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Collecting for the future: a collections development plan for the National Historical Collection

Paper presented by Mathew Trinca, General Manager, Collections and Content Division, National Museum of Australia
Collecting for a Nation symposium, National Museum of Australia, 21 March 2006

MATHEW TRINCA: It’s a time of anniversaries and birthdays. A few weeks ago we celebrated the fifth year of the National Museum of Australia building at Acton (in Canberra). Last year marked the 30th year of the Pigott report and the National Historical Collection itself - in a formal sense at least - celebrated its 25th birthday last year. On the face of it this is a young collection by international standards, a point made by the committee in its review of the National Museum in 2003. In its published report, the Review Committee suggested that the collection was an unfinished work with a series of shortfalls or gaps in its representation of Australian history. These deficiencies, it argued, could be remedied by a more aggressive collecting program and greater integration of collecting aims with the institution’s research and exhibition interests.

Yet we heard this morning that, despite this relative youth of the collection, it reaches back through its foundational collections inherited from other institutions to the early years of the twentieth century. Also, the National Museum has just closed its most successful temporary exhibition Captivating and Curious, which drew entirely on the National Historic Collection. In truth, the diversity and range of objects in the collection is proof that it already has a complex, mature history marked by the quality of its legacy collections, by the vision of the Pigott report which gave life to the Museum and by the efforts of staff who have sought to make this a collection that inspires, reflects and challenges.

I want to do two things today. Firstly, I want to sketch an outline of the Museum’s Collection Development Plan, newly approved by our council, and its collecting intentions in the future. Then I want to go on and argue for an enlarged view of the National Historical Collection, as an active dynamic text about the Australian past. Implicit in this is the sense of tension between the operational frame for the collection and the conceptual ambition that I think should underwrite it. In the past year the Museum has been wrestling with this tension between its established collecting intentions and practice, the future needs of the institution, and changing public perceptions of the role and meaning of the National Museum.

As I said, in December, the Council of the Museum approved a new Collections Development Plan designed to support collecting efforts for the next five years. This is an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary document. It builds and develops some work that has served the Museum’s interests since its Act was passed in 1980. There are four main components to the new plan. The first section is an introduction that gives an overview of the collection’s history and its national obligations. This is important because it suggests, or at least is suggestive of, the ambition that underwrites the development work for this collection. The second section is really a collections policy that establishes the significance criteria which provide the basis for object assessment and documentation. The third is a framework that develops the thematic range of the Museum’s collecting interests, while the fourth section sets out operational principles and systems for our collections work. Altogether the plan integrates enduring features of past collecting practice with the present interests and needs of the National Museum. The intention was really to create a flexible guide for collections development, and a clear and accessible explanation of our collecting intentions for the general public.

That first word in the Museum’s title, ‘National’, poses challenges for collecting just as much as it does for exhibitions and the rest of the business of this Museum. It is a word that encourages particular expectations of the institution’s representational, geographic and imaginative reach. Graeme Davison warned before the Museum opened its doors in 2001 that national museums:

... carry an expectation, especially on the part of politicians, that their collections and exhibitions will embody a definitive version of the national past, one that is simultaneously inspirational and rigorously factual, true to national ideals and admirable in the eyes of visitors.

In truth, public expectations of the Museum and its collection range widely and incorporate staunchly held views from all parts of the political spectrum. While there are those who would argue for a narrow collecting field for this Museum, the collection plan that we’ve just adopted retains an ecumenical view of ‘nation’, seeking to be broadly representative and develop a diverse differentiated record of Australian history. Rather than attempting national self-definition, the collection aspires to reflect the geographic, political, social and economic differences that comprise a nation. This embraces material connected to the life of national institutions, structures and organisations, as well as objects that are located in local or regional contexts but have a national salience.

A related issue is the relationship of the Museum’s collection activities to those of other museums across the country. For much of its early life - and Ian McShane spoke to this in his paper - and certainly through the 1990s, the Museum’s collecting was predicated in part on the notion of an emerging distributed national collection, an idea that really emerged from the library sector and was taken up by the former Heritage Collections Council. In these terms, the National Museum collected with regard to the existing thematic and material interests of other museums in the country - what Ian referred to as a ‘conspectus style of collecting’ - and in part this simply did make good sense. It focused limited resources in areas that were under-represented in collections, such as in areas of twentieth century history. But it was undoubtedly also a political move that was motivated in part to avoid the sense of the newest kid on the block, the National Museum, competing with the established players, principally the state museums.

