The National Museum of Australia has had an extremely successful year with strong growth in visitor numbers and a range of programs that reached people across the country and around the globe. Our Canberra figures were up 10 per cent on last year, notwithstanding the introduction of charges for parking at our main Acton Peninsula site. Moreover, the Museum’s touring exhibitions and displays around Australia and overseas turned in a stellar result, with over one million visitors – more than we have ever recorded before. Particularly pleasing was the strong growth in numbers of adults and children in participatory programs and events at the Museum, with more than 125,000 taking part in a specific activity or event. Altogether, these results point to broad and developing public interest in the National Museum as the place where the stories of Australia come alive.
This financial year was the first in our new four-year strategic plan, which commits the Museum to building strong participatory experiences for the public in Canberra, around the country and overseas. The Strategic Plan 2014–18 gives the Museum clarity and purpose as it seeks to build upon its reputation as a ‘must-see’ Canberra destination. Also, related business planning and systems improvement over the course of the past financial year have added to our capacity to realise these ambitions. Importantly, the Museum is continuing to develop its staff through training and development programs, and has undertaken workforce planning to prepare for future changes in staffing and resource needs. There has also been a strong focus on improving our capacity to raise income through enhanced commercial activity on site and greater emphasis on attracting donations, philanthropy and corporate support.
The Museum has a responsibility to engage Australians in productive discussions about the nation’s history and experience. That is why we have been so delighted by the strong public response to our Defining Moments in Australian History project, which was launched by the Prime Minister, the Hon Tony Abbott MP, in August 2014. Defining Moments seeks to involve all Australians in the selection of key events and issues in Australian history, through the creation of online content and social media posts, and allied displays, events and public forums. Patrons of the project are the Hon Michael Kirby AC and Professor Michael Ball AM, while a group of eminent Australian historians, including Professor Judith Brett, Professor Rae Frances, Professor Bill Gammage, Emeritus Professor John Hirst, Professor Jackie Huggins, Professor Marilyn Lake and Professor John Maynard, has provided guidance and advice,particularly in the selection of the initial 100 ‘defining moments’. Central to the project are the public contributions to a growing list of events that have mattered in our history. This is not just a view of the past produced ‘for’ audiences, but history in which Australians are actively – and productively – engaged.
Two major exhibitions in Canberra, Spirited: Australia’s Horse Story and The Home Front: Australia during the First World War, have thrilled and educated visitors about key aspects of our country’s past. Spirited was particularly successful in drawing audiences keen to understand the critical role this uncomplaining animal played in building modern Australia. At the same time, the Home Front exhibition has led the Museum’s work in marking the centenary of the Gallipoli landings in 1915. Multimedia packages showing what Australia was like at the time of the First World War, courtesy of a joint project with the National Film and Sound Archive, have also been shown in our Main Hall since December 2014. This kind of collaboration is a guide to the Museum’s future practice, which will rely on the principle of maximising resources by entering into productive partnerships with organisations here and abroad.
The National Historical Collection also continues to grow, with acquisitions that speak to aspects of our history and experience as a national community. New acquisitions include the Holden Torana at the centre of the Azaria Chamberlain case, a south-eastern Australian 19th-century Aboriginal shield bought from Sotheby’s, London, a rare 19th-century sketchbook by Aboriginal artist Panga, and a pocket watch that belonged to the renowned explorer John McDouall Stuart. We also continued to work hard on making our collections accessible online, and through engaging programs and exhibitions around the country. Of particular note was the project involving the installation of key artefacts in a new exhibition on the life of Governor Lachlan Macquarie in Macquarie Bank’s new headquarters at Martin Place, Sydney. This exhibition, with the cost borne by a substantial sponsorship from the bank,has provided a welcome opportunity for elements of our collection to be shown to the public at a premium site in the nation’s largest central business district.
Collaboration with the National Australia Day Council (NADC) was extended in 2014–15, with an exhibition of treasured objects belonging to the state recipients of the Australian of the Year awards. The exhibition, funded through a partnership with the NADC, was an eloquent statement of the contributions of remarkable Australians to our national life. None of the people who attended the exhibition launch will ever forget the moving testimony of each of the winners in conversation with the Chief Executive Officer of the NADC, Jeremy Lasek. In addition, the second year of the collaborative social media project, Australia Day Your Way, saw more than 140,000 posts by people marking our national day, wherever they were. The Museum curated a ‘live exhibition’ of the best photographs sent in via Twitter, over the course of 48 hours, as Australia Day was celebrated around the world.
The emphasis on digital products is an increasingly important part of the Museum’s core business. A virtual tour of our site in Canberra is now available to people everywhere, courtesy of our virtual site in the Google Cultural Institute. We have also contributed a selection of collection highlights and two virtual exhibitions to the online Institute, which offers a window into the work and collections of the National Museum, alongside other great museums and collections round the world. At the same time, the Museum produced key digital products related to the First World War, to the Defining Moments project, and to the forthcoming Encounters exhibition. Our new multimedia experience for children, Kspace, was also completed in the course of the year, and a digital tour of the Museum is now available via an ‘app’ for people using mobile devices at our Canberra site. If they prefer, visitors can borrow a portable screen device pre-loaded with this content from the Museum. Given our strategic ambition to grow audiences through the innovative use of digital communications technologies, we are very pleased that web visitation performed 30 per cent above the target for the financial year.
The focus on collaboration and partnerships has encouraged us to forge agreements with key institutions at home and overseas, including with the National Museum of Singapore, the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle du Havre, France, and with the National Film and Sound Archive and Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Canberra.
In addition, we have recommitted to memorandums of understanding with the National Museum of China, Beijing, and the British Museum, London. The agreement with the British Museum saw the launch, in April 2015, of a landmark exhibition Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation, the counterpart of an exhibition that will open at the National Museum in November 2015. At the heart of both exhibitions are rare, precious collections held at the British Museum of artefacts from Indigenous Australian communities. The exhibition was opened in London by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, Prince Charles,and attended by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders. This project has inspired a strong and sustained debate about the character of the Australian past, in ways that are expressly part of the Museum’s responsibility to support debate and discussion about our history.
As always, none of the Museum’s achievements in the past financial year would have been possible without the commitment and support of the staff and volunteers of the organisation. Time and again, they have shouldered responsibility to extend and improve our programs, in sometimes challenging circumstances that demanded invention and creativity in professional practice. Moreover, the staff and volunteers have enjoyed the great support and encouragement of the Council of the National Museum of Australia, which has been ready throughout the year both to challenge and commend the organisation on its programs and results. The Museum has also farewelled an extremely popular Chair of Council, Mr Daniel Gilbert AM, who gave a great deal to the organisation during his six years at the helm. Council members Professor Andrea Hull AO, Mr John Morse AM, and Dr Barbara Piscitelli AM also finished their second terms on Council and each has made an exceptional contribution to the life of the Museum.
The Museum also thanks the staff of the Ministry for the Arts, and the Attorney-General and Minister for the Arts, Senator the Hon George Brandis QC, for their great help and assistance throughout the year. I also thank the Friends of the Museum, who are deeply committed to the life of the organisation, and provide great support and advocacy on our behalf. We owe them and our greatest asset – our visitors – a debt of gratitude for their continued interest in, and commitment to, the National Museum of Australia.
Thank you all,
Dr Mathew Trinca,
Director, National Museum of Australia