Supporting Pasifika-led storytelling

Michelle Gortan, CEO of the Macdoch Foundation, believes Australia’s cultural institutions are crucial touchstones in encouraging citizens to dive deeper into the history and context of the country’s closest neighbours.

The Macdoch Foundation made a generous $3 million gift to the Australian Museum for the creation of the new permanent Pasifika Gallery, Wansolmoana, which opened in October. Wansolmoana – meaning One Salt Ocean – showcases a selection from the AM’s world-leading Pasifika collection, together with newly commissioned objects by prominent Pacific Island artists and knowledge holders. Wansolmoana celebrates the rich history and traditions of the Pacific nations, past and present, and Australia’s connections to them.

Interview with Michelle Gortan

This support of the Macdoch Foundation, through Chairman Alasdair MacLeod and CEO Michelle Gortan, means the AM is now able to realise its mission of education, research and special programs with the Pacific community.

Alasdair MacLeod and his wife, Prue, founded the Macdoch Foundation in 2019. Alasdair previously served as a Director of the Australian Museum Foundation and has an ongoing interest in the Pacific Islands. Gortan, who joined Macdoch as CEO in 2021, has a long history in philanthropy, working at Mutual Trust and the Sydney philanthropy practice of the Myer Family Company.

Here, she speaks with Explore magazine about the power of investing in cultural institutions to change the narrative around colonisation.

Explore: What motivated the Macdoch Foundation’s to support the Wansolmoana project?

Michelle Gortan: Our Chairman, Alasdair, has been a long-term supporter of the Museum and was a former trustee of the Australian Museum Foundation. He has always been interested in the Pacific, supporting several other related initiatives. The Museum redevelopment and the prospect of supporting a major project like the Pasifika Gallery crystalised his interests.

Explore: What are the key takeaways you’d like the public to experience with Wansolmoana?

Michelle Gortan: Exploring and centring cultural diversity is an area of great interest for me, both personally and professionally, but it’s also increasingly important in the Foundation’s work. Museums are perceived as colonial institutions and we could have resisted supporting a project such as this for that reason. However, on this occasion, we saw the opportunity to create space for diverse and inclusive accounts of history and culture and not hide from exploring the complex, challenging issues that imbue that history and power.

We encouraged the Museum to not only focus on the “bricks and mortar” of the new Gallery, but investing in bringing the space to life and to double down on the commitment to best practices around community and First Nations engagement.

The space is one in which themes of power, race, injustice and colonialism are explored constructively and bridge broad audiences. We hope it is a place where people, especially the Pasifika diaspora community, can feel revived, connected and, very importantly, experience a strong sense of belonging.

Australia is part of the Pacific region — we should reflect on and celebrate this. We have an obligation to support this region to navigate significant geo-political challenges and respond to the reality that the Pasifika countries will acutely feel the effects of climate change. We have a considerable role to play.

Explore: What has surprised you most about this project?

Michelle Gortan: We’ve been delighted by the depth of commitment of the Museum to employ best practices by engaging expert Pasifika curators and undertaking extensive community consultation among Pasifika diaspora and colleagues in Pasifika countries. The Museum has gone a long way to institutionalise community engagement and consultation in its processes, but even more importantly, it has asked community experts to lead it. The curatorial team is outstanding. We could not have hoped for a better outcome. We are very grateful to them for their incredible passion and expertise in this work.

Explore: How do you see philanthropy changing the landscape of what is possible in Australian cultural institutions?

Michelle Gortan: To be relevant and appealing, institutions need to be genuinely inclusive and reflect a diversity of histories and communities. It’s challenging to do and involves investing heavily in people and skills, both at the decision-making level and with front-line staff. These are community spaces with multiple objectives: they’re spaces of learning and education; they’re spaces for gathering and building community connection and belonging; and most importantly, they can challenge us to critically and constructively unpack and question our world. It is essential to equip cultural institutions with the resources to do this in an evolving and dynamic cultural landscape. Cultural institutions can be powerful actors in building more cohesive, less polarised communities.

