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Managing the collection

Accessioning objects

Accessioning is the process that formally registers an object into the Museum's permanent collection. During the year, the Registration section accessioned 123 collections, comprising a total of 1042 objects. Among notable objects and collections accessioned this year were a hide water bottle carried by Robert O'Hara Burke during his ill-fated attempt to cross the continent in 1860; the Don Bradman collection, which includes a signed cricket bat used by 'The Don' in a test match at Nottingham, England, in 1934; an ethnographic collection compiled by the Reverend JW Schomberg during his time as superintendent at the Anglican Mission on Moa Island in the Torres Strait; and Professor Peter Spearritt's collection of over 200 pieces of royal memorabilia.

The Museum's Archive Collection contains paper and photographic material which supports the interpretation of the National Historical Collection. Over the past year, 46 collections containing six audiovisual items, 434 photographic items and 250 paper items were accessioned. Highlights from these collections include the Faithfull Family collection of 92 historic photographs taken at the Springfield merino station in New South Wales.

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

Documenting the collection

A key business activity for 2006–07 supporting the strategic priority, 'Care for the National Historical Collection', was the implementation of the first stage of the Documentation and Digitisation Plan.

Documentation and digitisation activities aim to address long-term collection information requirements. In early 2006, teams were established in the Registration, Curatorial and Collection Information Management sections to undertake backlog work and ensure documentation was recorded and made accessible in Opal, the centralised collection information management system.

Throughout 2006–07, the accessions backlog team made substantial inroads into documenting long-outstanding material. This involved a range of activities aimed at creating inventory-level information. The team accessioned approximately 2600 objects in 70 previously unaccessioned or partially accessioned collections. Some 5000 object accessioning records were added to the Opal database, and a further 6200 existing Opal records were verified and updated. Approximately 8000 object records were prepared for release to the 'Search our collections' section of the Museum's website. The team also provided access to 70 collections for curatorial assessment.

Examples of accession backlog objects and collections either accessioned or transferred into Opal this year include a pistol used by Frank Gardiner, the JW Lindo collection of ethnographic objects, the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine collection and the President Mikhail Gorbachev collection which includes a mounted piece of a Russian missile.

The Museum's Collection Information Management section worked closely with the Curatorial and Registration sections to support the documentation and digitisation activities, and to make collection records available via the Museum's website.

The Opal system is critical to the Museum's management of collection documentation. Its implementation during 2004–05 and 2005–06 enabled the consolidation of various collection information sources and, subsequently, analysis of strengths and weaknesses in the level of collection documentation. Following the inception of the Collections Online project, in March 2006, new public-release object records continued to be added to the Museum's website. As of June 2007, the number of object records on the Museum website stood at 11,585.

Behind the scenes

Assistant documentation officer Sarah Streatfeild measuring the height of a glass specimen jar.
Assistant documentation officer, Sarah Streatfeild.

Building the database

The Museum prides itself on excellent stewardship of its collections. This involves careful and precise procedures for receipting, accessioning, documenting, digitising, storing, conserving, loaning and transporting objects.

Tracking down precise information about objects that entered the Museum's collections decades ago, often from now defunct organisations, is one of the painstaking tasks of the backlog documentation and collections development staff in the Museum's Registration, Collection Information Management and Curatorial sections.

The disparate means by which the Museum's collections were acquired prior to opening in 2001, and the focus since opening on establishing rich programs of exhibitions, education and public events, have meant that the research and verification needed to fully document the collection could not be an immediate priority during the early years at Acton. Now, in the interests of having an accurate inventory of the collection and being able to make as much information as possible available about the objects, dedicated teams are addressing the backlog of collection assessment, accessioning and documentation.

In assessing objects or collections, curators research and make recommendations about their history, provenance and significance. Once accepted for inclusion in the collections, objects are accessioned. For Registration staff, this involves checking the acquisition history of the item, describing, measuring and photographing it and assigning a unique number and barcode. This information, along with information about the object's context and significance, is recorded in the collection information database according to specific standards that ensure information is consistent and can be easily searched and retrieved.

Storing the collection

Storage of objects is a continuing challenge for the Museum. Fewer than 4 per cent of collection objects are on display at any one time. The majority of objects are stored at repositories in the northern Canberra suburb of Mitchell. Work to make better use of current storage space, improve storage for important collections, and plan for short-term to long-term storage developments, continued this year. Activities included:

  • reconfiguring racking storage in the exhibition precinct area at 9–13 Vicars Street to maximise storage capability for exhibition development and provide greater access to collection material and loans for gallery redevelopment
  • purchasing new custom-made cabinets for storing the Museum's bark painting collection
  • continuing ongoing targeted stocktaking and barcoding of collection objects
  • developing plans for reconfiguring the old receipt and despatch area to include an airlock for the loading-bay, a new object quarantine and receipting area and a new photographic studio.

In addition, detailed information on collection types and storage methods was prepared, including predictions for future growth as part of long-term planning for a new Museum storage facility being undertaken with Museum storage consultants Thinc Projects ( see Storage and accommodation planning ).

Conserving the collection

Image on left: Peter Bucke carrying out conservation work on a trophy. Image on right: Victoria Gill undertaking conservation work on a strapless blue evening gown.
Conservators Peter Bucke and Victoria Gill at work on objects for the Miss Australia exhibition.
Preserving the National Historical Collection for future generations is one of the Museum's key strategic priorities, supported by a conservation work plan. The Conservation section manages the preservation and maintenance of the collection, including the preparation and treatment of objects for exhibition. During the year, 2175 objects were treated and 1165 objects were condition-reported.

