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Museum of Tomorrow

Kim McKay ‘The Museum of tomorrow’ ABC The Science Show 15 January 2015

Museums are key to instilling a love of science in tomorrow’s leaders, but to stay relevant they must find new ways to engage with visitors, argues Kim McKay, one of the ambassadors for Top 5 Under 40, an RN and UNSW initiative to discover Australia’s next generation of science thinkers.

Some of the greatest challenges humanity faces are science-related. The loss of biodiversity, climate change, feeding the world and disease epidemics are just a handful of the issues future generations will have to contend with. This is why getting kids fascinated by and engaged with science and nature is so important.

In this respect, cultural institutions and museums have a vital role to play. For many of us, some of our earliest memories involve trips to museums. My own experiences exploring museums as a child helped me to realise the importance of looking after our environment.

When children visit museums, they’re not just being entertained by dinosaur fossils and rock formations; they’re actively learning how science has changed the world. These organisations provide a context for the societies we live in—they explain who we are.

The challenge is to engage kids, not just with science as an abstract concept, but with the environment they find in their own backyards. And with a new generation being raised in apartments and cut off from nature and the bush, it’s crucial to provide a stimulating space for curious, growing minds. Museums are also fantastic places to learn through examples and to learn through fun. These are much more effective ways to get points across than reading about them in textbooks.

Despite the vital importance of cultural institutions, they face many challenges. Museums risk becoming out of touch with today’s digital generation of kids who have never known a world without the internet, iPhones, YouTube and social media. It’s for this reason that I took the role as the director of the Australian Museum in Sydney this year.

I’ve always been someone who likes to embrace change, and who enjoys the challenges change presents. I’m now working with a smart, inspiring team to help develop an organisation that engages and inspires the future leaders of our nation. I want every child who walks through the doors to get actively involved in some way, so that the learning becomes real in their minds.

I want the Australian Museum to be the museum of Australia and the Pacific—this is our focus and our vision for the future. So what does that mean?

Related: Museums and digital engagement

We have been consistently producing significant work in research, exhibitions and public programs, and these will undoubtedly continue to grow. We are uniquely placed to continue our research on climate change, biodiversity, conservation and controlling invasive species that have been so very damaging to the Australian environment. How-ever, it is no secret that the museum is also undergoing a major multi-million dollar transformation to make it financially sustainable, too.

Futhermore, I want the Australian Museum to be a place where you can pop in to hang out and chat—a meeting place for people from all sectors of society. We have plans to attract more people, and how we do that will be linked to our ambitious plans for new galleries, including a gallery of the Pacific. It’s early days yet, but we plan to include a special place where we can tell the stories of our close neighbours by showcasing our extraordinary Pacific collections. We also need to continue to give a voice to the stories of Australia’s Indigenous peoples; these stories define who we are as a nation.

Our ‘new museum’  project will allow us to showcase more of these collections and accommodate international exhibitions. The project will restore our reputation as one of the world’s leading museums, firmly positioning Sydney as a cultural destination. We also need to find new ways to engage digitally and with social media. A great example of this is our Tyrannosaurs smartphone app, which was recently downloaded more than 800,000 times.

I’m on a mission to mould the way scientific and cultural institutions communicate with local and global audiences to drive better experiences at the museum. I’ve been fortunate to forge a successful career here and overseas in communications, and, specifically, citizen science and community engagement programs. Naturally, I believe communications are key to successful relationships with businesses, scientists and local and national communities. And, at this time, the museum needs a strong communicator, a navigator who has a good idea of marketing, clear messaging, and, of course, a passion for science.

We need kids to know that there are problems out there, but that they might have a future in helping to solve them.