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Developing the collection

Curator Laura Breen, wearing white gloves, peers around a framed portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. The scene is reflected in a window at the left of the image.
Curator Laura Breen at the media event of the handover of William Dargie's portrait of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

The National Historical Collection was originally made up of objects transferred to the Museum by the Australian Government following the Museum's establishment in 1980. Until then, most of these objects had been held by the former Australian Institute of Anatomy, the former Institute of Aboriginal Studies and the University of Sydney, as well as some government departments and agencies. Since 1980, the Museum has acquired objects through donations and purchase. The Museum's Collections Development Plan guides its acquisition practice, as measured by the PBS performance indicators. Development of the Museum's collections was identified as a business priority for 2008–09.

This year was extremely productive for the collections development program, which is implemented by curatorial teams and supported by the work of the Registration and Conservation sections. The Museum spent a total of $3.851 million on acquisitions for the National Historical Collection, including $1.1 million from a special acquisitions fund provided by the Australian Government, and secured many compelling artefacts for the collection. Some of the important objects acquired through the course of the year were:

A 1971 pencil and watercolour untitled work by an unknown Pintupi artist, showing a central circular image surrounded by and joined to smaller circles.
A 1971 pencil and watercolour untitled work by an unknown Pintupi artist, purchased in 2009 for the Museum's Papunya Art collection.
  • a major collection of convict tokens dating from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with associated documents and materials related to convict transportation to Australia
  • 113 artworks, objects and associated documentation from the Goldfields, Pilbara and Kimberley regions in Western Australia, known as the Canning Stock Route collection
  • a handwritten illuminated address on paper to the
    Victorian premier, Sir Graham Berry, signed and marked by Aboriginal leader William Barak and 15 other residents of Coranderrk, Victoria
  • a Blüthner upright piano, piano stool and eight music books that belonged to Australian constitutionalist and public servant Sir Robert Garran
  • a needlework sampler depicting an image of Botany Bay, New South Wales, in the early years of settlement, made by Margret Begbie, a 10-year-old Scottish girl
  • a rare jawun (bicornual basket) dating from about 1900, from north-east Queensland, made by the Nyawaygi or Wargamaygan people
  • a ceremonial sword given to Sergeant Arthur Steele and a copy of the 1881 report by the government board that distributed the reward offered for the capture of the Kelly Gang
  • early Papunya works, including Goanna Corroboree at Mirkantji, by Kaapa Tjampitjinpa; two paintings by Uta Uta Tjangala; an untitled painting by Anatjari Tjakamarra; and 11 untitled watercolours and drawings on paper produced by Pintupi artists in 1971
  • Australian rugby player Patrick 'Paddy' McCue's rugby union jersey worn during the first Wallabies tour of England, 1908–09
  • a painting of Queen Elizabeth II, by Australian painter Sir William Dargie, completed in the year of her first visit to Australia in 1954.

The Canning Stock Route collection

Louise Mengil and Hayley Atkins sit on the floor, beside a kneeling Craddock Morton. The three are surrounded by art works from the Canning Stock Route collection. Several larger canvases hang on the walls in the background.

Above image: Craddock Morton discusses some of the artworks in the Canning Stock Route collection with emerging curators Louise Mengil (left) and Hayley Atkins. Photo: Michael Pickering.

In March 2009, the National Museum of Australia acquired the Canning Stock Route collection and, with it, gained a stake in an important developing relationship of art, culture and history.

First surveyed in 1906, the Canning Stock Route is the longest stock route in the world. It runs almost 2000 kilometres from Halls Creek to Wiluna in Western Australia. The development of this ultimately unsuccessful cattle route dramatically affected the lives of Aboriginal people. The collection of 116 paintings, contemporary cultural objects and documentary material was compiled by 60 artists who travelled along the Canning Stock Route on a six-week trip in 2007.

