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Museums thrive on being different

Kim McKay, Museums thrive on being different, Sydney Morning Herald, 17 April 2024

Open minds and hearts, combined with a sense of awe, provide a pathway for these hubs of storytelling to flourish.

Australian Museum CEO Kim McKay admires a piece from the Ramses II exhibition. Photo: Steven Siewert.

When Jane Goodall first observed chimps using sticks as tools and fishing for termites in 1960, there were those who didn’t want to believe it. There was a steadfast desire to ensure that what separated us from chimps, our distant evolutionary relatives, was our ability to make tools and communicate through language.

How far we’ve come since in our understanding, and yet … not.

I am a proud communicator of science, but I sense we are not using all our human tools to best effect right now. One thing that stands out after a decade at the Australian Museum is that for us to thrive, we need to be less hubristic about gateways to knowledge.

The Australian Museum is the nation’s first, and I am the first female and non-scientist director and CEO. Before 1917, no professional female staff were permitted at all. When I arrived, about a century later, there were no women on the museum’s executive team. Now, about two- thirds of the executive team, our board of trustees and our staff are women. We also appointed the first First Nations executive team leader, also a woman.

The Australian Museum’s most successful innovations in recent years are born from looking and listening differently. Unsettled, the First Nations truth-telling exhibition, broke new ground; Hintze Hall provided a new venue for discussion and debate; a new Pasifika Gallery, Wansolmoana (one salt ocean) shares stories of Pasifika peoples and climate change; the Minerals Gallery displays the natural resources that have underpinned our nation’s wealth; and we opened the popular Burra play area. These new spaces urge different yet complementary minds to work together.

Public trust – and the soft power it nurtures – within and around museums and other cultural institutions, locally and globally, has never been higher. Studies in the USA, UK and in Australia underscore this, acknowledging that with this trust comes even greater responsibility.

The civic notion inherent in progressive museums’ strategic and tactical storytelling can transform community conversations in a way that politics, media and other pathways are unable to.

That’s not to say we’re not facing our own challenges. Our work includes decolonising an 1827 museum, repatriating exhibits and artefacts – pioneering work which began more than 25 years ago. We also fund and digitise collections as well as constantly repair and rebuild facilities to keep pace with modern expectations.

But we face these challenges because museums show and inspire as much as tell. And what stories we have! We house nothing short of time travel in each of our collections. The museum is the custodian of more than 22 million objects and specimens, the largest collection in the southern hemisphere, valued at more than a billion dollars.

Science is at the forefront of all we do. The now somewhat cliched idea of the solo ‘‘eureka’’ scientific moment is firmly over and collaboration is the name of the game. True collaboration calls for a multidisciplined and non- hierarchical approach to problem- solving, and it’s where you’ll find the real spark that fires innovation.

It is the long, day-after-day marathons undertaken by devoted teams of people, working through multiple failures and incremental progress, yet with the willingness to search for the missing piece that brings a project to land.

This is on display at the Eureka Prizes for science, now in its 34th year, when we celebrate Australian innovation and scientific discovery.

The intrinsic beauty of natural history, science and culture museums is that they are innately immersed in understanding that diversity is the obvious foundation for saving humankind.

That we are all alike and different. Our world-class scientists at the Australian Museum Research Institute accept this at an ecological level, are dedicated to highlighting the impact of climate change on biodiversity and are at the forefront of citizen science.

A few years shy of the Australian Museum’s 200th anniversary in 2027, and we’re going strong. The Ramses II exhibition has been a blockbuster success, and our Frog ID app has just identified its one millionth frog, demonstrating there is still so much joy in unpacking culture, natural history and scientific awe spatially, visually, verbally. The marvel that this can be done right here in our own backyard never leaves me.

I see it on children’s faces every day at the museum. Seeing those faces glow with wonder among the million-plus visitors we host annually proves what we do inspires a thirst for knowledge and discovery.

We are linked to everything around us, from Jane Goodall’s chimps to butterflies and birds. Natural history, science and culture institutions should understand, perhaps better than anyone, that everything in nature is continually communicating – from raindrops to tree roots to a virus or the DNA in our cells.

Museums are trusted messengers for how to renew our planet. I am a collaborative optimist and have always believed that we can change the world for the better if we invite all kinds of minds to help do it.

Kim McKay is CEO of the Australian Museum.

The museum is the custodian of more than 22 million objects.

 


See also: Our museum is thriving because we do things differently