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Director's review of operations

Portrait of a man
Director Mathew Trinca

The Museum recorded its highest visitation levels for many years over the course of the past financial year, with a depth and variety in programming and outreach activities that has gone from strength to strength. We have also explored new ways of interpreting and presenting stories that connect with and reflect Australia’s people, history and culture.

One of the highlights of the year has been the outstanding public response to the exhibition A History of the World in 100 Objects from the British Museum, which recorded more than 178,000 visits to Canberra between September 2016 and January 2017. Visitation was at a peak over the December 2016 to January 2017 period, with the Museum extending opening hours to cope with the demand. The highest number of visits to the exhibition in a single day was recorded on 26 January, when the exhibition stayed open from 8am to midnight as part of the Museum’s annual Australia Day celebrations. We were very proud when this remarkable exhibition achieved its millionth visitor worldwide while on show in Canberra.

This year also saw the Museum realise its ambition to establish a new shared services hub for cultural agencies. Responding to industry needs, the Museum launched a pilot program in July 2016 for the provision of a range of corporate services, including IT and digital recordkeeping. Building on the results of the pilot program, and with the support of the $8.9 million of funding over the next three financial years announced in the 2017 Federal Budget, the Cultural and Corporate Shared Services Centre will be expanded to collaborate with participating agencies in the provision of corporate and business services, enabling them to focus resources on core functions related to their mandated collecting and cultural heritage functions.

Exhibitions remained at the core of the Museum’s program. We marked a significant anniversary in the history of Australian children’s television with Happy Birthday Play School! Celebrating 50 Years, which attracted more than 43,000 visits during its showing at the Museum and the successful national tour that followed. The Australian of the Year Awards 2017 exhibition, delivered with the support of the National Australia Day Council, celebrated eight state finalists including the 2017 winner, biomedical scientist Emeritus Professor Alan Mackay-Sim. The Museum-developed temporary exhibition Freewheeling: Cycling in Australia opened in Canberra after a highly successful national tour, and resonated strongly with local audiences. Two major exhibitions focusing on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and culture were held during the year: A Change Is Gonna Come, and Evolution: Torres Strait Masks, developed by the Gab Titui Cultural Centre with support from the Museum.

The Museum’s public programs and events also achieved stellar results this year, alongside high demand for the Museum’s commercial venue hire offerings. More than 23,000 people participated in the Museum’s program of virtual reality (VR) experiences, launched in December 2016, making it one of our most successful new programs, both in terms of visitor numbers and revenue generation.

The Kspace interactive experience for children and the talks and tours provided by the Museum’s hosts have also been hugely popular. The Museum’s family-friendly atmosphere and focus on providing a fun, educational environment saw more than 88,000 students visit us from across the country and overseas, participating in programs that illuminate aspects of the Australian Curriculum through our collections. The Museum also continued to deliver school holiday Discovery Space programs developed specifically for children and their families.

This year’s Australia Day festival, inspired by A History of the World in 100 Objects, explored themes from the exhibition and offered a range of family-friendly activities including shadow puppet and lion dance performances and swordcraft and falconry demonstrations. For the first time, the Museum also offered an evening program to encourage people to stay on Acton Peninsula to enjoy the fireworks display. For the fourth year running, the Museum partnered with Twitter for the live-curated Australia Day Your Way campaign, publishing and collecting #AustraliaDay tweets from around the country and across the globe in a Twitter time capsule.

Relationships built during the development of last year’s award-winning exhibition Encounters: Revealing Stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Objects from the British Museum carried on into 2016–17 with the inaugural Encounters Indigenous Cultural Workers Scholarships. Six participants were chosen from a large field of applicants to undertake a 12-week internship program from September to December 2016 that focused on providing hands-on learning experiences and the opportunity for participants to develop research strategies for their own projects. While in Canberra, the scholarship recipients connected with staff across the National Museum and took part in cultural study tours to other national institutions in Canberra. In the United Kingdom, they undertook short residencies and cultural study tours at institutions including The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, the British Museum, the University of Oxford and the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge.

The Museum continued to embrace important, challenging conversations about Australia’s history and its impact on the present through the development of significant exhibitions and associated programming. In March 2017, the Museum hosted a series of events, including a new exhibit and the launch of a charitable trust, to celebrate the work of artist Albert Namatjira, his community and descendants. Leading arts and social change company, Big hART, officially launched the Namatjira Legacy Trust at the Museum, attracting national interest and coverage. The Museum’s Defining Moments in Australian History project continued with a series of panel discussions held in association with ABC RN’s Big Ideas program, hosted by Paul Barclay. In March 2017, I was also delighted to present the town of Cooma with a commemorative plaque to pay tribute to the region’s Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme, at a ceremony during the Cooma Multicultural Festival.

