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Managing the collection

The Museum's Registration section manages the accessioning, 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 73 collections, comprising a total of 403 objects. These collections included the Bali Bombing 2002 Memorial collection from the Parliament of Victoria, and the Matthew Flinders collection of the book A Voyage to Terra Australis in two volumes (plus atlas) detailing his expedition to Australia during 1801-1803.

Deaccessioning objects

No objects were deaccessioned from the Museum's permanent collection in this financial year.

Storing objects

Storage of objects is a continuing challenge for the Museum. Fewer than four per cent of collection objects are on display at any one time. The rest are stored at repositories in the northern Canberra suburb of Mitchell. Work progressed this year to make better use of current storage space and to improve storage for important collections. Activities included:

  • the Bark Painting Relocation Project, completed in April 2005. This provided improved storage and updated documentation for more than 400 paintings
  • removal of an unusable mezzanine level and replacing it with high-rise racking. This created much needed space for newly accessioned materials
  • relocation of more than 8900 objects onto new shelves. This also enabled stocktaking and bar coding of these objects
  • the first stages of relocating paper and textile objects to the main store to take advantage of the superior environmental conditions at this location.

Documenting objects

Improving documentation of existing collections, as well as documenting new acquisitions, continued to be a priority. The new collections and exhibitions information management system, Opal, was released to staff in July 2004. It now contains approximately 76,000 object records. Some 3500 records were added to the system in this financial year. This includes approximately 1500 records for items in the Springfield collection of colonial objects (see A major gift).

The implementation of the Opal system also provided an opportunity to review data standards and work practices. This work will continue during 2005-2006.

The Museum continued to systematically bar code the collection, this year adding 11,000 objects to the system.

Conserving objects

Photo of conservators with Holden
Conservators Peter Bucke, David Hallam and automotive engineer Col Ogilvie examine the paintwork on the Essington Lewis Holden.
Photo: George Serras.

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 1600 objects, condition reported 950 objects, conducted 11,334 pest and hazard checks and 364 pest treatments.

Conservation treatment highlights included:

  • consolidation treatment and relocation to upgraded storage of 470 bark paintings
  • treatment of 50 drawings of the Birdsville Track by Noelle Sandwith
  • major treatments of Sir Robert Menzies' Bentley, the Delaunay, and the Wolseley Shearing Plant
  • major treatment of the Oates riding habit.

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

  • hosting the International Council of Museums (ICOM) - Committee for Conservation Metal 2004: Triennial Metals Conservation Conference held 4-8 October 2004
  • attending the Getty Conservation Institute 'Director's Retreat for the Advancement of Conservation Education' at the University of Melbourne 20-22 July 2004, attended by conservation managers from the Asia-Pacific region
  • participating in the Tsunami Cultural Assistance Reference Group established to provide advice to Australian aid projects in tsunami affected countries
  • researching musical instrument collections in the UK, Europe and the USA to determine appropriate preservation methods for the Museum's musical instrument collection
  • participating in the design and development of an undergraduate training program for conservators at the Canberra Institute of Technology.
Photo of conference delegates
Delegates gather for the International Council of Museums metals conference hosted by the National Museum. Photo: Dragi Markovic.

Loaning objects

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:

  • a bark painting and sculpture by David Malangi for display in No Ordinary Place: The Art and Life of David Malangi to be held at the National Gallery of Australia, Queensland Art Gallery, Flinders University Art Museum and Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory
  • a shield, message stick, cross boomerang and stone knife for display at the Menmuny Museum, Yarrabah
  • a violin from the AE Smith collection for a performance at the ABC Eugene Goosens Hall.

A full list of outward loans is in Appendix 5.

The Museum's permanent galleries and travelling exhibitions displayed 5833 objects of which 1334 were loans from 146 lenders, comprising 67 institutions and 79 private individuals. Significant international loans for the Extremes exhibition (see Extremes: Survival in the Great Deserts of the Southern Hemisphere) included:

  • a balsa sea lion raft from the Museo Arqueologico de La Serena in Chile
  • 220,000-year-old hand axes from the National Museum of Namibia
  • Dr David Livingstone's cap and compass from the Royal Geographic Society in London.

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

Making objects accessible

As well as exhibiting and lending objects from the NHC, the Museum provides special access to its collection repositories and responds to specific inquiries about objects. During the year, visits were arranged for 38 external requestors and responses provided to a further 28 written requests for information. Visitors included national and international researchers, collection donors, members of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors, students from the University of Virginia, USA, students from the History Teaching Fellowship and University of Canberra Cultural Heritage Management course, members of the Friends of the Museum, artists and museum professionals. Inquiries concerned a diverse range of collection items, including musical instruments, gold mining objects, thylacine specimens, Aboriginal art and artefacts, horsedrawn vehicles 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 unprovenanced remains and objects referred to the Federal Minister under the Act. No remains have been deposited with the Museum under this Act.

Photo of attendees at the Swedish repatriation event
Community representatives with Senator the Hon. Amanda Vanstone, Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs and Jorgen Frotzier, Counsellor, Embassy of Sweden at the Swedish repatriation event. Photo: George Serras.

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 NHC.

During 2004-2005, the Museum transferred the remains of 67 individuals to Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, South Australia, New South Wales, Western Australia and Victoria. Of these returns, community representatives subsequently asked that the Museum hold 28 on their behalf until further notice.

The Museum also received requests from the Office of Indigenous Policy Development to assist with the repatriation of 18 sets of remains from Sweden and four from Michigan returned to Australia during 2004-2005.

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

  • 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
  • Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination, in the storage and repatriation of remains and objects from Edinburgh, Michigan, USA, and Sweden.

Council approved the revised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander human remains policy in June.

The Museum's Repatriation section is supported by funding from the Museum, the Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination and the Return of Indigenous Cultural Property Program - an initiative of the Cultural Ministers Council and administered by the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts.