Kim McKay

March 11, 2016
The former entry reimagined, now hosting the Wild Planet exhibition. Photo Stuart Humphreys
The former entry reimagined, now hosting the Wild Planet exhibition. Photo Stuart Humphreys

Nobody seems to have told Kim McKay that the casting for the new Wonder Woman movie is over. In less than two years at the helm of the Australian Museum she has built a new entrance for $4 million, completely rehung the galleries devoted to natural history and indigenous Australia, dropped entrance charges for children, and started work on a master plan that aims to make better use of the institution’s unique collection. And that’s just the entrée.

We are meeting for lunch in another of her initiatives – the Krefft Room. Gerard Krefft (1830-81), one of Australia’s greatest zoologists and paleontologists, was the seventh director of the Australian Museum, McKay is the seventeenth. Although Krefft was a highly respected scientist who identified and named a large number of species – including a lungfish served to him during a dinner party, his directorship did not end well.

As a dedicated student of evolution, who corresponded with Charles Darwin, Krefft found himself at odds with a Board of Trustees that were largely Creationists. He had also accused them of using the Museum’s resources to help enrich their private collections.

In what might be termed an acrimonious dispute the Trustees accused Krefft of drunkenness, cooking the books, smashing a fossil, and even allowing for the sale of dirty postcards. He was sacked in 1874, and carried out of his office while sitting in a chair. Ever since, it has been a tradition at the Museum that an outgoing director is carried out the door in a chair.

“It’ll take some hefty blokes to lift me!” says McKay, whom one can easily imagine in a Viking helmet singing the role of Brunnhilde. “But I’m not going anywhere yet.” She pauses, and adds: “Hopefully”, as if not wanting to tempt fate.

Krefft sued the Trustees and won his case, but was never restored to the directorship. McKay has transformed his former office into a shrine for the rebellious scientist, decked out with a framed portrait photograph and other Krefft memorabilia. The room was also McKay’s office, but she says it made her feel like a school mistress.

“When I worked at National Geographic in Washington DC,” she recalls, “we had a room called the Founders’ Room, which had the original round table that the founders of the magazine used to sit around. I wanted something similar here – a meeting place where I could bring guests, including potential funders and donors.”

“I found the table in the basement, with the staff having their lunch around it. The twelve chairs were in storage, in a fractured state.”

Further purchases were made on eBay, and through bargain basement shops. “I have no money to spend on expensive things,” she admits. The good news is that the room has been a success with benefactors. One of the first guests wrote a cheque that paid for the entire fit-out.

We are sitting at Krefft’s table but the Queensland lungfish is not on the menu today. The meal consists of sushi, cold meats, bread and salads from the David Jones Food Hall. I’m not complaining, as this is the first time I’ve managed to conduct an AFR Lunch at lunchtime. It’s also the first time the interviewee actually ate something.

We eye the wine cautiously. As modern urban professionals we are morally obliged to say: “No, I shouldn’t,” before having a glass. We both go for a 2012 Ingolby red, which goes down so smoothly we move imperceptibly onto a second, remembering all the time that Krefft was sacked for drunkenness. There is no need to break the ice, as McKay is blunt and talkative. She has thought deeply about how museums need to be run, and is happy to share those thoughts.

Is McKay another Gerard Krefft in the making? “I love the fact that he fought with the Trustees and had spirit,” she says. “He had an opinion on things and was very obviously irascible.”

In her own case she has nothing but praise for Trustees and staff. She says she has an excellent working relationship with businesswoman, Catherine Livingstone, who is President of the Australian Museum Trust. Both women are true believers in the need for innovation, not just for museums, but for the future of this country.

Before taking up the directorship in 2014 McKay enjoyed a distinguished career in marketing and communications. With Ian Kiernan she was the co-founder of Clean Up Australia in 1989. From 2000 she worked for National Geographic in the United States, rising to a high executive position. Back in Australia in 2005 she started her own consultancy, specialising in social and sustainability marketing. She is a relative newcomer to the museum world, but feels she has the leadership skills to bring the institution into a new era.

McKay says that coming to the job from outside the public sector might not necessarily be an advantage, but it does provide a different perspective. “I’ve always been a bit of a risk-taker; a bit entrepreneurial. If you look at my background you’ll see that I’ve been a formidable campaigner for things that I believe in. I’m not afraid to speak my mind when I think it’s justified.”

