SA Museum facelift at top of new chief’s list

SA Museum’s new chief will be on the hunt for significant investment, with a new master plan to overhaul exhibits and install digital technology being Dr David Gaimster’s first focus when he starts work in June.

Apr 24, 2023, updated Apr 24, 2023
Dr David Gaimster is the South Australian Museum's new chief executive. Photo: supplied

Dr David Gaimster is the South Australian Museum's new chief executive. Photo: supplied

Gaimster said the state’s Victorian-era museum building is in danger of being left behind other museums transformed with “terrific investment” in New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia.

“(The first focus will be) on master planning and then talking to our funders and supporters about how we are going to achieve that vision …  other institutions in Australia have had a terrific amount of investment over the past few years,” the current chief executive of Auckland Museum in New Zealand said.

“SA Museum hasn’t had anything like this whatsoever in decades and the danger is the risk that the institution can be left behind.

“If you can’t maintain that program of investment then an institution looks very tired very quickly.”

After working to transform the Auckland Museum over the past six years and drive its visitation numbers from about a 650,000 annual base to one million, Gaimster told InDaily from Auckland that he wants to bring his new institution’s numbers up to the same mark.

Annual visitor numbers are currently around 800,000 at SA Museum, reaching 1.4 million through wider museum programmes and touring exhibitions.

Investing in the building and programs is vital, he said, to ensure the museum is operating in the 21st Century and is able to attract world-class exhibitions.

“I think it’s a great building, it’s a beautiful building but it needs some intervention for the 21st Century, not only in the presentation of its content but in creating stronger visitation amenity,” Gaimster said.

“The biggest risk to any public institution is relevancy.”

Angela and Hossein Valamanesh’s 14 Pieces, 2005, in front of the SA Museum. Photo: Tony Lewis

His plan will need backing from three new faces announced in the SA Museum board line up, scientist and author Professor Chris Daniels, deputy vice-chancellor research and enterprise at the University of South Australia Professor Marnie Hughes-Warrington along with Aboriginal educator Vicki Wilson.

Gaimster, who was formerly chief executive of the Society of Antiquities of London, director of The Hunterian at the University of Glasgow and held senior roles at the British Museum, hoped to improve the visitor experience at SA Museum.

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During his time in Auckland, Gaimster has led transformational change including creating four new galleries, a new touring exhibition space and securing the country’s largest museum grant of $13.3 million to undertake research work with One Nation partners.

SA Museum was founded in 1856 and now particularly needed to be transformed digitally and in material investment, Gaimster said.

“If you look at how technology has evolved over the last 20 years, the last five years, the last two years, you wouldn’t know if you went into the South Australian Museum today, you wouldn’t be aware of any of those technological advances.”

His starting date timing falls just after the team reviewing the new $200 million Aboriginal cultural centre project at Lot Fourteen is due to hand over its report to the State Government, having flagged it could be a “building that rivals the Sydney Opera House”.

Building work was halted in October last year when Premier Peter Malinauskas said current plans for the Tarrkarri Centre for First Nations Cultures next to the Botanic Garden on North Terrace were “sub-standard”.

The project, according to Gaimster, is an opportunity to benefit the state’s cultural precinct, and he is keen to be a part of its creation and build a strong relationship that may see SA Museum also benefit from that investment.

Board chair Kim Cheater acknowledged the positive work from out-going chief executive Brian Oldman but said bringing in a new chief executive and board members was an opportunity “for new ideas, new perspectives and a fresh approach”.

Gaimster brought experience in regenerating Auckland Museum and could lead the way in having SA Museum further explore the relevance of its collection with big issues like climate change and its impact on biodiversity, Cheater said.

The new board members would also contribute, with Cheater saying Professor Daniels was involved in Green Adelaide while Wilson is the incoming chair of the museum’s Aboriginal Partnership Committee.

This adds important experience to the museum board as it promotes its first nations collection, works on its repatriation program of Aboriginal ancestral remains and negotiates to be part of the new Tarkarri project at Lot Fourteen.

“These important appointments have greatly enriched the board and ensure that the organisation will have the requisite skills and knowledge to guide the museum into the future,” Cheater said.

“In particular, this adds significant expertise around scientific research and education which are core to the purpose of the museum.”

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