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Australian Museum’s Radical Transformation

Artist’s impression of the Wild Planet Gallery at the Australian Museum. Photo: The Australian Museum.

When Kim McKay​ was revealed as the new director of the Australian Museum last year, she received “a beautiful, handwritten letter” from an illustrious predecessor, Frank Talbot, who went on to head the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington.

“He said, ‘Museums are strange places, Kim. Quite conservative. My advice to you would be to do nothing for the first 12 months. Just observe’.

“I went, ‘Oops. You’re a bit too late, Frank!’ We had a good laugh about it.”

Since she took over in April 2014 – causing raised eyebrows among those who knew her best as co-founder of Clean-Up Australia and National Geographic’s Genographic Project, event organiser, media pundit and eco-author – she has moved at breathtaking speed.

In July, the public will see the results of a $5.5 million transformation of the oldest museum in the southern hemisphere that has been entirely conceived and delivered in the first 18 months of a five-year contract.

The most obvious change will be the bold new entrance hall on William Street – a contemporary, carbon-neutral glass box known as Crystal Hall accessed via a suspended walkway. Designed by Neeson Murcutt Architects, it is intended not only to replace the notoriously poor entrance in College Street but also present an innovative, engaging new face of the museum to the outside world.

Moving the entrance, cafe and shop has allowed McKay and her team to reinvent the beautiful 1870-era Barnet Wing as a “new” permanent gallery, the first in 50 years. July will also witness the unveiling of Wild Planet, a visually dramatic natural history display that will feature 400 animals, living and extinct, telling the story of biodiversity around the world.

The new rooftop cafe has already been opened, allowing visitors a glorious skyline view of St Mary’s Cathedral, the Domain and the harbour.

None of this could have been achieved without the backing of the board of trustees led by president Catherine Livingstone and the Baird government which contributed an additional grant of $2.5 million to the renovation project. But the instigator who provided the vision, drive and networking skills to fast-track the transformation is clearly McKay.

“Someone joked to me the other day that this is the fastest government building project ever created,” she says. “It has been very fast, yes. But I’ve never been one to sit around. If you build the momentum and excitement, people say, ‘Great, can I help?'”

Because she was a trustee for two years before her appointment, she already had “insights” that allowed her to make a running start, she says. “And I really did want to signal to staff and to our other key stakeholders that we were going to dial it up. We’ve got people who have given their life and soul to the museum for 40 years. That needs to be recognised and celebrated, but we need a better offering on the floor [for visitors].

“Our science needs to be at the core of everything we do. I wanted to say, ‘Hey, we really can do this as a team’. And I needed to signal straightaway that things are changing.”