Making an impact on future generations

Victoria Denholm, CEO of Wollemi Capital Group, is passionate about the transformative power of education, especially when it comes to children exploring their curiosity through immersive and playful experiences.

In 2022, the Wollemi Capital Group made a transformative gift to the Australian Museum to support a dedicated Education Project Officer in Burra, the AM’s state-of-the-art education space that immerses visitors in Western science and First Nations knowledge. The Wollemi Capital Group, which focuses on investing in businesses and ventures that deliver a positive impact for generations to come, will also be involved in science programs in 2024.

Interview with Victoria Denholm

Explore: What is your earliest memory of the Australian Museum?

Victoria Denholm: My earliest memory of the Australian Museum was being in awe of the dinosaurs and rocks as a kid. My grandfather was a geologist, so I marvelled at the fossils, precious stones and rocks in all their different shapes and sizes.

The Australian Museum has played an important role in my family’s life. Growing up between Australia and the United States, I grappled with two cultures and two identities. My mum always prioritised ensuring that my brother, Matt, and I were informed and engaged about the history of the place we called home. I think that’s why we’re still so drawn to the Australian Museum, because of its unique way of telling stories and connecting us with our past.

The Australian Museum is a highly regarded institution in Australia that shares our core principle of making a positive contribution to our future. I visit regularly with my family and love a solo visit to explore new exhibitions.

Explore: What drew Wollemi Capital Group to the AM and how does your support of education and science programs align with your strategic priorities?

Victoria Denholm: Our mission at Wollemi Capital Group is bold yet simple: to invest in businesses and people who are delivering a positive impact for generations to come. The Australian Museum brings this mission to life. Our support of the Burra exhibition encapsulates the strengths of the Australian Museum by providing a safe and engaging space for visitors, especially children, to explore questions and ideas related to Australia’s past, present and future.

We work across three main pillars to achieve our mission: climate and the environment, community and social impact, and technology — in particular, women in technology. The Australian Museum embodies our values as we recognise the rich knowledge systems of First Nations Australians. The museum provides us with different ways of approaching science and technology, which is exciting. It’s critical for us to learn from First Nations history and culture and champion that knowledge as we seek to make a positive impact on the world around us.

When we started working with the Australian Museum, especially as the Burra exhibition came to life, we visited with Matt’s kids. Seeing the look on their faces, we just knew this was something special.

Explore: How do you see the role of education in institutions like the AM transforming young people’s understanding of climate and caring for Country?

Victoria Denholm: We know that young people care immensely for the planet and the impact of climate change. We’ve witnessed first-hand the devastating impacts of climate change with bushfires, floods and droughts, and young people are rightfully concerned about the world they will inherit.

The Burra exhibition combines all of the elements we are passionate about; science, education, community and climate. Evidence shows us that learning is effective when it is joyful and interactive, and that’s what this exhibit provides.

We champion critical thinking, emotional intelligence, empathy and curiosity and believe these skills and attributes directly contribute to making a positive impact on the world around us.

Explore: Philanthropy has the power to change the landscape of what is possible for major institutions like the Museum. What excites you most about giving?

Victoria Denholm: From a philanthropic perspective, people may tend to overlook public institutions like the Australian Museum. My mum taught us a lot about the responsibility we have to the people and places around us. That’s what excites me the most about our philanthropic work. We’re never just investing in, say, an exhibition. It’s the people who bring it to life, the visitors who walk through the door, the memories they create with friends and family, it’s the conversations they have afterwards and it’s the feeling that will live on.

Explore: What would you say is most unique about donating to the AM?

Victoria Denholm: I love supporting an institution that has so many community touchpoints with a priority of making learning, science and education accessible and engaging. Not only are the exhibitions incredible in the museum, but they also take exhibitions on the road to ensure that those in regional and remote Australia have access to some of the most exciting and curious exhibitions in the country.

The Australian Museum also has a gift for storytelling and showcasing work that would otherwise go untold. They play a critical role in telling stories that offer unique and different perspectives of the world around us, and that is incredibly valuable.

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