Conservation treatments 2001–07

Financial year

Number of conservation treatments

2001-02

1100

2002-03

1200

2003-04

1500

2004-05

1600

2005-06

1770

2006-07

2175

Conservation highlights for the year included:

  • treatment of 554 objects for temporary exhibitions Between the Flags: 100 Years of Surf Lifesaving and Miss Australia: A Nation's Quest
  • completion of a major treatment of Sir Robert Menzies' Bentley
  • biennial slipping of PS Enterprise
  • salvage of a collection of the Lifesaver series of paintings by artist Paul Blahuta
  • completion of a remedial storage project for high-priority objects in the wet specimens collection
  • completion of a remedial storage project for textiles in the collection
  • preparation of environmental and conservation facilities data for storage and accommodation planning.

Museum conservators also participated in national and international conservation activities including:

  • preparation of the AE Smith collection of stringed instruments for a concert by the Grainger Quartet, broadcast nationally by ABC Classic FM radio
  • participation in a joint Indian National Trust and AusHeritage symposium, Museums of the 21st Century, in New Delhi, India
  • participation in the Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material (AICCM) Preventive Conservation workshop 'Sustainable buildings: Costs vs conservation needs'
  • participation in the selection panel for the Community Heritage Grants program
  • participation in the University of Melbourne symposium on museums in East Timor
  • completion of two ARC Linkage Grant projects, 'Studies in the degradation of dyes and pigments', and 'Bronze Age textiles from Dong Son coffins in Vietnam' ( see Appendix 7 ).

Driving history

Sir Robert Menzies' Bentley car and spectators in a courtyard at Parliament House, Canberra, October 2006.
Sir Robert Menzies' Bentley at Parliament House, Canberra, October 2006.

Restoring the Menzies Bentley

In 1964 the Australian Government purchased a Series 3 Bentley to transport dignitaries and senior politicians around Canberra. After Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies retired, he used the Bentley in Melbourne until his death in 1978.

The Bentley came to the National Museum of Australia in 1985, in need of a complete engine overhaul. The Museum is pioneering new methods of preserving vehicles in a functional condition, not only to preserve the historical integrity of the vehicles but also to be able to demonstrate them in public. Parts for the Bentley were sourced from around the world, and an exact copy of the radiator core was made in New Zealand. Mechanical engineer Ian Stewart manufactured piston sleeves by hand, to an accuracy of a quarter of the thickness of a human hair.

The 2.5-tonne vehicle includes the original owner's manual and logbook with the driver's signature and 'R. Menzies' as the last passenger, dated 16 August 1977.

Conserved and preserved by the Museum, the Bentley was displayed in the Museum's Hall during January 2007 and, in October 2006, made a graceful return to the political realm, visiting Prime Minister John Howard at Parliament House.

Moving and tracking the collection

After arrival at the Museum, objects are moved for a variety of purposes including access for research, conservation assessment or treatment, mount assessment, display, documentation or permanent storage. Each year approximately 3600 objects are moved between the Mitchell repositories and Acton. To assist in the movement of collection materials, a bar code system is used that allows for an object's location to be tracked and recorded as it moves through various processes before being placed on display or into permanent storage. This year the Registration section worked with the Information Technology section to recommend the purchase of a new bar code system that will update object locations in real time with the Opal database. This system will require the installation of radio networking technology throughout the repository storage areas.

Loaning 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 for its own exhibitions. Loans from our collection this year included:

  • a tablecloth and footstool for display at the Victorian Immigration Museum's Swiss–Italian exhibition
  • four musical instruments made by AE Smith for rehearsal and performance at the Eugene Goossens Hall, Sydney
  • six objects for the exhibition Scarred and Strengthened: Australians in the Great Depression at Old Parliament House, Canberra
  • two drawings by Noelle Sandwith for display in the South Australian Museum's travelling exhibition Australia's Muslim Cameleers.

A full list of outward loans is in Appendix 5.

Museum's permanent galleries and travelling exhibitions displayed 4966 objects of which 987 were loans from 214 lenders, comprising 79 institutions and 135 private individuals.

Interesting private and national objects loaned to the Museum for the Between the Flags exhibition included:

  • a Second World War 'Bear' flying suit/ lifeguard suit from Peter Arriola
  • a 1940s wooden double-ender surfboat from Kim and Leanne Marsh
  • a surf-reel and trophy made by the crew of HMAS Sydney from Fremantle Surf Life Saving Club
  • from Bondi Surf Bathers' Life Saving Club, a march-past costume, surfoplane and a set of shark jaws.

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

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 about collections. During the year, 145 visits to the repositories were arranged, and responses were made to numerous requests for information received by letter, email and telephone. Visitors included researchers, filmmakers, artists and community members, and enquiries covered a diverse range of collection items, including Aboriginal artefacts, children's drawings, large technology objects, textiles and wet specimens.

Some memorable events involving special access to Museum objects included the display of the 'Ashes' letter opener, for an evening showing at the Prime Minister's Lodge in November 2006; a presentation of stored Melanesian objects for a visit by the Prime Minister of Vanuatu in March 2007; the provision of the First Fleet table for inspection at the Furniture History Symposium in March 2007; and the filming of Sir Robert Menzies' personal camera for the National Treasures series by Film Australia in June 2007. Altogether 108 objects have come out of storage for 25 special events, often involving media coverage.