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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 Anthropology 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. A new Collections Development Framework for the period 2013 to 2015 was implemented. The framework allows for the identification and prioritisation of collecting, and provided a framework in the 2012–13 financial year for assessment of potential collection material.

The 2012–13 financial year was productive for the collections development program. The Museum acquired objects for the National Historical Collection for a total of $1.999 million, including purchases acquired for $1.802 million and donations valued at $0.197 million, securing many compelling objects for the nation. Unspent funds of $164,008 from this year’s budget will be carried forward into the 2013–14 financial year. Some of the significant objects acquired through the course of the year were:

  • a 1918 Australian Six prototype motor vehicle. The Australian Six, manufactured from 1919 to 1925, represented a significant attempt to establish a domestic automotive industry in Australia
  • the 1866 Melbourne Cup, presented to ‘Honest’ John Tait, owner and trainer of the winning horse, The Barb
  • an album of rare photographs of Coranderrk Aboriginal station taken in 1865–66 by photographer Carl Walter
  • a Sydney Brass sulky with matching harness and associated show ribbons, photographs, breeding records and other manuscript material relating to competition and breeding
  • bakery cart no. 168, operated by the Newcastle & Suburban Co-operative Ltd, in original condition with extant signage, used from 1930 to the 1960s
  • a photograph album of David Davis, owner of Phar Lap, featuring the finishes of all of Phar Lap’s Australian wins
  • a coloured chalk artwork on black paper created by artist Alexander Nganjmirra that provides significant insight into the attitudes of Indigenous people living in Arnhem Land towards the royal tours of the British monarchy.

The Museum’s Council formally approves the inclusion of objects into the National Historical Collection. This year the Council approved 39 collections, details of which are set out in Appendix 3.

Collections donated through the Cultural Gifts Program

Every year the Museum facilitates the acquisition of donations through 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, one collection was donated through the program: an untitled bark painting of an emu with eggs and a hunter by renowned Western Arnhem Land artist and senior Kunwinjku elder, Bardayal Nadjamerrek, completed in 1988 at Gunbalanya (Carol and Richard Kemp collection).

Accessioning the collection

Accessioning is the process that formally registers an object into the Museum’s permanent collection. During the year, the Museum accessioned 821 objects.

Among the notable objects and collections accessioned this year were:

  • the 1867 Melbourne Cup and the 1867 Queen’s Plate trophy, both of which were won by the racehorse Tim Whiffler, who was trained by renowned trainer Etienne de Mestre
  • a pre-Federation handpainted Australian flag from the Klondike goldfields
  • paintbrushes, an easel and utensils belonging to Australian artist Sir William Dargie (1912–2003) used to paint a copy of his famous 1954 depiction of Queen Elizabeth II, known as ‘the wattle portrait’, also held within the Museum’s collection
  • twenty-nine containers (including baskets made from fibre and water carriers made from kelp), three woven fibre specimens and an artist’s journal, representing the work of 18 Tasmanian Aboriginal women and girls who took part in the Tayenebe weaving project (2006–09)
  • sixty-four violins, two violas and a display case demonstrating flute-head making, representing a century of Australian violin-making from the 1800s to the late 1900s, collected by the prominent flute maker and violin collector Raymond Holliday.

The Museum’s Archive Collection comprises collections of paper, photographic and audiovisual material that support the interpretation of the National Historical Collection. Work on the Archive Collection this year primarily focused on reconciling existing documentation to improve physical and intellectual control over the collection.

No objects were de-accessioned from the National Historical Collection during 2012–13.


an important component of object documentation and are included in collection database records, featured in publications and the Museum’s website, and used for marketing, promotional and media content. Some significant projects this year were:

  • more than 500 images taken of the Museum’s bark paintings collection for the Old Masters: Australia’s Great Bark Artists exhibition
  • photography of large technology objects for exhibition in the Main Hall, including ‘behind-the-scenes’ documentation of conservation treatment
  • digitisation of over 8000 images from the National Historical Collection, which included 4000 images of postcards from the Lebovic postcard collection.

A six-month project, resulting in 11,293 images, was undertaken to digitise a range of paper objects including diaries, journals, letters and sketches. These high-resolution images will become accessible to the public through the Museum’s online Collection Search facility, allowing this previously unreleased content to be viewed in detail. Funding for this project was obtained from the Australian Government’s Supplementary Funding Initiative to improve remote and regional access to the Museum’s holdings.

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. The Museum uses these digital works in exhibitions, on its website and in print publications. Other institutions and members of the public also purchase and license digital works from the Museum. In 2012–13 the Museum’s new digital asset management system, Piction, was implemented enabling staff to preserve, request and deliver images more efficiently across the institution. By June 2013, 75,056 images were being managed in the system. Further enhancements will allow for the management of moving images in the new system. Preparations were also made during this time towards developing an improved facility for the public to access these images and collection object information through the Museum’s website.

Caring for the collection

Museum conservators play a significant role in the care of the National Historical Collection, 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. Museum conservators are also actively involved in enabling access to collection items by participating in exhibition programs and in treating and condition-checking outward loans and items for travelling exhibitions.

Highlights for 2012–13 included:

  • the Museum Workshop: The Art, Science and Craft of the Conservator exhibition, which allowed visitors to see conservators preparing objects for the Glorious Days: Australia 1913 exhibition and conserving a selection of objects from the National Historical Collection. Many visitors commented on their improved understanding of the behind-the-scenes work at the Museum
  • installation of large objects that are now on display in the Museum’s Main Hall.

