Australian Museum Director Kim McKay on the Importance of Teamwork

Kim McKay

Just try saying no to the director of the Australian Museum, who is already planning her next big project.

Current role
Director and CEO of the Australian Museum Tenure Nine years and eight months

Previous roles
Managing director, Momentum2; consultant, mission programs, National Geographic Society; co-founder, Clean Up Australia; senior vice-president, global marketing and communications, National Geographic Channel.

How do you define good leadership?

I’ve always worked successfully in teams. Anything worth doing and achieving is not done alone and as a leader, you don’t possess all knowledge so I’m always seeking out others. I hope I’ve instilled that concept of teamwork at the museum. With me, what you see is what you get.

You’re the first non-scientist and the first woman to run the museum. What did you think when you walked through the door nearly 10 years ago?

I’d been on the board of the museum for two years before I got the gig so I had a bit of insight, although I think what I learnt from being on the board is how much I didn’t know about the museum. As a board member of anything now, I pay a lot of attention to what is going on and ask questions about what I’m not being told, too. I knew the role of director was big but that’s why I was employed – to be that change agent and move the museum into a new way through the redevelopment. So it was very much like peeling an onion – it revealed itself over time. Every time I peeled off another skin, there was something else. But we took it in chunks and the more I got into it, the more I realised that I really enjoyed the transformation. Project Discover [the $57.5-million revamp, which was unveiled at the end of 2020] completely transformed the museum. People stop me in the museum all the time and say, “You’re the director, aren’t you? I just love what you’ve done with the place.”

What are the great challenges facing museums around the world right now?

Collections the world over are being digitised. It’s really important that we capture the information about an object properly so it can be accessible through storytelling, video footage and still photographs. We have the Collection Enhancement Project, which is digitising the museum’s collection. We have 22 million objects and specimens, which is the largest in the Southern Hemisphere. Obviously you can’t digitise every single thing – that would take forever – but it’s working out what we do want to digitise then how we make it available to the public. Our chief scientist, Kris Helgen, and I represented the museum among the top 75 museums in the world to quantify our collections, look at where the gaps are in global collections and create an argument for governments to understand how important museum collections are. They tell us about the past and the present and indicate what’s happening for the future. So it’s important that these collections are revered. Our collection has now been valued at more than $1 billion. That’s also important because it aids the state’s AAA credit rating.

One of the other challenges for museums must be the repatriation of objects back to their countries of origin.

Yes and also [First Nations] ancestors. That’s what we’re really focused on. We accept them from overseas and return them to Country. We have a program called Returning Them Home, which has been funded by the NSW Government for 10 years, to repatriate ancestral remains from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. When you think about how many are held in museums around the world, it’s just shocking.

And so are you able to give them back?

That’s what we’re working on. Repatriation of ancestors is a very complex process. It takes a long time to ensure that these remains belong to a certain community. In the 1800s, the record keeping was pretty good in some respects but not so good in others. Often a lot of research – and detective work – has to be done. We have a repatriation team.

What opportunities are there for museums of the future?

Technology has become a huge asset for citizen science. We created the FrogID project nationally. If you’ve downloaded our free app, you can record a frog call and it’s uploaded to us. Your GPS location is identified and we know exactly what frog is calling because they are identified by the call they make, not what they look like. In Australia, we have more than 240 species of frogs. Sir David Attenborough, who is our lifetime patron, has said that frogs are the most endangered group of animals on the planet – they’re impacted by climate change and urbanisation – but they fulfil such an important role in biodiversity. So technology is going to continue to have an impact on museums and play a vital part.

One of the big turning points for the museum was offering free entry so that it was accessible for all. Last year, you had a million people go through the front door. Years ago, you dreamt of 1.5 million visitors. Is that within your grasp?

I dream of millions and millions of people [laughs]. I need more floor space to do that so we have a masterplan to expand. We have a site in the city, which has some older buildings on it that could come down. I want to build a fantastic new wing on the museum that showcases cultural research, scientific research and education. Museums can change a kid’s life.

Pursuing a free model means that the museum has to find other ways to make revenue. How big a part of your role is securing funds from private donors?

It’s a big part. Any CEO of a museum always has one eye on fundraising. We raise about a third of our own capital each year and that’s millions and millions of dollars. If I say to someone, “Give me $5 million and I’ll deliver this”, I’m going to deliver it. We’re true to our promise. I learnt that in my earlier career in business – don’t promise things you can’t deliver. Philanthropists in Australia are very careful about where they spend their money and they’re watching what you’re doing all the time. It’s a matter of ensuring that you put programs and projects together where people can see outcomes and the social impact. Everyone wants to know that their funding is making a difference.

