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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 that were transferred to the Museum by the Australian Government following the Museum’s establishment in 1980. The major collections included those ofthe 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 2014–15, the Museum spent a total of $0.811 million in acquiring compelling objects for its collections — predominately for the National Historical Collection. This included purchases acquired for $768,015 and collection-related costs of $43,245. Donations received during the year are valued at $271,432. Unspent funds of $2.290 million (including$1.028 million from this year’s budget) will be carried forward into the 2015–16 financial year.

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

  • Tjunkaya Tapaya’s painting Kungkarangkalpa Attila (2014)
  • an engraving, The Mutineers Turning Lieut. Bligh and Part of the Officers and Crew Adrift from His Majesty’s Ship the Bounty (1790)
  • an 1852 Adelaide pound coin
  • the account of William Dampier’s voyage A Collection of Voyages. In Four Volumes (1729)
  • the account of Nicolas Baudin’s voyage Voyage de decouvertes aux terres australes (1807–16)
  • three early engravings of Botany Bay
  • a scrapbook of drawings from the 1880s by Barkindji artist Panga
  • a ghostnet dinghy and fish from Erub, Torres Strait
  • a book carried aboard HMB Endeavour throughout the voyage 1768 to 1771
  • a surfboard made by Vernon Ah Kee
  • an early 19th-century jigsaw puzzle — ‘A New Map of the World according to the Latest Discoveries’
  • a bark painting and painted log by John Mawurndjul
  • The 1888 ‘Coloured Champion of the World’ boxing trophy.

The Museum’s Council formally approves the inclusion of objects into the National Historical Collection. This year the Council approved 88 collections, details of which are set out in Appendix 3: National Historical Collection — material approved by Council, 1 July 2014 – 30 June 2015

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 giftsare 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 object was donated to the Museum through the program: Gurdurrku (Brolga), a bronze sculpture by Yolngu artist Gunybi Ganambarr, donated by Wayne and Vicki McGeoch.

Accessioning the collection

Accessioning is the process that formally registers an object into the Museum’s permanent collection. During the year, the Museum accessioned 1192 objects. Among the notable objects and collections accessioned this year were:

  • an opal and silver brooch, a silver powder compact and a Glomesh purse owned by Dame Enid Lyons
  • a desk designed by Walter Burley and Marion Mahony Griffin
  • a collection of violins and a viola made by William Winfield Dods dating from 1919–29
  • an 1813 holey dollar
  • a breastplate that was presented to the Yandruwandha people of Cooper Creek, South Australia, in 1862, in recognition of the assistance that they provided to John King, sole survivor of the Burke and Wills expedition of 1860–61
  • a 1940s horse-drawn milk wagon, commissioned in approximately 1947 by the owners of the Lincoln Park Dairy in Essendon, Victoria, and manufactured by coachbuilder William J Knight of Bendigo, Victoria
  • a painting by Pitjantjatjara artist Alison Munti Riley, depicting sites on the Seven Sisters songline around Amata Community, South Australia
  • a collection of material associated with the career of Australian Paralympic Games cycling champion, Susan (Sue) Powell.

The Museum’s Archive Collection comprises paper, photographic and audiovisual items that support the interpretation of the National Historical Collection. Over the past year, 323 items from 9 collections were accessioned into the Archive Collection. Material approved for the Archive Collectionthis year include:

  • a collection of photographs and documents associated with John Parsons’ Second World War service in the Royal Australian Air Force, his 1941 marriage to Sylvia Johnson and their early postwar life
  • photographs of the Bean car taken by Francis Birtles on his epic London to Melbourne journey, October 1927 to May 1928
  • a staff manual from Expo 67 in Montreal, Canada, donated by Ed and Lesley Haysom who worked in the Australian pavilion.

No objects were de-accessioned from the National Historical Collection during 2014–15.


The Museum’s photographers produce high-quality images to support the Museum’s documentation, exhibitions and communication activities. This year more than 279 photographic assignments, including more than 9317 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 the internal collection database and the public collection search database. They are also featured in publications and on the Museum’s website, and used for marketing, promotional and media content. Some significant projects this year were:

  • photography of collection material for the upcoming exhibition Encounters: Revealing Stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Objects from the British Museum
  • object photography for the Freewheeling: Cycling in Australia travelling exhibition
  • photography of collection material, including rare and fragile books for curatorial, conservation and web-based projects.

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.

The Museum’s digital asset management system, Piction, enables staff to preserve, request and deliver images more efficiently across the institution. By June 2015, 112,880 images were being managed in the system.

In July 2014, the Museum launched an improved external collection search tool, Collection Explorer, which offers the public engaging ways to browse Museum objects and discover rich imagery and information about our collections. This facility also makes it easier for the public to directly request images of Museum objects for reproduction.

Caring for the collection

Conservation continues to provide input into all facets of the Museum’s work through a number of programs and initiatives that are designed to enable access to the National Historical Collection and ensure the long-term care and preservation of the Museum’s collection well into the future. Highlights for 2014–15 included:

  • the preparation of National Historical Collection and loan objects for display in exhibitions such as Spirited: Australia’s Horse Story, the Australian of the Year Awards 2015 and The Home Front: Australia during the First World War
  • facilitating access to collection objects for loan to external agencies and institutions, and for research needs
  • continued care and maintenance of the Museum’s permanent gallery exhibitions and an ongoing involvement in the touring exhibitions program
  • the implementation of the prioritised conservation program, which ensures that areas of the collection requiring conservation treatment or preventive work can be identified and treated. The first project in the program was conservation of the Museum’s unique ‘wet specimens’ collection
  • reviewing the management and operation of the PS Enterprise, which resulted in a new management committee, chaired by the Head of Conservation, that oversees all aspects of the Enterprise’s operations. Ongoing maintenance work was undertaken on the vessel, including replacement of roofing material.
Conservator Kathryn Ferguson treating a 1930s bakery cart for display in Spirited: Australia’s Horse Story

