19 June 2023

National Museum director prepares to leave telling of Australian stories to a new voice

| Sally Hopman
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Man with stuffed crocodile

National Museum Director Mathew Trinca gets up close and personal with this 4.5-metre taxidermy saltwater crocodile at the opening of the Great Southern Land gallery last year. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

For the past 10 years, Mathew Trinca has worked to bring national stories to life.

As director of the National Museum of Australia (NMA), he’s been responsible for holding up the mirror to ourselves, showing who we were, who we are now and who we hope to be down the track.

And he’s done it during probably one of the most challenging times in Australia’s arts and cultural history, surviving a decade of budget cuts, a pandemic and even a natural disaster or two.

“I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to be director in another decade,” he said. “Until recently, we have been very stretched for funds. We worked very hard during COVID to keep people employed here and we ended up being able to deliver strong programs, but in a different way.”

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Dr Trinca, who announced last month that he would leave the top job early next year, said securing ongoing funding for cultural institutions like the NMA played a part in that decision.

“Working with others to convince the new federal government of the importance of a future funding commitment to our national cultural institutions was something I’m most proud of,” he said.

“It has transformed the landscape of these institutions that were in danger of staff and program reductions. Now, with that security, we can plan for the future and deliver on our mission to the Australian people.”

Under his tenure, the NMA’s visitor numbers have grown, and last year it opened the Great Southern Land gallery – the largest redevelopment of the NMA since it opened in 2001.

Also during his directorship, the NMA has made a name for itself internationally, exporting a number of exhibitions overseas including Encounters (2015), Endeavour Voyage (2020) and Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters, which is now on at the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris.

It has also developed partnerships with the British Museum, the Vatican, the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization, the National Art Museum of China, the National Museum of China and the National Museum of Singapore.

Man at podium

After 10 years at the helm of the National Museum of Australia, Mathew Trinca will leave the top job early next year. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

If there’s been one thing that has made getting through this past decade’s challenges a little easier, it has been the NMA’s mainstay – its collection.

Despite the years of belt-tightening, funding for acquisitions, which comes from a different source, was not affected. This allowed the NMA to add to its vast collection of Australian stories, from artwork to fashion to historic documents to what Dr Trinca described as one of the greatest personal collections of our time – that of businessman Trevor Kennedy.

“I’d have to say that securing the collection of Trevor Kennedy, part purchase and part donation, was a particular highlight for me. It is a collection people will probably still be talking about in 100 years,” he said.

The NMA was able to purchase the 5000-piece collection for $8 million with the estate of the late Mr Kennedy donating about $7 million. The collection had been valued at $25 million. Consisting of artwork, ceramics, jewellery and furniture, the collection reveals defining moments in our history, from Federation through to present day.

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Twenty years ago, the National Museum of Australia was the nation’s “big new thing”. For Dr Trinca, then a senior curator at the West Australian Museum, it was a job he couldn’t turn down – leading a program looking at our relationship with the environment at the new national museum on the other side of the country in Canberra.

“I was very excited at the prospect of taking this job,” Dr Trinca recalled. “Because the National Museum back then was ‘the big new thing” I was really looking forward to the challenge of it. I probably wondered at the time how I’d get on in Canberra – I have to say that first Canberra winter was rather bracing.

“But here I am, 20 years later.”

It says much about how the nation’s capital has affected Dr Trinca that, after he leaves the NMA, he plans to stay in the Canberra region.

“Little did I know that I’d come to love Canberra,” he said. “We bought a property in the Brindabellas and there’s been quite a bit of work waiting for me when I got some spare time.

“When I leave the museum I’ll probably take a few months off and then look at how I can serve the community in some other way, in the arts or cultural heritage areas.

“I would just like to contribute to the region in the best way I can.”

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