This is my eighth annual report for the Australian National Maritime Museum and the most challenging to write. This was truly the best and worst of years, as we observed extraordinarily strong results in the first three quarters, and were on track to deliver the best year on record, only to be somewhat thwarted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The management of the museum’s response to COVID-19 is foremost in my mind at present. As the Chairman has observed, the museum closed to the public from 24 March to 21 June 2020 inclusive due to COVID-19 and most of our staff are still working from home. Being open for only eight days in the fourth quarter adversely affected revenue, visitation and face-to-face learning, in particular. To ensure the safety of the public, the NSW Government cancelled the VIVID festival and we had to cancel the Classic & Wooden Boat Festival – both of these events usually bring significant visitors. Our offsite visitation results were also much less than expected in the fourth quarter because of the temporary closure of institutions hosting our touring exhibitions. The current restrictions on international travel also had a significantly adverse impact on the museum’s results.
Turning to the positives, I am delighted to report that, despite COVID-19, total visitor engagement in 2019–20, excluding Encounters 2020, was on target at 4.1 million, an increase of 800,000 on last year. Total visitation was 1.85 million, which, while 7% behind target, was better than all past years except 2017–18 (1.87 million) and 2018–19 (2.1 million).
Onsite visitation was 5% ahead of target, while offsite visitation was 16% behind target. The museum’s diverse exhibitions were again central to our results. Particularly noteworthy are Sea Monsters – Prehistoric ocean predators, Wildlife Photographer of the Year and Bligh: Hero or Villain?. These exhibitions have had strong visitation and visitor appeal, good curriculum alignment, attractive programming and opportunities for publicity, commercial return, reputational benefit and/or stakeholder engagement.
The highlight of our extensive offsite program was the voyage of the Endeavour replica to New Zealand from 12 September to 21 December 2019 to participate in that country’s Tuia 250 program. This voyage was a great success. A total of 19,427 people visited the vessel at six ports in New Zealand and this contributed to offsite visitation.
Our online visitation, and particularly our digital learning, were the standout achievements of the year. Online participation was 1.72 million (24% ahead of target) and student participation in school programs was 380K (120% ahead of target). The key contributors to results were a partnership with ABC Education, the ‘Virtual Endeavour’ VR tour, two educational games (The Voyage Game and Cook’s Voyages), the online collection and a concerted effort to drive online engagement after the museum temporarily closed to the public.
2020 marked the 250th anniversary of Cook’s first Pacific voyage. Regrettably, after five years of preparation, due to COVID-19 we were unable to proceed with the circumnavigation of Australia by the Endeavour replica or the associated shore-based activities or to complete our search for Cook’s Endeavour in Newport, Rhode Island. However, I am pleased to report that we acknowledged the anniversary with the opening of the new permanent gallery called Under Southern Skies and three temporary exhibitions, as well as an extensive digital offering that includes a new educational game and a new rooftop projection. We provided funding for a new film to be screened later in the year and will be acquiring new artworks from the Cairns Indigenous Arts Fair. Most significantly, I am pleased to report there is some evidence that the museum has succeeded in building national understanding and changing the narrative regarding Cook. About 2.25M people were exposed to media mentions of ‘view from the ship and view from the shore’ this year – a phrase coined by the museum about five years ago to refer to the bicultural perspectives of Cook’s encounter with Australia’s Indigenous peoples.
This year we achieved good results against key performance measures for growing and providing access to the National Maritime Collection. Our collection of Indigenous maritime heritage was enhanced by the addition of 34 acquisitions valued at $236K; 2,712 objects were digitised; and, most pleasingly, more than 800 objects were accessioned to clear a longstanding backlog. Significant progress was also made toward accreditation for the Protection of Cultural Objects on Loan Scheme.
The delivery of our operational plan was also somewhat compromised by the disruptions from COVID-19 and any projects that were not completed this year will be carried over into 2020–21. However, I am pleased to report that good progress was made towards a new site masterplan, including a waterfront plan, and construction of a new gallery and venue facing Darling Harbour that will be completed in coming months. This was the first full year of our Reconciliation Action Plan and 68% of all deliverables were completed, with 22% currently in progress. Our efforts to progress the national migration story have also been successful, with the highlight being the finalisation of a new publication, We are many – Stories of Australia’s migrants, which speaks to this important aspect of national identity. We are also prioritising our plans for the upcoming United Nations Decade of Ocean Science, and our partnerships with Sydney Metro and the Silentworld Foundation are delivering good progress on the recovery and conservation of the ‘Barangaroo Boat’.
It is deeply disappointing to report that our pattern of year-on-year growth in self-generated revenue was not realised this year due to COVID-19. While we still generated 42.8% self-generated revenue, which is ahead of many of our competitors, this was behind last year (45%) and the year before (43.6%). Unfortunately, COVID-19 adversely affected all revenue lines and this is expected to continue in 2020–21. To progress a strong financial future, we began various ICT (Information, Communications and Technology) infrastructure upgrade projects, achieved our savings target from sustainability investments, began a trial of third-party licensing of the museum’s collection, and developed a VIP management strategy and a new fundraising strategy.
The museum has been seriously tested in the delivery of its strategic commitment for People and Culture this year. Unfortunately, the demands of managing COVID-19 made it necessary to defer work on diversity, volunteering and the enterprise agreement. The safety of our people and visitors has been a priority. During the early days of the pandemic, we prioritised the safety of staff and volunteers and communication about social distancing and hygiene. Consistent with public health advice, many of our staff were required to work from home and after we reopened the museum to the public, staff were required to take on new front-facing duties. One of the most difficult aspects of the pandemic has been standing down our at-risk volunteers.
Going forward, I expect 2020–21 to be even more challenging as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, both economically and socially, continues. We are working on a range of measures to ensure that core functions are maintained and the museum can remain in a healthy position to recover. We have many strengths and opportunities, particularly in the area of digital engagement and domestic tourism appeal, and we also have the potential to be part of the psychological recovery of the nation from COVID-19.