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Collections symposium 2008

Material histories: objects as sources?

On 30 May 2008 the National Museum of Australia held its annual Collections Symposium which, this year, was devoted to exploring the ways we might use museum objects as sources.

Museums are full of objects with stories to tell. Often the object illustrates a story gleaned from other sources such as books, documents, memories and photographs. But can the objects themselves be regarded as evidence of the past and, if so, how might we use them to create new interpretations of Australia's past? How can 'material history' inform our understanding of the past? What challenges might it pose? What benefits might it bring?

Missed the symposium?

Audio and transcripts of the sessions available in our audio on demand section

Viewpoints on material culture

Short keynote papers reflecting on the way four different disciplines have approached physical evidence.

  • 'An archaeologist's view' - Dr Mike Smith (National Museum of Australia)
  • 'A curator's view' - Mr Guy Hansen (National Museum of Australia)
  • 'An historian's view' - Ms Margaret Anderson (History Trust of South Australia)
  • 'An anthropologist's view' - Professor Fred Myers (New York University)

Showcases of material culture research in museums - part 1

  • 'Heirlooms speaking for themselves' - Susannah Helman, National Museum of Australia
  • 'Snowy Scheme objects' - Matthew Higgins, National Museum of Australia
  • 'Two way flow: the Koperilya Springs pipeline boomerang' - Christine Hansen, National Museum of Australia
  • 'Digging up history using Hmong agricultural tools' - Alison Mercieca, National Museum of Australia

Chaired by Guy Hansen, National Museum of Australia

Showcases of material culture research in museums - part 2

  • 'Re-presenting Little Red Riding Hood' - Karen Schamberger (National Museum of Australia)
  • 'Samuel McCaughey was wrong. The truth is in the wool' - Erika Dicker (Powerhouse Museum)
  • 'Percy Faithfull's quiet red coat' - Craig Wilcox (independent scholar)
  • 'Models for learning: practical observations on Victorian gold mining from a Swedish artisan' - Matthew Churchward (Melbourne Museum)
  • 'Displaying the remote in the metropolis: the 1928 Australian Inland Mission frontier fete and exhibition' - Ian Coates (National Museum of Australia)

Chaired by Martha Sear, National Museum of Australia

Panel and audience discussion

The day concluded with a panel discussion at which the panellists reflected on the ways in which collections can be used to interpret the past, and the issues and problems faced in doing so.

  • Graeme Davison, Monash University
  • Paula Hamilton, University of Technology, Sydney
  • Philip Jones, South Australian Museum
  • Maria Nugent, National Museum of Australia

Chaired by Ian Coates, National Museum of Australia