Kim, you were made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2008 for distinguished service to the environment and the community. When did you first become interested in the marine environment? 

I grew up going to the beach with my family, and my earliest memories are of going to swim in the surf with my parents at Dee Why Beach. We moved to England when I was six for my dad’s job, and in those days you went by ship. And I remember as a little girl sitting at our cabin window and staring at the ocean for hours on end on the lookout for whales . . . so I fell in love with the ocean very early on.

It’s those early things you experience as a child that get seeded into your memory. We moved back to Australia at the end of primary school and for me, back living on the northern beaches, surfing . . . it was just in my veins!

Can you tell us a little more about your family and background?

Well I went to a State high school, Mackellar Girls High in Manly Vale. My dad was a toolmaker before he moved into management in the manufacturing firm he worked for. My mum eventually worked as a teacher’s aide. So we were a typical middle-class family really.

I’m single, but that’s only because George Clooney hasn’t met me yet! I don’t have children of my own, but I do have two nephews and a niece in my extended family. They’re all grown up now.

How did you come to establish Clean Up Australia with Ian Kiernan?

After studying Communications at UTS, I worked on many projects and major events and eventually ended up working on the BOC Challenge [a solo around the-world yacht race] doing public relations and event management. It was a very interesting event with a strong environmental and educational component. And that’s when Ian, after doing that 1986/87 race, walked into my office and said he was worried about the rubbish in and around Sydney Harbour and could we do something about cleaning it up. And I said yes, let’s do that! And that was the start of Clean Up Sydney Harbour in 1989. It evolved into Clean Up Australia the following year and then later Clean Up the World.

Do you have any plans for the Museum to do large-scale citizen science projects like the Genographic Project?

Dr Spencer Wells and I came up with the concept for the Genographic Project when I was working with National Geographic in the USA in 2004 and it continues to grow and engage the public as it traces the migratory history of humans across the globe. Many, many people have been engaged directly by participating in the research or purchasing a cheek swab kit. The money raised from kit sales helps fund the science as well as the Genographic Legacy Fund benefitting indigenous communities around the world.

But I’m not coming in to the Museum to put my own personal passions on display. The team at the Museum has some great plans for engaging the public into the future and we have some ambitious targets for building attendance, and how we do that will be top of mind.

Will you be continuing outgoing director Frank Howarth’s strong stand on biodiversity conservation and climate change?

Climate change is not a belief system; it’s about science, and there is an overwhelming body of scientific opinion that says there is a very real and rapid change happening to our planet. I’m not interested in personal belief systems; I’m interested in science and in communicating that science to people.

I have been on the record for a long time as an advocate of generating awareness of the impacts of climate change and will continue to do that. The Museum is uniquely placed to continue to do climate change research linked to biodiversity and conservation, and we have a responsibility to show that this is an issue that needs more understanding, continued research and greater engagement. It is one of the key pillars of the Australian Museum Research Institute.

As a Museum Trustee over the last two years you’ve helped establish the New Museum project. Can you tell us a little about that?

I can touch on this only at this point, but it’s a large, complex project that will basically allow us to create much-needed floor space for exhibitions by developing the under-used eastern end of the College Street site. We have one of the best Pacific collections in the world and I believe this needs to be front and centre because of our role as a country in the Pacific region. I also think our Indigenous collection is extraordinary and needs to be showcased more too.

And I see opportunities for taking some of the larger travelling exhibits that are out there, but we simply don’t have the floor space to show them. Plans are still being developed, so all I can say is, stay tuned for those announcements.

What personal challenges do you anticipate in running the Museum?

Well, one is I’ve never worked in the public service previously. Bureaucracy is always an interesting thing to come up against, but I always seem to find ways to get around it [laughs]. That aside, I want more Museum science to be showcased on the floor of the Museum, to bring the science out, because people find it amazing. And bringing in more families and kids is critical.

Being the first female director of the Museum is an incredible honour, but there are big shoes to fill and I’d like to acknowledge all the work that Frank and his predecessors have been doing. Of course a new director will always want to put their stamp on things, but I need to get in there and understand it first. The Australian Museum has been doing great work on many fronts and that needs to continue. We’ve got an important role to play in the whole fabric of this city and state as a major cultural and science institution.

Kim McKay starts at the Museum on 7 April 2014.

This is an edited version of an article published in Explore 36(1) March 2014.