As a youngster, Caroline Butler-Bowdon dreamed of being a sports star – ‘I wanted to be Shane Gould or Raelene Boyle’. This did not eventuate, but Caroline’s destiny was shaped early in life. Her mother, an English teacher, was from South Africa, and her father, an architect, from England: ‘They settled and started their family in Cape Town in the mid-1950s. Dad built a modernist house at the foot of Table Mountain, but [due to the country’s racial politics] they couldn’t stay there’. In 1963, lured by an Australian government skilled migrants’ scheme, and attracted by the climate, they moved to Adelaide, where Caroline was born.
The youngest of seven children, Caroline reminisces: ‘we were always a bit odd … a big sprawling Catholic, arty family among the Anglicans in a dignified North Adelaide suburb’. She enjoyed attending the more multicultural local Catholic school, with Italian, Greek and Vietnamese students: ‘It was riveting – I loved visiting other migrant families’ homes’. With no relatives in Australia, ‘we were acutely aware we were not from here. Whenever my parents could afford it we travelled – to Asia, UK and Europe: Bologna, Pisa, Paris … [we had to] know where we came from’.
The name Butler-Bowdon (the third syllable is pronounced ‘bow’ as in ribbon) is from one of Britain’s oldest Catholic family lines. An embroidered family cope (liturgical vestment) dating to the mid-1300s was recently on display in the Opus Anglicanum exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum: ‘Our family were its custodians during the Reformation … This part of my family’s heritage is ingrained in me somehow, and although it might seem unfashionable to some, this religious connection to our past is very important to me’.
Literature, culture and a rich sense of history and heritage have been omnipresent in Caroline’s life: ‘I loved writing and languages, and learned French and Italian at school, influenced by family travels’. At university she studied art and architecture history, and later, museum studies: ‘Dad warned me against architecture itself, “unless you want to count bolts for the rest of your life”’. (Art was his true passion, but architecture paid the bills.) Caroline’s interest in aesthetics – art, architecture and design – has always focused not on the construction or the expression ‘but on how aesthetics meets function. I like what architecture and design tell us about how we live in a city – how we inhabit places. I’m interested in the value they bring to people’s lives’.
Moving to Sydney in her twenties, Caroline’s early career opportunities included research and curatorial support roles at Western Sydney University, the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences and the Art Gallery of NSW; she joined SLM as a curator in 1998. Her enduring interest in cities and urban life informed her PhD topic, the history of apartment living in Sydney, and inspired the Homes in the Sky exhibition at the Museum of Sydney in 2007.
Caroline joined SLM’s directorial team in 2009; a graduate of the Getty Leadership Institute program, she is now part of the NSW Government’s Leadership Academy. She sees creativity as essential to her leadership role: ‘staff respond to people who are creative themselves, not solely management types’.
Her curatorial experience, however, keeps Caroline grounded in what is important – interpreting and presenting history in contemporary yet meaningful ways for visitors to experience and enjoy SLM’s sites, exhibitions and programs: ‘We’re custodians for these places, we have to keep them alive and well in the public imagination for the next 100 years ... Too often the arts and culture are seen as a luxury – but they’re not, they’re essential for bringing pleasure to and betterment of people’s lives’.