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A sum of many parts: the history of the National Historical Collection

Paper presented by Guy Hansen, Senior Curator, National Museum of Australia
Collecting for a Nation symposium, National Museum of Australia, 21 March 2006

GUY HANSEN: Our subject today is the history of the National Historical Collection. What might you find in such a collection? The phrase ‘National Historical Collection’ conjures a vision of storerooms crammed with national treasures - the foundation documents of the nation perhaps, or a tattered flag symbolising the moment of achieving nationhood.

The conjunction of the words ‘national’ and ‘historical’ place a heavy burden on the items contained within the collection. When we open the doors of the National Museum of Australia’s warehouses and begin to explore the National Historical Collection we discover it’s a very different thing. Rather than a monolithic miscellany documenting a national narrative, the collection is far more eclectic. There is no single story, but many stories. Active collecting is not the work of a single collector but rather of many, each bringing different perspectives on what is significant and what should be preserved.

In this paper I am going to give a very broad history of the National Historical Collection. My intention is to provide an introduction or context in which to place the papers that follow. In providing a potted history I will inevitably skate across the surface of this history but I hope to give a sense of the complexity and depth of the Museum’s collections.

To tell the story of the National Historical Collection we need to begin with Colin MacKenzie. MacKenzie was a prominent Melbourne orthopaedic surgeon of the 1910s and 1920s who believed that Australia’s unique fauna was destined for extinction. A man of considerable wealth and extensive political connections, MacKenzie devoted much of his professional life to building an extensive collection of Australian animal specimens. Libby Robin will be talking about MacKenzie’s collection in more detail, but Colin MacKenzie is such a central figure in the history of the Museum’s collections that I need to say a few things about his role in establishing the National Historical Collection.

MacKenzie viewed Australian marsupials and monotremes not just as examples of endangered species but also for their potential to provide insights into the treatment of disease. ‘The complexities of the human body’, he argued, ‘could only be revealed by the study of types of animals in which these can be demonstrated in their simpler form’. This encapsulates his social comparative approach to anatomy. Simple forms provided basic rules which he could extrapolate to more complex forms. Humans sat at the top of this pyramid, the culmination of previous evolution. Australian animals were unique, trapped in an earlier time, providing a rich field of comparative examples that could be used to better understand human anatomy.

MacKenzie, convinced of the national significance of his work, offered his collection of specimens to the Australian Government. The collection consisted of approximately 2000 items, including a variety of wet and mounted specimens and anatomical drawings completed by the artist Victor Cobb. The government responded to MacKenzie’s generous offer by creating the National Museum of Australian Zoology in 1924. MacKenzie was appointed the museum’s first director and in 1929 received a knighthood in recognition for his contribution to medical research. In 1931 the Museum of Australian Zoology changed its name to the Australian Institute of Anatomy. This coincided with the opening of its new building, which today we know as the National Film and Sound Archive. The new title reflected MacKenzie’s goal of creating a major research facility focusing on comparative anatomy.

Sadly, MacKenzie’s dire prediction of extinction proved to be too true for many Australian animals. His collection includes examples of both rare and endangered species. Perhaps one of the most significant specimens in the collection is a whole carcass of a thylacine. This is believed to be one of only four complete adult thylacine carcasses preserved in the world. Paradoxically, however, MacKenzie’s focus on the anatomical attributes of his specimens reduced their significance from a zoological perspective. MacKenzie did not keep detailed records showing the sub-species, dissector and location, or origin of each specimen. Rather, the specimens were labelled with a brief description of the organ preserved and the common name of the animal. Although the individual provenance is lacking, many specimens are invaluable due to their rarity.

During his time as director of the institute, MacKenzie acquired specimens from major collectors around Australia. The most important of these is the Burrell collection of platypus material. This includes a series of specimens illustrating the development of the platypus from egg to adult. Harry Burrell was a self-taught naturalist whose research provided the first detailed accounts of the life history and habits of the platypus. He was perhaps most famous for his success in keeping and exhibiting live animals in a specially built tank known as a ‘platypusary’. One of the first platypuses to be kept in this way was ‘Splash’, who survived for four years at MacKenzie’s Healesville sanctuary. Curiosity about this mysterious animal was such that Splash quickly became a tourist attraction. Newspaper articles described him as ‘the world’s most famous platypus’. After his death, Splash’s body was sent to Canberra for mounting. Institute of Anatomy records suggest that the mounted platypus was later presented to Winston Churchill as a gift from the Australian people. This is an intriguing little mention in the records, although I have not actually been able to confirm that Churchill received this platypus.

