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Developing the collection

The National Historical Collection was initially formed from objects and collections transferred to the Museum by the Australian Government following the Museum’s establishment in 1980. The major collections included those of the former Australian Institute of Anatomy, the former Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, and other smaller but significant collections from the University of Sydney’s anthropological department and Australian Government departments such as the Department of Home Affairs and Transport, the Bureau of Mineral Resources and the Australian Broadcasting Commission. Since 1980, the Museum has acquired objects through donation and purchase. The Museum’s collecting activities are driven by its current Collections Development Plan.

The 2010–11 financial year was typically productive for the collections development program, including the documentation and accessioning of backlog collection material as part of the final stage of the Legacy Collections Project. The Museum acquired objects for the National Historical Collection for a total figure of $2.115 million, including $1.243 million for purchases and $872,000 for donations, securing many compelling objects for the nation. Unspent funds, of $644,000, from this year’s budget will be carried forward into the 2011–12 financial year.

Some of the significant objects acquired through the course of the year were:

  • a terracotta portrait bust of Sir Edmund Barton by sculptor Nelson Illingworth, one of a series of busts, entitled The Federal Leader, that Illingworth made of Barton
  • a painted coolamon dating from 1972 attributed to Long Jack Phillipus Tjakamarra, a significant Aboriginal artist involved in the genesis of the Western Desert painting movement
  • a bark container painted at Yirrkala, north-east Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, in 1965, by Narritjin Maymuru, one of the leading Australian artists of the twentieth century
  • material relating to mining on the Victorian goldfields, including rare maps of the goldfields, mining equipment and pictorial material
  • two quirky grass, wool and leather camel-and-rider sculptures created by Tjanpi Desert Weavers, which reflect the significance of the camel to Aboriginal people
  • a private donation of 32 contemporary artworks by Warakurna artists that reflect historical events in their lives.

The Museum’s Council formally approves the inclusion of objects into the National Historical Collection. This year the Council approved 119 collections during the year, details of which are set out in Appendix 3.

Each financial year the Museum conducts a number of targeted collecting projects to address gaps in the collection or to meet exhibition needs. The curatorial teams working on permanent exhibition galleries, Australian Journeys and Landmarks: People and Places across Australia, focused on material relating to exploration and settlement, communications, pastoralism, agriculture, mining and transport. Collecting activities around the experience of children in institutional care has continued for the development of Inside: Life in Children’s Homes and Institutions, a temporary exhibition that will open in November 2011. A small collection of objects was received from Museum Victoria for a collecting project on the Black Saturday Victorian bushfire disaster of 2009, and a new targeted collecting project on the Queensland floods and Cyclone Yasi commenced in collaboration with the Queensland Museum.

In 2009–10 the Museum committed to the Indigenous Australian Art Charter of Principles for Publicly Funded Collecting Institutions. The charter aims to promote and reinforce best practice approaches to the acquisition, display and de-accessioning of Indigenous works of art. The charter complements the Indigenous Australian Art Commercial Code of Conduct and ensures that participating institutions work at the highest level of ethical principles when dealing with the Indigenous art market. The principles and philosophy of the charter were fully observed throughout 2010–11.

Collections donated under the Cultural Gifts Program

Every year the Museum facilitates the acquisition of donations under the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program. This program encourages donations of culturally significant items from private collections to public museums, art galleries, libraries and archives. Donors of cultural gifts are eligible for the following tax incentives: deductions for the market value of gifts, exemption from capital gains tax and the option to apportion their deduction to a number of people and over a period of five income years.

Over the year, three collections were donated through the program:

  • a 1959 Wolseley 1500 car and a range of materials associated with documenting, maintaining and displaying the vehicle, including a number of tools and spare parts, the certificate of registration and the operator’s handbook (Robert Crompton collection)
  • forensic exhibits relating to the trial of Lindy and Michael Chamberlain and the royal commission into their convictions for murder and accessory to murder, respectively, of their daughter, Azaria Chamberlain, as well as clothing worn at significant family events (Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton collection no. 5)
  • a carved wooden portrait depicting the head and shoulders of an Aboriginal man, carved in 1917 by renowned Prussian-born woodcarver Robert Wilhelm Prenzel, based on a photograph taken by Henry King, which also inspired the cover of the Bulletin in October 1891 (Roger and Shirley Brideson collection).

A further four collections are currently being processed as donations for the 2010–11 financial year.

Accessioning the collection

Accessioning is the process that formally registers an object into the Museum’s permanent collection. During the year the Museum accessioned 4396 objects. Among the notable objects and collections accessioned this year were an 1886 illuminated address to Premier Graham Berry from William Barak and Coranderrk residents; designs and materials documenting the collaboration and making of the Parliament House Embroidery by embroiderers’ guilds from across Australia; a Grant Featherston-designed Expo Mark II Sound Chair from Expo ’67, Montreal; and an acrylic painting, Walungawari Waterhole, by Queenie McKenzie.

