The Aus­tralian Mu­seum has bro­ken with tra­di­tion in choos­ing its new di­rec­tor, writes Rose­mary Neill

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

IN the nicest pos­si­ble way, Kim McKay told her pre­de­ces­sors to butt out, even be­fore they’d had a chance to butt in. Shortly be­fore her ap­point­ment as the Aus­tralian Mu­seum’s new di­rec­tor was an­nounced, McKay went to lunch with two for­mer chiefs of the ven­er­a­ble but trou­bled in­sti­tu­tion.

A wise­crack­ing blonde with a big, rasp­ing laugh and a back­ground in mar­ket­ing, pub­lic re­la­tions and fundrais­ing, McKay is the first woman — and the first non-sci­en­tist — to lead the na­tion’s old­est mu­seum.

At the lunch, at Syd­ney’s har­bour­side Park Hy­att Ho­tel, she dined with ex-di­rec­tors Frank Tal­bot and Des Grif­fin. Be­tween them, the men had run the in­sti­tu­tion, which holds the na­tion’s largest nat­u­ral his­tory and cul­tural collection, for 31 years.

As the new­bie di­rec­tor, McKay gen­u­flected be­fore her elders’ knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence. “I said to both Frank and Des, ‘I’m go­ing to call on you for your in­put and ad­vice,’ ’’ she re­calls. But then she flexed her mus­cles and told them point­edly: “I’m in the chair now, and there’ll be no carp­ing from the side­lines.’’ How did the re­tired di­rec­tors re­act? “They laughed,’’ McKay in­sists, laugh­ing her­self. “They’re great.’’

This story un­der­lines how the new mu­seum di­rec­tor uses charm and blunt hu­mour to win people over; to make the un­palat­able seem al­most agree­able. In an­other life she might have been a char­ac­ter ac­tor or stand-up co­me­dian. She takes up her role on Mon­day and jokes she is ap­pre­hen­sive about be­com­ing a pub­lic ser­vant for the first time, at the age of 54. “Yes, yes,’’ she says, draw­ing out the “s” and rolling her eyes. “First time in my life.’’ She has said in an ear­lier in­ter­view that “bu­reau­cracy is al­ways an in­ter­est­ing thing to come up against’’.

At first glance, she is a highly un­con­ven­tional choice to head the mu­seum, es­tab­lished in 1827 to pro­cure “many rare and cu­ri­ous spec­i­mens of Nat­u­ral His­tory’’. (To­day its col­lec­tions com­prise more than 18 mil­lion items.) In a long ca­reer here and in the US, she has pro­moted ev­ery­thing from world pro surf­ing and Oprah Win­frey’s 2010 visit to Aus­tralia to the Na­tional Ge­o­graphic So­ci­ety’s ground­break­ing sci­en­tific re­search on the his­tory of hu­man mi­gra­tion.

The great-great-grand­daugh­ter of a trans­ported con­vict, McKay co-founded, with Ian Kier­nan, the Clean Up Aus­tralia cam­paign, which led to the 1990s Clean Up the World drive — a grass­roots ini­tia­tive that even­tu­ally in­volved 120 coun­tries and mil­lions of vol­un­teers. More re­cently, she was in­stru­men­tal in putting to­gether what she de­scribes as the big­gest spon­sor­ship part­ner­ship in the his­tory of the Na­tional Ge­o­graphic So­ci­ety. “It was huge,’’ she says of the deal. She has also served on the Aus­tralian Mu­seum’s board of trustees for the past two years, glean­ing in­sights into how the re­search and ex­hi­bi­tion in­sti­tu­tion ticks.

Nonethe­less, her ap­point­ment marks a rad­i­cal change of lead­er­ship model for the mu­seum, which has had a roll­call of 16 male sci­en­tists as its di­rec­tors since the early 1800s. For this in­ter­view, the 17th di­rec­tor sits in the im­pos­ing board­room in the mu­seum’s orig­i­nal wing, cracking jokes and de­scrib­ing her new role as “an ap­point­ment for the times’’. She elab­o­rates: “I think it’s a re­al­ity that all cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions are run in a slightly dif­fer­ent way than they were run pre­vi­ously. There’s no doubt that the di­rec­tor role is now the CEO role of the or­gan­i­sa­tion.

“I would never pre­tend to be a sci­en­tist and sit down in a lab here, but nor should I, be­cause I’ve got so many other things to do. You are like a pro­ducer, in a way. You are look­ing for where the money is com­ing from. You are look­ing for the best talent to bring on board to man­age things. You are look­ing for how you com­mu­ni­cate ef­fec­tively to your au­di­ence.’’

Out­go­ing mu­seum di­rec­tor Frank Howarth agrees: “It’s a very good ap­point­ment at this point in the mu­seum’s his­tory. The mu­seum is about to em­bark on ma­jor changes … and it’s a time when mu­se­ums every­where need to be more outwardly fo­cused, to com­mu­ni­cate bet-

ter.’’ He praises McKay’s “in­cred­i­ble back­ground in phi­lan­thropy’’.