The most famous of all the Institute of Anatomy’s collection of specimens was Phar Lap’s heart. Phar Lap’s victory in the 1930 Melbourne Cup, in the midst of the Depression, elevated him to the status of a national hero. Two years later Australia was stunned at the news of the horse’s death under suspicious circumstances in the United States. Phar Lap’s remains were dispersed across the globe with the mounted hide going to the National Museum of Victoria, the skeleton to the National Museum of New Zealand and the heart to the Australian Institute of Anatomy. Displayed for many years next to the smaller heart of another horse, the Phar Lap specimen was a visual confirmation of the Australian saying ‘a heart as big as Phar Lap’s’.

The Institute of Anatomy also had major holdings of human remains. A large collection of ‘war wounds’ assembled by the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons of England was sent to the institute in 1935. In 1996 this collection was transferred to the Australian War Memorial, which subsequently loaned it to the Department of Forensic Science at the University of New South Wales. The Institute of Anatomy also held large collections of Indigenous remains, including material collected by George Murray Black, a civil engineer and pastoralist with property in western Gippsland. During the 1930s Black collected skeletons from Aboriginal cemeteries on behalf of the institute. This material was taken without permission and was effectively a form of grave robbing. Today the Museum does not collect human skeletal material and has been returning human remains to Indigenous communities for more than 20 years.

In addition to storing and exhibiting MacKenzie’s anatomical specimens, the Australian Institute of Anatomy also cared for the National Ethnographic collection. This was a diverse set of objects totalling over 20,000 items. The material was collected by some of Australia’s earliest collectors of Aboriginal and Pacific material. This material later provided the basis of the National Museum’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collections, today considered one of the best collections of Indigenous material in the world.

The National Ethnographic collection began when MacKenzie accepted a number of significant ethnographic collections accumulated both by professional and amateur collectors. At first glance his acquisition of this material sits awkwardly with his interest in comparative anatomy. For MacKenzie, however, there was a close link between the fate of Australian fauna and Aboriginal people. MacKenzie saw a parallel between the impact of settlement on wildlife and declining numbers of Indigenous people. As he described it, ‘Thanks to poison and the gun, they are rapidly following the fate of the Tasmanian nation which was completely destroyed in a period of about 40 years, constituting the most colossal crime our earth has known’. Tasmania had come to symbolise for MacKenzie a microcosm of what could happen on the mainland. While perhaps distasteful to modern sensibilities, MacKenzie’s conflation of Aboriginal people with Australian fauna was a major motivating factor in his desire to collect ethnographic material.

An important subset of the National Ethnographic collection is a range of fieldwork collections sourced from Sydney University and from material collected by officials during the period of Australia’s administration of Papua in the early twentieth century - later papers today will go into more detail about these collections. The Institute of Anatomy continued acquiring ethnographic material after the retirement of MacKenzie in 1937. I have not done sufficient work in the archives yet to completely pin this down, but you get the sense that this was partly because of the historical precedent that MacKenzie had established and also because of the pragmatic reason that there was no other Commonwealth institution in which to store this material. The Institute of Anatomy had become, almost by default, home to these collections. A good example of a collection acquired in this way was the material collected under the auspices of the American-Australian expedition to Arnhem Land in 1948. This was a multidisciplinary expedition which set out to explore Aboriginal culture and the natural history of Arnhem Land. Objects were distributed between American and Australian institutions. The expedition helped changed perceptions of Aboriginal paintings, encouraging people to view them as art rather than as simply ethnographic objects.

The Institute of Anatomy also stored collections on behalf of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies or AIAS which was created in 1961 with the aim of promoting research into Indigenous culture. It funded fieldwork around Australia and purchased significant collections of Indigenous material. One of its major areas of material culture collecting was bark paintings, resulting in one of the largest collections of barks in the world. These collections acquired by Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies were mainly sourced from northern Australia. In 1989 AIAS was re-formed as the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) and is now co-located with the National Museum on Acton Peninsula.

By the early 1970s the Institute of Anatomy was responsible for MacKenzie’s anatomy collection as well as the National Ethnographic collection. These were the building blocks of what would become the National Museum of Australia’s collections. Elsewhere in the Commonwealth, historical material was held by a range of government departments - for example, the Department of Home Affairs, the Department of Transport, the Bureau of Mineral Resources, the Australian Broadcasting Commission and the Department of Capital Territory all held significant collections. Much of this material was kept with a view of it eventually being transferred to a museum. Among these collections were such items as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s first outside broadcast van, and the Ranken coach which we believe to be one of the oldest horse-drawn vehicles in Australia. There are also items donated by private citizens, such as the Bean 14 car driven by Francis Birtles from London to Melbourne in 1927. Birtles presented this car to the government in 1929 in anticipation of a national museum being established in Canberra, and of course it’s now on permanent display in the Nation gallery.