The Museum’s Archive Collection comprises collections of paper, photographic and audiovisual material that support the interpretation of the National Historical Collection. Over the past year, 13 collections containing two audiovisual items, 140 photographic items and 80 paper items were accessioned. Fewer collections were processed this year due to competing exhibition priorities.

Highlights from these collections include:

  • books, photographs and documents relating to the life and achievements of trailblazing motorist and cyclist Francis Birtles, collected by Peter Wherrett
  • design drawings for the interior details of the FJ and FX Holden models
  • photographs and documents relating to emu egg carver Bill Reid.

No objects were de-accessioned from the National Historical Collection during 2010–11.

Documenting the collection

A key business activity for 2010–11, supporting the strategic priority ‘Develop the National Historical Collection, enhance collections management and improve collections storage’, was to build upon the success of the previous Accessions Backlog Project by further addressing the documentation of the collection.

The Legacy Collections Project was established in July 2009 to document the Museum’s legacy collections. These are collections previously acquired by the Museum for which the assessment and documentation is incomplete. In 2010–11, 11,330 objects were either added to the electronic catalogue or disposed of. Due to budget considerations, the project ceased at the end of the 2010–11 financial year. During the two years of the project, the Legacy Collections team processed 24,415 collection objects.

Photographic documentation

Images are an important component of object documentation and are included in collection database records. They also feature in publications, the website, marketing and promotional material, and media content. This year the photographic team produced more than 3800 images of collection and loan objects, undertook several field assignments and covered corporate and public events. Some significant projects this year were:

  • the culmination of the Landmarks gallery object photography, which comprises 2675 images produced since it began in early 2010
  • 15 location assignments to support the Landmarks gallery, including Mount Tom Price in Western Australia; Tasmania; the Lachlan Valley, Port Macquarie, Sydney, Springfield station and the Gundary Plains in New South Wales; Melbourne, Victoria; and Keith, in South Australia, resulting in over 3200 images
  • digitisation of collection material, including footballer and broadcaster Johnny Warren’s scrapbooks and 307 convict love tokens from the Timothy Millett collection, with more than 2200 images being produced.


In 2010–11, the Copyright and Production Services unit undertook significant work to source and clear images owned by individuals, commercial organisations and cultural institutions throughout Australia and internationally. The Museum’s website, exhibitions, marketing and publications require copyright clearances for a large number of images. Approximately 8800 images were delivered to support the Museum’s documentation, exhibitions, publishing and communication activities. This represents an increase of 1500 over the previous year.

Managing digital assets at the Museum

The Museum holds over 450,000 digital images and audio, video and interactive works that document objects held in the National Historical Collection as well as Museum activities. These digital works are used by the Museum in exhibitions, on the Museum’s website and in print publications. Other institutions and members of the public also purchase and license digital works from the Museum. In 2010–11 the implementation of the automated digital asset management system (DAMS) was well underway, with a view to completion in early 2011–12.

Caring for the collection

Care of the National Historical Collection is a key activity within the Museum. The Conservation section has a significant role in this, including carrying out conservation treatments on collection items, and planning and implementing preservation activities to prevent damage and minimise deterioration to objects in the collection.

Conservation highlights of the year included:

  • preparation and installation of the objects for the Landmarks gallery, ranging from large functioning exhibits such as the Kenya station Simplex windmill and the Lees and Brander gear cutter, through to firearms, small manuscript books, flags, paper labels and preserved lizards
  • preparation of a sealed micro-environment display case for the 1963 Yirrkala bark petition. The unit includes a data logger that monitors the conditions inside the case and has movement detector activated lighting to ensure the petition is lit only when it needs to be. This highly significant and very fragile object is travelling in the exhibition From Little Things Big Things Grow.

The research efforts of the Museum’s Conservation section continue to be relevant to an international audience. This year, for example, the Tate galleries in London sought information on the Museum’s work with micro-fade testing to better determine the effect of light on specific objects.

Although the number of conservation treatments was down on previous years’ figures, the Conservation section processed a record number of objects (8359) — this included items treated, items condition-checked, pest management treatments, exhibition items installed and de-installed and objects stabilised for storage.

Two women stand either side and slightly to the rear of a mannequin. The mannequin's torso has neither arms nor a head and is finished in a dark grey material. The women, both wearing short white gloves, lean in to adjust the waistband of a skirt, which covers the lower half of the mannequin. The long skirt is mainly light grey in colour, with black lace down the centre, around the hem and in three vertical bands from about knee to hem.

Textile conservator Carmela Mollica (left) and conservation student Kerryn Wagg prepare a late 19th-century dress for display in Landmarks.

Number of conservation treatments on collection or loan items, 2001–11

Number of
2001–02 1100
2002–03 1200
2003–04 1500
2004–05 1600
2005–06 1770
2006–07 2175
2007–08 2289
2008–09 2138
2009–10 1469
2010–11 534

Storing and moving the collection

Storage of objects is a continuing challenge for the Museum. Fewer than 4 per cent of collection objects are on display or on loan at any one time. The remainder are stored at repositories in the northern Canberra suburb of Mitchell. Work to make better use of current storage space and improve storage for important collections, and planning for short- to long-term storage developments continued this year.

