CEO Kim McKay chats Egyptology, spiders and traveling the world with Gillian Scott, AM's Manager, Exhibitions.

Gillian Scott - Manager, Exhibitions
Gillian Scott - Manager, Exhibitions Image: Madelaine Love
© Australian Museum

From England to Poland, Egypt to Saudi Arabia and many places in between, Gillian Scott has produced museum exhibitions around the world. When she found herself with a job offer from the Australian Museum, she says she couldn't pass it up.

"You can't turn down something like that. I've moved around a lot my career and I think it keeps things fresh, it reinvigorates you and it allows you to collaborate with so many different people. For me to come to the Australian Museum — that has stupendous collections — over 18 million natural history and cultural collections, and an Egyptology Collection even! Who could turn that down? I would have been foolish to have said no." — Gillian Scott.

Kim McKay: Welcome to AMplify, the Australian Museum's regular podcast where I get to chat to some of our fantastic staff and experts who work behind the scenes at this wonderful institution. I'm Kim McKay, the director and CEO of the Australian Museum, and today I have Gill Scott with us who is our new head of exhibitions. Welcome Gill.

Gillian Scott: Hi Kim.

Kim McKay: Well, you've been here at the Australian Museum for six months now, how are you enjoying Australia?

Gillian Scott: It's amazing. Obviously you can tell from my accent I'm not from around here, so I'm settling in really well, loving the museum, staff are great, living the dream.

Kim McKay: I am so pleased you like Sydney, but I think your cat is still in quarantine.

Gillian Scott: No, he's here now.

Kim McKay: Oh, he's arrived!

Gillian Scott: Yes, so I had to bring my cat over from Saudi Arabia. That was a huge set of trials but we got him here and my little baby is here, my pet baby.

Kim McKay: Good, and I think your husband just arrived too.

Gillian Scott: Yes, secondarily to the cat, yes.

Kim McKay: I'm glad to see you've got your priorities right. Gill, your job here is to look at opportunities for exhibitions on the floor of the museum, to look at that presentation of our both permanent and temporary exhibitions, and also to look at touring exhibitions, which is something we'll talk about soon. But I wanted to go back in time a little bit to when you first started out. I know you grew up initially in London and then moved up to Northumberland near the Scottish border. What was that like?

Gillian Scott: Well, it was when I was about 10, and I had a really strong…I wouldn't say Cockney accent, it was more Mockney. And they have a very strong dialect up there that they call Geordie, and the Northumbrians themselves have their own dialect, so I was completely baffled by that. They were completely baffled by me, so I had to almost learn like a whole new language. And then as time has gone on, I've adopted both sets of accents. So when I get very excited, that sort of Geordie starts to come out. And when I get very laid back and relaxed, the Mockney comes through as well.

Kim McKay: Isn't that great. Lovely. Well, we love listening to you, so that's tremendous. But you went on to study archaeology at University College in London. When did you first become interested in archaeology?

Gillian Scott: You know, from the youngest age my father would always take us to museums. Being so close to central London we would always go to places like the British Museum, Natural History Museum, so I grew up with that, and my parents really, I don't know, promoted that. So when I was at school and when I was about seven years of age I actually convinced my teacher at the end of every Friday to give me 15 minutes at the end of the day where I could take in my latest toy dinosaur or something like that, to stand there and lecture the rest of my classmates about dinosaurs or about some feature of interest on this particular plastic toy. And they hated me for it, no doubt. But it was always there.

And then even before I went to university I was volunteering on archaeological sites around the UK, just getting a flavour of what that actually was. And by the time I actually got to university and decided to do Egyptian archaeology, that was purely from the fact that I had learned my lesson in not wanting to work on excavation sites that were just pouring rain and all muddy and dirty, so I thought, hmm, a nice warm environment, that can't be bad, Egypt, yeah, I can do that.

Kim McKay: Exactly. Now, it seems like you and I have quite a bit in common because while I was born in Australia I also grew up in London, and my parents took me to the museums all the time as well. And it just shows, doesn't it, how if your parents expose you to those things, it can ignite areas of interest that maybe you'd never thought of.

Gillian Scott: It really does. And if it hadn't been for them I don't think I would have pursued this route into museums, because certainly when I was at school going through all of those exams and deciding what to do at university, teachers…there was no career guidance in that sort of field as well, so my parents were the key drivers for all of that, for all of this that I have achieved today.