Maritime archaeology was another source of historical material for the Australian Government. In the late 1960s and early 1970s some important maritime objects were recovered from the seabed. These included a number of cannons and an anchor from Cook’s Endeavour which were recovered in 1969. In 1972 divers also recovered two anchors from Goose Island Bay off the coast of Western Australia. These were the anchors from Matthew Flinders’ vessel The Investigator which had been cut loose in 1803, and one of those anchors is now in our collection and was on display in the Captivating and Curious exhibition.

In 1974 concern about the preservation of historical material saw the Australian Government establish an inquiry into museums and national collections. This inquiry, which came to be known as the Pigott report after its chair Peter Pigott, delivered its findings in 1975. The report concluded: ‘The deterioration of valuable collections in Australian museums, great and small, has reached the proportion of a crisis.’ The report’s central recommendation was that a museum of Australia be established in Canberra. The proposal for the creation of a national museum received backing on both sides of politics. In 1980 the National Museum of Australia Act was passed with bi-partisan support. It is an interesting example of a proposal initiated by one side of politics, which was effectively the Whitlam government, and eventually delivered by another, the Fraser government, with the passing of the legislation - and then again by the Howard government with the actual building and opening of the National Museum of Australia. The key function of the Museum as defined under the Act would be ‘to develop and maintain a national collection of historical material’. This collection would be known as the National Historical Collection. The then Minister for Home Affairs, Bob Ellicott, described the three main themes of the Museum as ‘the history of Aboriginal man, the history of non-Aboriginal man, and the interaction of man with his environment’ in the second reading speech given at the time of the passing of the legislation. These three themes come directly from the Pigott report.

The first collections to be absorbed by the National Historical Collection were the MacKenzie collection and the National Ethnographic collection. The Museum’s legislation specifically made provision for the transfer of these collections from the Institute of Anatomy. The Act also allowed for collections held by other Commonwealth bodies to be transferred as required. Over the 1980s and 1990s the Museum accepted transfers of historical material from several government departments including the Australian Broadcasting Commission, Australia Post, CSIRO and the Bureau of Mineral Resources. In this way the Museum was able to rapidly consolidate a number of existing Commonwealth collections to provide the core of the National Historical Collection.

In addition to these government collections, the Museum began acquiring material in its own right. This included donations from the general public, purchases at auction and targeted collecting projects. In the 1980s social history was the dominant theoretical model for exploring history in museums. Museums such as the Powerhouse, Hyde Park Barracks and Museum of Victoria were the major exponents of this approach in Australia. Collections were built around themes such as working life, domestic life and leisure. This was reflected in the National Museum of Australia in the acquisition of collections documenting iconic Australian consumer items such as the Victa lawnmower and the Hills hoist. The Museum also launched a major appeal for migrant material, resulting in a strong set of collections exploring the experience of post-war European migrants. Political activism was another early area of interest for the Museum, with a major appeal for material dealing with the history of the peace movement.

In the mid-1980s the Museum took the opportunity to purchase components of some major museum collections which were in the process of being dispersed. This included the Wetzel Movie Museum, which is a very large collection of material relating to the history of film and television in Australia, and the Bothwell Museum, a smaller museum in Tasmania with basically social history material. So actually acquiring whole collections or large sections of collections was a technique used early on. The Museum also collected a range of large-technology items including agricultural machinery, motor vehicles, printing presses, horse-drawn vehicles, steam engines and aeroplanes. One prized object is the paddle steamer Enterprise that was acquired in 1984. After extensive restoration at Echuca, Victoria it was formally recommissioned on Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra in 1988. The significance about the acquisition of these very large items is it showed the scale that the curators were thinking on at the time. They were expecting a very large museum that would have the capacity for large technology displays, which of course didn’t really eventuate.

The National Museum has also acquired a number of collections that reflect the work of individual collectors such as the Josef Lebovic collection of postcards, the Terry Lane collection of Australian decorative arts and the Cecil Ballard collection of royal memorabilia. These are all excellent examples of the passion of the committed collector. These collections, which were the result of many years of effort on the part of an individual, provide a very effective means for the Museum to build high quality collections quickly.

