Vale Don McMichael

ICOM Australia Don McMichael


We note with sadness the death on 10 Jun 2017 of Dr Don McMichael, long term Australian museum professional and advocate.

Don made a remarkable contribution to both the Australian and international museum community. Don’s career was devoted to two interrelated fields of endeavour: the environment and museums.

Firstly museums

Don completed first class honours in zoology at the University of Sydney in 1952 and then began his first period in museums, starting out as an Assistant Curator of at the Australian Museum.  He then received a Fulbright Travelling Scholarship to undertake an MA and PhD (in freshwater mussels) at Harvard University from 1953.  He returned to the Australian Museum in 1955, where he stayed until 1967, becoming Curator of Malacology (molluscs), then Deputy Director.

From the late 1960s to the mid 1980s, Don became one Australia’s most experienced and senior public service administrators – at the state and federal levels – working for conservation and the environment.  He became the first Director of the Australian Conservation Foundation in 1967 and from 1969 to 1973 was the Director of the National Parks and Wildlife Service of New South Wales.

He then moved to the federal sphere and was appointed the first Secretary of the Department of Environment under Minister Moss Cass in the first Whitlam Government.  In this period Don was also President of the River Murray Commission and Chairman of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and Secretary of variously titled departments covering Home Affairs and Environment until the mid 1980s.  

In 1983 when the National Museum needed a director, they were very lucky that Don was on hand.  As Minister Cohen said in announcing his appointment in February 1984 Don ‘had an unprecedented background for the job’.  Thus began the second phase in Don’s career actually working in a museum.

When he became director, the Museum was scheduled to be opened in 1990, but in 1989, after many skirmishes with the Department of Finance, the government announced a five year delay.  His time was marked by:
•    ardent and passionate support for the museum
•    his capacity to remain stoic and positive in the face of disappointing delays and obfuscations
•    for a scientist, a remarkable commitment to the need to collect the everyday history of Australian lives.

He was unafraid of politicians, and in fact his untrammelled support for the Museum meant the end of his museum career. In 1989, when it became clear the government had no intention of funding the Museum- and having used up all his stoicism and somewhat disillusioned - he resigned as Director and retired from full-time paid employment.

From the 1990s Don’s experience and expertise was called on by governments, universities and the not-for-profit sector to serve in a range of very significant roles, many directly relevant to museums, for example, he chaired:
•    the Commonwealth Government's Taxation Incentives for the Arts Scheme Committee
•    and the University Museums and Collections Review Committee.

When discussions about amalgamating a number of separate museum associations commenced in the early 1990s, Don’s administrative and governance experience was particularly important as the new organisation found its feet, wrote a constitution and set off to represent the museum and gallery community as a whole.  Don provided continuous guidance, through his role as public officer, and without hesitation, took on tasks no-one else had much appetite for such as revising the constitution.


Don was always aware of the international dimension in his many roles, and sought to ensure Australia’s profile was visible internationally- particularly in the case of museums.

Don’s involvement with ICOM extends from the time Australia was first invited to an international meeting in the mid 1980s.  In 1987 he was elected Chair of the ICOM Australia National Committee, and from 1992-95 served on the (international) Executive Council of ICOM.

In the early 1990s, Don, Des Griffin, Bernice Murphy and others formed the idea that Australia should host the major international ICOM conference, and made a successful bid to the ICOM Executive Council.  Don spearheaded the formation of a company to manage ICOM 98 in Melbourne, with Senator John Button as chair; served as a Director and Secretary of the ICOM 98 Company; and worked in a highly effective team to guide the conference through to a successful conclusion –intellectually, organisationally and financially.

He never stopped working as a high level volunteer for ICOM, attending international Executive Council meetings and contributing to important international and challenging initiatives such as ICOM’s Working Group on Statutes.  In 2014 Don concluded a six-year term as Membership Secretary, but also performed multiple other roles including Treasurer, Public Officer, Archivist and handled many of our interactions with ICOM headquarters in Paris.  Whether it was constitutions, accounts or policy, Don provided sound and wise advice and counsel.

In essence, Don was the bedrock of ICOM Australia for all those years. There’s little doubt the strong position and high profile ICOM Australia finds itself in – with substantial membership growth each year – is the result of Don’s exceptional energy combined with his knowledge of ICOM, internationally and nationally.

Don graciously supported the coming generation by passing on his knowledge and ensuring others had access to development opportunities.  I myself remember him being very generous as I started out as a young professional, trying to navigate around the sometimes perplexing museum world.

And secondly, although he reached lofty heights in the federal public service and public life he was always prepared to roll his sleeves up and do the most menial work alongside the up and coming generations of museum professionals.

Until recently, Don sat for some years on the Administrative Appeals Tribunal in the ACT.

Don was awarded an array of honours over his career including a CBE in 1981 (Commander, Order of the British Empire) for service to the public.

In light of Don’s outstanding achievements in international relations and sustained undertakings in international work on behalf of Australian museums over a long period, ICOM Australia presented him with the 2015 Individual Achievement Award.  In addition, Museums Galleries Australia acknowledged Don’s contribution to the Australian museum community with Honorary Life Membership.

Don touched many of us both professionally and personally. He will be missed.

Louise Douglas
Membership Secretary
ICOM Australia

Don was cremated privately in Canberra on 19 Jun 2017. A public memorial service was held the same day at the Presbyterian Church of St Andrew, Forrest.