Bringing the past into the present is a museum’s role, but Australian Museum CEO Kim McKay ao also has big plans for its future.
When Kim McKay AO was appointed director and CEO of Sydney’s Australian Museum in 2014, one of the first things she did was to pull up a seat in the coffee shop near the front door. “I hadn’t started in the role at the time, but I’d sit and watch for hours what was happening and realised the overwhelming impression I was getting of the museum was the smell of hot chips,” she says. This was not what a prestigious natural history museum should smell like. It may sound a bit strange, but I wanted to inject some care, concern and love into this remarkable institution. I didn’t want it to look shabby, I wanted it to be everything it could be — a place where Sydneysiders and visitors could just come to hang out.”
McKay is the first woman appointed to lead Australia’s second-oldest scientific research organisation over the course of its 195-year history. (The Royal Botanic Garden Sydney, established in 1816, beats it by 11 years.)
She had served on the board of trustees with former chair Catherine Livingstone AO FAICD for two years prior to her appointment. Despite having no prior experience in the public sector, the former marketing and communications professional, who had worked with National Geographic Channels International in the US (now National Geographic Global Networks) leapt at the role. “I’ve always said I’m the worst kind of scientist — a social scientist — so I was very fortunate to be the change agent tasked with tapping into the museum’s potential,” she says.
Since then, McKay, who was also one of the brains behind Clean Up Australia, has overseen a cultural, financial and technological transformation, expanded the museum’s regional reach and pursued strong reconciliation and climate change agendas.
McKay led the $57.5m renovation known as Project Discover, which redeveloped the museum’s public and exhibition spaces, adding more than 3000sqm of new public space and creating new exhibition spaces, a new shop and a second cafe.
Momentum has continued, notwithstanding the disruption from the pandemic, as McKay sought to turn the popular stereotype of a museum as a “dusty old place” on its head. “It’s taken a long time to get there because change is a lengthy process, but I was very determined that we would start that change pretty much straight away,” she says.
Her observations from the coffee shop had convinced McKay that the entrance to the building was misplaced, so the 145-year-old entrance on College Street got the heave-ho. The original entrance on William Street, a busy thoroughfare in the heart of the city, was restored, and the construction of Crystal Hall, a glass pavilion designed by Neeson Murcutt in conjunction with Joseph Grech Architects, offered a new air of transparency and openness. “I wanted people to see into the museum — before it was all these impenetrable sandstone buildings,” says McKay. “This, along with subsequent building works, have really reshaped who we are.”
Access for all
Today, as the museum looks to its 200th anniversary in 2027, it is considered a vital cultural and scientific institution, engaging the public and educators on climate change, biodiversity and First Nations cultures, with a vision “to be a leading voice for the richness of life, the Earth and culture in Australia and the Pacific”.
It also serves as the repository for a diverse range of collections including “Eric” the opalised pliosaur discovered in Coober Pedy in 1987, a collection of thylacines (native to Australian and New Guinea) and other extinct Australian animals, plus one of the finest Pacific collections in the world. It also holds a 30,000-year-old Wailwan grindstone.
Underpinning this sense of expansiveness are McKay’s memories of a childhood spent in London after her father was posted there for work. “I was taken to the some of the best museums in the world on a reasonably regular basis and that’s where my love of museums, history and the natural world started,” she says, adding she still gets a kick witnessing the wide-eyed wonder of the museum’s pint-sized visitors. “I see the little light bulbs go off when their curiosity gets piqued.”
The transformation has demanded McKay rethink the museum’s approach to stakeholder relations and how it engages philanthropic support, its finances and the role of its board. “I always wanted the museum to be free, so people could come whenever they wanted and cost wouldn’t be a barrier,” she says. Making general admission free for children and adults has required negotiation with NSW Treasury, which has made up the resulting shortfall in revenue. Currently, the state government provides about 65–70 per cent of the museum’s operating revenue. The rest the AM raises itself.
Board and governance
Central to McKay’s role is the management of multiple stakeholder relationships — including at all levels of government, academia, education, donors and sponsors. Corporate partners also play a big role in supporting cultural institutions. For instance, the AM partners with Stockland on touring exhibitions, and in 2017, Westpac sponsored the renovation of the Long Gallery, the nation’s first museum gallery.
“The support we get from the philanthropic sector is also wonderful,” says McKay. “Just this morning, I got an email from one of our scientists who works in marine invertebrates to say a volunteer is going to give $500,000 to allow us to employ an additional team member. That’s extraordinary.”
Internal stakeholders include the more than 300 museum staff, as well as three boards comprised of heavy hitters from the worlds of finance, science, law and arts. The AM Trust is chaired by David Armstrong MAICD, a director of the National Australia Bank and IAG, while the AM Foundation is chaired by former Westpac CEO Brian Hartzer. Then there’s the board of the Australian Museum’s Lizard Island Reef Research Foundation, supporting one of the world’s leading marine research stations. McKay’s role is to keep the museum’s many balls in the air — and to ensure it identifies opportunities as they arise. Her tenacity was also on display when she learned the blockbuster Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh King exhibition would be touring the globe. “We wanted to host it, but we didn’t have an exhibition space big enough,” she says. A new touring hall was already included in the museum’s master plan, so McKay sought financial support from the state government to bring renovations forward and secure the show. “I had to stalk [then premier] Gladys Berejiklian to convince the government this was worth doing,” she says. “She was speaking at Taronga Zoo, so I went there as part of a koala project the AM was spearheading, pulled the proposal out of my handbag, and said,‘Premier, you have to support this.’”
