Meet Dr Dawn Casey, the new Chair of IBA

IBA Chair, Dr Dawn Casey.

Tough. Determined. Principled.

To some she is known as a “person of great distinction”, a “respected figure”, and to others, a “cultural warrior”.

There is no doubt, however, that Dr Dawn Casey is a visionary in the preservation and promotion of Indigenous culture. She has been recognised nationally and internationally for her groundbreaking work as the Director of the National Museum of Australia, bringing Indigenous culture into the spotlight and to the masses.

Dawn is also an accomplished administrator, having succeeded in a number of high profile roles in Commonwealth Government and Museums. She will bring all this experience and skill to her new role as Chair of Indigenous Business Australia, formally announced by the Minister for Families, Housing, Communities and Indigenous Affairs, the Hon Jenny Macklin during NAIDOC Week 2009.

Like many of her contemporaries, Dawn is a battler, and rose to the top from humble beginnings. Born in 1950 her father was a stockman and mother a cook from Croydon, North Queensland. When she was young the family lived in a cramped shack on the outskirts of Cairns. Here, her mother cleaned houses and her father worked as a garbage collector.

Despite their hardship, Dawn recalls that growing up in Cairns was “a joy” with her and her brothers involved in sports. Her parents insisted that she attend school and did not tolerate absenteeism. Dawn recalls never feeling different to the other children until high school where she was told she couldn’t do the subjects that she really wanted to, like French, on the basis of being Aboriginal. Instead, Aboriginal girls were encouraged to study sewing and cooking to prepare them for domestic employment, with teachers maintaining that ‘you Aboriginal children will leave school before you reach Grade 10’. Dawn’s parents insisted she return to the school and fight her battles. These experiences ignited the determination in Dawn, a determination that would assist her throughout her career.

After leaving school at 14, Dawn was married and pregnant by 16. Working as a cleaner she put herself through business college, and secured her first role in the public service at the Commonwealth Department of Education, Cairns. She rose rapidly to senior posts in the Commonwealth Public Service, including AusAid, executing some impressive projects and honing her skills.

Throughout her childhood and early adult life museums held little interest for Dawn. But this changed when she was director of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in South Australia, working closely with the director of the Museums. At that time, in South Australia, Indigenous Australians were experiencing a breakdown of culture. Petrol sniffing was rife and a wide range of anti-social issues were arising in the communities. Dawn funded a program for the repatriation of human remains and secret sacred material back to Indigenous communities. Her hope was that this would reconnect Indigenous people to their culture, and she found she experienced a strong reconnection of her own in the process. This helped forge her commitment to museums and the preservation of Indigenous culture.

It was Dawn’s work on the National Museum of Australia (NMA) in Canberra that cemented her reputation. Recruited in 1999, she managed the transition of the museum from an organisation with 40 staff and an annual budget of $4 million, to a fully operational museum with 210 paid staff, 200 volunteers, and an annual budget of $43 million. The museum had approximately 2 million visitors within the first two and half years of opening. Building was completed on time and on budget – a rare and remarkable achievement for a major public sector building project – and the NMA opened as a Centenary of Federation project in 2001. The significance of this achievement was commemorated by the builders of the museum who presented Dawn with a framed piece of the Berlin Wall, on which was engraved, ‘For making the impossible possible’.

Dawn revelled in her role with the NMA. She enjoyed working for an institution where she got to “share with millions of visitors including school children, the rich, complex, ancient, sophisticated and enduring Indigenous culture, together with the long struggle for recognition and the impact of the removal of children, with people who come through museums; because museums are trusted organisation and, if you do it well, you change attitudes.”

Although the NMA was a success, in 2003 the Howard Government decided not to renew Dawn’s contract as Director, a controversial decision that was met with and accusations of racism among the general public and the Museum fraternity. Ironically, not one month after her dismissal Dawn was awarded a Public Service Medal for her “remarkable achievement” in outstanding public service.

After a brief stint as a cultural consultant to the Victorian and West Australian governments, in 2005 Dawn became the CEO of the Western Australia Museum before moving to the position of Director of the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney in 2008. Dawn’s appointment to the Powerhouse was seen by some of her colleagues as risky and bold, but Dawn was excited by the chance to live in Sydney and take on the significant challenges at the Powerhouse with her characteristic passion and dedication.

In NAIDOC Week 2009, Dawn officially commenced another new role in Indigenous affairs as the Chair of IBA. At the annual IBA NAIDOC breakfast on 10 July 2009, she said “I am attracted by the opportunity to influence the commercial and economic aspects of Indigenous development. My career has always focussed on highlighting areas where improvements are possible and I believe the building blocks that underpin economic development stem from creating opportunities and a better future for our people.”

Dawn recollected a conversation with her mother after her contract at the NMA was not renewed, in which her mother asked “Dawn, weren’t you working hard enough? After 25 years in the Commonwealth Government you’re leaving?” Dawn said, “I believe she’s looking down from up there somewhere and sighing with relief that I’ve been accepted back into the Commonwealth fold.”

She has been welcomed with open arms by IBA, with IBA General Manager, Ron Morony, saying “The executive team and I are pleased with this appointment and it gives us a basis to move forward with confidence.”

Dawn Casey has had an influential, distinguished and at times controversial career. But despite the numerous awards, medals and accolades she remains a modest, humble, and carefree role model. She is a treasure to Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and IBA feels privileged to have her as its new leader.