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Developing the collection

The National Museum’s main collection is known as the National Historical Collection. It 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 guided by its Collections Development Plan and Collections Development Framework. The framework allows for the identification and prioritisation of collecting, and the assessment of potential collection material.

In 2013–14, the Museum spent a total of $1.113 million in acquiring compelling objects for its collections – predominately for the National Historical Collection. This included purchases acquired for $995,326 and donations valued at $246,296. Collection-related costs of $98,860 were also incurred during the year. Unspent funds of $1.345 million (including $0.864 million from this year’s budget) will be carried forward into the 2014–15 financial year. Some of the significant objects acquired through the course of the year were:

  • a group of 17 bagu sculptural figures made by artists from the Girrigin Arts Centre, Queensland, which visually and conceptually represent Aboriginal people from the Cardwell region, and provide their contemporary approach to a significant aspect of the distinctive rainforest culture
  • the 1977 Holden Torana, previously owned by Michael Chamberlain, which played a significant role in the legal cases that followed the disappearance of baby Azaria Chamberlain at Uluru in 1980
  • a 72-panel painting by Noongar artist Christopher Pease titled Panoramic View of Minang Boojar (Minang Land), presenting a contemporary Indigenous perspective on early European exploration of south-western Australia
  • woodblock engravings Bourke Street West in the Forenoon (1864) and The Australian Sketchbook (1865) by ST Gill, illustrating the centrality of horses to the city in colonial Australia and the wide range of uses the animals were put to
  • an 1840s portrait of Jorrocks, a significant early Australian racehorse
  • a uniform belonging to James Taylor, a shoeing smith attached to A Squadron of the 9th Light Horse
  • mechanical shears awarded to Jack Howe, renowned for several extraordinary shearing feats performed in central Queensland in 1892
  • a pocket watch presented to explorer John McDouall Stuart by the Royal Geographical Society in 1859
  • Seven Sisters, a 2013 painting by Tjampawa Katie Kawiny, depicting episodes of the Seven Sisters story as they are represented in sites along the songline that crosses the Martu, Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara lands
  • the Melbourne Cup Winning Trainer’s Cup 1954, awarded to first-time racehorse owner Leicester Russell Spring, owner of Rising Fast, the only racehorse to win the Caulfield Cup, the Melbourne Cup and the Cox Plate in a single year
  • the copper Charlotte medal, one of the first pieces of colonial art produced in Australia, by a convict on board one of the First Fleet ships soon after its arrival in Botany Bay
  • four works by Indigenous glass artist Jenni Kemarre Martiniello referencing the traditional roles of women in Indigenous society as collectors and gatherers
  • an 1871 Tichborne Claimant medal and carte-de-visite, souvenirs of the widely publicised civil court case that captured public interest in both Australia and Britain during the 1870s
  • a commemorative airmail box, presented by Roslyn Foster Bowie Philp to Lord Charles Wakefield on the event of Charles Ulm taking off from Sydney’s Richmond Aerodrome for New Plymouth, New Zealand, in the aircraft Faith in Australia on 3 December 1933
  • an important collection of books covering the history of phrenology with a particular focus on Australian Indigenous remains.

The Museum’s Council formally approves the inclusion of objects into the National Historical Collection. This year the Council approved 99 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, two collections were donated to the Museum through the program. These were:

  • a pony-sized sulky and matching harness used by Mary Willsallen, a founding member of the Australian Carriage Driving Society, and regular competitor in horse-related activities at agricultural shows for more than 50 years
  • an extensive collection of children’s toys, used primarily by Susan and Andrew Gibson on their parents’ property, Burrungurroolong, near Goulburn, New South Wales, during the 1920s and 1930s.

