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Collections symposium 2006

Collecting for a Nation: the history of the National Historical Collection and its collectors

The National Museum of Australia's collection consists of more than 200,000 objects, compiled over many years by many different people.

Collecting for a Nation marked the 25th anniversary of the Act which brought about the National Museum of Australia and its National Historical Collection.

This symposium on 21 March 2006 explored the history and evolution of the National Historical Collection long before the formal establishment of the National Museum over the past 25 years.

Missed the symposium?

The audio and transcripts from the symposium are now available in our audio on demand section.

Go to Collections symposium 2006 audio on demand


Guy Hansen, National Museum of Australia

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

The phrase National Historical Collection conjures a vision of storerooms crammed with national treasures. The reality is very different. Rather than a monolithic miscellany documenting a national narrative, the collection is far more eclectic. There is no single story but many stories, with various collectors bringing different perspectives on what is significant and what should be preserved.

One of the first collectors was prominent orthopaedic surgeon Sir Colin MacKenzie. His collection of 2000 wet and mounted animal specimens and anatomical drawings was held at the Australian Institute of Anatomy. The Institute was also responsible for the National Ethnographic collection of more than 20,000 Indigenous objects from Australia and the Pacific. These were the building blocks of what would become the National Museum of Australia's collections.

Dr Libby Robin, Australian National University

Weird and wonderful: the first objects of the National Historical Collection

Sir Colin MacKenzie's zoological specimens were among the first objects covered by legislation for the National Historical Collection under the National Museum of Australia Act 1980.

MacKenzie started collecting Australian marsupials in the early twentieth century because he was afraid they were rapidly becoming extinct. His collection preserved the marsupials' anatomical and physiological material for scientific study. Legislation in 1924 recognised the significance of this collection to the nation when it was proposed that the collection should 'form the nucleus of an Institute of Zoology to be established later at Canberra'. MacKenzie's collecting was praised at the time as 'an act of practical patriotism the merit of which it would be hard to over-estimate'.

The story of how these zoological specimens became history reveals as much about the changing nature of museums and national collections in the twentieth century as about the aspirations of the original, rather eccentric collector.

David Kaus, National Museum of Australia

Professionals and amateurs: different histories of collecting in the National Ethnographic Collection

The National Ethnographic collection which now forms a major part of the National Museum of Australia's Indigenous collection was derived from four main sources. Comprised of about 20,000 organic items from Australia and the Pacific, the collection includes objects from the Australian Institute of Anatomy, the University of Sydney, the Australian National University and the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.

This paper focuses on the Aboriginal material in the collection and the series of professional and amateur collectors who influenced its composition over a period of more than 50 years.

Sylvia Schaffarczyk, Australian National University

Australia's Official Papuan collection: Sir Hubert Murray and the how and why of a colonial collection

Australia's Official Papuan collection provides a unique perspective on the shared histories of Papua New Guinea and Australia. Collected between 1907 and 1933 by Sir Hubert Murray, Lieutenant-Governor of the Australian Territory of Papua, the collection was originally intended for the Territory rather than metropolitan centres in Europe or America.

The Official Papuan collection's eventual journey to the National Museum of Australia reflects its changing role and the influence of British anthropologist AC Haddon. Haddon convinced Murray that the collection would be under-utilised by anthropologists if it remained in Papua.

This paper reconstructs the history of the Official Papuan collection and Australian collecting in Papua during a key period in the development of anthropology and Australia's colonial interests.

Angela Philp, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies

Life and art? Relocating Aboriginal art and culture in the museum

This paper tracks the shifts in the relationships of the National Museum of Australia and the National Gallery of Australia with Aboriginal art, culture and histories.

The concept of Indigeneity has, over time, become an important marker of Australian cultural identity, distinguishing specifically Australian characteristics and traditions from those of other nations. It has enabled some museums, particularly the National Museum, to open up debate on the moral and ethical issues arising from Indigenous histories and cultures.

Yet in this arena it could be said that the art museum led the way; its celebration of Aboriginal art has played a part in fostering the economic independence of some Indigenous communities, and has been a source of substantial self-esteem and pride in communities long denied a valued place in Australian society. Alternatively, however, the aesthetic framework of the art museum could be seen to diminish the political message of much Aboriginal art.

This paper explores the tensions between aesthetics, history and politics that have been critical in the institutional histories of the National Museum and the National Gallery.

Ian McShane, Swinburne University

Singular or plural? Social history and national collections

The first 20 years of the National Museum's formal life, from 1981 to 2000, was a dynamic period of museum-making, cultural policy formation and structural economic change in Australia. The interplay of these elements produced a complex institutional ecology that did much to shape development of the social history collection, in particular.

This paper analyses social history as museum theme and practice during this period. The paper contextualises the Carroll report's criticism of the National Historical Collection by discussing earlier policy manoeuvres around collection development.

Mathew Trinca, National Museum of Australia

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

In recent times the National Museum of Australia has wrestled with the 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.

This paper outlines the National Museum's Collections Development Plan, designed to support collecting efforts for the next five years. It also argues for a broader 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 framework for the collection and the conceptual ambition that should underwrite it.

Carol Cooper, National Museum of Australia

Springfield transformed: family collection into national treasure

The Springfield collection, donated to the National Museum of Australia under the Cultural Gifts Scheme in 2004, relates to colonial settlement and the development of the pastoral industry in Australia. It is also a rich collection of family mementos and memories – objects contextualised by much archival material and oral history – and transformed from one family's history to an historical treasure for the nation.

This paper outlines the history of the Springfield collection, the remarkable families who cared for it and the National Museum's work to make the collection available to the Australian people.

Panel discussion with Professor John Mulvaney, Peter Pigott, Dr Don McMichael, Andrew Reeves, Dr Luke Taylor and Dr Richard Baker

Reflections on the history of the National Historical Collection

A panel of expert speakers, each involved with shaping the National Historical Collection over time, reflect on their personal experiences with the National Museum of Australia. Discussion facilitated by National Museum senior curator Dr Kirsten Wehner.

Professor John Mulvaney is one of Australia's most eminent archaeologists. He was a member of the Committee of Inquiry on Museums and National Collections in 1974-75, which produced the Pigott report. Professor Mulvaney was also chairman of the Planning Committee for the Gallery of Aboriginal Australia, which later evolved into the Gallery of First Australians.

Peter Pigott chaired the Committee of Inquiry on Museums and National Collections in 1974-75, which produced the report which now bears his surname. [1]

Dr Don McMichael was the first director of the National Museum of Australia.

Andrew Reeves is an historian who worked at the National Museum of Australia from 1984 to 1986. He was also a member of the Council of the National Museum of Australia for six years.

Dr Luke Taylor worked as a curator at the National Museum of Australia from 1990 to 2000. During the construction phase of the Museum he was project manager for the development of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander exhibits. Dr Taylor is currently the Deputy Principal of Research and Information at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

Dr Richard Baker is the convenor of the geography program at the School of Resources, Environment and Society at the Australian National University. He worked as a curator at the National Museum of Australia from 1989 to 1993.


[1] Museums in Australia 1975 (PDF 442kb) - Report of the Committee of Inquiry on Museums and National Collections including the Report of the Planning Committee on the Gallery of Aboriginal Australia (the Pigott report)