Unfortunately, the idea of an easily accessible distributed national collection supported by strong loans between museums has been rather more difficult to sustain in practice. Many museums in this country now charge substantial fees for loan objects for display in other institutions. In one case recently, an institution was intending to bill the National Museum $14,000 for four objects required for a one-year loan. The requirements of cost recovery and the condition of trying to sustain such an active loans program across the country obviously have demanded some sense of the recovery of these costs. It’s clear that, while the Museum now continues to support opportunities for collaborative work with colleagues in other institutions, there is a greater focus and opportunity at present on the Museum’s collecting to support its own short, medium and long-term needs.

Establishing object significance and its relevance to the thematic interests of the Museum lie at the heart of the work that’s undertaken to develop the Museum collections. Significance and thematic relevance are the two axes against which objects are plotted and assessed before inclusion in the National Historical Collection. In both cases, the National Museum has established processes that incorporate ideas developed within and outside its walls and reaching back into its own history. For example, it bases its significance assessment on the model outlined in the significance report of the former Heritage Collections Council. The report itself prepared by Roslyn Russell and Kylie Winkworth, owes its own debt to the significance criteria of the Burra Charter and the old Australian Heritage Commission. Material is recommended for acceptance into the National Historical Collection if it can be shown to have communicative power and high value against the following criteria, and the critical ones are those primary criteria of historic, aesthetic, scientific or research, and social or spiritual significance.

Similarly, the thematic range established by the collections framework sets out the Museum’s three core collecting areas that have largely been reproduced since the original vision of the Pigott report and also respond to the legislative responsibilities of the Museum under the Act. The first core collecting area deals with the relationships between people and the physical environment in Australia and ranges from Indigenous habitation and land use through to settlement and the development of pastoralism, agriculture and mining.

The second core collecting area, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and histories, examines Indigenous cultures, societies and experiences both before and after British colonisation. It focuses on the diversity of communities across the continent and its islands, the endurance of Indigenous relationships to country and Indigenous contributions to wider Australian society.

The third collecting area, Australian history and society since 1788, encompasses the history of this country since British colonisation of the continent. It moves away from the initial convict and free settler settlements around the continent, through the extension of settlement through the nineteenth century and then the development of the nation’s political, social and economic life to the present day. This is a very crude sort of overview of the detail that exists within these collecting areas.

These schema, both for assessing significance and thematic relevance, recognise that the collection is essentially a relational comparative exercise. Judgements are made of the relative value of a proposed acquisition. It’s a subjective undertaking about which there can always be great difference of opinion, but ultimately a decision depends on judging, however imprecisely, whether or not an object meets the threshold of national significance. In doing this, the Museum acknowledges its collections mandate is expressly different from that of other museums and collecting institutions around the country, though there is considerable overlap and some common interest with other heritage collections across Australia.

That’s an outline of the operational frame that the Museum now has to move forward with developing the National Historical Collection. It’s a guide really to dealing with the great range of material that’s both offered to the Museum for donation and for purchase. But the Museum also faces other challenges that have emerged from contemporary debates on material culture and collections. These issues have broad implications for how we understand and regard the project of building and documenting all collections. Over the course of the coming year some of these issues will be addressed as we review procedures and systems that support the Museum’s collecting efforts.

I want to move on to a consideration of some key issues in the ‘changing understandings of material culture’. The resurgence of interest in material culture studies in the past two decades has led to significant changes in the way we understand objects and collections. In particular I am focusing on three key issues today that suggest a reconsideration of established collections practices necessary. Putting them crudely, they are: that objects are not fixed in meaning but have life histories which change over time and place; that changing views of materiality have enlarged the range of what might be understood as an object for our purposes; and that material culture is productive or constitutive of social relations and historical understanding.

Rather than fixing the meaning of objects in a singular set of circumstances that exist in time and place, we now commonly focus on the circulation of objects through different sets of social relations over time. Following the work of Arjun Appadurai and Igor Kopytoff, an object’s cultural biography may be understood to comprise a range of meanings that relate to its production, circulation, use and reuse over time. Object meaning is therefore fluid, contested and dynamic, and changes in time and space. In this sense the object’s own history within a museum collection becomes integrated with the other meanings and significances that have attached to it over the course of its life.

This is a well developed and mature argument, but its implications for collections work actively in museums are largely still to be addressed. Assessment and documentation of objects still focus on an event or association that serves to substantiate claims to historical significance. We still tend to a singular reading of the object, determining its meaning in a specific collection and cultural context. Similarly, I think we generally imagine the museum standing outside the set of relations that give meaning to the object, acting as a kind of objective authority of its cultural value or worth. Yet the museum, and this seems especially the case with the National Museum, is obviously deeply implicated in reformulating the object as an historical artefact or, in our terms, as a nationally significant historical artefact, however much it seeks to ignore or even, at times, obscure this role.