Accessioning the collection

Accessioning is the process that formally registers an object into the Museum’s permanent collection. During the year, the Museum accessioned 1035 objects. Among the notable objects and collections accessioned this year were:

  • a photograph album owned by David Davis, owner of Phar Lap, featuring each of Phar Lap’s Australian race wins
  • a Corona typewriter and carry case used by Elyne Mitchell, author of the Silver Brumby series of novels
  • a bark painting from about 1963 by Narritjin Maymuru featuring the Australian coat of arms
  • the 1866 Melbourne Cup won by racehorse The Barb, trained by John Tait
  • a collection of medals, sashes and a shirt from the 1920s–30s won and used by champion cyclist Ken Ross in Australia and overseas
  • a collection of nine paintings produced by artists associated with Warakurna Artists, a locally owned and managed art centre in the Warakurna community, Western Australia
  • a collection of four woven-fibre figures and one basket by artists associated with the Tjanpi Desert Weavers, run by the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (NPY) Women’s Council in South Australia
  • a collection of T-shirts, books and ephemera relating to the ‘Life. Be In It.’ public health campaign of the late 1970s and 1980s
  • a collection of handbells dating from 1910 that belonged to the Lynch family bellringers of Geelong, Victoria.

The Museum’s Archive Collection comprises paper, photographic and audiovisual articles that support the interpretation of the National Historical Collection. Over the past year, 213 items from nine collections were accessioned into the Archive Collection. Material approved for the Archive Collection this year include:

  • photographs, photocollages and documents supporting the Juanita Burr collection of material related to the Forgotten Australians
  • photographs, documents and a sound-recording supporting the James Pitkeathly collection of material from Pitkeathly’s experiences as a miner and at the Western Front during the First World War
  • the Inlander map of Australia, 1922, relating to the Australian Inland Mission
  • documents and a diary describing Nicholas Lidstone’s ride on a Douglas Vespa scooter from England to Australia, 1960–61.

No objects were de-accessioned from the National Historical Collection during 2013–14.


The Museum’s photographers produce high-quality images to support the Museum’s documentation, exhibitions and communication activities. This year more than 300 photographic assignments, including more than 15,000 images of collection objects, and photographs of corporate and public events, were delivered.

Images are 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 1100 images taken of objects from the Museum’s collection for the upcoming Spirited: Australia’s Horse Story exhibition
  • photography of collection material to support the new Torres Strait Islander gallery exhibition, Lag, Meta, Aus: Home in the Torres Strait
  • object and location photography for the redevelopment of Kspace.

Managing digital assets at the Museum

The Museum holds more than 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 2014, 87,724 images were being managed in the system. During 2013–14, the Museum also developed an improved external collection search tool, ‘Collection explorer’, that will allow the public to search and view many of its object images and documentation via the Museum’s website. This facility also makes it easier for the public to directly request images of Museum objects for reproduction as they are located.

Caring for the collection

The work of the Museum’s conservators is vital in enabling access to the collections for permanent and temporary exhibitions, travelling exhibitions and loans, photography and digitisation and for direct access by researchers, now and into the future. They do this by carrying out conservation treatments on collection items and by planning and implementing preservation activities to prevent damage and minimise deterioration to objects in the collection.

The work of conservation is often a back-of-house activity, but the section continues to contribute to the planning of public programs, and its work is increasingly visible through social media activities such as the Royal Daimler project blog and through talks and presentations to interested groups. Highlights for 2013–14 included:

  • assessing and treating 122 bark paintings for the Old Masters: Australia’s Great Bark Artists exhibition. The work required a great deal of care and expertise to repair and support the barks and to consolidate flaking natural pigments
  • developing a new system for mounting the barks that has generated considerable interest among gallery and museum professionals elsewhere
  • conservation of the chassis of the Museum’s Daimler landaulette, as part of the Royal Daimler project, which included archive research and material sourcing in preparation for the conservation of the body of the Daimler
  • conservation and reassembly of the horsedrawn milk cart acquired for the upcoming exhibition, Spirited: Australia’s Horse Story, including more than 1000 hours’ work to uncurl and stick down flaking paint.

Number of conservation treatments on collection or loan items, 2004–14

Financial yearNumber of treatments
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
2013–14 1602

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 continued in 2013–14 to make better use of current storage space, improve storage for important collections and plan for short- to long-term storage developments. Activities included:

  • attending to 1116 movement requests, with 9565 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 facility and equipment improvements, including creating new and upgrading existing collection work areas at the offsite storage, improving collection access and safety
  • continuing collection storage maintenance, ongoing installation of inflatable vehicle enclosures, rehousing of the bark painting collection, and improving dust and pest protection in the collection.