One of the Museum’s key themes, human interaction with the environment, has been the focus of several targeted collecting projects. This has resulted in significant collections concerning the history of the Murray-Darling Basin, the impact of introduced species, salinity in the Murray-Darling Basin, and the history of bushwalking. Environmental activism has also attracted considerable interest, including a number of collections documenting the Lake Pedder and Franklin Dam campaigns. One major acquisition on permanent display is the ‘buffalo catcher’. This vehicle is fitted with a special bionic arm that was used for catching buffalo in the Northern Territory in the 1980s. It’s a very powerful object and very good for exploring one of the largest and most successful feral animal eradication programs in Australia’s history, and it is on display in the Tangled Destinies gallery (now Old New Land gallery).

Political history is another major collecting area for the Museum, partly triggered by the fact that in the early 1990s the Museum was given the job of opening up and conducting programs in Old Parliament House. The political history collections include material relating to key politicians, protest material, political ephemera and objects relating to Federation. Personal possessions of Sir Robert Menzies are held alongside trade union banners, campaign material and ephemera associated with the opening of Parliament House. There’s RG Menzies’ home movie camera, and there’s a lovely trade union banner which we have in our collection. One particularly popular collection is the political cartoon collection, which Ian McShane mentioned earlier.

Indigenous Australia has remained a major collecting area. One of the most significant recent acquisitions is the Aboriginal Arts Board collection, which was transferred to the Museum in the mid-1990s. The Aboriginal Arts Board was influential in developing an awareness and appreciation of Indigenous art, nationally and internationally, in the 1980s. The collection includes a significant amount of material from Western Desert communities, including large canvasses from the Papunya Tula art movement. In recent years the Museum has also built one of the largest collections of king plates (or breast plates) in the world. These brass plates, which were rewarded to Aboriginal people in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, are an important resource for our study of contact history.

Since the opening of the Museum in 2001 there has been a major shift in the Museum’s collecting efforts. As the dust has settled from the Herculean effort to get the Museum opened and as new resources have been made available, partly as a result of the review of the Museum, the Museum has been able for the first time to compete for high-value historical material. And when I say ‘high value’ I mean high monetary value, where we have really had the money to pursue significant pieces. A number of purchases over the last 18 months have established the Museum as one of the most active collecting institutions in Australia. These purchases include the Holden prototype (car), which has just been on display in the Captivating and Curious exhibition, and (explorer Robert O’Hara) Burke’s water bottle.

The Museum has also been doing what you would call contemporary collecting, which is collecting items relating to events which are going on in the world today. The war on terror has been a major theme over the last few years. One of the items we’ve collected is a flag which was recovered from the World Trade Center. It was presented to the Australian Government by the New York Fire Brigade and is now part of our collection. Then slightly closer to home was the bombing of the Australian embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia. Some material from the damaged embassy is now part of our collection, including the window behind which the ambassador was sitting and the coat of arms, from the car park, which was destroyed by the blast.

Today 25 years after the passing the National Museum of Australia Act, the National Historical Collection has grown in size to over 200,000 items. The collection is not the result of a single hand but, rather, reflects many people’s efforts in preserving material for future generations of Australians. MacKenzie’s original vision of creating a collection of anatomical specimens was the first step in building these collections. Reviewing the National Historical Collection reveals a number of collecting impulses, ranging from a desire to preserve a record of Australia’s flora and fauna through to a pride in an emerging nation.

There are three basic points which emerge from the history of the National Historical Collection. Firstly, the impulse for early collecting was very much comparative anatomy and ethnography and as time has passed the historical significance of these collections has grown. Although they were collected in one way, in some senses they’re being interpreted in a new way today. Prior to 1980 there was no coordinated effort by the Commonwealth to collect historical material. There was a range of historical material kept by various Commonwealth bodies but it was collected on an ad hoc basis. It was only with the creation of the National Museum that we started to think more methodically about what we should be collecting, and of course we’re still doing that today.

Secondly, post 1980 we’ve seen focused efforts to build the collections around the three themes. These efforts from 1980 to the present have been limited at times by the stop/start approach of the government to the National Museum. Nevertheless, a very significant collection, as I hope I have demonstrated today, has been developed. Thirdly, now some 80 years on from the establishment of the Institute of Anatomy and 25 years on from the passing of the National Museum of Australia Act, it’s a great opportunity to look at the history of our collections and also to start thinking about the future of our collecting. I look forward to hearing the rest of the papers today.

Date published: 13 September 2007