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Managing the collection

Developing the collection

The National Historical Collection was initially formed from objects and collections transferred to the Museum by the Australian Government following the Museum’s establishment in 1980. The major collections included those of the former Australian Institute of Anatomy, the former Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, and other smaller but significant collections from the University of Sydney’s Anthropology Department and Australian Government departments such as the Department of Home Affairs and Transport, the Bureau of Mineral Resources and the Australian Broadcasting Commission. Since 1980, the Museum has acquired objects through donation and purchase. The Museum’s collecting activities are driven by its current Collections Development Plan.

The 2011–12 financial year was productive for the collections development program. The Museum acquired objects for the National Historical Collection for a total figure of $3.434 million, including $2.473 million for purchases and $961,000 for donations, securing many compelling objects for the nation. Unspent funds of $293,000 from this year’s budget will be carried forward into the 2012–13 financial year.

Some of the significant objects acquired through the course of the year were:

The Melbourne Cup trophy is mostly silver with two ornate handles and mounted on a wooden base. The Queen's Plate trophy has a horse on the top standing a rounded silver globe mounted on a long stem. Chains are draped from the globe.
Melbourne Cup and Queen’s Plate trophies, won by Tim Whiffler, 1867, two of the significant objects acquired for the National Historical Collection during the year.
  • a print, Panoramic View of King George’s Sound, and the accompanying handbook, Descriptive Account of the Panaromic View of King George’s Sound, issued in London in 1834 by Lieutenant Robert Dale
  • a print titled Austracism (2003), by Vernon Ah Kee, who belongs to a new wave of young politically motivated Indigenous artists
  • the CSIRO test bed used in the invention of a Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN project), which enabled high speed, indoor wireless networking, and was of immense significance in the development of computing worldwide
  • a personal collection of material belonging to well-known Australian swimmer and Olympic gold medallist John Konrads
  • a medal awarded to Ludwig Leichhardt (1813–1848) by the Royal Geographical Society in May 1847, in recognition of his exploratory journey from Moreton Bay to Port Essington
  • the 1867 Melbourne Cup and the 1867 Queen’s Plate Trophy won by the champion racehorse, Tim Whiffler
  • two pen and ink drawings by the south-eastern Australian nineteenth-century Aboriginal artist known as Tommy McRae (about 1835–1901).

The Museum’s Council formally approves the inclusion of objects into the National Historical Collection. This year the Council approved 84 collections during the year, details of which are set out in Appendix 3.

Every financial year the Museum conducts a number of targeted collecting projects to address gaps in the collection or to meet exhibition needs. The curatorial teams working on the Australian Journeys: Connections with the World and Landmarks: People and Places across Australia permanent exhibition galleries continued to focus on material relating to exploration and settlement, communications, pastoralism, agriculture, mining and transport for changeover objects. Minor collecting activities around the forthcoming exhibitions, Warakurna: All the Stories Got into our Minds and Eyes, and Glorious Days: Australia 1913 have also been undertaken.

Collections donated through the Cultural Gifts Program

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

Over the year, four collections were donated through the program:

  • two works by artist Ken Done, Olympic Bouquet and Sydney 2000 II, created while Done was Art Director of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games opening and closing ceremonies (Ken Done collection)
  • a collection of eight historic prints, engravings or lithographs, comprising a selection of early representations of the Australian wild dog (Canis lupus dingo), and an engraved, early nineteenth-century portrait of Sydney (Eora) Aboriginal leader Bennelong (Rex and Caroline Stevenson collection)
  • a complete set of insignia bestowed on Sir James Youl upon his appointment as Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG) in 1891 for his services to the public, in particular his successful introduction of trout and salmon to Australian rivers in 1864 (Sir James Youl collection)
  • thirty-three paintings produced by Warakurna Artists for a collaborative exhibition, Warakurna: All the Stories Got into our Minds and Eyes, with the Outstation Gallery in 2011, representing a series of Aboriginal perspectives on events in Australian history, some of which fundamentally challenge other accounts in the historical record (Warakurna History Paintings collection).

Accessioning the collection

Accessioning is the process that formally registers an object into the Museum’s permanent collection. During the year, the Museum accessioned 1211 objects.

