Union lodges dispute in employment tribunal, as protesters rally against proposed SA Museum changes

Union lodges dispute in employment tribunal, as protesters rally against proposed SA Museum changes
  • PublishedApril 14, 2024

A union representing South Australian Museum workers has lodged a dispute in the employment tribunal over a proposed sweeping reform of the institution’s research wing.

In February, the museum’s executives outlined a proposed restructure of the research and collections division as part of a “reimagining” of the institution.

The union representing museum workers, the Public Service Association (PSA), said the new structure would see 27 full-time positions abolished and replaced with 22 new positions, mainly at a lower classification and pay.

A spokesperson for the SA Museum said the museum was listening to feedback from staff and the union as consultation continued.

Many have criticised the proposed changes, accusing the museum executive of compromising the research division and its role in human sciences research.

On Saturday, museum volunteers, former staff members and supporters gathered on the steps of SA Parliament House to raise their concerns.

The PSA has lodged a dispute in the SA Employment Tribunal to seek more details about the proposal from the museum.

A woman with long red hair speaking to microphones at a rally outside parliament house
Natasha Brown says the Public Service Association is concerned about the loss of important scientific research.(ABC News: Justin Hewitson)

PSA general secretary Natasha Brown said the matter remained unresolved despite two lengthy conciliation conferences.

“Despite repeated requests from the PSA, museum management has continued to try and withhold important information required for consultation with our members,” she said.

A PSA spokesperson told the ABC the matter would likely be referred for arbitration, with a further hearing expected in the coming week.

Ms Brown said the museum had been underfunded for years, with staff facing unmanageable workloads that would only worsen under the suggested reforms.

“We’re very concerned that the proposed changes posed very real risk of degradation and loss of important cultural, historical and scientific materials,” she said.

Ms Brown said many current employees would not be able to take up the proposed new roles, and those that could would be facing a pay cut.

“They would not be doing the same work. One of the concerns that we have is this represents a dumbing down and the degradation of the work that our members do,” she said.

A protester holding up a sign that says "research is a fundamental purpose of museum".
The museum wants to restructure its research and collections division.(ABC News: Daniel Litjens)

Opposition arts spokesperson John Gardner agreed, saying the roles required a different skill set, and many would be at a lower salary.

“When the government says that they’re not letting all of these people go, they are in fact letting these people go [by] letting people apply for jobs that are different and in most cases less well-paid,” he said.

“The problem is the current re-imagining, the current restructure is all on the wrong track.”

Arts Minister Andrea Michaels said she would continue to discuss the feedback received with the museum’s board to ensure the reforms would strengthen the institution’s collection, research and engagement with Aboriginal people.

“I understand that there is misinformation causing concern in the community about the possible restructure and direction proposed by the SA Museum’s board and I want to reassure those who have expressed concern that I am listening to their feedback,” she said.

A woman speaking and gesturing with her hands
Arts Minister Andrea Michaels says the museum will undertake public consultation on the proposed changes shortly.(ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)

Bring the museum ‘into the 21st century’: executive

SA Museum’s chief executive Dr David Gaimster and chair Kim Cheater defended the proposed changes at a parliamentary committee last week, claiming they had seen a “great deal of misinformation” being circulated about the changes in the media.

“These proposed changes to our workforce are about taking important steps now that will make our museum more sustainable, more relevant and more accessible for the 21st century,” Mr Cheater said.

He insisted all relevant staff at the museum were properly consulted as part of a review process prior to drafting the changes.

Exterior of South Australian museum building and signs
Under its proposed reforms, the museum would move towards a curatorial research model.(ABC News: Daniel Litjens)

Dr Gaimster said the feedback the museum had received from the scientific community had been focused on one or two issues and did not address the institution’s function overall.

“The board of the museum has a whole range of functions to carry out research or promote research into matters of scientific and historical interest,” he said.

“It’s a very, very broad manifesto, you could say.”

Dr Gaimster assured the committee the objective of the executive was not to stop or devalue research on the museum’s collections.

“We’re anticipating that new models of operation will enable us to evolve from a highly academic research model to what we are describing as a curatorial research model,” he said.

Support for museum staff

The State Aboriginal Heritage Committee has expressed concerns over the proposal, and the impact it could have on the museum’s Aboriginal Repatriation Program.

The program saw the development of Wangayarta in Adelaide’s northern suburbs in 2021, a memorial park dedicated to Kaurna ancestral remains reburials.

Three reburials have taken place at Wangayarta in community-led ceremonies, which have seen the program lauded by Indigenous peoples and governments across the country.

Major Sumner in a beanie and white beard standing in front of a crowd speaking to microphones
Major ‘Moogy’ Sumner says the work by the museum’s Aboriginal repatriation team is crucial.(ABC News: Justin Hewitson)

The committee said the museum should “nonetheless continue to provide at least the current level of support for the repatriation team, notwithstanding any wider imperatives”.

The museum currently has plans for significant repatriations for the Ngarrindjeri people, and the First Peoples of the River Murray and Mallee.

Kaurna and Ngarrindjeri elder Major “Moogy” Sumner said he has been working for 40 years to bring ancestral remains home to Kaurna, including from overseas.

“[These remains] are not objects, they are our relatives, they are our bloodline for thousands of years,” Mr Sumner said.

Mr Sumner paid tribute to the museum’s repatriation team and expressed concerns about their treatment in the process.

“They’re being treated as if they don’t matter, but they do,” he said.

“You wouldn’t treat anyone like that if you want to keep the knowledge going … the people up there now, they need to be there.”

Large group of people looking in one direction
Former SA premier Steven Marshall attended the rally supporting museum science workers.(ABC News: Daniel Litjens)

The plan has also seen huge backlash from the academic community and beyond, with more than 350 scholars and others signing an open letter published in a local newspaper on Wednesday.

Among them was former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer,  2007 Australian of the Year and former museum director Tim Flannery, and former SA Premier Steven Marshall.

The letter claims the proposed changes would “devastate the museum’s research capability and institutional knowledge”.

It called on the state government to review the proposed restructure and to “invest at least $10 million in designated funding annually for the collection and research work of the museum”.


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