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INTERVIEW

Dawn Casey – “Museums usually talk about dead things... Contemporary issues should also fit in these spaces”

Indigenous Australian and former museums director explains the importance of making museums more stimulating and accessible to bigger audiences

Dawn Casey speaking at the 2017 session "The Art of Resilience"

Andrea Abellan | 21.02.2017

Dawn Casey, currently the chief operating officer for the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO), has a solid background across multiple sectors. However, it is her experience within the arts that is especially remarkable. She has been in charge of the direction of three of the largest Australian museums: The National Museum of Australia, Western Australia Museum and the Powerhouse Museum.

Unquestionably, one of her bigger achievements has been her contribution to what she calls the “democratization of museums.” Or, in other words, her assistance to “make the arts and museums more stimulating and accessible to bigger audiences.”

Raised in Cairns, Australia, Casey comes from the Tagalaka clan. As she explains, her personal experience and professional background has been determined because of her indigenous and female identity. She was denied access to education. “I always wanted to study French but it was not possible for indigenous people to take that course. Also, my parents would have never allowed me to do it,” she remembers. Casey’s story is a tale of hard work and overcoming obstacles. Her persistence had a clear intention.

“I know what been discriminated means. My own experience showed me how unfair and wrong the system was.”

Being a woman made things even more complicated. “Sometimes I didn’t even have the opportunity to be interviewed,” Casey recognizes.

Despite these difficulties, she has not allowed them to stop her having a successful career. Her career and contributions have been acknowledged with a number of awards, such as three Commonwealth Public Service Australia Day Medals. She describes her current role with NACCHO as “going back to her roots” after many years working for the museum sector. At NACCHO she looks at health care policies seeking to promote health for Aboriginal communities. “Indigenous people are much more affected by chronic diseases because of their genetics so we try to help them and improve their situation,” she explains.

Remarkably for someone who has worked with so many of Australia’s leading museums, Casey admits that she only stepped into a museum for the first time when she was 30. “It was quite a boring experience,” she admits, but this experience convinced her of the power that these institutions could have to act as effective communicative tools able to make communities understand both their pasts and presents.

“Museums usually talk about dead things, explorers and settlers,” says Casey. “They are the place to showcase very well-researched materials that make us aware of our history. These are extremely relevant. But I think that contemporary issues – that can be more accessible and interesting to everyone – should also fit in these spaces,” she adds.

Casey has thus worked very hard to this end. While working as a director at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney she helped to organize Muslim cultural exhibitions aiming to attract people from diverse communities to come together, techno-nights looking to engage younger generations, and even Harry Potter exhibitions seeking to capture the attention of children.

“I think it is a matter of combining very in-depth researched topics with lighter subjects that can arrive to other types of audiences,” she explains.

Casey’s work towards integration does not stop here. She has always followed a strategy to involve professionals from different origins into her teams. “I always wanted to be sure that our job vacancies were advertised on those media easy to access by migrant and indigenous communities.” This is how she has managed to develop greatly multicultural teams.

At the Salzburg Global Seminar session in February 2017, The Art of Resilience: Creativity, Courage, and Renewal, Casey helped to link the challenges affecting indigenous communities with other current issues such as the difficulties that refugees all over the world are facing.

“They might look as opposite problems. But in my opinion they are both issues saying a lot about the nature of a country. In both situations, either when we stop a boat and do not allow people to enter our country, or when we do not recognize the rights of certain groups of people in their own land, we are disrespectful with human beings and this says a lot about the nature of a nation,” she states.

This was the second time that Casey attended a session at Salzburg Global Seminar. She was a previously a participant in 2011 at the session Libraries and Museums in an Era of Participatory Culture. She fondly remembers that the session was “a great opportunity to share and exchange ideas – something that does not happen frequently when you are a museum director and it is always you who is supposed to sell things to others. This is one of the reasons why I appreciate being part of this open space again to enjoy the dialogue and be able to exchange ideas.”

21.02.2017 Category: FACES OF LEADERSHIP, SALZBURG UPDATES, SALZBURG IN THE WORLD, CULTURE
Andrea Abellan