Kim McKay: That's right. You know, one of our wonderful scientists who headed up the mammalian collection here at the museum, Tim Flannery, of course a very well-known Australian scientist, said it was his first visits to museums as a young boy that really sparked his interest and set off on his career path to work in museums.

Gillian Scott: Absolutely, and if I hadn't gotten into museums I would never have met my husband.

Kim McKay: Well, there you go, there's hope for us all. Now, tell me about Egypt because I also have a bit of a passion for Egypt. After you finished university and he got your first job in a museum, your interest in Egyptology really took off. So you started visiting Egypt on a more regular basis. Tell me what you did down there.

Gillian Scott: I did, I would go about three times a year, and largely…I always thought of it as a bit of a jolly for me, even though I was there to do work, it really is this fantastic place where you are almost on holiday, and I spent a lot of time in Luxor which is probably my most favourite place in Egypt. The museums that they have there were of particular interest to me because they've got such fantastic collections. I was really interested in learning about how they promote and preserve their collections, because tourism is such a big market there, how they make that accessible to so many different types of visitors.

Kim McKay: And it's a real challenge in a country like Egypt where so much of the revenue of the country does come from tourism, and balancing the needs of tourists visiting all of these historical sites versus the need to preserve those sites and conserve them properly for the future.

Gillian Scott: Absolutely, and making sure that they are secure as well. We all know what's happened in recent years. And that was something that was particularly in the back of my mind when I moved to Saudi Arabia and how…

Kim McKay: Hang on, so you were in England, in fact you worked with Tyne and Wear Museums.

Gillian Scott: That's right, they gave me my first foothold in the world of museums, full stop.

Kim McKay: In fact the wonderful director of the West Australian Museum is Dr Alec Coles who in fact was the director at the time you went there.

Gillian Scott: He was, I know Alec very well, and we've had countless collaborations together and I haven't seen him yet since I've been here in Australia.

Kim McKay: Oh well, he'll come this way soon.

Gillian Scott: I hope so.

Kim McKay: He's doing a great job over there of course, they are building a new museum in Perth as we speak, they are starting work on it now and it's a $450 million project and it's quite an undertaking. More on that later, we'll talk to Alec about that one day for sure. But so you went from there, working in Egypt a lot, but then you ended up in Saudi Arabia.

Gillian Scott: I did, yes, so about four years ago I was given the opportunity to head over there, and they were developing a huge cultural centre in the eastern province, and it seemed like a great chance to be able to develop something that was exciting for the public. They are not a museum-going culture, and part of this cultural centre had its own museum in its own right, four galleries, arguably the first children's museum in Saudi. So that was something I couldn't turn down.

Kim McKay: What an amazing experience, not just from a professional capacity, to really test your skills in a different culture, but to live and work in that culture, which of course does have some challenges.

Gillian Scott: It does have some cultural nuances that you need to bear in mind. But I made some amazing friends there, and I take a lot of great memories away with me. I do miss it from time to time but it was time to move on, and I wish them every success out there because the King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture is going to do some great things.

Kim McKay: Just tell us a little bit about that because that is really going to set a new benchmark in museums, isn't it.

Gillian Scott: It is, and, as I say, it's not a museum-going culture in general out in Saudi Arabia. I did spend some time at the National Museum in Riyadh who have got some fantastic staff and amazing collections. But this place in itself is just everything that you could ever really want. It's got libraries, it's got archives, it's got the museum component, it's got a sort of fab lab for tinkering, a studio for innovators. And it's really trying to get people reengaged with their culture and heritage. So in order to do that we have these galleries that represent elements such as Middle East and contemporary art, the natural history of the Arabian Peninsula. But then a huge temporary exhibition space that was designed to bring the best of world culture to Saudi Arabia. So it's an exchange of knowledge which makes it very exciting for collaboration.

Kim McKay: Okay, so here's a British girl who's had some great experiences, spent some time also working in Poland, as well as in Egypt on a regular basis, in Saudi Arabia and you get a call one day to say would you be interested in working in Australia?

Gillian Scott: You can't turn down something like that. As I say, I've moved around a lot in my career and I think it keeps things fresh, it reinvigorates you and it allows you to collaborate with so many different people. The very first job that I had in museums was with a natural history and cultural collections museum, which is now the Great North Museum: Hancock, in Newcastle upon Tyne. So for me to come to the Australian Museum that has these stupendous collections, over 18 million of natural history and cultural collections, an Egyptology collection even…

Kim McKay: Yes, we have one of those.