Among the notable objects and collections accessioned this year were:

  • a post-Second World War wedding dress made of mosquito netting and parachute silk, illustrating the resourcefulness required from rationing and shortages
  • a collection of 111 prize medals awarded at rural and urban agricultural shows across Australia from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries
  • three decorated sculptures from the 1990s by Utopia artists Ada Panunga, Lucky Kngwarreye Morton and an unknown person, representing a significant departure from traditional forms and methods of carving.

The Museum’s Archive Collection comprises collections of paper, photographic and audiovisual material that support the interpretation of the National Historical Collection. Over the past year, 12 collections comprising 109 items were accessioned into the Archive Collection.

Highlights from these collections include:

  • original Hooper and Company files relating to the six Daimlers commissioned by the Australian Government for King George VI’s planned royal visit in 1949, including the Daimler DE 36 landaulette now in the National Historical Collection
  • documents and ephemera illustrating the netball career of Margaret Pewtress, player, coach, administrator and President of Netball Australia from 1989 to 1995
  • works of art, booklets and documents relating to Diana Boyer’s artistic activities and her engagement as an immigrant from Argentina with her life on Bobbara Creek, a property in the Binalong district of New South Wales
  • maps from the Emanuel Family collection of Christmas Creek, Meda and Cherrabun stations in the Kimberley.

No objects were de-accessioned from the National Historical Collection during 2011–12.

Photography

The Photographic unit produces high-quality images to support the Museum’s documentation, exhibitions and communication activities. This year the team completed more than 180 photographic assignments, delivering over 5800 images of collection objects and loans (3000 images), and corporate and public events (2800 images).

Images are an important component of object documentation and are included in collection database records, featured in publications and on the Museum’s website, and used for marketing, promotional and media content.

Some significant projects this year were:

  • the digitisation of National Historical Collection material, including postcards from the Lebovic postcard collection
  • multimedia projects based on collection material, including Rex Greeno’s traditional bark canoe and Harold Wright’s Saw Doctor’s wagon
  • documentation of visits by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community members and international guests.

Managing digital assets at the Museum

The Museum holds over 450,000 digital images and audio, video and interactive works that document objects held in the National Historical Collection as well as Museum activities. The Museum uses these digital works in exhibitions, on its website and in print publications. Other institutions and members of the public also purchase and license digital works from the Museum. In 2011–12 the implementation of the automated digital asset management system (DAMS) continued, including the identification of additional system requirements.

Caring for the collection

Care of the National Historical Collection is a key activity within the Museum. Museum conservators play a significant role in this, including carrying out conservation treatments on collection items and planning and implementing preservation activities to prevent damage and minimise deterioration to objects in the collection. Museum conservators are also actively involved in enabling access to collection items by participating in exhibition programs and in treating and condition-checking outward loans and items for travelling exhibitions.

Highlights for 2011–12 included:

  • upgrading governance, which included the approval of the Collection Care and Preservation Policy
  • purchasing new equipment aimed at more efficient processing of items, including a new computer-aided design precision-cutting mount cutter
  • upgrading the housing of a number of objects, including the 1867 Melbourne Cup and Aurukun sculptures from the Frederick D McCarthy collection.

The Museum’s micro-fading work and its impact on changeover rates for light-sensitive objects on display in the galleries is integral to the preservation of the Museum’s collection. The Museum’s work in this area has generated interest from other institutions, both nationally and internationally.

Number of conservation treatments
on collection or loan items, 2001–12

Financial year Number of treatments
2001–02 1100
2002–03 1200
2003–04 1500
2004–05 1600
2005–06 1770
2006–07 2175
2007–08 2289
2008–09 2138
2009–10 1469
2010–11 534
2011–12 1050

Storing and moving the collection

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

Activities included:

  • attending to 733 movement requests, with 7967 objects moved within and between the four Museum sites for access, research, documentation, conservation assessment, treatment, display, permanent storage and packing for external display for travelling exhibitions and external loans
  • facilitating the replacement of the main collection store fire suppression system at 9–13 Vicars Street, which required the installation and removal of protective covering for collection storage systems (approximately 4000 metres of plastic film), and the relocation of vulnerable collections off-site
  • ongoing collection storage improvements, including the installation of inflatable vehicle enclosures that provide improved dust and pest protection for vehicles in the collection, and installation of a new armoury storage system to aid collection access
  • fine tuning of internal layout of the Mitigated Store (an ‘Eski’ temperature-controlled room) to create 20 more shelves for Indigenous artefact storage.

