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Developing the collection

The National Historical Collection originally comprised objects transferred to the Museum by the Australian Government following the Museum's establishment in 1980. These were mostly from the former Australian Institute of Anatomy, the former Institute of Aboriginal Studies and the University of Sydney, as well as a number of government departments and agencies. Since 1980 the Museum has acquired objects through donations and purchase.

The Museum's Collections Development Framework guides acquisition practice, as measured by the PBS performance indicators. Further developing the collections within this framework was an identified business priority for 2006–07 (specified in the Strategic Plan under its second key strategic priority, 'Care for the National Historical Collection').

Three woven pandanus, mermaid-like Yawkyawk sculptures, by Kunwinjku artists (left) Marina Murdilnga and (centre and right) Lulu Laradjbi.
Recently acquired woven pandanus Yawkyawk sculptures, by Kunwinjku artists (above left) Marina Murdilnga and (centre and above right) Lulu Laradjbi.

This year was extremely productive for the collections development program, implemented by curatorial teams. The Museum spent a total of $2.292 million on acquisitions for the National Historical Collection in 2006–07, including $1.040 million from a special acquisitions fund provided by the Australian Government. With this investment, the Museum was able to secure compelling artefacts for the National Historical Collection. Important objects acquired through purchase or gift this year included:

  • artefacts related to Captain James Cook, including a magnifier and plane table frame with rule and square protractor used to assist in accurate coastal mapping
  • a brass nameplate bearing the stamped impression 'Ludwig Leichhardt 1848'. Ludwig Leichhardt is one of Australia's renowned inland explorers, who disappeared without trace in April 1848 while leading an expedition to cross the continent from east to west
  • a George III beefwood (casuarina) and tulipwood banded Pembroke work table, made in the 1790s from planks of beefwood sent by naval surgeon-general John White to Sir Andrew Snape Hamond, a celebrated eighteenth-century naval commander
  • a medal struck in association with the French expedition to Australia in 1800 led by Nicolas Baudin
  • two mulga plaques and a carved boomerang made by the renowned Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira in the 1930s
  • four silver salt spoons made by John Joel Cohen, a colonial silversmith based in Sydney, for Roderic O'Connor (1784–1860), landowner and third commissioner of survey and valuation in Van Diemen's Land.
Image on left: Magnifier in silver capstan-style case on map. Image on right: Detail of a work table (top, drawer and handle) made from planks of beefwood.
Above left: Magnifier in silver capstan-style case, presented by Captain James Cook to astronomer William Bayly. Above right: Detail of a work table made from planks of beefwood sent from Botany Bay by naval surgeon-general John White to Sir Andrew Snape Hamond, 1790s.
Three images of the mourning locket. The centre image is of the open locket revealing a photo of Les Darcy (on left) and a lock of his hair on a blue background (on right). The other two images are of the front (inscribed with WOS, 1917) and back of the locket, which both feature an intricate floral design.
Recently acquired mourning locket containing a photograph of legendary boxer Les Darcy and a lock of his hair, belonging to his fiancée, Winnie O'Sullivan, 1917.

Cost of acquisitions 2001–07

Financial year

Cost of acquisitions

2001-02

$190,000

2002-03

$381,000

2003-04

$566,000

2004-05

$1,930,000

2005-06

$2,002,000

2006-07

$2,292,000

The Museum's Council formally approves the inclusion of objects into the National Historical Collection. This year Council approved 94 significant collections during the year, the details of which are in Appendix 3.

Curatorial teams working on two new exhibition galleries, Australian Journeys and Creating a Country (as part of the ongoing implementation of the Review of Exhibitions and Public Programs (2003)), undertook considerable targeted collecting. Acquiring material related to European voyaging and migration to Australia during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was a particular focus.

Late nineteenth-century toy theatre with hand-painted proscenium facade, showing a scene from Sleeping Beauty
Late nineteenth-century toy theatre with hand-painted proscenium facade, showing a scene from Sleeping Beauty.

Other targeted collecting projects focused on material relating to the pressing environmental issues of water and salinity, the history of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme, and the histories of netball and rugby league. Objects from these collections will be included in the current permanent galleries or in forthcoming temporary exhibitions.

This year staff also reviewed a series of operating procedures used for collection assessment and documentation. The new procedures increased transparency of the decision-making process for including material in the National Historical Collection and produced a simplified 'Deed of Gift'. An audit of the new procedures, conducted at the end of the financial year, will inform other procedural improvements planned for 2007–08.

When science meets history

Conservator David Hallam (seated) and curator Matthew Higgins examine details of the Ludwig Leichhardt nameplate through a microscope, and (inset) the brass Ludwig Leichhardt nameplate, 1848.
Conservator David Hallam (seated) and curator Matthew Higgins examine details of the Ludwig Leichhardt nameplate, and (inset) the Ludwig Leichhardt nameplate, 1848.

Authenticating the Leichhardt nameplate

The disappearance of explorer Ludwig Leichhardt's third major expedition in 1848 and the failure to find any definite artefacts of the expedition have been enduring mysteries. In November 2006 the Museum acquired a small object that resolved a large piece of one of the great puzzles of Australian history — what happened to Leichhardt.

The brass nameplate marked 'LUDWIG. LEICHHARDT. 1848' was discovered around 1900, attached to a partly burnt firearm in a boab tree near Sturt Creek, between the Tanami and Great Sandy deserts. It was passed to a South Australian family from whom the Museum acquired the nameplate.

After extensive historical and scientific research, the Museum's curators and conservators declared it genuine. Detailed scientific analysis by conservators, in collaboration with other scientists at CSIRO and the University of Canberra, shows the brass dates from the first half of the nineteenth century. Importantly, the results of the scientific analysis are entirely consistent with the historical record, providing corroboration of provenance.

The nameplate, the first authenticated relic of the 1848 journey, sheds light on an important part of the mystery. While it does not tell us where Leichhardt died, it provides evidence that he made it at least two-thirds of the way across the continent during his east–west crossing attempt.

The Leichhardt nameplate was displayed at the Museum during December 2006 and will be included in the new Creating a Country gallery. Detailed information on the scientific analysis of the plate is available on the Museum's website.