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 the collection this year included:

  • a portrait in oils of Queen Elizabeth II, painted by William Dargie in 1954, for display in the Prime Minister’s office at Parliament House, Canberra
  • six wooden carvings of lizards and goannas, for display in the Ngintaka exhibition curated by the Ananguku Arts and Culture Aboriginal Corporation at the South Australian Museum, Adelaide
  • two bark paintings, The Milky Way and The Magellan Clouds from Groote Eylandt, Northern Territory, for display in the Mapping Our World: Terra Incognita to Australia exhibition at the National Library of Australia, Canberra
  • a needlework sampler depicting Botany Bay by 10-year-old Scottish girl Margret Begbie and an albumen photograph of George Duncan Guthrie, founder of Bendigo Pottery, for display in the exhibition For Auld Lang Syne: Images of Scottish Australia from First Fleet to Federation at the Art Gallery of Ballarat, Victoria
  • a kindergarten set of wooden building blocks and an electric radiator, for display in the Hostel Storiesexhibition at the Migration Museum, Adelaide
  • rugby union jumpers, a rugby league cap, an Australian women’s cricket team blazer, commemorative glassware, documentation and jewellery, ephemera from the 1954 royal tour, a T-shirt for the 1993 Australian Republican Movement, a cartoon, and Federation memorabilia, for display in the Green and Gold: Australia’s Sporting Colours exhibition at the National Sports Museum, Melbourne
  • A Penfolds Wines visitors book used between 1907 and 1934, featuring the signature of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, for display in an exhibit at the South Australian Museum, Adelaide.

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 49 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, documents and large technology objects. More than 520 objects were retrieved from storage for access visits. Visitors who were granted special access to Museum objects during the year included:

  • relatives of artists whose works feature in the Old Masters exhibition, who viewed other bark paintings in the Museum’s collection
  • members of the Nywaigi people, who viewed a range of objects from the Ingham area in northern Queensland
  • participants in the Jane Austen Festival, who viewed textile objects dating from the 18th century and the Regency period from the Faithfull Family collection
  • one of the three wearers of a mosquito-net wedding dress, who viewed the dress in the company of her daughters, a granddaughter and a great-granddaughter
  • to mark the 150th anniversary of bushrangers attacking Goimbla station, descendants of the station owners, David and Amelia Campbell, who viewed commemorative objects presented to the couple for their bravery
  • recipients of Community Heritage Grants, participants in the AIATSIS Step Up program, students of cultural heritage management at the University of Canberra, members of the Canberra Archaeological Society and members of the Illawarra Vintage Car Club, who all participated in collection tours.

Online access to the collection

An improved online facility allowing the public to access and explore the Museum’s collection database and associated images was developed during the year. This facility will be further developed to encourage greater public interaction with the Museum’s collections. This year, 1992 object records were made available online. The total number of objects available to the public as at 30 June 2014 was 66,020. Objects and collections released online included:

  • recent acquisitions and selections on display in the new Torres Strait Islander exhibition Lag, Meta, Aus
  • a collection of medallions, cattle-branding irons, a business archive, maps and photograph albums associated with the pastoral activities of the Emanuel family in New South Wales and Western Australia, dating from the 1860s to the 1960
  • the 1867 Melbourne Cup and Queen’s Plate trophies won by racehorse Tim Whiffler
  • a collection of 81 decorated items, including boomerangs, clubs and walking sticks, with many designs documenting experiences of interaction with European settlers, mainly originating from Aboriginal missions in eastern Australia during the period from the late 19th to the mid-20th centuries.
A chance to get behind the pieces in the exhibition – to understand a little more about them.
- Audience member, Old Masters lecture series

Enriching exhibitions

The Museum’s permanent galleries and temporary and travelling exhibitions displayed 6235 objects, of which 1062 were loans from 272 lenders, comprising 128 institutions and 144 private individuals. Interesting private and institutional objects loaned to the Museum during 2013–14 were:

  • a chess set belonging to Matthew Flinders, on loan from the State Library of New South Wales, for the Landmarks gallery
  • a ceremonial costume used in the Chinese Procession of Bendigo Easter Fair, on loan from the Golden Dragon Museum in Bendigo, for the Landmarks gallery
  • Narritjin Maymuru’s palette, pigments and brush, on loan from the National Gallery of Australia, for Old Masters
  • a sled used by Sir Douglas Mawson during the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, on loan from the Royal Australian Navy Heritage Centre, for Glorious Days.
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