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Managing the collection

The Museum's Registration section manages the acquisition, documentation, storage, and accessibility of objects in the NHC. Some highlights of these roles throughout the year are summarised below.

Accessioning objects

Accessioning is the process that formally registers an object into the Museum's permanent collection. The allocation of a unique number and recording of source and identification details establishes its identity and ownership as well as the Museum's accountability for the object. During the year, the Museum accessioned 16 collections, comprising a total of 722 objects. Such collections included the Cecil Ballard Jnr collection of royal memorabilia, which featured in the Museum's exhibition Royal Romance, from 26 February to 31 October.

Photo of Ian Cramer
Registration officer Ian Cramer manoeuvres the Hong Hai into its new storage location. Photo: George Serras.

Deaccessioning objects

In January 2004 ownership of the Gu:na:ni shield from the collection of anthropologist Dr Ursula McConnel was transferred from the Museum to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS). The shield was made at Yarrabah, northern Queensland in the 1930s and had come into the Museum's collection in the early 1980s via the Sydney University collection stored as part of the National Ethnographic collection at the Australian Institute of Anatomy. The shield had been on long-term loan to AIATSIS since its inception in the 1960s, when its design had been used as the original Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (now AIATSIS) logo.

Storing objects

Although 50 per cent of the NHC is available for exhibition, public programs and research, fewer than four per cent of the objects are on display at any one time. The rest are mostly stored at the Museum's repositories in the northern Canberra suburb of Mitchell. During 2003-2004, work continued to maximise the storage available and to improve conditions for important collection objects, such as the hull of the Museum's Vietnamese refugee boat Hong Hai. Further moves planned for next financial year will re-unite the Hong Hai with its wheelhouse and make them accessible for public viewing.

An ongoing project to relocate bark paintings and other ethnographic material from a temporary repository to the main repository is due to be completed next financial year. This, along with other internal storage projects, will improve the use of space at the main repository.

At the Museum's Acton site, the South Back of House facilities were upgraded to improve short-term storage, security and maintenance facilities for objects being prepared for exhibition.

Documenting objects

Improving documentation of the collections, and therefore making information about them more readily available, continued to be a priority during the year. Some 3800 records were added to the object records database, bringing the total number of records on this system to 68,800. The Museum has, in the past, operated a number of databases with collections-related information. During the year, data from such systems was transferred into the main object records database. This in turn was prepared for transfer into a new integrated collections and exhibitions information management system. The system, referred to as Opal, will centralise all electronic records of the Museum's collections and exhibitions, including object records, research reports, curatorial assessments, publications, website text, and digital assets such as images, audio interviews, film footage and other multimedia. Opal is due to be implemented within the Museum in early 2004-2005.

The Museum continued to improve its ability to monitor the location and movement of objects by using a bar coding system. More than 2500 objects were bar coded this year, bringing the total to 25,000 objects bar coded since the system was introduced in 1999.

Registration staff also continued to take digital photographs for record purposes of all objects that are received at Mitchell with high level record photographs of some objects taken as required.

Conserving objects

Photo of Nicki Smith
Conservator Nicki Smith examines one of the Museum's large collection of bark paintings. Photo: Dragi Markovic.

Preserving the NHC for future generations is one of the Museum's key strategic priorities. During the year, the Museum's conservators treated more than 1500 objects, an increase of 300 objects over the previous year. Conservation treatment highlights included:

  • the treatment and preparation of objects for the major travelling exhibition Outlawed!, as well as smaller exhibitions Behind the Lines, Native Title Business and Royal Romance
  • a major mechanical overhaul of the Paddle Steamer Enterprise on Lake Burley Griffin
  • conservation of the AE Smith collection of stringed instruments. This resulted in a highly successful public concert held in the Hall to celebrate the third birthday of the National Museum on Acton Peninsula
  • conservation of the Cobb & Co coach.

Museum conservators also continued involvement and international conservation related activities including:

  • organising the International Council of Museums (ICOM)
    - Committee for Conservation 'Metals 2004: Triennial Metals Conservation Conference' to be held in October 2004. The program includes preventive conservation of metals, diagnosis, improving treatment methods, and conservation of composite artefacts
  • a Collections Disaster Recovery Workshop for cultural institutions held at the Canberra Institute of Technology.

