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There is a limited range of artefacts that survive from the colonial period that reflect relations between Aboriginal people and settlers. Despite their often negative connotations, the National Museum of Australia sees breastplates as significant cross-cultural items that can help tell this story. This is partly because breastplates have a wide geographical range (they were given out in all mainland states and the Northern Territory although far more commonly in the eastern states) and over a long time period, from 1815 into the twentieth century, at least to 1946.
To date Jakelin Troy's book King Plates is the most comprehensive account of these intriguing cross-cultural objects. It is an easy to read and informative book, and includes known information on the National Museum's breastplates held at the time of its publication in 1993. However, it does not include some critical material, such as Governor Lachlan Macquarie's instructions that initiated the giving out of breastplates.
King Plates provides a very useful overview of the history of Aboriginal breastplates and their link to military gorgets of the day. As Troy herself notes (page 2), much research remains to be done and the National Museum of Australia is committed to contributing to this. So far senior curator David Kaus has published an article that includes an overview of the history of breastplates drawn from all of the published work to date. Senior conservator David Hallam has been investigating the metal content of the National Museum's collection of breastplates to elicit information to aid in their documentation, and which hopefully will ultimately lead to determining where they were originally made.
What follows is an online version of King Plates with one change being that the king plates are arranged under the state where the wearer originated from, where known.
The National Museum is developing its collection of breastplates and since the publication of King Plates has acquired a further thirty examples. Our aim is to have a representative collection covering all periods, 'ranks' and states where they were given out and to have a broad selection of shapes, materials and motifs depicting Australian flora and fauna.
This website will eventually include images and documentation for all of the National Museum of Australia's breastplates. Information that we are interested in is not restricted to the objects themselves, but also includes the people they were presented to, who presented them, who made them and also how all of the information can contribute to the bigger story about breastplates, including their place in the history of metal in Australia.
Available information for individual breastplates varies from a lot to nothing beyond what is inscribed on the plate. Mostly, it is somewhere in between. We invite anyone who may have information about breastplates, whether they be in the National Museum's collection or not, to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org