The Museum’s micro-fading work, and its impact on changeover rates for light-sensitive objects on display in the galleries, is integral to the preservation of the Museum’s collection. The Museum’s work in this area has generated interest from other institutions, both nationally and internationally.

Number of conservation treatments
on collection or loan items, 2001–13

Financial yearNumber of treatments
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
2011–12 1050
2012–13 2880

Storing and moving the collection

Storage of objects is a continuing challenge for the Museum. About three 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:

  • attending to 792 movement requests, with 6205 objects moved within and between the four Museum sites for access, research, documentation, conservation assessment, treatment, display, permanent storage and packing for external display for travelling exhibitions and external loans
  • ongoing collection storage improvements, including the installation of new secure collection storage cabinets, cantilever racking systems to improve access to collections, and inflatable vehicle enclosures that provide improved dust and pest protection for vehicles in the collection
  • implementation of the ‘MVWise’ barcode tracking system developed by Museum Victoria, improving collection documentation and access to collections.

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:

  • the Royal Agricultural Society Challenge Shield, Dally Messenger’s New South Wales Rugby League cap from 1907, Eddie Mandible’s Australian Rugby Union jersey from 1908, a camera used on one of the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s outside broadcast vans, Vic Armbruster’s New South Wales and Queensland representative caps, and a cap from 1916 honouring Bill Fahey, for display in the Heroes and Legends exhibition at the Rugby League Museum, Sydney
  • relics from the 2003 bushfire at Mount Stromlo observatory in Canberra, including a fractured piece of yellow pyrex mirror blank from the telescope, a blackened piece of clear glass telescope lens and a scorched teacup, for display in the National Arboretum visitor centre, Canberra
  • a gold mourning locket containing a photograph of Australian champion boxer Les Darcy, on loan to the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales for display in The Wild Ones: Sydney Stadium 1908–1970 at the Museum of Sydney
  • the 1899 diary of Elizabeth McKenzie, wife of former Australian prime minister Ben Chifley; a booklet, map of Orient line routes, menus and a concert program; Christmas cards from former Australian prime minister Robert Menzies and his wife, Pattie; and a group of receipts for display in The McKenzie Story at the Chifley Home and Education Centre in Bathurst.

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 52 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, and curators from other institutions researching for exhibitions. Enquiries related to a range of collection items, including Aboriginal and Pacific Islander material, textiles, photographs and documents, and large technology objects. Over 400 objects were retrieved from storage for access visits.

Visitors who were granted special access to Museum objects during the year included:

  • members of the Bolger family, descendants of Coomee, also known as Maria of Ulladulla, who viewed a breastplate and fishing line associated with her family
  • representatives of the Kuyani, Barngarla and Kokatha peoples (from Whyalla, Port Augusta and the Gawler region) who viewed objects from their areas and learned about storage methods
  • Dr Katey Anderson, associate professor from York University, Toronto, who researched the gradiometer and Askion torsion balances in the Bureau of Mineral Resources collection
  • Alexander Barr, PhD candidate at the University of Rochester, who studied nineteenth-century Indigenous works on paper as part of his travel grant from the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art, Washington
  • Jo Acton and family, who viewed the trophy awarded to her Australian-born great-great-grandfather, William Sparkes, for his sportsmanship in a bare-knuckle fight held in Richmond, United Kingdom, in 1847
  • members of the Murrumbateman, Yass Valley and Hall Men’s Sheds and members of Technical Aid to the Disabled Inc. (TADACT) who visited the workshops and motor vehicle collections at Mitchell.

Online access to the collection

The public access catalogue, Collection Search, provides online access to the Museum’s collection database. This year, 4253 records were made available online, increasing the total number available to the public to 67,491 records. Objects and collections released to the web included:

  • bark paintings from across 84 sub-collections to fully represent the Museum’s holdings of over 2100 works
  • photographs, correspondence and personal effects relating to Karl Aumuller’s experiences in China during the early part of the twentieth century while working for the British–American Tobacco Company
  • items relating to writer Eleanor Dark’s domestic life at Varuna in the Blue Mountains, now a New South Wales Heritage-listed building and writers’ retreat.

Enriching exhibitions

The Museum’s permanent galleries and temporary and travelling exhibitions displayed 5654 objects of which 974 were loans from 265 lenders, comprising 129 institutions and 136 private individuals.

Notable private and institutional objects loaned to the Museum during 2012–13 included:

  • framed oil painting Sewing (The Artist’s Wife) by Hans Heysen, on loan from The Cedars (formerly the Heysen family home) for the Glorious Days: Australia 1913 exhibition
  • 1940s diving helmet of the type used in the Torres Strait, on loan from the Langley collection, Queensland Museum, for the Bipotaim: Stories from the Torres Strait exhibition in the First Australians: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples gallery
  • Annette Kellerman’s swimsuit, on loan from the Powerhouse Museum for the Glorious Days exhibition
  • the skull of a thylacine found on the Nullarbor Plain, on loan from the Western Australian Museum for the Old New Land: Australia’s People and Environment gallery
  • Sir Joseph Carruthers’ regalia of the Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George, on loan from the Carruthers family for the Journeys: Australia’s Connections with the World gallery.
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