But what of her lack of for­mal sci­ence qual­i­fi­ca­tions? Does this mat­ter?

“No,’’ he says firmly. The re­tir­ing di­rec­tor says it’s more im­por­tant that his suc­ces­sor has “cap­i­tal-L lead­er­ship skills and abil­ity to look out­side the mu­seum, build its in­flu­ence and build the mu­seum’s pro­file’’.

Within a cou­ple of hours of her ap­point­ment be­ing re­vealed, McKay ad­dressed the 300 or so sci­en­tists, cu­ra­tors, re­searchers and oth­ers who now work for her. They would not have been the eas­i­est bunch to im­press. Morale is said to be low be­hind the soar­ing ed­i­fice of the build­ing across from Syd­ney’s Hyde Park. It houses what some ex­perts re­gard as the world’s finest collection of Pa­cific art and arte­facts, but it has been jolted by fund­ing cuts and re­dun­dan­cies in re­cent years.

In 2010, then NSW au­di­tor-gen­eral Peter Achter­straat at­tacked the mu­seum’s record­keep­ing, say­ing much of its collection was “un­reg­is­tered or poorly cat­a­logued’’, and that this could in­vite theft. In a dra­matic move re­vealed in The Weekend

Aus­tralian to­day, the value of the mu­seum’s collection was slashed from $860 mil­lion in 2011 to $485m last year. This oc­curred af­ter Achter­straat con­cluded that the long­stand­ing prac­tice of valu­ing ev­ery bi­o­log­i­cal spec­i­men col­lected (rather than just a rep­re­sen­ta­tive item) had “led to an un­rea­son­ably large value for these spec­i­mens’’. In­clud­ing items that had not been for­mally cat­a­logued had also in­flated the value of the collection, he found. Now, the mu­seum val­ues only those items and spec­i­mens that have been for­mally cat­a­logued. As a re­sult, the of­fi­cial value of its collection has al­most halved.

McKay, who has been ap­pointed for five years, un­der­plays the fact the collection had been over­val­ued by hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars. “We’ve got 18 mil­lion items in the collection,’’ she says evenly. “There are still 18 mil­lion items-plus in the collection. There is a val­u­a­tion method­ol­ogy that was changed … the collection hasn’t changed.’’

Dur­ing the past decade, the num­ber of re­search sci­en­tists em­ployed by the mu­seum, like­wise, has al­most halved. Late last year, when a crowd-pulling Tyran­nosaurs: Meet the Fam­ily ex­hi­bi­tion opened, a guest palaeon­tol­o­gist was flown in to take me­dia ques­tions be­cause the mu­seum no longer em­ployed its own fos­sil sci­en­tist.

Against this sober­ing back­drop, McKay laid out her am­bi­tions be­fore the mu­seum’s staff. She took ques­tions from the floor and one staff mem­ber asked, cheek­ily, whether she had se­cured fu­ture fund­ing for the mu­seum. McKay replied sar­don­ically: “Yeah sure. I was with Barry [O’Far­rell, NSW Pre­mier] last night hav­ing a drink and it’s not a prob­lem.’’ Sharp­en­ing her tone, she added: “No, of course I haven’t. I haven’t started yet.’’

She went on to tell the em­ploy­ees they needed to think of them­selves as fundrais­ers. She said that “get­ting fund­ing for our or­gan­i­sa­tion is now all your re­spon­si­bil­i­ties … Fund­ing is crit­i­cal for us, whether it comes from govern­ment sources or pri­vate sources. In the fu­ture, we’re all en­gaged in that role.’’

For sci­en­tists in­volved in rar­efied re­search at this largely govern­ment-funded in­sti­tu­tion, it must have come as a shock to have been told fundrais­ing was now part of their job de­scrip­tion. But then for all McKay’s strate­gi­cally de­ployed hu­mour, she is a re­al­ist about the chal­lenges the mu­seum is con­fronting. “I think it’s manda­tory for us to raise more money pri­vately,’’ she con­firms, not­ing “it’s very much part of my remit to see how I can help de­velop new op­por­tu­ni­ties for fund­ing’’. She is aware, how­ever, that lo­cal in­sti­tu­tions are “com­pet­ing for the same piece of the [spon­sor­ship] pie. It’s tough out there.’’

She said in one in­ter­view that Syd­ney needed to fall in love with the mu­seum again. The im­pli­ca­tion was lo­cals had fallen out of love with its hall of bones, Luxor mummy and rare indige­nous arte­facts, but she clarifies that she wants them to “have own­er­ship over the mu­seum. This is not just for kids who can come here and go, ‘Wow, look at those di­nosaur bones’, it’s more than that. It’s very much about who we are as Aus­tralians and our role in the Pa­cific. I want the people who use it not to visit just twice in their life — as a child and as a par­ent bring­ing your chil­dren — I want them to use it reg­u­larly.’’

