Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

AmaGA’s Alex Marsden reviews her tenure

Alex Marsden. Image supplied.

Gina Fairley, Exit Interview: Alex Marsden, AMaGA, 5 October 2020

After a lifetime career on “the hill” in Canberra and leading Australia’s peak organisation for museums and galleries, Alex Marsden is handing the baton to someone else to lead with fresh ideas.

As National Director, Alex Marsden has lead the national peak body for museums and galleries, the Australian Museums and Galleries Association (AMaGA) since 2015. She recently announced that she is stepping down to make way for fresh ideas.

Familiar with policy positions and “pollie jostling”, her career had long been on “The Hill” in Canberra, formerly a Senior Adviser with the Strategy and Delivery Division of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) for eight years. During this period, she was  seconded to the Design Thinker and Strategic Adviser in Policy & Implementation (2012-13) team, where she co-created DesignGov, among other things.

But it was during her tenure with AMaGA, Marsden has been most proud. She has been part of the development of a First Peoples 10-year Roadmap, the establishment of the GLAM Peak coalition to focus on national digital access to collections, behind a strategic review of the organisation – which lead to a subsequent rebranding of AMaGA –  and also set up the organisation’s first national professional development program.

And the last chapter, has seen Marsden shepherd the organisation through COVID-19, a true testament to her career. It is a huge achievement in that timeframe.

How have you witnessed the organisation come into its stride over your tenure?

We are a very strong network and membership-based association, but we did not have a very strong national voice. When the organisation formed back in 1990s it combined many aspects of the museum sector, but over years we felt it didn’t support a lot of the gallery sector.

To recognise that – and to recognise that we are a wonderful ecology with specific needs – during my time we took on a review process over 18-months. Part of that trigger was the question, “How do we get strong and coherent again?” And out of that came our new name – the Australian Museums and Galleries Association (AMaGA) – to bring more galleries back in.

When we formed we had taken the international word used for galleries, “museums”, and thought it would gain traction. But we came to recognise that we are different here in Australia. We also added the word Association in the name because it was important to recognise that we are a network, not a business. It might be an old fashioned term, but it is strong – it’s who we are – and the rebrand has been received really well. (It used to be Museums Australia).

AMaGA is now a brand used across the country. We have a national collective voice to talk to government and to participate in industry round tables.

The other driver during my time was that we had been really strong with a First Nations focus, but we dropped away a bit. I was attending a conference back in 2014, and recognised that we were not focused enough in recognising colonial structures in collection materials. When you join an organisation you have to lead with something – you choose a few big things to focus on – and First Nations was that big thing for me.

I have this wonderful moment of applying for a grant in 2016 to research our Indigenous Roadmap just before our joint conference with New Zealand, where we announced it. And then, we launched the completed report at our 2019 conference in Alice Springs. It was an incredible arc. It was hard, but the consultation and honest feedback that everyone gave made it. And now, the sector is really taking it up.

Why was it right to take on this role at that moment in your career?

I had spent eight years at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet at the social policy and cabinet implementation unit, and before that a lot of time in heritage and NGOs. I loved having authority and agency – a lot of knowledge workers do. But I wanted a change, and I wanted to have more impact.

I think over the years you are less and less able, as a public servant, to have big ideas and impact. Often in the Public Service you are encouraged to apply for positions, but often they leave you feeling like a square peg in a round hole – that your heart is not in it. I was tired of that, so I left.

How do you sustain a directorship over five years … to stay fresh and know when to go?

First you have got to have an incredibly supportive board, council or executive team. I have learnt over the years that if you are not supported at the highest level you are always going to struggle. I have been lucky. The second part of that is have good staff – and that you enthuse them. You give people agency and flexibility. That is how you stay fresh.

With regard to knowing when to go, you go when you have achieved a few key things that you wanted to achieve.

I am a great believer in refreshing dynamic institutions. After several years you start to approach things the same way, or you recognise there are opportunities to approach things differently but that perhaps you don’t have that skill set or ambition to lead them.

Having said that, I am so pleased that when the pandemic hit I had had five years in the job and knew the organisation, and our members knew and trusted me. I could put all my skills into stepping up, like many others did, and work through the problems we collectively faced. There has been a real collegiality.

What about regrets and challenges?

Regrets? You can’t regret things if you do it with a good heart and with humility. I also have a design thinking background where you try things out – test them and say it is a pilot project.

One thing I am a bit cranky about, is that once we got our Indigenous Roadmap out, we had been banking on getting some government support to help implement it. We lost 6-8 months trying to get that and it didn’t come through. I could have used that time to look elsewhere.

When I realised we had no money to implement our Indigenous Roadmap, our member organisations say they would do it. It is not just up to AMaGA, but a responsibility of the sector to use that roadmap. And particularly the smaller organisations and volunteer run ones, saying that they wanted to do the right thing, and asked to have the opportunity to look at it, and then to come back and say, “I can do this”. I am proud of my sector.

Basically, we earn our own money from members, and they give us the authority to do what we do. AMaGA gets no federal funding at all; we are proudly independent.

In terms of challenges, GLAM Peak has been one of our great challenges. Frank Howarth, our former national president, was very keen to see collections go digital. The question was whether across the galleries, libraries, archives and museums sector we shared enough in common to make this happen? Now we are not only good colleagues; but we are good friends – and it has all been self-funded.

What would be your advice to your younger self stepping in to this role?

It is still a thing – burning out – and while I have got better at managing it over the years, I still just throw myself in. We are always at risk.

My advice would be to always leave space [to reflect and adjust], and to listen. People like me talk and think while listening and get excited brainstorming, but as a manger or a director you need to understand that people have different styles and there are different ways to get to a fantastic outcome.

Collaboration is always incredibly important, as is consultation. And if you think you have done enough, then you have probably have not quite done enough.

What do you think the future landscape for AMaGA will hold?

I think AMaGA is in a good situation now. We have completed the stage one – getting big things under the belt. We have shown that we are helpful to our members and helpful to the broader sector, and hopefully a voice for the community to hear as well, because what we advocate is worthwhile listening to.

One of the reasons for me moving on, is that I feel we are on the [edge] of that next chapter and with it there are things I can’t imagine, envisage, so I want to give that opportunity on to someone else.

The digital [pivot during COVID-19] – which we knew about beforehand from our successes with GLAM Peak – is also a pivot to the real and the ethical. The ethical journey that we are on has to continue with greater Indigenous communication, sustainable goals and decolonialisation strategies. And we of course will continue that advocacy role at AMaGA which is a core function. All organisations say to us that they want our advocacy, and we are well set up for that now.

What is next on the horizon?

Marsden put it simply. ‘I’m ready for a bit of a break.’ She will continue to work in the cultural field, ‘but at my own pace’, adding that she is looking forward to doing some writing, in particular working on a book project that takes a look at our pre and post pandemic world.

Marsden will also continue her Board duties with AusHeritage and their work in the Asia Pacific Region, as well as some mentoring and advocacy around the issues she is most passionate about.

The word she used to sum up the past five years was ‘a total joy’.

AMaGA is currently advertising the national leadership role. Marsden will continue while recruitment is underway to ensure there is no gap in projects and advocacy.

Council of Australasian Museum Directors, c/o Ms Daryl Karp, Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House PO Box 3934 Manuka, Australian Capital Territory 2603 Australia, © CAMD 2020
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