Number of conservation treatments on collection

Financial yearNumber of treatments
2009–10 1469
2010–11 534
2011–12 1050
2012–13 2880
2013–14 1602
2014–15 1726

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 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 933 movement requests, with 8569 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 and 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.
Two men standing in front of a painting.
Standing in front of Uta Uta Tjangala’s 1981 masterpiece, Yumari, are Council member and Indigenous Reference Group chairman, Peter Yu, with Museum Director, Dr Mathew Trinca, at the launch of the British Museum partnership

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. There were 1,519,824 visitors that viewed Museum objects in cultural institutions around Australia.Loans from the collection this year included:

  • four paintings, including Yumari (1981) by Uta Uta Tjangala, Mistake Creek Massacre (1997) by Queenie McKenzie Nakarra, an untitled painting depicting six wandjina figures (1970) by Charlie Allungoy, and an untitled bark painting (1964) by Mathaman Marika; a placard from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy(1972); an untitled drawing by William Barak (1895); an Aboriginal breastplate; and a photographic print, Undiscovered #4 (2010), from a suite of 10 prints by Michael Cook. These objects were lent to the British Museum for display in the Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation exhibition
  • the 1949 Model 48/215 Holden sedan formerly owned by Essington Lewis for display at the National Motor Racing Museum, Bathurst, New South Wales, for the 200th anniversary of the Proclamation of Bathurst
  • an acrylic painting, Minyipuru (2007) by Muni Rita Simpson, Rosie Williams and Dulcie Gibbs for display in the exhibition Martu Art from the Far Western Desert at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney
  • a poster of the Aboriginal Cricket Team of 1868 and a studio photograph of a collaged diorama from the late 1890s for display in The Photograph and Australia at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art
  • a First World War board game ‘Trencho’ (1915) for display in the WWI: Love & Sorrow exhibition at the Melbourne Museum
  • a digging stick and a wooden club for display in the Wiradjuri Talkback exhibition at the Albury LibraryMuseum, New South Wales.

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.

Enquiries related to a range of collection items, including Aboriginal and Pacific Islander material, textiles, photographs, documents and large technology objects. More than 500 objects were retrieved from storage for access visits. Visitors who were granted special access to Museum objects during the year included:

  • representatives from a number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, who toured the collection repositories as part of the consultation process for the Encounters project
  • researchers for an Australian Research Council-funded joint project between Museum Victoria, the Australian National University and the Milingimbi community, who viewed objects from the Milingimbi region of Arnhem Land
  • Pintupi children from the Walungurru (Kintore) school, who viewed collection material from their area in the Western Desert region
  • family members of people represented in the Juozas Kvietelaitis, Benjamin James Stocks and Sons, Victor Andrew Stevens and Vincent Burns collections
  • researchers accessing the Graeme Clark/University of Melbourne — Cochlear Limited, Milo Dunphy and Victor Trumper collections
  • curators from the Harvard Art Museums, Boston, United States, and the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, who viewed collection objects in preparation for loan requests
  • recipients of Community Heritage Grants, students of cultural heritage management at the University of Canberra, members of the TR Register (Triumph Sidescreen Sports Car Club), Daimler and Lanchester Owners’ Car Club, and the Crossley Car Club, who participated in collection tours.

Online access to the collection

In July 2014, an improved online collection search tool was launched as part of the Museum’s commitment to increase access to the National Museum of Australia’s collections. On average, 4344 people have visited the Collection Explorer site each month. Collection Explorer will continue to be developed to encourage greater public engagement with the Museum’s collections. This year, 1212 object records were made available online. The total number of objects available to the public as at 30 June 2015 was 67,198. Objects and collections released online this year included:

  • recent acquisitions and selections displayed in the exhibition Spirited: Australia’s Horse Story
  • a collection of memorabilia pertaining to women’s cricket in the 1930s and the first women’s test matches
  • material left by members of the public on the steps of the Victorian Parliament in the weeks following the Bali bombing on 12 October 2002, including cards, letters, paintings by children, wooden carvings and soft toys
  • a pair of late 18th-century embroidered maps of the Eastern and Western hemispheres, showing the tracks of Captain Cook’s three Pacific voyages
  • a brass-bound, cedar campaign writing box, presented to Colonel William Light (surveyor and founder of the City of Adelaide), from the officers of HMS Rapid
  • a collection of works of art made during the 1990s by artists at the Ngkawenyerre camp in the Utopia homelands, Northern Territory.

Enriching exhibitions

The Museum’s permanent galleries and temporary and travelling exhibitions displayed 7031 objects, of which 1378 were loans from 255 lenders, comprising 103 institutions and 152 private individuals. Notable private and institutional objects that were loaned to the Museum during 2014–15 were:

  • a swimsuit belonging to Annette Kellerman, on loan from the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, for the Eternity gallery
  • an orderly trolley and broom, on loan from the City of Melbourne Art and Heritage Collection, for Spirited: Australia’s Horse Story
  • a diary titled ’Memorandum of a journal on board the ship Henrietta from Sydney to Calcutta and thence to London, 1844–1845’, by Daniel Wilson, on loan from the State Library of New South Wales, for Spirited: Australia’s Horse Story
  • a wooden bowl from the Tami Islands, Papua New Guinea, on loan from the UQ Anthropology Museum, University of Queensland, for the Landmarks gallery.
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