Loaning objects

New Zealand Maori objects of Hone Heke
Australian and New Zealand Maori welcome the objects of Hone Heke prior to the opening of Outlawed! Photo: Dragi Markovic.

The Museum makes objects from the NHC available for loan to other cultural institutions, and brings in objects from around Australia and overseas for its own exhibitions.

Loans from the collection this year included:

  • two acrylic paintings by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri for display in the Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri Retrospective to be held at the Art Gallery of South Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria, the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Queensland Art Gallery
  • 18 Aboriginal bush toys for display in the exhibition Rubbish: Recycling in Art at Global Arts Link, Ipswich, Queensland
  • Play School rocket clock and Taj Mahal diorama for display in the exhibition The Way We Were at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Ultimo, New South Wales
  • opium kit, smoking pipe, two tobacco tins and a tobacco pouch for display in the exhibition Drugs: A Social History at the Justice and Police Museum, Sydney, New South Wales
  • photographs, clothing, sporting equipment and memorabilia for display in the exhibition Sport: More thanHeroes and Legends at the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, New South Wales
  • eight embroidery samplers from the Parliament House Embroidery Collection for display in the exhibition Fabrics of Change: Trading Identities at the Flinders University City Gallery, Adelaide, South Australia.

A full list of outward loans is in Appendix 5.

The Museum's permanent galleries and travelling exhibitions displayed 4805 objects of which 825 were loans from 227 lenders, comprising 106 institutions and 121 private individuals. Significant international loans for the Outlawed! exhibition included archaeological weapons from the Museum of London; 108 Shiwan ceramic figures from the Macau Museum of Art; and a rich display of historic weapons including two very early firearms relating to the famous Maori Warrior, Hone Heke.

All objects currently on loan to the Museum are listed in Appendix 4.

Making objects accessible

As well as exhibiting and lending objects from the National Historical Collection, the Museum provides special access to its collection repositories and responds to specific inquiries about objects on request. During the year, visits were arranged for 32 external requestors and responses provided for a further 35 written requests for information. Visitors included national and international researchers, collection donors, the Vintage Sports Car Club, National Aboriginal Islander Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) week participants, students from the History Teaching Fellowship and cultural heritage management courses, members of the Friends of the Museum, artists, and museum professionals. Inquiries concerned a diverse range of collection items, including musical instruments, wet specimens, Aboriginal art and artefacts, the Melanesian collection, woven and embroidered quilts, firefighting equipment, and large technology objects.

Repatriation of remains and sacred objects

The Museum provides advice and assistance on the repatriation of Indigenous human remains and sacred objects to federal, state and territory cultural heritage institutions, Indigenous communities and representatives, and to the media and general public.

The Museum's Repatriation section strictly controls the management of human remains and secret/sacred objects, to ensure that material is cared for in a culturally sensitive and appropriate manner.

The Museum has not actively sought to acquire human remains or sacred objects. However, as the prescribed authority under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984, the Museum is the repository for remains and objects referred to the Federal Minister under the Act.

The Museum also holds human remains and sacred objects transferred from the Australian Institute of Anatomy collections in 1985. These have been deaccessioned and do not form part of the National Historical Collection.

During 2003-2004, the Museum returned the remains of 132 individuals to Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, South Australia, New South Wales, Western Australia and Victoria. In addition, 308 secret/sacred objects were returned to communities of the Pilbara and Kimberley in Western Australia. This was part of a larger transfer of 846 secret/sacred objects and 42 sets of human remains from several Australian museums coordinated and managed by the Museum's Repatriation section.

The Museum also assisted other organisations with the return of human remains from overseas. Programs included assisting the:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Commission to coordinate the management and repatriation of human remains returned from Edinburgh University in Scotland
  • Foundation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research Action, by providing temporary storage for human remains and objects returned from the Horniman Museum, the Manchester Museum, and the Royal College of Surgeons in London
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Services, in the storage and repatriation of remains and objects from Michigan in the USA and from Sweden.

The Museum's Repatriation section is supported by funding from the Museum, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Services, and the Return of Indigenous Cultural Property Program - an initiative of the Cultural Ministers Council and administered by the Department of Communication, Information Technology and the Arts.