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The Polymath: Dolla Merrillees

Art historian, published author, museum director, cultural consultant and Global Emissary for SCCI, Dolla Merrillees’ talents and wisdom are wide-ranging. We find out how design and art influence this Habitus Design Hunter.

Habitus: Can you introduce yourself and share some of your background?

Dolla Merrillees: I come from a background in art history, social history, the visual arts and design. I’m a cultural consultant, museum director and writer with particular specialisations in museology, curatorial, master planning, strategic visioning, collections, cultural planning, stakeholder management and community engagement, commercial strategies and cultural leadership. I bring a wealth of national and international experience to my work having had senior roles in large scale festivals, museums, cultural spaces as well as the tertiary sector. My experience includes working with encyclopaedic multidisciplinary collections from archaeology, history and art to science, design and fashion.

 

What led you to where you are?

My nomadic childhood with time spent predominantly in the Middle East and parents who are archaeologists instilled in me a love of learning, of art and history and a deep appreciation for the sartorial aesthetics of the past.

 

“I’ve moved across countries and continents almost 30 times so my concept of home is fluid, it’s always the next place that we inhabit and that we curate into something familiar and loved.”

 

How do you split your time between work and play?

My work tends to bleed into my home and social life as work is very much about the pursuit of my own intellectual interests. As a writer, curator and researcher much of my leisure and playtime is spent reading, visiting galleries and museums, travelling and seeking out new cultural experiences. I am also an avid walker and spend long hours wandering through the natural and urban landscapes – it’s a form of therapy.

Photo by David Shields

 

What does home mean to you?

Given our nomadic childhood, our home was not so much about bricks and mortar but about the objects we carried with us to help negotiate our new spaces. The books, the photograph albums, our toys were our memories, our identity in the ‘here now’. I’ve moved across countries and continents almost 30 times so my concept of home is fluid, it’s always the next place that we inhabit and that we curate into something familiar and loved.

 

How does your home reflect your passions, interests and creativity?

You might think that working in galleries and museums means I wear only the ubiquitous black and that my home is a slave to white minimalism, but I don’t, and it isn’t. Our home is suffused with colour and light and full of stuff – books, records, snow globes, chandeliers, bell jars, artworks and curios. A profoundly personal recreation of the Renaissance cabinet of curiosities and perhaps subconsciously an homage to the storerooms of my memory.

How do you balance personal and professional life?

It has been a learning curve but in the last few years after having taken it for granted for so long I’m now very conscious of how important my physical, emotional and mental well-being is and that I need to make time for it. I need to be fluid, constantly re-assessing my goals and priorities, managing my stress and making time for myself and my loved ones.

 

Can you describe how design enriches both your personal and professional life?

I am a very aesthetically oriented person and I’m interested in how things look and feel. What mood they evoke, what’s creative, unique and compelling, what inspires me. I’ve always designed my environment and thought about how I interact with space, how it can enable and support me to achieve my goals. Good design impacts on our lives sometimes in a profound and sometimes in a subtle manner but ultimately it increases our awareness of social, cultural, or ethical issues.

What obstacles have you had to overcome?

As a woman CEO and having served in leadership positions I have experienced ingrained sexism and bias, deeply entrenched misogyny and insidious workplace bullying. I know how extraordinarily difficult it is and how exposed you feel giving voice to and standing up to sanctioned, intimidating and bullying behaviour. It has made me determined to use my voice for the right to work in a safe environment that is respectful to all and to advocate for those who are subject to discrimination, racism and sexism.

 

What’s something you wished you had known before setting out on your career path?

How to let go of the need for approval.

 

Good design impacts on our lives sometimes in a profound and sometimes in a subtle manner but ultimately it increases our awareness of social, cultural, or ethical issues.

 

Why do you believe culture, art and design are important?

Culture, art and design are important because storytelling is central to the human condition. Each object, each artwork comes with its own biography. We imbue objects with meaning, with love, with our hopes, fears, aspirations and ambitions – a sentimental gift, a souvenir reminder of a memorable experience, an artwork, a love token, memento mori or talisman designed to protect the bearer and ward off evil. Objects are bridges to other people, places, and times, creating meaning and connections. Why do we tell stories?  ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live’ (Joan Didion).

Dolla Merrillees is the Global Emissary for the Sherman Centre for Culture and Ideas (SCCI), which has just launched a new program – Stepping Stones – running until 30 June 2021. 

Lead photo by Fisher Studios, all others supplied unless otherwise stated. 

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