McKay’s impassioned plea was supported, but while the doors were closed for the museum’s major facelift, COVID-19 spread across the globe, sending the touring exhibition into lockdown in London and leading to its later cancellation. “So, I didn’t get Tutankhamun in the end, but we brought back our dinosaur exhibition and, next year, we’ll be one of only 10 cities in the world to host the Ramses the Great and the Gold of the Pharaohs exhibition.”
McKay hopes to reveal more of the AM’s collection by building a new wing on land it owns on the corner of William and Yurong Streets. “It’s going to be a big project — we’re updating the master plan and will be presenting it to the state government for funding later this year.”
In 2021, McKay appointed Wailwan and Kooma woman Laura McBride — who had already spent 11 years in the museum’s education, programming and exhibitions teams — as its inaugural First Nations director. “It was great to promote Laura into that role, and see her shape it as she sees it,” says McKay. “Australia is a remarkable country and I feel so fortunate to live here, but we’ve missed the opportunity to consider who we are as a people, which means our First Nations people. Museums can play a really important role, and giving voice to First Nations people is one of several new pillars that have been embraced by the team here.”
In May 2021, the museum launched Unsettled, an award-winning exhibition described by McKay as “confronting, moving and serious”. It grew out of community consultation in response to the 250th anniversary of the 1770 east coast voyage by Lieutenant James Cook in HMB Endeavour. McBride rates the project as a huge success.
“Public response to the exhibition was overwhelmingly positive — affirming our belief that our visitors were ready to learn the truth about our shared past,” she says. “Since opening night, we estimate Unsettled was viewed by more than 70,000 visitors in-person and over 130,000 people have interacted with content related to the exhibition online. The virtual experience of the exhibition will continue to be available on the museum’s website, enabling people around the world to continue the journey towards a better, shared future.”
Becoming a strong advocate and information source around climate change impacts is another of the museum’s key strategic priorities. As an environmentalist, McKay has also had a focus on sustainability. She points out that Professor Tim Flannery — who spent 15 years at the AM as head of mammalian biology (1984–99) before embarking upon his second iteration as a climate change advocate — has returned to research the impacts of climate change and raise awareness of the relevant issues. “The museum has an important role to play in influencing and informing the community in different ways, and we have no agenda to run — we just present the scientific facts,” says McKay.
Some of the issues fell into sharp relief in March, when northern NSW was inundated with flooding, damaging the prized Hannah Cabinet exhibit at Lismore Regional Gallery. The cabinet was made by Geoffrey Hannah OAM in traditional European style, consisting of different types of solid timbers and veneers, rare shells and 17 varieties of precious and semi-precious stones. Hundreds of other precious artworks were also damaged.
It became clear that a quick response team was needed to salvage what remained after the muddy waters receded and so AM head of conservation Heather Bleechmore coordinated recovery efforts for the state government on behalf of all cultural institutions. “We have the conservators and the technology to assist where we can,” says McKay. “It’s great we’ve got such dedicated and experienced people working in our institutions and here at the AM to respond to that crisis,” she says.
The Lismore gallery, along with other flood- affected galleries and museums in northern NSW, remains closed. However, for McKay, the fallout from the deluge served as a painful reminder that fires, floods, wars and assorted other catastrophes extend to cultural and creative infrastructure.
“I cried as I watched the Natural History Museum in Rio de Janeiro burn down and they lost that time capsule of South America,” she says, referring to a 2018 inferno that claimed many of the institution’s 20 million items, including fossils and Egyptian and Greco-Roman artefacts.
Such events have reinforced the importance of conserving and protecting the collection — the basis of the nation’s cultural fabric — for the future, and ensuring that it is digitised. Funded by the state government, the AM’s ongoing project to digitise the almost 22 million items in its collections won’t be finished until 2032. “It’s a way of sharing the collection with a broader audience for research purposes, but also for general study and for greater public access,” says McKay.
McKay’s role is her first in the public sector and she acknowledges that her “nervousness” about becoming a public servant was probably misplaced. “I was really worried about the bureaucracy, but found that the NSW public sector was progressive and willing to take on new ideas and approaches, and sometimes to facilitate things in a new way,” she says. “I think they do appreciate people who get on with the job and make the change.”
One eye-opener was machinery of government changes and departmental restructures. “In the eight years I’ve been here, I’ve had five different ministers, so that takes up a lot of time,” says McKay. “You have to re-educate a whole new group of people about what you do and why you exist.”
However, McKay is first and foremost a storyteller who seeks to reveal more of the riches that lie within the museum’s collection and archives. She has achieved some unique touches with a nod to history and gender. For example, the famous Scott sisters’ 19th-century wildlife illustrations have been brought to life on museum merchandise such as scarves and prints. “Our scientists in entomology still use the Scott sisters’ drawings as reference points because they are so accurate,” says McKay.
It’s all part of her mission to increase the reach and accessibility of the museum. “I want to ensure that when I leave here, I’m leaving a much better experience behind for the public.”
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