Exhibiting a life-long passion for museum education

No one at the Australian Museum really had any idea just how big a legacy their former colleague Patricia McDonald was going to leave the institution.

Now they know and the story behind the McDonald bequest has become a heartwarming source of inspiration for those considering a similar legacy.

Ms McDonald had worked as the Australian Museum’s Education Officer for 35 years, earning a modest salary and living in house in Greenwich, on Sydney’s lower North Shore. She had never married and devoted herself to the Museum after she started working there in 1953, with a year’s teaching and a science education degree from the University of Sydney behind her. Before she died, the Museum and Ms McDonald had several discussions about her desire to leave a bequest to the Australian Museum Foundation that would foster lifelong learning.

And then, after Ms McDonald died in 2018, the executors of her estate told the Museum that the bequest was going to be substantially larger than the institution had expected. Ms McDonald’s bequest turned in to a $7 million gift, the largest bequest in the Australian Museum’s long history.

“The nature of the bequest, its size…it’s really inspiring,’’ says Amanda Farrar, the Museum’s Director of Public Affairs and Development. “I don’t think there’s a better story for bequests.’’

The size of the bequest reflected some astute investments Ms McDonald made in the stock market. But her canny share portfolio was supported by a frugal life that started in a family that appreciated the value of hard work and thrift, exemplified by Ms McDonald and her sister Pam selling their father’s homegrown tomatoes after school to help the family.

When Ms McDonald arrived at the Museum, her office was a tin shed, there were no power points and no running water. None of that impeded her desire to put education at the heart of the Museum’s community engagement. She believed in the importance of children touching and feeling exhibits, which led to her establishing the Education department’s own collections that enabled children to have a hands-on experience at the Museum.

She became an education pioneer, introducing school loans cases with real museum specimens (or ‘Museums in a Box’), helping to drive the first Education Centre in any natural history museum in the nation. Later, she oversaw the introduction of the Australian Museum Train, which travelled around NSW for more than a decade, sharing exhibitions and educational resources with new audiences. Nowadays, the Museum’s Education program reaches 150,000 students a year.

Her bequest will help build a new interactive education centre, which will bring together First Nations knowledge systems with the Museum’s scientific research. The bequest will also help support a separate grant program.

As part of the Australian Museum’s Project Discover redevelopment, the suite of education briefing rooms for student groups are named the Patricia McDonald Education rooms.

Amanda says Ms McDonald was dedicated to educating children and there were still many Museum employees who fondly remembered working with her.

“She’s going to be literally helping support and educate hundreds of thousands of children over the years ahead,’’ Amanda says.

The bequest underlines an encouraging response from the Museum’s donors during the past 12 months. They have expressed their support for a trusted institution that has a body of scientific expertise highly relevant to contemporary issues, including last year’s bushfires and biodiversity challenges Amanda explains.

“The science we do here really resonates with people. We saw that science didn’t stop during the COVID-19, and the community looked to arts and culture institutions such as ours during the pandemic as holding an important place in our society,’’ Amanda says.

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