Her first task was to learn everything she could about the history of the museum, which is where she discovered Krefft. She claims to have made a concerted effort to meet every single member of staff, and ask for their views on what needed to be done. The first task, however, was to balance the budget and stop the institution leaking money. This has been achieved, but not without the pain of redundancies and program cuts.

As we munch on cold ham and turkey, and nibble asparagus, McKay begins to tell me about all the positive developments. She sees the museum as a place to tell stories. She wants to bring back the emphasis on the object and restore a sense of wonder. The first step has been to install an exhibition called Wild Planet in the former entrance galleries off College Street. Viewers are confronted with an old-fashioned display of preserved and taxidermied animals, from butterflies and beetles; a bear, rhino and tiger; and even the mastodon skeleton.

McKay was inspired by asking a large group of school kids what they wanted to see in the museum. “All the hands shot up. I must have spoken to 50 children before anyone mentioned anything digital. They wanted to see more spiders, more snakes, more dinosaurs, more sharks, more of the real thing.”

She has also revamped the indigenous display, which was previously one of the saddest sights in the museum. Artist, Jonathan Jones, has made a display of parrying shields on one floor, while another gallery features sculptures produced by Torres Strait Islanders involved in the ongoing Ghost Nets project.

A major exhibition called Trailblazers, is devoted to 50 of Australia’s greatest explorers. It makes economical use of the collection, which contains an abundance of rarely seen memorabilia. As 29 of these explorers are still alive, it also allows for an impressive schedule of talks and events.

As we move on to coffee, bought in from the museum café, and chocolate coated strawberries, I ask about the role of science and research, which have historically been the first areas to suffer when funds grow scarce.

McKay is ignited by this subject. She wants to tell everyone that the science they do at the Museum is “incredibly relevant”. The scientists work with customs and quarantine to identify the origins of smuggled animals. They collaborate with airlines to deal with the problem of birds being sucked into jet engines. They do a huge amount of work in the fields of climate change, bio-diversity and genomics.

Rather than strangling the science in favour of crowd-pleasing displays, McKay says she is making new joint appointments in association with the universities. She is hiring new curators in the science departments, and restoring the position of museum palaeontologist. There are new “citizen science” initiatives, whereby the public help collect data for research projects; and “Experts at 11”, which sees scientists give daily floor presentations about the work they are doing. Even celebrity mammalogist, Tim Flannery, is back working with the Museum on a project related to climate change.

All this furious activity tends towards one greater goal: proving to the NSW State government that the Museum is a vibrant, popular, well-run institution that has achieved marvels with the inadequate budgets forced on all cultural institutions. With the Art Gallery of NSW fishing for at least $450 million for a new building, and the lunatic, impossibly expensive scheme of moving the Powerhouse Museum to Parramatta being touted as a done deal, there is not going to be much change from Mike Baird’s ‘poles and wires’ windfall.

McKay knows it’s important to put forward a positive message and a watertight business plan if she hopes to continue her plans for expansion and renovation.

“I don’t set out to be competitive with my fellow cultural institutions,” she says, “because we’re all in the same boat, and I thoroughly believe that if you collaborate all boats will rise. But the truth is that I’m fighting for every dollar I can get. That’s my job – to fight for this museum, not to be magnanimous with everybody else.”

There’s something a bit decadent about eating chocolate-coated strawberries while having a hard-headed discussion about museum funding, but it seems to neatly symbolise the predicament of our cultural institutions. One must give the impression that everything is going brilliantly, while scrambling for every dollar and tapping the same hard-pushed benefactors time and again.

McKay’s secret weapon is the Museum’s permanent collection – an under-utilised resource that stands comparison with the greatest collections in the world. As budgets have declined, the dust has continued to gather over this treasure trove. The seventeenth director knows she is sitting on a gold mine, lacking only the capital to bring it all to the surface.

Entrée:
Mixed selection of baby sushi rolls

Main:
Sliced turkey breast served with Beerenberg Family Farms Cranberry Sauce
Free Range leg ham
Asparagus, cherry tomatoes and Spanish onion salad
Rocket, apple and walnut salad
Choice of round sesame or soy and linseed bread rolls

Drinks:
Hepburn sparkling mineral water
Wines: McLaren Vale, Cabernet Sauvignon, Ingoldby Vintage 2012 or Pocketwatch, Pinot Gris, Central Ranges, 2014

Dessert:
Milk or dark chocolate covered strawberries for dessert served with skim flat whites from the Rooftop café.
(Everything except wine and coffee were purchased at David Jones Food Hall)

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 5th March, 2016.