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