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15 June 2017

Statement from the National Museum of Australia

Portrait of a man

The staff and Council of the National Museum of Australia note with sadness the recent death of Dr Don McMichael, inaugural Director of the National Museum and a long-term advocate for Australian museums.

Don McMichael (1932–2017) completed first class honours in zoology at the University of Sydney in 1952 and joined the Australian Museum in Sydney as an assistant curator. He completed his doctorate at Harvard University then returned to the Australian Museum in Sydney where he worked until 1967.

Don became one of Australia’s most experienced and senior public service administrators and his commitment to public life was acknowledged in 1981 when he was awarded a CBE.

He was the first Director of the Australian Conservation Foundation; Director of the National Parks and Wildlife Service of New South Wales; the first Director of Environment in the Australian Government’s Department of Environment; and Secretary of the Department of Home Affairs.

Don’s involvement with the National Museum began as a member of the Interim Council, which in 1982 developed the first cohesive plan for the Museum in the wake of the 1975 report on the future of museums in Australia (the Pigott report).

In February 1984, Don was appointed the National Museum’s inaugural Director. Arts Minister Barry Cohen argued that Don, ‘had an unprecedented background for the job’. The Museum had a small staff, a plan and a director, but no commitment from government for funding to open their doors, as originally anticipated, in 1990.

During his six years as Director, Don focused on activities that would keep the fledging Museum in the public’s mind. He acquired the Paddle Steamer Enterprise, secured the Mitchell repository to house the growing collection, and opened the Yarramundi Visitor Centre at Yarramundi Reach. He also supported the establishment of the Friends of the National Museum of Australia.

Don put significant energy into planning for the new Museum building and, working with staff and the Museum Council, produced a design proposal in 1987. However, in a deteriorating national economic situation, the Australian Government instituted an inquiry into the resourcing of museums and the 1988 budget did not include funding for the Museum. The government announced the Museum’s construction had been deferred for five years.

Don remained optimistic about the longer-term prospects for the Museum but resigned in May 1989.

Don continued to make a significant contribution to public life serving on boards including the Australian Government's Committee on Taxation Incentives for the Arts, and the Review Committee for the Council of Australian University Museums and Collections.

In 1987, Don was elected chair of the International Council of Museums Australia (ICOM) and from 1992 to 1995 he served on the international Executive Council of ICOM. 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.

In 2015, Don was presented with ICOM Australia’s award for individual achievement, and honorary life membership of Museums Galleries Australia.

The National Museum acknowledges the debt owed to Don McMichael for his contribution to the Museum’s early development and his support for the Australian museum community.

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