Last year’s Alexan­der the Great block­buster — Aus­tralia’s first tour­ing ex­hi­bi­tion from St Peters­burg’s State Her­mitage Mu­seum — helped lifted over­all at­ten­dances for 2013 to 438,454 — a record since ad­mis­sion tick­ets were in­tro­duced in the early 1990s. Nev­er­the­less, McKay says: “We’ve got great am­bi­tion to in­crease our num­bers over the next five years.’’

This re­flects how, in most years be­tween 2008 and 2012, the mu­seum’s an­nual vis­i­tor num­bers have lan­guished be­low 350,000. On­line vis­its, mean­while, plunged from 21 mil­lion in 2008 to just 9.7 mil­lion in 2012-13.

A com­mit­ted en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist, McKay has plans to ex­pand the mu­seum’s cli­mate-change re­search.

“Aus­tralia is a coun­try that is be­ing sig­nif­i­cantly af­fected not just by tem­per­a­ture changes

but im­pacts on bio­di­ver­sity,” she says. “The mu­seum is uniquely placed to play a role in re­search there.’’

McKay is sin­gle (“that’s only be­cause Ge­orge Clooney hasn’t met me yet’’) and has lived most of her life in Syd­ney’s north. She vol­un­teers she did a lit­tle dance of joy when she learned she would be the first woman to pre­side over the mu­seum.

“It’s just great. There aren’t too many things left to be the first woman at,’’ she says. “I’m hugely hon­oured and ex­cited and of course a lit­tle daunted.’’

Later, seem­ingly out of nowhere, a hair­dresser ap­pears for Re­view’s photo shoot clutch­ing a comb and a tin of mousse. “A woman’s pre­rog­a­tive,’’ says McKay a lit­tle de­fen­sively. In the end, she runs out of time to have her hair touched up, as she takes Re­view on a de­tour en route to the shoot to ex­plain her ren­o­va­tion plans.

She has al­ready talked to mu­seum staff about ren­o­vat­ing the mu­seum’s old­est gallery, where a hu­man skele­ton holds a novel in a rock­ing chair. She hopes to take this two-storey room back to its orig­i­nal 1857 de­sign and to re-cre­ate a cab­i­net of cu­riosi­ties fea­tur­ing ob­jects such as a Hawai­ian cloak of feath­ers owned by Cap­tain James Cook.

Like other NSW cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions, the mu­seum is work­ing on a de­vel­op­ment plan that would ex­pand its floor space and al­low it to host big­ger block­busters. It re­mains un­clear, how­ever, how this would be funded, given the NSW govern­ment has im­posed ef­fi­ciency sav­ings on all state sec­tors.

Asked about those lost re­search jobs, McKay says: “The way that sci­ence is funded is chang­ing. I see us do­ing more col­lab­o­ra­tion with uni­ver­si­ties.’’ She adds: “Palaeon­tol­ogy should be rep­re­sented in some way … I’m go­ing to take my lead from the sci­en­tists in what they tell me they need.’’

While she has an un­usual back­ground for a sci­ence mu­seum di­rec­tor, she says her roles at the US-based Na­tional Ge­o­graphic So­ci­ety, where she was a con­sul­tant and a se­nior vice-pres­i­dent of global mar­ket­ing, bore sim­i­lar­i­ties to her new job. She was in­stru­men­tal in putting to­gether a land­mark spon­sor­ship deal be­tween the NGS and IBM to un­der­write re­search on how chang­ing ge­netic mark­ers re­flect the his­tory of hu­man mi­gra­tion. More than 600,000 people glob­ally have taken part in this geno­graphic project, in which in­di­vid­u­als use a DNA cheek swab to trace their deep an­ces­try.

But her high­est pro­file client was, with­out doubt, Oprah Win­frey; she did some PR for Win­frey’s visit to Aus­tralia in 2010.

“It was a great ex­pe­ri­ence,’’ she says. “I was with her at Uluru and we met with Abo­rig­i­nal women and it was a very mov­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for her.’’

Even so, McKay’s nom­i­nated ca­reer high­light had more to do with sod­den garbage than mega-celebri­ties: “The most ex­cit­ing thing I’ve ever done was stand­ing on the fore­shores of Syd­ney Har­bour af­ter we did the first Clean Up day [in 1989], and look­ing at the 5000 tonnes of rubbish we’d col­lected.’’ She re­flects, al­most wist­fully: “It’s sad to be ex­cited by rubbish, but to know that you can mo­ti­vate people to take ac­tion, that was ex­cit­ing.’’

From far left, Kim McKay; Oprah

Win­frey in Syd­ney; Anna Trofi­mova from Rus­sia’s State Her­mitage at the Aus­tralian

Mu­seum last year for the Alexan­der the Great ex­hi­bi­tion; the fa­cade of the mu­seum op­po­site Syd­ney’s Hyde Park; be­low left, out­go­ing di­rec­tor Frank Howarth

Kim McKay with cul­tural items at the Aus­tralian Mu­seum

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