Former director of the National Museum Craddock Morton.

Former director of the National Museum Craddock Morton. Photo: Melissa Adams

A budget proposal to blend the administrative functions of the country’s major cultural institutions is a disastrous idea that is doomed to fail, two former institution directors say.

Meanwhile, National Library bosses have admitted to their staff that do not know “anything” about how a proposed forced merger of “back room” functions with other Canberra cultural institutions will work.

Betty Churcher.

Betty Churcher.

Senior National Library staff were told on Friday evening the government would try to save $2.4 million over four years by merging shared services of the National Gallery, National Library, the National Archives, the Film and Sound Archives, the National Portrait Gallery and Old Parliament House. The War Memorial is not included in the proposal.

Former National Museum director Craddock Morton said the proposal was beloved by those with little understanding of how the institutions functioned, and former National Gallery director Betty Churcher said the idea was disastrous and doomed to fail.

National Library director-general Anne-Marie Schwirtlich told her staff she did not know how the savings would be made, how they would be divided between the institutions, what backroom functions would be merged, or what would happen beyond the four-year forward estimates period.

“We do not know which back office functions,” Ms Schwirtlich wrote in an email early this morning.

“The Ministry for the Arts has indicated that we also do not know how the savings ($2.4m over the four years) are to be apportioned between the agencies and over the four years (nor what will happen in out years).”

Assistant director-general Margy Burn was also in the dark about key aspects of the plan when she emailed colleagues this morning.

“I doubt anyone knows anything yet about how this will be made to work - we can expect some kind of cross portfolio group to work on the detail I should think,” Ms Burn wrote.

But looking on the bright side, the senior NLA manager noted the Library had managed to steer clear of scandal lately – unlike some of its counterparts around town.

“…The Library being generally regarded as high performing (no Dancing Shiva scandal; not in the papers over job losses, as NFSA has been, not facing a deficit at June 30) we are as well positioned as we can be re 'shared services' in this time of uncertainty,” Ms Burn wrote.

Mr Morton said the idea was not a new one, having been floated by the bureaucracy for some years and repeatedly rejected as being unworkable. 

“This is bureaucrats applying solutions to institutions that might work elsewhere but don’t necessarily work in cultural institutions,” he said.

“The sort of back of house things that you might consider amalgamating would be for example conservation or registration. Now, who’s going to prioritise what gets done, for example?”

Mr Morton recalled that during his time at the National Museum, from 2003-2010, there had been a long-running disagreement between various institutions about the use of packing crates.

“They couldn’t even work out a joint approach to packing crates, the institutions, because they all have such different requirements,” he said.

“If one was to be cynical, one would say that this is yet another attempt by the department, by the public service staff in the departments, to run the cultural agencies, so that they advise the minister on what the priorities should be, in other words who gets the storage facility first and what the queue is for this and what the queue is for that.”

It was also unclear what was meant by "back-office administration", as each institution had a separate internal structure.

Ms Churcher, who was director of the National Gallery from 1990 to 1997, said the idea was doomed to fail, especially if it involved amalgamating the various boards of each institution.

“I cannot see what gains there could be – what monetary gains, what intellectual gains – I cannot see a single gain,” she said.

“I don’t know about the back-office function of the other institutions, but the back-office function of the art gallery is to monitor the success of the exhibition program, to monitor the success of the acquisitions, the way the place is being visited, visitor numbers, all of that. So how is one board going to do that across the spectrum?

"I’m violently against it, and perplexed to see where the savings would come. It’s the sort of thing they’ll do and then about 12 months later they’ll have to undo.”

Mr Morton said that, subject to further details of the proposal being laid out, the idea had inherent difficulties that would prevent it from succeeding.

“It’s something that none of the cultural institutions are pushing, not because they want to give up part of their empires, although obviously there’s an element of that, but because they realise that the efficiencies are just not there,” he said.

“I mean, what are you going to have – a sort of a triage nurse for the cultural institutions? You go to the triage and they say oh no, I think the conservation needs are much more urgent at the gallery than they are at the archives? It’s nonsense.”