Activities included:

  • consolidating and improving access to collections, including rehousing and repacking of collections processed by the Legacy Collections Project team
  • restructuring collection storage areas to accommodate temporary exhibition development areas
  • preparing collection storage areas for the ‘Come into our shed’ open day
  • attending to 893 movement requests, with 5775 objects moved between Museum sites for a variety of purposes, including access for research, documentation, conservation assessment, treatment, display or permanent storage.

Making the collection accessible

Lending the collection

The Museum makes objects from the National Historical Collection available for loan to other cultural institutions, and borrows objects from around Australia and internationally to enhance its own exhibitions.

Loans from our collection this year included:

  • four paintings, Walungawari Waterhole and Mistake Creek Massacre, by Queenie McKenzie, and Wallaby Men Dreaming at Marru(nga) and Dreaming Story at Warlugulong (Warlukulangu), by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, on loan to the Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany, for display in Remembering Forward — Australian Aboriginal Painting since 1960
  • seven bark paintings by Bardayal Nadjamerrek on loan to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, for display in the Bardayal ‘Lofty’ Nadjamerrekexhibition
  • an architectural model of the ‘Knot’ design element of the National Museum of Australia on loan to the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning, University of Melbourne, for display in the Alumni RetrospectiveSeries exhibition featuring architecture firm Ashton Raggatt McDougall.

Providing public access

As well as exhibiting and lending objects from the National Historical Collection, the Museum provides special access to its collection repositories and responds to public enquiries regarding the collection. During the year, there were 60 visits to the repositories, and Museum staff responded to numerous requests for information.

Visitors to the repositories included researchers, community members and groups, filmmakers, donors and their families, university students, artists and curators from other institutions researching for exhibitions. Enquiries covered a diverse range of collection items, including Australian Aboriginal and Pacific Islander material, photographs and documents, and large technology objects.

Some special visitors given access to particular Museum objects this year included:

  • Xinh Le, to view the refugee boat on which he came to Australia as a young child in 1978
  • weavers from the Australian Tapestry Workshop, Melbourne, to study the painting Kunawarritji to Wajaparni, created by eight artists in 2007 as part of the Canning Stock Route Project. The Australian Tapestry Workshop has been commissioned to weave a tapestry based on this painting for the Australian Embassy to the Holy See
  • Lance and Trevor Boucher, to view the steam-powered stationary engine and vertical boiler used by their grandfather, William Price, to power a sawmill on his property near Smith’s Creek, East Gippsland, Victoria.

Online access to the collection

Online access to the Museum’s collection database is provided by the online public access catalogue, ‘Search our collections’. This year, 11,392 records were made available online, increasing the total number available to the public to 56,955 records. This year, collections released to the web included:

  • the Papuan Official collection, comprising Papuan artefacts collected in the early twentieth century, such as adzes, bags, canoes, fishing equipment, musical instruments and body ornaments
  • the Springfield–Faithfull Family collection, comprising more than 2000 artefacts relating to Springfield station, near Goulburn, New South Wales. This collection includes objects such as colonial era costumes, a bushranger medal, surveying instruments, a late nineteenth-century landau and firearms
  • the Timothy Millett collection, consisting of 307 convict love tokens and documents relating to the criminal justice system.

Enriching exhibitions

The Museum’s permanent galleries and temporary and travelling exhibitions displayed 6550 objects of which 1961 were loans from 516 lenders, comprising 266 institutions and 250 private individuals. Interesting private and institutional objects loaned to the Museum included:

  • a reed necklace with shell pendant, a child’s tomahawk, a headband, a Lammermoor boomerang and two Lammermoor clubs on loan from the British Museum for the Landmarks gallery
  • two giant street parade puppets of Marion Mahony Griffin and Walter Burley Griffin on loan from the Castlecrag Progress Association, the Haven Amphitheatre Committee and the Walter Burley Griffin Society for the Landmarks gallery
  • a mummified thylacine skull on loan from the Western Australian Museum for display in the Old New Land gallery
  • sections of coral core from Flinders Reef in the Coral Sea on loan from the Australian Institute of Marine Science, Townsville, for display in Exploration & Endeavour: The Royal Society of London and the South Seas
  • three shields with incised carving, an emu feather girdle, a rectangular basket, a boomerang, a hooked club and a mushroom-headed club collected by the von Stieglitz brothers; and John Mitchell’s ‘1782’ club coat and sash on loan from the National Museum of Northern Ireland for display in Not Just Ned: A True History of the Irish in Australia
  • a harp, two oil paintings, an illuminated address and a stave blackboard drawing device on loan from the Sisters of Mercy, Melbourne Congregation, for display in Not Just Ned: A True History of the Irish in Australia.
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