum. I will always value that. I fear, however, that you have been misinformed or only partially informed of the circumstances here.

"These are the facts of matter. When I arrived at the Museum last year we had 3 researchers in the Humanities, and only 2 out of 5 collections cared for by a dedicated collection manager.

"As a result of the changes I am delivering we will now have all 5 of our collections cared for properly and we will have between 6-7 researchers working on them.

"We are in no way abdicating our responsibility to care for or interpret our collections - rather we are growing our capacity to do so. That Barry is no longer one of those researchers is his choice.

"There are matters between an employer and employee that are not for general discussion, and I will do Barry the honour of not going into those here. What I can say is that we value Barry and his research greatly, and we offered Barry a range of options for staying on at the Museum to help mentor and develop the next generation of researchers who will care for our Pacific collections.

"Barry chose not to take those opportunities, and has decided to take redeployment into another area of the public service. It is a loss for the Museum, but that is his choice.

"We remain committed to the ongoing research and care of our Pacific collections, and I am genuinely excited by the range of researchers who will be working with these collections over the years ahead.

"So I can certainly reassure you that our plans for the care of the PNG and Pacific collections remain strong as they have ever been. I hope, in due course, that Barry will also return to support the development of this next era of the Museum. But that will be up to him.

"I thank you again for your concern about this situation,

Philip Fitzpatrick

I sent this email to the above mentioned persons this morning. I would advise other concerned people to do the same.

"The SA Museum has had a long and fruitful association with the National Museum in PNG and holds important collections related to PNG culture and history.

"I have been advised that the positions of curator of foreign ethnology and archaeology are to be abolished at the South Australian Museum.

"I am very surprised and concerned at such a short-sighted decision, particularly as it relates to the Museum’s Pacific collections.

"South Australia has had a long association with the Pacific region through companies such as the Adelaide Steamship Company, individuals involved in pre-independence administration, myself included, and missionaries, particularly Lutheran, teachers and various specialist researchers.

"This association has yielded the diverse collections that the Museum now holds.

"The association is ongoing and of increasing geo-political importance, as highlighted in the recent federal government white paper on foreign policy.

"Not least among these associations are personal contacts and working relationships established with curatorial and other equivalents in the Pacific region. These will now be at risk and will send a very negative message to the region.

"I have had the privilege of working on several of the Papua New Guinea collections as a volunteer and have used both the Pacific collection and the vast archaeological collections in the course of consultancy work, both in Papua New Guinea and Australia. In many cases the collections have been indispensable to this work.

"Through this process I have come to realise that a great deal of work on the collections still remains. In the case of the Papua New Guinea collections this includes the need for conservation.

"Without dedicated curators for both collections I fail to see how this can be achieved.

"I would urge you to reconsider this decidedly retrograde step in the South Australian Museum’s functions and responsibilities."

Diane Bohlen

Bad news.

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