Interview with Kim McKay AO

Director And CEO, Australian Museum and founder of Clean Up Australia

Kim McKay

From yacht races to Clean Up Australia, and now as chief executive of The Australian Museum, UTS Communications alumni Kim McKay AO is passionate about making a difference.

“I’ve just bought a giraffe and a zebra. That’s the kind of shopping I like,” laughs Kim McKay AO, who celebrates her first year as chief executive of the Australian Museum this April. “They arrived together in a container from America. You should have seen them. They were both lying flat, snuggled together.”

Her unusual purchases will be unveiled in June when the oldest museum in the southern hemisphere opens its newest exhibition space housing ‘Wild Planet’, featuring 400 stuffed animals and skeletons.

In fact the “new gallery” – the first permanent gallery to be added in 50 years – is actually just inventive use of the museum’s glorious 1870-era Barnet Wing, which she’s rescued from its previous incarnation as the museum’s entrance, cafe and shop.

In the weeks before she took over – when she knew she’d got the job though it hadn’t been announced – McKay sat in that cafe most mornings, watching the museum at work.
“I felt as if I was in a shopping mall. I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is all wrong! Visitors should feel as if they are walking into big, old, grand museum. We should move the entrance from College Street to William Street.”

Her elegant solution, designed by Neeson Murcutt Architects, is a bold and contemporary elevated glass entry hall on Sydney’s William Street, which will open up the museum to the city. Named the Crystal Hall and accessed by a suspended walkway, the carbon-neutral space will feature exhibits from the museum’s renowned mineral collection and will be capable of housing 200 people queuing for special exhibitions or attending after-hours events.

Meanwhile the cafe has been relocated to the museum rooftop, giving visitors one of the best views in Sydney, from St Mary’s Cathedral to the harbour.

The entire $5.5 million transformation project has taken McKay and her team just over a year – less time than it would take most of to renovate a private house. She’s been supported by Catherine Livingstone AO, president of the museum’s board of trustees, NSW Premier Mike Baird and Deputy Premier and Arts Minister Troy Grant (backed by a $2.5 million special contribution from the state budget).

Environmental passions

But there’s no doubting the driving force has been McKay herself, reinforcing her ‘Can-do Kim’ reputation and largely answering doubters who greeted news of her appointment with    sceptism: “She may be a great publicist and event organiser, but what makes her qualified to run Australia’s oldest museum?”

It’s true that the UTS Communications graduate is probably best known for co-founding Clean-Up Australia (with Ian Kiernan), organising events like the BOC Challenge round-the-world solo yacht races plus a myriad of pro-surfing events, and coordinating US talk show host Oprah Winfrey’s visit to Australia in 2010. She’s also appeared regularly as a pundit on TV and radio, and written five bestselling eco-books.

But she had also served two years on the museum’s board of trustees, was intimately familiar with challenges facing it in the digital age, and could point to her CV showing a sizeable part of her career has been spent on major, international scientific and environmental projects.

For almost seven years, she worked in the United States for two of the world’s finest non-fiction cable channels, Discovery Channel and National Geographic Channels International. It was in 2003, while Senior Vice-President of Marketing and Communications at NGCI, that McKay came up with the idea of The Genographic Project with Dr Spencer Wells, one of the world’s leading population geneticists.

“We’d made a film with Spencer, a big film for us,” she recalls. “We’d put in a lot of money and I needed to promote it effectively around the world.

“Spencer was one of a team of geneticists who has basically worked out that the first big human migration out of Africa had come to Australia over a 10,000 period. They’d collected some samples of indigenous DNA around the globe and had been able to work all this out by identifying markers in the genes.

“I listened to the science and said, ‘You’ve got this far on 10,000 DNA samples. What could you do with 100,000 samples? What difference would that make?’ And Spencer said, ‘Kim, that would change our entire understanding of human history!’ So I said, ‘Then why don’t we do it?”

‘Citizen science’ and The Genographic Project

There were battles before it became reality, but 12 years later The Genographic Project is a ground-breaking scientific tool deploying cutting edge technology. She’s still heavily involved. “The project is going ahead in leaps and bounds because the technology and DNA testing has improved so quickly. All the profits go into a legacy fund to benefit indigenous communities around the world. We’ve raised something like $9 million since the project started.”

The Genographic Project, she points out, is perfect example of ‘citizen science’, where data is collected by volunteers in a form in which it can be professionally interpreted by research scientists. “Something new we’re creating is the Australian Museum Centre for Citizen Science,” she volunteers. “Citizen science is going to be an important part of what museums do in the future, and I want us to be the expert body in the nation for that.”

She’s quick to stress the strength of the museum’s various collections: “the best Pacific collection in the world”, “one of the four best indigenous collections in the nation”, “a natural history collection to die for”, “a rocks and mineral collection among the best in the world”, “a bird collection that is simply extraordinary, with over 70,000 open cabinets that are lined with extinct species”.

But perhaps the Australian Museum’s biggest secret is its team of research scientists working behind the scenes. “I’ve got over 70 research scientists working here. We’ve just renamed it as the Australian Museum Research Institute to give it a brand in the marketplace. It used to be called ‘Research and Collections’ – I thought that was the name of the loading dock!

“Our four pillars of science are biodiversity, pests and invasive species and their impact on Australia, climate change and wildlife genomics.

“People don’t know that we have the most sophisticated wildlife genomics lab in the country here, doing all the work for Australian customs and quarantine on illegally imported species. We also do all the work for the airline industry on bird strike. And last year one of our scientists, Dr Rebecca Johnson, came to world attention when she sequenced the genome of the koala.

“We have extraordinary research scientists here doing extraordinary research. Last year our scientists identified over 130 new species.”

Spreading her wings

It all seems a world away her undergraduate days. Back in 1978, UTS had no campus and McKay’s degree was spent oscillating between The Brickfield Hill site on George Street and the brand new brutalist Tower Building on Broadway which opened in her second year at UTS.

The university’s Communications department was considered “bolshy”, with “some radical left wing lecturers”, McKay recalls. “I remember my first lecture. It was about Karl Marx and the role we would play in the revolution. I thought: what have I walked into? But it was very stimulating and made me think critically about our society.”

What she particularly relished were the practical skills she was taught. She helped write the university newspaper, produced radio programs and learnt how to edit sound and 16mm film on the film course.

She was also named joint winner of the 1980 PR student of the year award being offered by the Public Relations Institute the year she graduated. “On the strength of that I was offered my first job.”

One of her first assignments was organising the media coverage of an all-women’s team in the Southern Cross Air Race in 1981 which meant flying all over Australia.

Literally, her career took off. She hasn’t really touched down since.

Story by Steve Meacham, April 2015
Photography by Kevin Cheung