Robert Campbell has a knack for juggling. And like all good jugglers, he exudes an air of easy calm, of relaxed dexterity, of grounded energy. As Director, Curatorial & Museums, he has taken on an expansive new role overseeing SLM’s broad sweep of house and city museums, along with its exhibition, design, publications and interpretation teams.
There are two things, for Robert, tying this role together. The first is a grounding in project management, increasingly the linchpin of museum practice. The second is a commitment to ‘make history relevant’ – to dissect and interpret the past, and in particular ‘the contested, forgotten, awkward and difficult histories’, in ways that reflect the diversity of modern life and chime in the hearts and minds of contemporary museumgoers.
Born and raised in Surrey, near London, Robert attended high school at nearby Epsom College in the 1990s. This led to a degree in history at Girton College, Cambridge University. ‘After graduating I resisted the standard move into banking or law and, persuaded by my wife-to-be, looked for something I’d actually enjoy doing.’
From the start, Robert was drawn to the ‘nuts and bolts’ of museum operations and the shaping of compelling visitor experiences, rather than the more fine-grained investigation of curatorship: ‘My passion was never “deep-dive research” or building up specialist knowledge. History got us to this point in time and explains the world we live in. It tells us that we’re here for certain reasons. So I naturally drifted towards the public-facing, storytelling side of museums, focusing on the relevance of history to everyday life’.
Starting off as executive assistant to the director of the Museum of London Docklands laid the groundwork for a future in heritage project management: ‘Docklands was a small museum on the periphery of the much larger Museum of London, with fantastic collections, strong local stories and a really visionary program. But because staffing was limited, you had to muck in and make exhibitions happen from the ground up – handling loans, stakeholders, schedules and risk assessments, right through to delivery’.
In quick succession came a string of exhibitions, including Jack the Ripper and the East End and the groundbreaking permanent display London, Sugar and Slavery. Following these, with Robert now working in senior planning roles, came big-ticket projects at the Imperial War Museum and Stonehenge, the latter involving the interpretive elements associated with the construction of a strikingly bold and ethereal visitor centre orientating visitors to the UK’s most famous ancient relic.
Robert’s last role in the UK was head of interpretation and resources at English Heritage, an organisation that manages more than 400 of England’s historic sites. For Robert, this meant ‘moving from the delivery of single projects like Stonehenge to running a whole range of teams, and multiple project managers, who developed exhibitions and education programs, and produced guidebooks and digital content, among many other things. Very big picture, but ultimately it’s all about each entity pulling together to produce a fantastic overall visitor experience’.
Now in Sydney, with his young family in tow, Robert takes the same cool-headed, holistic view of the challenges facing SLM: ‘We’ve got an array of teams, doing very different things – front-of-house staff, maintenance crews, gardeners, creatives and curators, food and beverage partners, event teams, retail, cleaners and contractors – but actually it’s all about getting people through our front doors, ensuring they’re having a great time. It’s making sure that the work of each team fits together and makes this happen’.
Relevance, and responding to the diversity of audience interests, identities and world views, remains central. ‘SLM’s strength is in its amazing breadth of offerings. Take Elizabeth Farm ... it’s got a famous family, powerful stories, a beautiful garden and architecture, an immersive museum experience, and as high-rise engulfs the Parramatta CBD, it gives us a foothold in a new, dynamic cultural market.’
More importantly, there’s the potential to tell a wide range of stories, with different viewpoints and voices: ‘What excites me most about our plans underway is the commitment to challenge and rethink traditional interpretations of history. Building on fantastic groundwork in recent years, we’re now placing Aboriginal voices at the centre of our curatorial work, with Indigenous curators and senior strategists and close contact with local communities. Telling relevant stories is about inclusion and collaboration – and seeing the past through many eyes’.