Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Dolla Merrillees to leave MAAS

Professor Barney Glover (far right) with Premier Gladys Berejiklian as she announces Powerhouse Museum’s new Parramatta site. Photo: Cole Bennetts.

Linda Morris, Powerhouse Museum trust knew of fashion ball losses, The Sydney Morning Herald, 31 July 2018

The trustees of the Powerhouse Museum knew about the losses around the institution’s fashion ball after which the government announced a leadership restructure and the museum’s director, Dolla Merrillees, stepped down.

Two weeks after the February 1 fundraiser, trust president, Professor Barney Glover, congratulated the museum’s staff on the event’s success, according to board minutes obtained by Fairfax Media under Freedom of Information laws.

At its second meeting of the year in May, the board ”noted” a summary of the final budget breakdown for the black-tie event which was later revealed to have cost the museum $215,209.50. After discussions of the ball’s finances, the trust made no recommendations.

The trust was instead concerned by the government’s new ”governance” structure which is expected to reduce the board’s direct oversight of the $1.2 billion museum build on the Parramatta riverfront and redevelopment of the Ultimo site.

Briefed by the secretary of the Department of Planning and Environment, the trust received an undertaking that the new museum project’s Memorandum of Understanding and new governance framework would be provided ”for comment”.

The trust later dictated a letter ”acknowledging the leadership role that the trust must play in the project governance framework” and that those requirements be ”finalised as a matter of urgency”.

The minutes make clear that the trust was also seeking information around project timelines and cash flows as well as the logistics and temporary storage facilities for the museum’s historic collection of  500,000 objects.

The Berejiklian government seems intent on instituting a new business management model to drive the relocation of the museum to western Sydney by 2023.

In the final business case consultants, Johnstaff Projects, recommended a new Project Steering Committee, comprising mostly government bureaucrats and a single trust representative, be directly accountable for the Parramatta museum project. The trust would have an advisory capacity on key documentation and policy.

Last week it was announced a chief executive with business expertise and infrastructure management experience would replace Ms Merrillees who was director of Curatorial, Collections and Exhibitions at the Museum of Applied and Arts and Sciences (MAAS) before her appointment as director in January 2014.

To a series of questions around the trust’s leadership including its scrutiny of the ball’s finances and the museum’s external relationships, a museum spokesman responded:

”Day-to-day management and project budgetary decisions are made by the MAAS Director. The MAAS director provides the trustees with a report on the activities of the Museum and its staff at regular Trust meetings.

”There are currently two trust vacancies and appointments are a matter for government.”

Former trust president, Nick Pappas, criticised the trust’s lack of leadership over the relocation of the museum, saying it was extraordinary that the board had not taken a more active role in defending the institution and its prized collection.

While statutory trusts were established for the purpose of ”creating separation” between government and the institution,  the trust minutes of May indicated the Department of Planning and Environment was driving the new museum project, he said.

”Since when does a planning department tell a statutory trust of a cultural institution about its so-called new governance framework,” Mr Pappas said.

The trustees appeared to be showing the first signs of nervousness that their positions may be under threat, Mr Pappas said.

”They are custodians of the museum’s collection representing the wishes of benefactors who have given their most prized artefacts over the last century on the basis that they are forever housed in Harris St,” he said.

”Now is the time for benefactors, museum staff and lovers of the Powerhouse Museum to make a stand. It is not too late.”

See also: Failed fashion ball claims Powerhouse Museum director

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 2021
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