Gillian Scott: You do. Who could turn that down? I would have been foolish to have said no.

Kim McKay: We're thrilled to have you here. But I must say, we've got so many interesting opportunities, we have a master plan in at the moment, but to restore some of our historic galleries and revive those permanent displays. We've got the Long Gallery of course under major construction at the moment which is going to house the 200 Treasures of the Australian Museum, that will open in October. But at the same time we are developing touring exhibitions too, and you're playing a key role in that.

Gillian Scott: Yes, we've got our fingers in a lot of pies, Kim…

Kim McKay: I know, I like to keep you busy.

Gillian Scott: Yeah, you do. We are being ambitious. And one of the great things is I think for anyone who knows museums or visits museums, you see a lot of product coming over from the US in terms of these touring buy-in exhibitions. We are now getting our stuff out there. We've got this authentic product that we are sending abroad. It began with Tyrannosaurs: Meet the Family, which was hugely successful here, and we toured that around a little bit, and now we've sent it to the US and it's doing record numbers in the first venue that it has just been at.

Kim McKay: Which is just incredible, I'm so proud of that, because this is great Aussie ingenuity and innovation being exported to the United States, and of course helping our budgets back here as well, which is really marvellous. And plus our beautiful spiders exhibition which is still on.

Gillian Scott: Yes, so we've got that here on at the Australian Museum until 16 July, and then yeah, that's going to be going on tour as well. It's going to grow legs, quite literally, and go abroad, and we've got our first venue signed up for that. We are very excited. And this is an exhibition that has complexities in its own right because we've got live specimens in it. We are challenging ourselves, we are raising the bar.

Kim McKay: Well, there's nothing like frightening the US market as well with some of our spiders.

Gillian Scott: Well, it frightens me, Kim, I can tell you that much.

Kim McKay: I know, you are a bit of an arachnophobe, I know.

Gillian Scott: I'm terrified.

Kim McKay: But it is exciting because the Australian Museum is a world-class institution and now that we are touring our home-built product, as you call it, but these wonderful exhibitions to North America is just a great new initiative. But really…I saw a study that came out of the States the other day that said museums are the most trusted of the scientific institutions. So that's an incredible mantle that we hold, isn't it.

Gillian Scott: Absolutely, and I think given the type of work that we do here and the expertise that we have on staff, whether it's through our research institute and our cultural collections, managers and the people who work under them, we have got a lot of knowledge to share that is based upon rigorous science and rigorous academic and scholarly research that we just want to get out there and make accessible through as many different platforms as possible. So we've got these fantastic exhibitions that we are developing that are for families and for people with some degree of familiarity in the subject, and something for everyone. But as you say, it is based upon the most brilliant research that we are doing here in Australia and here at the Australian Museum in particular.

Kim McKay: Well, I'm glad you're so enthusiastic. It's good to have you on the team. But one last question. If a young person was listening now and thinking about a career in museums and helping create these incredible thought-provoking exhibitions, would you recommend it?

Gillian Scott: Absolutely, because the sky's the limit, and that's what I like doing about exhibitions so much. I started out in Egyptian archaeology and that's great, I carved a little niche from myself. But the moment I set foot into the realm of exhibitions, I was able to get involved in every different subject that you could think of and work with brilliant people who are equally as passionate about what they do and how they want to get that information out there. And every day I'm developing new ideas, we're working with different technologies. It's not just about dusty old objects, it's about the latest in VR and everything else that goes with it. And when I go into the galleries and I see our exhibitions set up and I see families and different audiences interacting with what we've got on display, that gives me such a great feeling. And I know that we are doing it for the right thing. And if anybody out there considers that as a career path, you can't go far wrong.

Kim McKay: It's really like being a very practical film producer, isn't it, because you are budgeting, you're coming up with the creative concepts, you're overseeing the construction and installation and then you're working with the audience to respond to it.

Gillian Scott: Maybe I should change my name to Ridley Scott…no, Ridley Scott's already taken, Gill Scott, Ridley Scott, no…

Kim McKay: No, we don't want you to do that, we want you to stay well and truly here. Gill Scott, it's been great chatting to you, and we look forward to seeing some really fantastic and new exhibitions at the Australian Museum soon.

Gillian Scott: Watch this space.