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Looking to the Future - Catching Up with the CEO

Poster for International Museum Day 2023
Poster for International Museum Day 2023

For the last 46 years (since 1977), International Museum Day has been celebrated by Museum’s all around the world. The theme is selected by the International Council of Museum’s (ICOM) and organisations, no matter what size, are encouraged to engage and share their stories.

Ironically, I was so busy talking Museum’s at the #AMAGA2023 conference in Newcastle that the day almost passed me by, and I didn’t get my usual chance to reflect on what the day meant for our small organisation. Luckily, I have an amazing team who didn’t drop the ball and put together a post that you can check out by visiting @mof_sydney in celebration of the 2023 theme “Museum’s, Sustainability and Wellbeing”.

Museums are constantly ranked as one of the top trusted industries in the world when it comes to the sharing of knowledge and understanding of the world around us. For this reason, Museums have an important part to play in leading the charge for positive global change when it comes to sustainability and wellbeing.

As a museum professional this level of trust and understanding that we need to be champions of change can often be overwhelming and without a clear path forward can freeze us into inaction. This may prevent Museum’s, especially small museums such as ours, from even trying to make a difference and enact change. Ultimately this reaction to external pressures, that may cause idleness, is not the answer.

My goal as the CEO of a small Museum is to take small and achievable steps on the pathway to greater change. We may not be able to move mountains or even pave the way to future expansion but what we can do is help foster ideas and ambition in the community, especially the next generation, and provide them with the building blocks to begin working towards a more sustainable and inclusive tomorrow. This is a personal objective that I take into the Museum each day as I see our young team grow and develop.

Every International Museum Day I find myself reflecting on how far we’ve come in the last year regarding our goals and, despite being belated this year, my reflection on the last 12 months is no different. We’ve battled floods and seen firsthand the impact of the rising cost of living on both visiting families and Museum expenditure, while attempting to keep growing what we have to offer the public.

Museum of Fire Entry Driveway, 2023
Museum of Fire Entry Driveway, 2023

On a personal note, I’ve faced obstacles that I never envisaged twelve months ago and have had to overcome them whilst maintaining business as usual at the Museum to ensure the lights stayed on and we kept steaming forward. These un-planned personal hurdles caused me to take a step back and reflect on not just what I needed but what our small team required to keep on kicking goals. For this reason, we switched gears and looked at using what limited funds we had to employ more Museum-trained staff to help tackle that ever-growing task mountain and by so doing enable a greater balance for our existing staff and ensure their wellbeing was not being ignored. I am so proud of the team we’ve built & without their dedication I can say without any doubt that we would not have had our most successful start to the calendar year for the Museum ever!

In the last month the Museum team have continued to be just as busy as we were the month before! This included the end of one of our busiest school holiday periods on record, junior caretaker’s day, General Motors display day on the grounds, hosting a pop-up shop at the Hawkesbury Show and running both a pop-up shop at the Emergency Services Academy (ESA) for Fire and Rescue NSW (FRNSW) Open Day AND hosting the event at the Museum with Richmond and Regentville Fire Brigades. Open Day alone is annually one of our biggest days but this year it was even more significant thanks to the visit of Paw Patrol’s Marshall to the ESA. When our team heard Marshall was coming, they scrambled to ensure we had enough mini versions on hand for all Marshall’s number one fans who were to visit on the day but even then, it wasn’t enough as the team sold out of Marshall’s before the event was finished! If you missed out on Marshall, we have some limited stock at the Museum and more stock will be coming soon!

The Museum of Fire Team and Volunteers attending the National Trust Awards (NSW), 2023
The Museum of Fire Team and Volunteers attending the National Trust Awards (NSW), 2023

On the back of a very busy Open Day, the Museum’s curator Ben and I, head north to Newcastle for the 2023 Australian Museum and Galleries Association Conference. Unlike previous years when there seemed to be one theme that continued throughout the conference like a broken record this year the official theme of “discomfort” created an environment for the discussion of a variety of topics from immersive experiences and inclusion to changes in governance of the industry and suggested adaptations in how we all approach the uncertainties of the future.

It has been accepted across the industry that we need to slow down to meet the fast-paced global changes that need to be reflected within our organisations. In order to do things correctly, especially where an organisation has small staffing numbers this is essential. Less is now necessary to do more. This will be reflected in the plans for the Museum in the 2023-2024 financial year, as well as in the strategic planning of 2024.

Newcastle City Hall, one of the centres of the AMAGA Conference, 2023
Newcastle City Hall, one of the centres of the AMAGA Conference 2023

Since the pandemic our team have been scrambling to respond to rapid change and while we’ve been able to adapt this pace is not maintainable and now is the time to reflect on what we’ve done well and what we can do better in the future. We will still continue our program of upgrades, but budget constraints and the ending of some grant funding will mean that tough decisions will need to be made about what changes occur first.

Like many other small Museum’s, the topic of inclusion and diversifying the Museum space remains relevant but funding and staff time remains the greatest obstacle to undertaking this necessary change. The Museum of Fire has begun to take steps in this field however greater strides are needed to meet the needs of the evolving community.

Murrook Cultural Centre, Williamstown, Newcastle,  the location of the Remote and Regional Day of the AMAGA Conference 2023
Murrook Culture Centre, Williamstown, Newcastle, the location of the Remote and Regional Day of the AMAGA Conference 2023

Having said that, one area that we can be very proud of in relation to change and development is the Museum’s board of directors. Across the not-for-profit (NFP) sector less than 30% of boards reflect diversity with many boards having just one female representative and only 74% include members of the local community. Since mid-2020 the boards have gone from 100% male who mostly fell into one industry and base-demographic to being comprised of 50% men and women representing a variety of backgrounds and industries. Local community representation has also increased from just one board member to three.

Every year I return to the Museum with a mind full of ideas after the conference and this year seems to be no different but compared to previous years this year’s ideas are more practical and I feel confident we can enact many of the presented changes on a small scale but that they’ll make a big difference to our team and the visitor experience. I guess what I’m trying to say is that this year’s conference felt much more practical in the topics discussed and the ideas shared. Generally, I come home feeling like the world is against us. Unlike large museums we don’t have anywhere near the funding or staffing levels and often the topics tend to be centred around these kinds of institutions and despite our best efforts we can’t compete or enact the changes/programs presented. By comparison, this year, even though many projects were presented by the big Museum’s there was still a lot that we could take away from the conversations and much we can learn for our future plans and development.

End of the day, the driveway to the Museum of Fire at night, 2023
End of the day, the driveway to the Museum of Fire at night, 2023

I am both mentally and physically exhausted from not just the last week at the conference but the previous two exceedingly busy months at the Museum, but I’ve been able to create a list of practical changes we can implement and include in our plans for the second half of this year and into 2024.

What does all this mean for the Museum? Watch this space and you’ll be the first to see what our team continue to come up with!

-Story by Belinda McMartin CEO


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