This collection is the first significant attempt to document the Aboriginal experience of the Canning Stock Route. General Manager Mathew Trinca said 'The Museum regards the collection as one of truly national significance, providing a unique archive of Indigenous social and cultural histories. It is an important addition to the nation's heritage and history collections'.

The Director of the Museum, Craddock Morton, commented that 'The Canning Stock Route is a place where Indigenous and non-Indigenous histories intersect. This project has effectively recovered the Indigenous history of the country traversed by the stock route. For many years the story of the stock route was represented as a white man's story — this collection makes us recognise that its history goes back much further and is held in the hearts and minds of the Aboriginal people of the region'.

The Museum recognises the remarkable work of the Western Australian cultural group FORM and its nine-partner art centres, stretching from the Pilbara to the Kimberley in Western Australia. An exhibition of the Canning Stock Route collection will be held at the National Museum in 2010.

The Museum's Council formally approves the inclusion of objects into the National Historical Collection. This year, Council approved 88 significant collections during the year, the details of which are set out in Appendix 3.

Curatorial teams working on two new galleries, Australian Journeys and Creating a Country (as part of the ongoing implementation of the Review of Exhibitions and Public Programs (2003), see Museum development), focused on material related to the histories of Australian places connected with pastoralism, agriculture, mining, transport, communications, exploration and settlement.

Other targeted collecting projects included gathering material related to the cultural history of water and its use in Australia, the history of religious practice and musical instrument manufacture, the history of the Indigenous civil rights movement, and the experience of the Irish people in Australia. Some of these objects will be displayed in the permanent galleries or in forthcoming temporary exhibitions.

Sergeant Steele's sword

Detail shot showing the top section of a steel sword, with the hilt and part of the blade visible.

The story of Australian bushranger Ned Kelly, his gang, his steel armour and his last stand in Glenrowan, Victoria, is one well-known to all Australians. In October 2008 the National Museum of Australia acquired a sword that tells part of this story.

The sword was presented to Sergeant Arthur Steele, one of the most high-profile police officers involved in the pursuit of the Kelly Gang. According to Senior Curator Matthew Higgins, 'Sergeant Steele's sword greatly adds to the Museum's collection on Kelly and other bushrangers'. The Museum's collection also includes a plaster death mask of Ned Kelly.

At the showdown in Glenrowan on 28 June 1880, it was Sergeant Steele who shot Kelly in the legs and finally disabled the bushranger. Steele was supported by stock-owners in north-east Victoria, and the Moyhu Stock Protection Society awarded him with a ceremonial sword in recognition of his efforts. That the sword was presented to Steele by local pastoralists dramatically underlines the 'land war' that existed between the Kellys, notorious cattle and horse thieves, and the squatters, who had most to lose from the gang's antics.

Cost of acquisitions, 2001–09

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
2007–08 $2,762,000
2008–09 $3,851,000

Collections donated under the Cultural Gifts Program

Every year the Museum facilitates the acquisition of donations under the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program. This program encourages donations of culturally significant items from private collections to public museums, art galleries and libraries and archives. Donors of cultural gifts are elegible for the following tax incentives: deductions for the market value of gifts, exemption from capital gains tax and the option to apportion their deduction over a period of five income years. Over the year, four collections were donated through the program. These were:

  • John Wolseley's painting, Iron Ore Mining as a Source of Ochre Pigments
  • an Aboriginal breastplate presented to Gnobery in about 1838, near the present town of Collarenebri, New South Wales
  • three Papua New Guinean works: a beaten brass work by Mathias Kauage; a 1974 signed ink drawing, Evil Spirits, by Akis; and a carved wooden shield typical of the Bismarck–Schrader region
  • a black slate mantel clock with architectural case that belonged to pioneer John Blaxland (1769–1845).
Mathew Trinca and Craddock Morton lean forward to look at a small bone being held by Graeme Clark.
General Manager Mathew Trinca (left) and Director Craddock Morton (centre) discuss the finer details of the bionic ear with inventor and donor, Professor Graeme Clark.