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AM, AWMM, WAM Boola Bardip & Chau Chak Wing

Australian Museum’s director & CEO, Kim McKay stands in front of the wildlife photography exhibition at the newly renovated museum. Dominic Lorrimer.

Fiona Carruthers, Australian Museum hopes to double visitor numbers with free entry, Australian Financial Review Nov 26, 2020

Call it the $588 million cultural injection.

We might be marooned in Australia for the foreseeable future but there’s no excuse not to enjoy a culture fix this summer.

The month of November has become museum payday, with four of the region’s leading institutions reopening after extensive refurbishments.

On Saturday, November 28, the Australian Museum opens to the public following a 15-month, $57.5 million transformation known as Project Discover.

On Saturday, November 21, the Western Australian Museum reopened after a four-and-a-half-year, $400 million redevelopment; while the University of Sydney’s new Chau Chak Wing Museum of art, science, history and ancient cultures reopened on November 16 following a $42 million new build, $15 million of which was donated by Chinese-Australian property developer Chau Chak Wing. The 8000-square metre space takes in the university’s collections from the now-closed Macleay and Nicholson museums.

Finally, in early December, the Auckland War Memorial Museum reopens across the Tasman, having undergone a six-year $NZ93 million ($88.4 million) visitor transformation program.

“This investment in museums across Australia/NZ is unprecedented and incredibly coincidental that we’re all opening at the same time,” Australian Museum director and CEO Kim McKay told The Australian Financial Review. “We’ll be ready for both our domestic and international tourists (when they return) to experience a new quality of museums in our region.”

Te Ao Mārama (South Atrium) of the Auckland Museum, which has undergone a six-year visitor transformation program.  Chris Smith.

The Australian Museum has also dropped its $15 adult and $8 concession entry fees (the entry charges for children were dropped in 2015).

“Making general admission free to the public – both adults and children – is the perfect way to celebrate our reopening following Project Discover, and paves the way to significantly increase local attendance,” Ms McKay said.

General admission fees were first introduced in 1992, leading to a halving of public visitors to about 350,000, down from more than 700,000 a year.

A 20-minute walk away down by Circular Quay, the Museum of Contemporary Art more than doubled its visitor numbers when it scrapped its then $12 admission fee in May 2000. The MCA has never looked back, attracting just over 1 million visitors a year.

“We hope that free entry will attract a lot of new visitors even during COVID restrictions, especially given there’s a ‘pent up’ desire by the public to return to museums,” Ms McKay said.

“We anticipate making up the revenue by an increase in visitors and the extra money we expect visitors to spend at our new family café, the new shop and at various events and programs we will hold in the new spaces.”

Australian Museum will still charge ticket prices for special exhibitions such as the reopening Tyrannosaurs – Meet The Family exhibition in the new touring exhibition hall. Prices start at $10 for children, with family packages available. The popular Australian Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year exhibition will also return to the museum in the Grand Hall exhibition space in time for reopening.

Ms McKay said on special annual free weekends, she would see “multi-generational families visit from far and wide, but we noticed they would only come when it’s free”.

“With free general admission, everyone can come all the time to visit a gallery, have lunch, or meet up with friends. It belongs to the people of NSW, and they should be able to come here again and again.”

This recent renovation is the museum’s most extensive in decades. Public spaces at Australia’s first museum, originally founded in 1827, have been redeveloped and 3000 square metres of new public space added, repurposed from back-of-house areas.

The NSW government contributed $50.5 million and there was generous philanthropic support from the museum’s private donors ($7 million). British media recently reported that British­-Australian businessman Sir Michael Hintze gave $5 million of that as he had enjoyed visiting the museum during his schooldays in Sydney.

A central atrium opened as part of the redevelopment will be named Hintze Hall.

Artist’s impression of the new Western Australian Museum, which opened on November 21.

Heading west, the Western Australian Museum reopened on November 21 following a $400 million redevelopment, including eight new exhibitions and a 1000-square-metre temporary exhibition space.

That project was funded solely by the Western Australian state government.

The Auckland War Memorial Museum transformation program was funded through a combination of depreciation funding through a council levy, fundraising and investment income. It will reopen in early December.