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In recent weeks I have been getting to grips with my role as curator in charge of the Australian diplomatic collection. This exciting new partnership with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade focuses on significant aspects of Australia’s diplomatic history since the Second World War.

The Museum will acquire new collections conveying powerful stories of how Australian diplomats have protected and advanced Australia’s international interests.

A man and woman view objects on a table, including a top hat, purple dress and suitcase.
Laura Cook and John Quinn at the Museum’s repository, with objects from the Edna Thompson collection

What is diplomacy?

Diplomacy is foreign affairs in action. Diplomats are state representatives who peacefully negotiate international disputes and alliances. Governed by international laws, their work strengthens economic, cultural and military exchanges between countries. Historian Christopher Seely identifies protocol being influenced by tradition, pragmatism or expediency.

Diplomacy runs like a thread through several existing Museum collections. After a spot of busy detective work trawling through old files and database records, it was time to find out more.

Commonwealth interests

Several objects emphasise the challenging work of DFAT staff in promoting Commonwealth interests. A battered Australian coat of arms, displayed in our Decoded exhibition, was damaged in a terrorist attack on the Australian Embassy in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta in 2004.

The Museum also holds a vast three-metre carpet depicting the Great Wall of China, given to Gough Whitlam during one of his early 1970s visits to the country, likely in 1973. This marked a major milestone in Australia’s diplomatic relationship with modern China.

Large rectangular tapestry or carpet, predominantly in shades of blue, green and yellow wool, which depicts a section of the Great Wall of China.

Great Wall of China tapestry gifted to Gough Whitlam, 1970s

Canberra and overseas posts

Next stop was the Museum’s repository, where I joined Research Associate John Quinn. As a senior DFAT diplomat of almost 40 years’ standing, John is a wealth of information. At the repository we uncovered more objects charting the uncommon experiences of staff based in Canberra or posted overseas.

Large black and white photo depicting a group portrait of men, women and one child.

Australian High Commission staff including Edna Thompson and John Oldham, Karachi, Pakistan, 1949

Edna Thompson

One of the Museum's rich collections reveals the remarkable story of Edna Thompson. After joining the Australian Public Service as a typist in 1933, Edna ducked the ‘marriage bar’ and enjoyed an adventurous career with the then Department of External Affairs.

Edna's first posting was to Karachi in 1949, as personal secretary to John Oldham. John was Australia’s first High Commissioner to Pakistan, formed by the 1947 partition of the Indian subcontinent at the end of the British Crown rule.

Edna’s collection also contains an evening dress, diaries and her Order of the British Empire (OBE) medal, awarded in 1977 in recognition of her service to the Commonwealth.

Grey metal sanitary towel dispensing machine with a slot for '6'' coin and coin return near base. - click to view larger image
1950s Genetex sanitary towel dispenser installed for female Department of External Affairs staff

Diverse collection

One of the more unusual finds was a 1950s sanitary towel dispenser from the Canberra offices housing the Department of External Affairs. The provision of facilities for female employees indicates a relatively progressive view of women’s participation in the workforce and in public life.

Another remarkable treasure of the Museum's collection is a pair of 1960s cufflinks worn by cyclist-turned-diplomat Hubert Opperman as Australia's first High Commissioner to Malta.

Donations

Curators are seeking donations of objects that help tell strong personal stories about Australia’s engagement with the world, national identity and promotion of the Commonwealth's trade, foreign policy and development assistance. More on the Australian diplomatic collection

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