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Creating sustainable museums

04 March 2015

An artist's impression of the new interior of the Australian Museum

Globally, museums face hurdles when it comes to sustainability.

Are declining visitor numbers due to audience disinterest in what’s on display, or do museums suffer from the perception they’re ‘stuffed with old fashioned history’? Or is it the way museums engage with people that needs to change?

When there are so many entertainment options competing for our attention, how do museums make their collections, their exhibits, what they do, competitive?

If marketing has taught us anything, it is that there are three things audiences have that marketers want: our money, our time and our attention. Money and time have been mined and explored for years, but attention, that’s fertile ground. And anyone in the business of capturing audiences knows this.

How do you get an audience’s attention, and most importantly, keep it? Like codes of football, the film industry, theatre, a new chocolate bar, if museums are to be sustainable and so survive, they need skin in the game. 

“Despite the vital importance of cultural institutions, they face many challenges. Museums risk becoming out of touch with today’s digital generation of kids who have never known a world without the Internet, iPhones, YouTube and social media,” notes Kim McKay, Director of the Australian Museum, in a piece for Australian Geographic published at the end of 2014.

And yet museums such as the Australia Museum produce significant work in research, exhibitions and public programs.

Take world renowned genomics expert, Dr Rebecca Johnson. She is head of the Australian Centre for Wildlife Genomics and was the first person in the world to map the DNA of the Koala. That’s a significant achievement. Rebecca also oversees the museum’s work with Border Security and the illegal wildlife trade. Wildlife is far more lucrative than drugs and is a huge problem for such a rare/fragile environment as Australia’s.

And then there is the significant contribution she and her unit make to your safety in the air.

The Australian Centre for Wildlife Genomics at the Museum has developed an innovative program in collaboration with the aviation industry to assist with the DNA identification of species involved in wildlife strike.

“Every week,” Rebecca explains, “the Centre receives wildlife strike samples from a variety of Australian airports, including those of the Defence Force. Typically, the samples are unrecognisable. They can be blood, skin, feathers or fur – hence the need to use DNA analysis, together with the Museum’s extensive animal reference collection, to obtain an accurate identification.”

Research about animal behaviour, strikes and species, times, season, etc. can then be analysed to build a picture of risk and how to mitigate those risks.

The museum is also undergoing a major multi-million dollar transformation to further support financial sustainability. (Pictured above: Neeson Murcutt Architects impression of the new Australian Museum entrance.)

A new visitor entrance, Crystal Hall, designed by Neeson Murcutt Architects, moves the museum’s entrance onto William Street, which was what the architect in the 1850s originally intended.

The old College Street entrance will be closed and the space, currently configured as a shop and café, will be reinstated as a gallery, Wild Planet.

If you’re keen to experience Sydney from above then the museum’s all-new Rooftop Cafe and Shop (on the fourth floor) allows you to take advantage of a view that's been a long time hidden.

Engaging digitally and with social media is another way forward. The museum’s Tyrannosaurs smartphone app, which has been downloaded more than 500,000 times, is a good example. There are other apps, including The Art of Science: Butterfly and moth paintings by the Scott sisters. Exquisite.

All this diversity of thought, new entrances, ways of engaging, and communicating also needs a diverse workforce. According to a recent report some of Australia’s major state cultural institutions lack cultural diversity.

The Australian Museum, it shows, met targets for employing Indigenous people and women, but fell short of its 12 percent benchmark for employing people with disabilities by 10 percent.