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A marine biologist with a particular interest in crustacea, Griffin was appointed assistant curator of marine invertebrates in 1966, and curator in 1969. In 1970 he spent nine months at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C. as a visiting postdoctoral research associate, and subsequently visited museums in Europe, Israel, India and Singapore. Griffin was made deputy director in 1975, and director in 1976.
The relationship between museums and indigenous peoples was of particular concern to Griffin. In 1993 he was instrumental in developing a national policy on this issue, Previous Possessions, New Obligations. A key event in Griffin’s directorship was the return of precious cultural artefacts to representatives from the Solomons, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea at the opening of the Pieces of Paradise exhibition (1988). Artefacts from the Cape Mudge (Native American) collection were also returned on request. The Indigenous Australians gallery (1997) broke new ground in the inclusion of contemporary stories and the close involvement of aboriginal communities in its development.
The 1990s saw the expansion of many non-science areas of the museum, including community relations, education, exhibitions and materials conservation. Several new public programs were aimed at reaching and attracting new audiences. The theatre unit, Search and Discover, Kids’ Island, and the Community Access Program (CAPS) were all introduced. Other programs took museum exhibits away from the Museum and to rural and regional areas.
Griffin accepted several overseas ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions, including Dinosaurs from China, Redisovering Pompeii, Ancient Macedonia and Life and Death Under the Pharoahs.
Griffin was enthusiastic about collaboration and favoured a less stratified workplace. He introduced a team approach to exhibition curation and instigated a ‘suggestion box’ to which anyone could contribute, - including members of the public. In 1991 Griffin supported the controversial introduction of an entrance fee, in order to forestall a reduction in museum operations.
The author of numerous papers on marine biology, as well as museum management and policy, Griffin was chairman of the Council of Australian Museum Associations (CAMA) 1988-1993 and the first president of Museums Australia. He retired in September 1998, after 32 years at the Australian Museum, and was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 1990 in recognition of his services to museums.