Museum Director becomes University Professor
Friday, 25 August 2000
The Director of the South Australian Museum, Dr Tim Flannery, was recently made an Affiliate Professor of Adelaide University. In an interview for the university newspaper 'Adelaidean,' Dr Rob Morrison spoke to him about his plans to link activities between the two institutions.
What can a museum director bring as an Affiliate Professor of the University?
I hope to bring, first and foremost, collaboration between the 2 institutions. I think it's silly for us to make appointments alone at the museum. When we advertise, for example, for a curator of anything in South Australia, who's going to apply? If we make it a joint appointment: lecturer at the university and a curatorship at the museum, it's much more attractive, particularly if we can develop our areas of strength so that we can have national and international profile in these areas. So that's what I want to bring to the place; a critical mass of research scientists that will put South Australia on the map as far as our key research areas go.
That puts research well to the fore, but what about exhibitions?
The exhibitions are a very significant teaching aid. In a whole array of areas you don't often think about, the museum can be a useful venue for the university, such as the performing arts, market assessment, design, architecture; a whole series of things like that, so the public face of the museum can be quite useful for the university as well.
Will you be teaching any courses at the university?
I'd love to do some teaching, and next year I'm hoping that I can teach in an area that I'm very enthusiastic about, which is the meeting point of Arts and Sciences. I would dearly love to teach a course at Honours level perhaps, taking people from the Humanities and the Sciences and looking at big questions concerning Australia's society and environment, prehistory - those sorts of issues - because I'd dearly love the opportunity to start breaking down that barrier between the two; the big divide if you want.
That sounds very much like the aim of the science communicators.
I guess that's right, but it's also about what the Humanities can bring to the Sciences. Science Communication is important, but I'd really like scientists to listen carefully to people in the humanities as well. It's a different sort of investigation of the world as we experience it and know it, but the skills that such people develop are often very much in areas that scientists need. I think that bringing both together will bring benefits to both sides.
I suppose you hear it again and again in Adelaide that people say that the city has got such great potential because of all of its significant cultural institutions on North Terrace, and you wonder why people haven't made more of it in the past.
I'm waiting for the hidden trap to fall; to show why we can't do these wonderful things this city should allow us to do. So far it hasn't fallen. The potential is huge; why it hasn't happened to the extent it could, I don't know, but if we do get it right, if we manage to create a seamless research-teaching unit here, we'll have something that no other state in Australia will have, and given the strength that we have here, I think we will be able to raise the Museum and the University significantly in terms of their national and international profile.
What I'd love to have happen here at the end of five years is that students thinking about coming and doing an Honours year somewhere in Australia will want the excitement of working both with museum staff on expeditions and whatever else, as well as the university site, so we're offering something absolutely unique, and attracting the best.
Both institutions are changing rapidly and being forced to be more entrepreneurial. How do you see those changes affecting us, and what will happen to the nexus between the university and museum as the changes take place?
I think the key issue for both of us is that we need to be valued by the society that we are embedded in. That entrepreneurial spirit often comes about from building links with society in ways that universities and museums haven't done in the past. So I see it as quite a positive thing from that perspective..for example at the museum, we have Australia's largest molecular biology unit and the oldest and largest collection of wildlife tissues in the world. Now for all sorts of molecular biological applications - commercial and whatever - we could form some wonderful partnerships with industry.
We have a fantastic minerals collection and a world class mineralogist. (It runs) right through the institution (including) dealing with aboriginal communities and other groups. I think we just have to embed ourselves in the psyche of the city we are in.
A museum in a city like Adelaide should be an absolutely core activity. It should be integrated at all sorts of levels where it is currently not. So my vision for the place is to make it valued right across the spectrum.
Robert Champion de Crespigny is now Chair of the Museum Board and the University's Chancellor. How do you see that affecting our joint activities?
I think it's going to be a great advantage to both of us. I'm not sure practically how it will work.(but) the thing that I have found about working with Robert is that he is just incredibly dynamic. When he commits to something, he commits one hundred percent. The benefits that has brought to the Museum have been phenomenal, quite frankly,
so I think it's going to be very good for both of us.
You have a diverse background; scientist, explorer, writer and much more. Now you are an administrator. Where do you see your own career going from here?
I don't know. I'm at the beginning of my 5-year plan for the museum! Beyond that I can't really see at the moment. I know that I don't want to become a professional administrator or museum director; that's not what I'm here for, so at the end of 5 years I'll be looking about for something else, but I don't know quite what.
There must be threads in your makeup that you know you'd never relinquish?
Sure, I love doing research. Just yesterday for the first time in about twelve months I got to do some genuine research in the museum's collection, doing some assessment of material. It was just wonderful, so I'll always love doing that, there's no doubt about it, but where to go from here? I don't know.
There's so much that you can do in the world. I had the most fantastic time last year investigating the ecological history of North America, and that book will be published next year, but that was like opening a whole new universe to me; things I just didn't know about, patterns in biology that I was ignorant about, so perhaps to do something like that again?
The book that you might have written during your time in South Australia you have just published; the journal of Matthew Flinders, which will be highly topical in 2002 when we celebrate the bicentenary of his meeting with Baudin, so do you see another book coming out of your stay in South Australia?
I'm not sure at the moment. I've read most of the South Australian exploration accounts, and some of them are absolutely fantastic, but I'm not quite sure how things will work out there. The next historical book that I want to do is not Australian at all. It's an old Dutch account which is just wonderful. It's an account of a voyage to the East Indies between 1618 and 1625. It's another John Nicol or Watkin Tench; this guy's just a wonderful, humane, fascinating person, and it's a great account and that'll be my next one. Of course he's writing at a time when the economic world as we know it is taking shape. We're getting the first stock markets developed, and hot on their heels the first futures market, and they are gambling on whether people like old Captain Bontekoe are going to come back from the East Indies or not, so its a most wonderful story.
You are an Affiliate Professor of the University, attached to no particular faculty?
Because I'm so passionate about the Arts and Sciences coming together, I didn't want to be in one or the other, so it's a cross - we'll see how it works out.
Photo of Prof Tim Flannery at: /pr/media/photos/2000/