The Museum also faces a related question of what properly constitutes an object within the terms of its collection. Traditionally, it’s drawn distinctions between what sometimes are imprecisely described as three-dimensional objects, such as a domestic dress or an agricultural implement, and what it regards as archival material such as images, photographs and documents. When it has collected in this latter category, the Museum tends to value examples for their visual or textural content alone. Increasingly, however, this seems an artificial divide. As Elizabeth Edwards, among many others, has argued:

Photographs are both images and physical objects that exist in time and space, and thus in social and cultural experience. Similarly, documents and artwork are objects that have artefactual meaning inclusive of, but not simply limited to, their visual or textural content.

It’s interesting in a sense that art galleries have moved more quickly to understand this in the context of those debates.

Sound, light and ephemeral objects, such as a radio broadcast or a virtual text, also have a certain kind of spacial presence and meaning, quite aside from their actual content. The question of this intangible heritage and its inclusion in a national historical collection presents particular technical challenges, but there is no substantive reason why any of these objects, tangible and intangible, should be excluded from consideration for acquisition. However, our assessment and documentation procedures might better account for the breadth of these objects’ life histories as much as their visual or oral content. There is also a question as to whether separating the real collection and its archive establishes a hierarchy of value between the materials that are contained in each, which actually misrepresents the relative meanings of those objects.

Edwards also follows Daniel Miller and others in suggesting that photographs, as with all other objects, are not simply reflective of social relations but help constitute them. This is the quote, ‘Objects including photographs are therefore not just stage settings for human actions and meanings, but integral to them. They construct and influence the field of social action in ways that would not have occurred if they did not exist’. This is not to glibly argue that objects functionally determine all human experience or relations, but rather that they should also not be seen simply as passive forms detailing an historical tableau. By and large - but with some notable exceptions - this is a lesson that historians are really still learning, even those of us who work inside the Museum. It’s easier to hold objects to be illustrative of historical conditions or experiences and situate them within narratives that have emerged from the written archive; it’s harder to look at the ways in which objects bridge mental and physical worlds and have helped to produce those worlds.

Like all collections, the National Historical Collection is in a state of continuous remaking, rather than striving for an idealised end point or destination. Belying the popular view of museums as solid conservative institutions, their collections are best understood as dynamic forms that change over time. This is, in part, due to the regular acquisition and addition of new objects obviously, but also because each age implicitly reconsiders the collection and its contents. The elapse of time is an agent of change in object meaning and value. A steam-powered tree stump puller collected as heroic emblem of technology in the 1930s later becomes a symbol of excessive land clearance in the service of agriculture. The post-war wonder at the miracle building material asbestos is succeeded decades later by the chilled fear at the tragic consequences of its use.

A dynamic view of the object takes us away from the idea of the collection as a cultural mnemonic to a more complex view of it as an enduring and active historical agent. In the specific case of the National Historical Collection, we might think about how it works to produce a conception of the nation and the responsibility this naturally entails. It also leads us to rethink the objects that we might be prepared to consider for inclusion in the collection, enlarging our conception of what a museum object is and what it can do.

An enlarged view of material cultures and collections also encourages us to question the divide between the Museum’s front and back-of-house operations. If we acknowledge that the meaning of objects is dynamic and fluid and that their acquisition by the Museum adds another chapter to their life history and their productive possibility, then it may be useful to consider how we can collapse the distinctions between object storage and public space, enhancing access to collections. Open storage is one, but it is not the only mechanism that might serve this purpose.

And similarly, if we accept the inherently dynamic nature of collections and the mutability of object meaning, should we be more focused on the processes of object documentation and display and less fascinated by the incremental infinite growth of the collection? In these terms, perhaps we need to build frequent de-accessioning into our collections work and streamline systems accordingly. Might we reach a time when we’re as concerned at what we’re taking out of the store as what we’re putting in it, in disposing of our collections responsibilities?

Finally, we might acknowledge that the National Historical Collection offers opportunities for new kinds of historical practice and understanding. If objects bridge the mental and physical worlds, then they promise the possibility of an historical text - the exhibition - that’s an embodied as well as a cognitive exercise. Such a view re-positions the National Museum as an active participant in contemporary historical practice and not simply as a translator of history done elsewhere. Thank you.

Date published: 13 September 2007