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AM’s Kim McKay on building trustworthiness

Dan Holmes, Kim McKay on building trustworthy institutions in a post-truth era, The Mandarin, 8 July 2024

Australian Museum CEO Kim McKay. Image: The Mandarin.

Australian Museum CEO Kim McKay leads one of Australia’s most trusted institutions, but it’s not something she takes for granted.

She has been watching trust in science decline throughout her career and is concerned about the effect that’s having on the quality of public policy and discourse.

Speaking at The Mandarin’s Rebuilding Public Service Trust and Integrity Sydney conference, McKay said mistrust in public institutions was making it easier to spread doubt than certainty.

“Unfortunately, some seemingly intelligent people still succumb to the impacts of falsehoods and groupthink, whether it’s social influences or even friends or work colleagues — opinions can take hold that have little basis in fact,” she said

“Adults are as subject to peer pressure, I think, as we were in the school playground.

“All you need to do to create social disharmony and lack of trust is to sow the seeds of doubt. It’s a regular practice of gun and fossil fuel lobbyists in the United States.

“I want to say to you all in your organisations: beware of it, of sowing the seeds of doubt. Because if that creeps into Australia in a greater way, we’re in trouble.”

While the Australian Museum has received international critical acclaim, McKay is more interested in the museum’s relationship with the general public. Outreach programs over the past ten years have grown visitor numbers by 340% to 1.5 million last financial year.

But visitors aren’t its only metric. The museum is increasingly using off-site programs to draw the public into the process of citizen science. McKay’s contention is that greater direct engagement in scientific processes and outcomes will drive more trust in other science institutions.

The most successful example of this so far is the museum’s FrogID app, which has been used by citizen scientists to record more than a million frogs since its launch in October 2023.

McKay said these kinds of initiatives are important to draw people into the world of science and research, to help them understand scientists aren’t approaching problems with the same lens as politicians.

She pointed to recent attacks on the CSIRO as an example of this. Australia’s national science organisation is recognised as one of the best by the world’s scientific community but this hasn’t translated into the same level of public trust as museums. Trust in universities is declining too, with people increasingly saying research is politicised.

She said that creating something people want to engage with makes it much easier to communicate science with them in a non-confrontational way.

“Museums are fortunately among the most trusted institutions in the world … and the Natural History Museum strangely, is the most trusted of all. I think it’s because we grow up visiting museums. It’s where you learn about the world we all live in without overt filters or in-built biases,” she said.

“We do a wide variety of applied sciences as well as our general research science. So it’s trusted science, but it’s also community engagement that builds on trust.

“By monitoring them — and I call it climate change communication by stealth — we’re actually working out what is happening to this entire group of animals due to changes in climate and biodiversity and encroachment on habitat … and the public loves it.”

McKay said one of the museum’s roles was creating trust in other institutions by providing a common factual basis for discussion. In the 10 years she has been CEO, the Australian Museum has not shied away from politically controversial issues, like colonial history and climate change.

For her, this is part of an ongoing project to “decolonise” the Australian Museum. The idea is that by involving Indigenous people more in the curation of exhibitions, and the grisly task of repatriating artefacts and remains, the museum is able to rebuild trust with the community and provide better Indigenous content for their visitors.

“Trust, of course, has to be used very carefully, and inevitably when things go wrong — and they do — withdrawals of trust are made by the public and their commitment to you then wavers. We need to ensure there’s enough positive deposits in the community trust bank to begin with, to ensure we can weather the storm of controversy,” she said.

“One of our goals has been to preference First Nations voices linked to Indigenous stories. Why should we speak for them when First Nations people are more than capable of speaking for themselves?

“This was exemplified in the award-winning unsettled exhibition ‘A Truth-telling Exhibition’, which we’re going to permanently reinstall at the Australian Museum soon, and the development of a First Nations division.”