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Purchase builds national breastplate collection

27 JULY 2004

The purchase of 15 Aboriginal breastplates at auction today means the National Museum of Australia now holds one of the most significant collections in the world.

The acquisition allows the Canberra-based Museum to accelerate its comprehensive research into the emblematic brass plates, which were awarded to Aboriginal people for faithful service, brave feats and acting as intermediaries with settlers.

It builds on the National Museum's existing collection of 33 plates, mainly from New South Wales and southern Queensland. The new plates extend to northern Queensland and Western Australia, where very few have been found.

"Each of these breastplates tells a fascinating story about colonial history, the story of an individual Aboriginal person - and sometimes even of their local people," said National Museum director Craddock Morton.

One of the National Museum's existing breastplates belonged to Charley York, a 'chief' of the Cooma region, who is not mentioned in any written local histories. Another tells the story of Timothy, who rescued people from a South Coast shipwreck in about 1840.

"These plates are an important record of early cross-cultural contact and are often the last tangible links with Aboriginal people involved in Australia's frontier history. They are controversial because they were often given to people who were not tribal elders, contributing to the breakdown of traditional culture," Mr Morton said.

After research the Museum plans to put the expanded collection of breastplates on show in regional areas across Australia - and in its permanent Canberra galleries.

There are also plans to document them on the National Museum's website and call for public input to build on the Museum's knowledge about each Aboriginal recipient.

Jakelin Troy in the book, King Plates: A History of Aboriginal Gorgets, published by the National Museum and Aboriginal Studies Press, says the brass plates were modelled on military gorgets worn to protect soldiers' necks and given out from colonial times to the 1900s.

The breastplates, from the largest known private collection, were bought today at the Noble Numismatics auction in Melbourne.

The National Museum also purchased significant Aboriginal objects yesterday at a Sotheby's auction, including a priceless 19thC drawing by Barak, the most famous headman of Melbourne's Wurundjeri clan, from the only seven Barak drawings now in private hands.

For interviews, images or more information please contact Public Affairs Director Martin Portus on 02 6208 5351, 0409 916 481 or m.portus@nma.gov.au