Making the collection accessible

Lending 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 to enhance its own exhibitions.

Loans from our collection this year included:

  • an incised boab nut, three glass spearheads, a stone spearhead and a ceramic spearhead on loan to the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Rome, Italy, for display in Homo Sapiens: The Great Story of Human Diversity
  • a painting titled Snake Dreaming for Children by Uta Uta Tjangala, an untitled painting by Anatjari Tjakamarra, and seven shields, including Yinindi Dreaming by Jimidja Tjapaltjarri, on loan to the National Gallery of Victoria for display in Tjukurrtjanu: Origins of Western Desert Art at the Ian Potter Centre, Melbourne. The exhibition will travel to Paris in September 2012
  • a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II by William Dargie, on loan to the National Portrait Gallery for display during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee
  • a wooden digging stick and a wooden club from the Burrumbuttock region of New South Wales on loan to the Albury LibraryMuseum.

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 regarding the collection. During the year, there were 63 visits to the repositories, and Museum staff responded to numerous requests for information.

Visitors to the repositories included researchers, community members and groups, filmmakers, donors and their families, university students, artists and curators from other institutions researching for exhibitions. Enquiries covered a diverse range of collection items, including Australian Aboriginal and Pacific Islander material, textiles, photographs and documents, and large technology objects. Over 900 objects were retrieved from storage for access visits.

Visitors given access to Museum objects this year included:

  • Amber Orlando and family, descendants of convict John Bloxidge, who viewed the love token associated with their ancestor
  • Elma Kris and Helen Anu from the Bangarra Dance Theatre, recipients of an artist fellowship aligned to the British Museum project, Encounters, who viewed Torres Strait material in the National Historical Collection
  • members of the Australian Capital Territory Chapter of the Australian Costumers’ Guild, who researched textiles in the Faithfull Family collection in order to create costumes for the Centenary of Canberra in 2013
  • North Queensland elders, Yvonne Canendo, from the Ngadjon language group, and Marcia Jerry, from the Girramy language group, who viewed bicornual baskets, rainforest shields and fishing nets from their communities, which are located in the Atherton and Cardwell regions.

Online access to the collection

The public access catalogue ‘Search our collections’ provides online access to the Museum’s collection database. This year, 6534 records were made available online, increasing the total number available to the public to 63,238 records. Collections released to the web included:

  • the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs Art (ATSIAA) collection, comprising more than 2000 works of art and objects produced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities throughout Australia, from 1967 to 2005
  • the Bureau of Mineral Resources collection, comprising well-provenanced geophysical instruments and systems of survey and laboratory equipment used in Australia
  • the John ‘Johnny’ Warren collection, comprising an extensive range of materials detailing all aspects of Warren’s soccer career.

Enriching exhibitions

The Museum’s permanent galleries and temporary and travelling exhibitions displayed 6681 objects of which 1797 were loans from 490 lenders, comprising 264 institutions and 226 private individuals. In addition, the Museum facilitated two international exhibitions, A New Horizon: Contemporary Chinese Art and Travelling the Silk Road: Ancient Pathway to the Modern World, featuring a total of 226 objects.

Interesting private and institutional objects loaned to the Museum during 2011–12 included:

  • ten albumen print photographs taken by Richard Daintree between 1868 and 1870, on loan from the Queensland Museum for the Australian Journeys gallery
  • a woollen tapestry titled The ‘Discovery’ in Antarctic Waters woven by Paquita Mawson, wife of Sir Douglas Mawson, while her husband was involved in his Antarctic expeditions during 1929–31, for the Eternity gallery
  • one ochre and two acrylic paintings from the Holmes à Court collection for display in the Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route exhibition
  • a diary that belonged to Anthony Fernando, on loan from Dr Fiona Paisley, which toured in the exhibition, From Little Things Big Things Grow
  • a framed sign with cracked glazing that reads, ‘Visitors are requested not to touch the babies’, on loan from the Care Leavers of Australia Network, for the temporary exhibition Inside: Life in Children’s Homes and Institutions.