I’ve heard you say that if you want something badly enough, you won’t take no for an answer.

I’m persistent. If somebody genuinely isn’t interested, well, that’s fine but I think there are always ways to achieve things. I had a major donor say to me recently, “Kim, could you just tell me, when I said I wasn’t going to give you any money, how you got $5 million out of me?” [laughs]

How much of your success is down to sheer hard work and how much is due to persistence?

I think a bit of luck is often thrown in there, too. Let’s say luck is 10 per cent. If you’re in one of these roles, you have to be very committed to it – it’s not a seat-warming job. You’re there to make a difference and the passion and commitment and perseverance you have will pay off because others want to share in that. It’s damn hard work but nothing in life comes easily. It’s a rare person who strikes gold but even they’ve had to dig a lot to get there.

Not a day goes by that you’re not thinking about how to generate more revenue. What are you doing about it?

Now when we build an exhibition, we build it to tour internationally. We have three shows touring at the moment so that’s good for the brand of the Australian Museum and the brand of Australia but it’s also a revenue generator. America and Europe are huge markets so we’re trying to hone our skills in touring. It’s a new revenue stream.

You’ve got a marketing background, which isn’t a common path to the CEO role. Do you think more marketers should be leading organisations?

The museum is selling an experience and we’ve got to be competitive with cinemas, theatres and video games. We’re an entertainment project as well as an educational project so I think being a marketer and sensitive to those opportunities is good. It brings a different lens to the museum.

You’ve also said you have a bit of a politician in you. Does that come in handy?

Diplomatic skills come in handy. I can’t be political in my role but the practice of negotiation and getting people to get behind your cause is just as relevant in a museum as it is anywhere else. It comes back to communication skills.

Is the devil in the detail for you?

Always. I remember speaking to a leader whom I admired. He was juggling phones and I said, “How on earth do you remember all of this?” He said, “Kim, always pay attention to the detail. If you’re not paying attention to some of the detail, there’ll be other, bigger things going wrong.” So if the detail is working, the big things are going okay.

You often go to work on the weekends. Is there such a thing as work-life balance for you?

I’m the best person at leaving and not thinking about work again until I go back. But I’ve got something really big on, Ramses & the Gold of the Pharaohs [which opened on 18 November]. So I want to be there. It’s fun! Most days I wake up going, “Isn’t it great that I’ve got this job.”

You’ve got a lot of staff who have worked at the museum for a long time. That can be complicated when you’re trying to make changes. How have you managed that?

I had the opportunity to bring in some new people, which any organisation needs – it does need refreshing over time – but we still have a lot of people who have been there a long time and that’s because a lot of the work we do is highly specialised. Change is a very difficult thing. Even if you’re talking about changing one thing in the museum, everyone will have an opinion about it. We have well over 400 employees so it’s not a small enterprise.

I imagine that scientists could be tricky to manage…

I spent nearly a decade in America at National Geographic and before that at Discovery Channel. A lot of my role was dealing with scientists and working with them on big projects. Understanding what motivates people is really important. Scientists do have a different outlook on life and a different level of inquisitiveness and curiosity than the rest of us – the proof quotient is important to them and it takes time. We all need science; our future is based around good science.

You’ve been at the museum for nearly 10 years. What are you still burning to achieve?

I want to build the new wing on the museum. In 2027, we turn 200. We’re the second-oldest scientific research institution and the first museum in the country. We can do so much more. Stay tuned because I’m working at something that could be exceedingly exciting for the future. I’ve got a lot to achieve yet. People always expect you to leave after 10 years. Why?

What advice would you give a brand-new CEO?

Listen to your gut instincts. Set your course, communicate that course to people and take them with you. But trust your instincts.

On the fly

Personal motto?
Never give up.

Email approach?
Make them short. I don’t read long emails.

Motivation tactic?
Pop a bottle of champagne if you do something good. You’ve got to take time to celebrate the successes.

Productivity hack?
Set your goals for the day and cross off the top five things that you’ve done. You’ll never achieve the top 10 because there’s so many other things that pop up during the day but if you can get five things done in a day, that’s remarkable.

Business podcast?
I’m listening to The Rest Is Politics [with Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart] because I love the mix of global issues and politics. It’s so informative and entertaining.

The rule you don’t break?
I’m a rule breaker. I don’t ask permission very often either.

Your favourite piece of advice?
Do what you love. If you’re not enjoying something, stop doing it. Change it. Don’t waste time being unhappy in something.

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Image credit: Marc Némorin

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