Why the Australian Museum is much more than an entertainment attraction and a cultural and scientific collecting institution.
A league of their own
Catherine Livingstone AO and Kim McKay AO talk to Tony Featherstone about why the Australian Museum is much more than an entertainment attraction and a cultural and scientific collecting institution.
When asked about her favourite Australian Museum exhibition, Catherine Livingstone AO FAICD, chooses the Scott Sisters’ butterfly and moth illustrations.
The Australian Museum Trustees president is taken by the illustrations’ quiet beauty and the story behind them. Harriet and Helena Scott, two of Australia’s great illustrators in the 19th century, entered the world of science when it was mostly closed to women.
Livingstone, too, has made an immense contribution to Australian science over the years and helped pave the way for other women in technology and governance. The illustrations are an apt choice for a chairman known for her love of science and attention to detail.
Kim McKay AO, Australian Museum CEO and director, has louder tastes: stuffed rhinoceros, lions and bison from the 1800s. She loves seeing children delight in the museum’s taxidermy and says its Pacific Spirit and Indigenous Australian collections are other favourites.
These simple observations say much about Livingstone and McKay, and the chemistry behind one of the most important president/CEO relationships in the arts sector.
McKay is herself an exhibit of corporate passion and energy. One senses she could talk all day about the museum’s virtues, talented staff, and its potential. McKay joined the Australian Museum Trustees as a director in 2012 and became its CEO in 2014.
She had no desire to lead the Museum upon joining its board. But her interest in the organisation grew and her skills as a former National Geographic executive, co-founder of Clean Up Australia, and social marketing consultant, were well suited to the role.
“I loved my time as a trustee and was looking for my next challenge,” says McKay. “The CEO role seemed like an intersection of the skills I had developed throughout my career and the things I am passionate about. Being a trustee for two years provided insights into the museum, but the CEO role is completely different.”
Livingstone’s appointment in January 2012 as the museum’s president enhanced its profile in the business and philanthropic communities. Livingstone is one of Australia’s most powerful and respected company directors. She chairs Telstra Corporation, is a non-executive director of the Commonwealth Bank and WorleyParsons, and president of the Business Council of Australia.
She was the perfect choice to lead the Australian Museum Trustees, having chaired CSIRO and led the outstanding medical devices company, Cochlear. Her interest in the museum was sparked when a 2008 review of the national innovation system, in which she participated, highlighted the value of museums. “I felt museums had an underappreciated role in science and innovation,” Livingstone says.
McKay and Livingstone have a significant role. The Australian Museum is much more than an entertainment attraction and a cultural and scientific collecting institution. It has world-class scientists, is hiring four new research scientists and collaborates with industry on several projects through its Australian Museum Research Institute. Livingstone says the Australian Museum can inspire more children to take science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. “Science is all about the imagination. If you can capture a child’s imagination early through eye-catching museum exhibits, and spark their curiosity, you can foster a lifelong love of science.”
We are constantly looking for ways to be more innovative, resourceful and commercial while upholding the museum's values.
McKay and Livingstone have many challenges in their respective roles. The NSW Government, in consultation with the museum, appoints the trustees. McKay reports to NSW Deputy Premier and Minister for the Arts Troy Grant and to Livingstone – a triangular reporting line that has been known to cause problems on some government boards.
A period of significant board renewal is another issue. McKay, Livingstone and three other trustees joined the 11-member board in 2012. The Australian Museums Act requires that directors serve three-year terms with a maximum of nine years of consecutive service. That meant almost half the board rotated at the same time.
Recruiting a CEO from the trustees board was another consideration. Livingstone was conscious of the ‘optics’ that McKay, as a trustee, might have been perceived to have had favoured treatment. “But Kim emerged as the preferred candidate after a very exhaustive global search and interview process,” she says.
Funding is another challenge. The NSW Government provides 60 per cent and the museum supplies the rest. “We are constantly looking for ways to be more innovative, resourceful and commercial, while upholding the museum’s values,” says McKay. “Partnerships with organisations, such as Westpac, are a key part of our strategy.” Westpac is sponsoring a planned exhibition of the museum’s 200 greatest treasures.
The NSW Government has high expectations of the Australian Museum, one of Sydney’s five key cultural attractions. It wants the cultural sector to increase visits by 15 per cent by 2019. About one in five museum visitors are international tourists. Technology is another threat and opportunity. “Every museum worldwide is thinking about how they combine technology into their exhibitions,” says McKay. The museum’s David Attenborough’s Virtual Reality (VR) Experience, launched in April in partnership with Samsung, uses VR headsets to immerse patrons in oceans and the Great Barrier Reef, and is a good example of the next generation of museum exhibits.
The Australian Museum is, so far, meeting these challenges under McKay and Livingstone’s leadership. Attendances are up, new exhibits have been launched, the museum’s scientific capability is being expanded, and it has an impressive new entrance. Importantly, the Australian Museum and nearby Powerhouse Museum successfully lobbied the NSW Government to remove entry fees for children.
More than a million people now visit Australian Museum exhibitions each year through the Sydney museum and its regional and international roadshows.
The museum’s Tyrannosaurus exhibition has been a hit overseas and showed how Australian museums can take their collections overseas. Locally, the museum’s new First Australians Gallery, told through first-person Aboriginal experiences, is informing a new generation.“The Australian Museum has strong, sustainable momentum,” says McKay. “Our goal is to create the best museum experience in the southern hemisphere and we won’t stop until we get there.”
McKay and Livingstone’s professional relationship is a key part of that momentum. Livingstone says she and McKay have complementary styles. “Kim moves very quickly and has a huge amount of energy and determination. I can be a sounding board for Kim, and be there for her when she needs advice.”
McKay says Livingstone’s experience is a great benefit to her. “We have a very open, collegiate relationship and I feel I can discuss anything. Having someone of Catherine’s stature on the board to bounce things off is a fantastic resource for a CEO.”
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