Through engagement in philanthropic programs and corporate partnerships, the Museum has been actively pursuing ongoing and sustainable ‘own source’ revenue. Several successful campaigns were launched this year, each inviting the wider community to connect with and play a part in the growth of their national museum. A highlight was our Annual Appeal, which helped raise funds to assist with the acquisition of the 1881 Adelaide Hunt Club Cup.

Other significant objects and collections acquired during the year include the Maticevski Eurovision Gown collection, comprising the silver-gold lamé gown designed by Toni Maticevski in 2014 for Jessica Mauboy’s performance at the Eurovision song contest; and the National Jockeys Trust collection, a pair of white silk jockey breeches signed by Michelle Payne, who in 2015 was the first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup in its 155-year history. In conjunction  with the A Change Is Gonna Come exhibition, the Museum acquired the Bedford ‘TJ’ series truck used by Aboriginal rights campaigner Brian Manning to deliver supplies and correspondence to the striking Gurindji people during their nine-year struggle to gain land rights.

The Museum remains committed to sharing Australian stories internationally as well as locally. In 2016–17, the Museum toured the exhibition One Road: Aboriginal Art from Australia’s Deserts to four venues in Japan. In October, the Museum took the Capturing Asia: Willie Phua, News Cameraman exhibition to the National Museum of Singapore, as the first part of a far-reaching program to facilitate skills sharing and exhibition exchanges between the two institutions. The Museum’s close links with arts and culture in Singapore are also reflected through our representation on the Australia–Singapore Arts Group, which I co-chair.

In partnership with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Museum toured two graphic-panel displays, Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route, based on the successful exhibition of the same name, and Old Masters: Australia’s Great Bark Artists, which draws on the Museum’s significant collection of Indigenous bark paintings. A special 62-panel version of Yiwarra Kuju was developed for display in Mexico City, as part of the celebrations marking 50 years of diplomatic relations between Australia and Mexico.

Closer to home, the Museum commenced a series of projects designed to reshape the experience of visiting the Acton site, including major projects to redevelop the Museum’s Main Hall and permanent galleries. In March, representatives of Canberra’s Aboriginal communities attended the launch of the First Australians gallery Welcome Space – the culmination of two years’ consultation and collaboration in the development phases of the project. The Museum also worked with its neighbours on plans to redesign the Acton Peninsula, with the Museum hosting the launch of the Acton Peninsula Precinct Draft Structure Plan by the National Capital Authority (NCA) in May 2017. The plan, developed in consultation with the NCA, the Museum, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, the Australian National University and the Land Development Agency of the ACT Government, will act as a guide for future development and management of the Acton Peninsula Precinct.

Our active research program continued with staff participating in several research partnerships through Australian Research Council grant schemes, as well as collaborating with leading international institutions in the field of repatriation research. The Museum is also participating in a new network of museums in Australia working on environment/Anthropocene-related projects.

As always, the Museum could not have achieved these outstanding results without the commitment and dedication of its staff, volunteers and members. The record results in visitor numbers and income generation are testament to the hard work of Museum employees across all areas of our business, underpinning our achievements throughout the year. Our volunteers also make a significant contribution to the life of the Museum, most notably through their work on the historic vessel PS Enterprise. Another key constituency in the Museum’s support base is the Museum Friends, a dynamic affiliate program offering active engagement with the Museum. Friends membership numbers grew throughout the year, assisted by the launch of the Mkids program for children. The contribution of the Friends across the decades was celebrated with the publication in May 2017 of Not without a Fight: The Story of the Friends of the National Museum of Australia, by Louise Douglas and Roslyn Russell.

I note with sadness that the Museum’s inaugural Director, Dr Don McMichael, passed away in 2017. Don will always be remembered for his work with the Museum and, later, as chair of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) Australia. In the 1990s, he played a critical role in the creation of Museums Australia. Don continued to be a stalwart of ICOM Australia as membership secretary and public officer until he retired in 2014.

The Museum is fortunate in having an engaged and active governing Council – led by its chair, David Jones – which continues to work across a range of areas to further the Museum’s interests. Our success this year would not have been possible without their commitment and assistance. The Museum is also very grateful to the Minister for Communications and the Arts, Senator the Hon Mitch Fifield, for his leadership and support, to staff in his office, including his senior arts advisor Denise Ryan, and to our colleagues in the Department of Communications and the Arts, led by Secretary Dr Heather Smith.

Dr Mathew Trinca
Director, National Museum of Australia
August 2017