This was a year of significant change for the National Museum of Australia with major physical and organisational developments that will help secure its future and engage visitors in entertaining and dynamic ways. At the same time, the Museum continued to focus on how best it can maximise its public value and serve the Australian community.
Building developments totalling approximately $11 million were completed and new facilities opened that transformed the Museum experience for visitors. In October, we installed new object displays in the Main Hall, including the much-loved Saw Doctor’s wagon and an imposing painting by Martu women from Western Australia. Now, visitors to the Museum see these treasures from the National Historical Collection on arrival, leaving no doubt in their minds that the Museum is a place where the past comes to life.
In December, a new Museum cafe, designed by the original architects Ashton Raggatt McDougall (ARM Architecture), opened following the completion of a lakeside building extension project. The new facility offers dining throughout the day in a family friendly environment that has some of the best lake views Canberra has to offer. Patrons can also sit and enjoy the changing skyline of the city, while they decide what to do next at the Museum.
Most recently, in June 2013, staff moved into a new administrative wing, also designed by ARM Architecture, that connects our main public building to the administration annexe, and provides new accommodation for a range of organisational functions. This colourful, contemporary extension provides much-needed office space in a design that is environmentally friendly and encourages staff to share and exchange ideas. It also adds to the Museum’s reputation for innovative and stimulating architecture.
At the same time, we completed the first stage of an organisational restructure that sought to better align the Museum’s staff and other resources with its strategic priorities. As well as strengthening connections between research, collections and a range of curatorial activities, the changes enhance the Museum’s readiness to connect digitally with audiences around the country using new communications technologies. There was also work to improve the Museum’s marketing and communications and its management of donors and development activities.
A significant reform concerned the operation of the National Museum of Australia’s Friends, who have been stalwart supporters of the organisation over many years. Together, the Museum and Friends administrations have decided to bring this important supporter group in-house, allowing it to be run directly by the Museum with the capacity to draw on our wide range of resources. The Friends committee has been reconstituted as the Membership Program Advisory Committee to assist with strategic planning and direction, and maintain the strong input of members.
An emphasis on business review and reorganisation will continue to be important for the Museum in coming years, as it deals with an external environment that is rapidly changing. We know that the way people are interacting and thinking about ideas is evolving quickly in the digital age, and we have to be able to identify and respond to the opportunities this brings in engaging with the public. These are organisational challenges, but they also promote a culture of innovation in the Museum, encouraging us to find new ways of explaining the nation and its history.
At its core, much of our work has been collaborative, such as the project the Museum undertook with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy to develop a ‘robot guide’ for online visitors. The robot allows schools and other groups to engage dynamically with the Museum’s galleries and exhibitions, via the internet. Instead of a packaged media experience, they can choose what they want to see, ask questions, and feel as if they are physically in our galleries in Canberra. Delivery of the Museum’s new digital asset management system in 2012–13, which by the end of June had loaded 75,056 images, has also extended our digital resources for visitors. These technologies help us connect with people across Australia and around the globe, confirming the Museum as a cultural broker taking the nation’s stories to the world.
The Museum’s focus on building and organisational change has meant that its touring exhibition program was curtailed this year, with a concomitant drop in visitation to our exhibitions ‘on the road’. While visitation to our Canberra site was still strong, at 642,488 for the year, there was an expected and planned-for impact on our total visitation as a result of the reduced touring program. Having concluded works on-site, however, the Museum is once again working to get back on the road and take its exhibitions around the country.
Temporary exhibitions and related programs at Acton maintained our commitment to stretching the bounds of conventional exhibition practice. The Museum Workshop: The Art, Science and Craft of the Conservator program in the Temporary Gallery took what is commonly thought of as a ‘back of house’ function – conservation – and made it the subject of a ‘live’ exhibition. Professional staff in three workshop areas worked on textiles, restoration of the Royal Daimler landaulette, and other historical objects – in full view of visitors. They were also on hand to answer questions, discuss the treatment process and explain how we preserve and maintain our diverse collections.
The other main exhibition of the financial year, Glorious Days: Australia 1913, was developed by a team led by the Museum’s former Director, Andrew Sayers AM. Andrew’s vision was for an exhibition that both celebrated Canberra’s centenary year and revealed what the nation was like on the eve of the First World War. The exhibition has a delightful range of objects, drawing heavily on the National Historical Collection, as well as borrowings from institutions around the country. A smaller exhibition, Warakurna: All the Stories Got into our Minds and Eyes, in the Museum’s Focus Gallery, has enjoyed visitation numbers in excess of original estimates. When its Canberra run is finished, this exhibition will travel to a range of venues across Australia.
Collections development remained a key responsibility of the Museum, with several headline acquisitions over the course of the year. These included the oldest known Melbourne Cup in original condition, presented to John Tait for The Barb’s win in 1866, a 1918 Australian Six motor vehicle, and an album of rare photographs of Coranderrk Aboriginal station taken in 1865–66 by photographer Carl Walter.
Other projects that were started during the year will bring lasting benefits to the Museum. The redevelopment of the children’s media area, Kspace, will see a new purpose-built interactive program installed with content directly related to key themes in Australian history. We have also undertaken a planning exercise to bring more focus to our research and collections development activities, with a series of priority areas in the medium term (over the next three to five years). The Museum has also approved a plan to redevelop its permanent galleries, following the successful work already completed in the Landmarks: People and Places across Australia and Journeys: Australia’s Connections with the World galleries.
Any organisation is only as good as its people, and the Museum is lucky in having capable and professional staff who are focused on giving their very best to the organisation. Their commitment and resilience has made a remarkable success of what was a challenging and full year. The Executive thanks all staff for their untiring efforts and passionate belief in the Museum and its work.
Finally, the year ended with the retirement of Andrew Sayers after three years as Director of the Museum. Andrew’s commitment to scholarship and strong ideas has led our success in recent times, and his work to ensure that the Museum was ready to meet future challenges will deliver lasting benefits. I know all staff will join me in thanking him for his contribution to the organisation’s ongoing development and wishing him all the very best for the future.
Dr Mathew Trinca