A planned restructure of the South Australian Museum has been put on hold by the state government, amid protests and concerns about its future direction. 

In February, the museum’s chief executive David Gaimster announced a “reimagining” of the North Terrace institution, with a vision of turning it into a contemporary experience which he said would do “justice” for South Australians.

But those changes would come at a cost, with 27 positions in the research and collections division abolished and replaced with 22 new jobs, which the union claims are of lower classification and pay.

The ABC can now reveal that Premier Peter Malinauskas has intervened in the matter and will hold a review to “ensure the museum continues to deliver quality outcomes for all South Australians”.

The review was formed after “constructive meetings” between the government and interested parties, and will see a three-person panel consult with key stakeholders to make recommendations as early as June.

Andrea Michaels says the panel will bring together expert advice on the museum’s restructure.(ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)

“We have seen a lot of public concern … [and] we think this is a really good opportunity to get some expert advice in, to have facilitated discussions,” SA Arts Minister Andrea Michaels said.

“There’d be a range of people we’d expect the panel to go and talk to, and to give us advice on the best way forward.”

Outcry after initial announcement

The announcement received backlash from within the museum and general public, with hundreds gathering earlier this month on the steps of SA Parliament House to protest the proposed changes.

Last week, the union representing the museum’s workers, the Public Service Association (PSA), told the ABC the process had been highly stressful for workers, who were delivered the news in a presentation in February.

“To be told via PowerPoint presentation that their jobs no longer had a place in the new structure was extremely disrespectful,” PSA general secretary Natasha Brown said.

“Many of them have spent their life’s work to conduct research for the museum and to preserve the museum’s collections.

“To be told that work is not valued is incredibly insulting.”

Natasha Brown says the union is concerned the restructure is a cost-cutting measure.(ABC News: Justin Hewitson)

Academics have expressed concerns about the future of the research division, with an open letter claiming the changes “threaten to irrevocably diminish the museum’s stature and role”.

But museum management insists the changes will work to promote ongoing research,  and make the collection more accessible to the public and other academics.

Museum’s close link to repatriation

Concerns were also raised about the museum’s ongoing projects, including a program to repatriate Indigenous ancestral remains.

Kaurna and Ngarrindjeri elder Major “Moogy” Sumner, who was key in establishing Indigenous reburial site Wangayarta, said the museum’s repatriation program would struggle immensely if those staff members were to leave.

“The people [who are] very fearful of their job now, they had a big role in seeing [Wangayarta] happen. They had a role in every part of this,” he said.

“It’s more than just a pay packet to them.

“All the stuff they do, you can see that their whole being is there.”

Major Sumner has worked closely with the museum’s repatriation team.(ABC News: Ashlin Blieschke)

Mr Sumner said if those people were not rehired, retraining new repatriation officers would take time, and potentially damage the relationships between the museum and traditional owners across South Australia.

The state government said the repatriation project would continue, but did not make any comment about the continuation of current staff. 

It also said there were no plans to remove popular exhibits at the museum, including the Ancient Egypt gallery.

But Adelaide Lord Mayor Jane Lomax-Smith, a former museum board chair, has criticised the state government and previous state governments for the handling of the South Australian Museum’s budget. 

“I’ve seen Treasury reports, this is not something that happened overnight. This has been building up for many decades,” Dr Lomax-Smith said.

“No government has been really honourable, or really effective in managing these assets.” 

Adelaide Lord Mayor Jane Lomax-Smith used to chair the museum board.(ABC News: Marco Catalano)

Dr Lomax-Smith said she supported Dr Gaimster and current board chair Kim Cheater for doing the best with what they have. 

“I understand what they’re doing. It’s rational. It would be unthinkable for any director with a public service job to spend more money than they have,” she said.

“From my perspective, there’s always enough money for sport, there’s never enough money for science.

“It would not be unreasonable to have some of that money investing in basic science in our state.”

The PSA has also said it believed the restructure was based on cutting costs. 

Protesters took to the steps of SA Parliament House earlier this month.(ABC News: Daniel Litjens)

“It is obvious to the PSA that this whole restructure is designed to see the exit of very senior, very highly experienced and respected professionals, and to replace them with lower-paid workers, and that is a cause of great concern to us and to our members,” Ms Brown said.

Arts Minister Andrea Michaels disagreed, and said the museum “can absolutely achieve [its] legislative functions with the budget that [it’s] got”.

Review a ‘rapid exercise’

The review will be chaired by the Department of the Premier and Cabinet’s chief executive Damien Walker, South Australia’s Chief Scientist Craig Simmons and Queensland Museum CEO Jim Thompson.

Damien Walker is on the review panel.(Queensland Department of State Development, Infrastructure, Local Government and Planning)

It will consider and provide “principles” and “general guidance” on a range of areas including research functions, repatriation and engagement with First Nations communities relating to cultural heritage, collections management, public engagement and contemporary approaches to displaying content. 

The panel is expected to make recommendations to the state government by the middle of the year.

The Premier said the announcement of the review followed separate meetings between himself and museum leaders, and opponents of the proposed changes.

“We’re going to just put a pause on this, examine the facts and see what we can do,” Mr Malinauskas told ABC Radio Adelaide.

“There were some pretty severe cuts that were initiated by the former Liberal government to the museum but there’s also been a reduction in its budget under my government as well, so they’re trying to operate within that.”

Mr Malinauskas said the museum was a “vital institution” which had to “adapt” and “evolve”, but changes had to be handled “sensitively”.

“[The panel is] going to run their eye over it and just have a look at, ‘Is everything on track, is there anything that could be done better?'”

Some jobs will be axed under the suggested changes to SA Museum.(ABC News: Daniel Litjens)

Opposition leader David Speirs welcomed the move but said it was a “humiliating backflip” by the government, adding that his party would continue with its campaign for the “proposed cuts” to be “shelved”.

“Six weeks it took to get here,” he said.

“Many, many South Australians are horrified by these changes.

“[The museum’s] treasured by South Australians and it’s good to hear the government listen, but the campaign has to continue because we want these changes cancelled.”

Dr Gaimster welcomed the Premier’s decision to establish a review panel and looked forward to receiving its recommendations.

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