Howard-era documents warn of 'extremely tight' National Museum timeframe

Howard-era documents warn of 'extremely tight' National Museum timeframe

Before sweeping to election victory in 1996, John Howard promised that Canberra's National Museum of Australia would have a permanent new building after years languishing in a small visitor centre.

Previously classified documents, released on Tuesday by the National Archives of Australia, reveal the prime minister's cabinet rushed to fund and build the controversial structure in making it the centrepiece of Centenary of Federation celebrations.

The papers also foreshadow a debate in the national capital over doomed plans for a pedestrian bridge linking the north and south banks of Lake Burley Griffin.

The National Museum of Australia's permanent building on Acton Peninsula.

The National Museum of Australia's permanent building on Acton Peninsula.Credit:Katherine Griffiths

Resisted by Paul Keating, a permanent home for the National Museum lacked support under Labor, which was advised to dissolve the institution less than 15 years after its creation. The museum drifted under the Hawke government before an injection of emergency funds kept its collection intact.


Mr Howard before the election promised a new building, and with a deadline less than four years away, cabinet documents from November 1997 show the government scrambled to begin work after choosing a design.

Arts minister Richard Alston told cabinet in November 1997 it would usually take six years to plan and build permanent structures for the National Museum and the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

"The timeframe for the project is now extremely tight," he said.

"There are long lead times for the research, design, production and installation of exhibitions and films.

"To meet the timetable it is essential that construction of the building and design of the exhibition proceed simultaneously and immediately."

The new museum building was to be less collection driven, non-monumental and focused on "maximising the visitor experience".

Mr Alston warned cabinet not to scrimp on the museum, holding up other neglected Canberra institutions as cautionary tales. The National Library, the National Gallery of Australia and the National Science and Technology Centre had a $17 million maintenance backlog because of funding shortfalls.

"It is important that the mistakes of the past in not allocating sufficient funding for maintaining the infrastructure of our national institutions are not repeated," he said.

A well-funded museum would also create the first impressions needed for long-term success and revenue, Mr Alston said. He told ministers he shouldn't have to offset its costs with savings, considering it would be the government's leading project marking 100 years of federation.

The National Museum's building at $155 million came cheap compared with overseas, or even interstate. New Zealand's Te Papa museum had a $280 million price tag, and the Victorian government committed $288 million to the Museum of Victoria's new facilities.

Cabinet agreed to $147 million in funding to relocate the museum's collection and build its new home on Acton Peninsula but left Mr Alston to settle its long-term budget with treasurer Peter Costello and finance minister John Fahey.

John Howard promised a new home for the National Museum of Australia before winning the 1996 election.

John Howard promised a new home for the National Museum of Australia before winning the 1996 election. Credit:Kylie Melinda Smith

The cabinet briefing flagged a new plan for a footbridge from the peninsula to Lennox Park on the southern shore of Lake Burley Griffin, a physical and symbolic link between the National Museum and other national institutions in the parliamentary triangle. After Mr Alston urged cabinet to allocate funding for the bridge, ministers waited until it was decided whether the final museum design would include one.

"There has been some concern about the proposed footbridge," the cabinet papers said. By 2010, plans to build a $30 million, 400 metre footbridge over the lake's West Basin as a monument to Australia's immigrants were scuttled after attracting strong opposition within Canberra.

The National Museum building was opened in March 2001 and came within budget, but its quick turnaround and relatively meagre funding have been blamed for what is believed by critics to be a flawed design.

After becoming one of the Howard government's main cultural legacies, the institution emerged as a front in culture wars for its presentation of Aboriginal and settler history, and the appointment of Liberal party figures to its council.

The National Museum last month unveiled a bold new master plan that would cost $266 million over 12 years to realise. It would include an extra 5000 square metres of exhibition space and a new storage facility, as well as renovated galleries, a children’s play space and extensive outdoor landscaping.

Doug Dingwall is a reporter for The Canberra Times covering the public service and politics.

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