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Archives / Objects / Museums: Points of Intersection

Jan Brazier
Archives and Objects: when I considered their relationship, my first reaction was that objects are generally consigned by archivists to the 'too-hard' or 'not-enough-time' basket - along with ephemera. My second reaction was to think of an object's documentation only as the papers which came with it, and as an archivist working in a natural history museum, I don't receive a lot of that.

The more I thought, however, about archives and objects, about all the 'things' in a museum, the more I came to think about the web of interconnections between objects and the institution's documentation, quite apart from any paperwork that they bring with them. So I am going to consider briefly what archival theory has to say, and then, more extensively, how 'archives' relates to 'objects' in the context of a science museum.

As do most archives, the Archives of the Australian Museum holds records in many physical formats: traditional paper documents, photographs, drawings, maps, plans, audio-visual material, ephemera; and objects.

Archives do hold objects themselves when these form part of documents, or are annexed to them, for example forensic science samples. Such annexures are generally taken to be objects of a size to be fastened to or conveniently associated with the document to which they belong. As Sir Hilary Jenkinson, a founding archival theorist, says, annexures are limited only by considerations of space and volume.1 He suggests the example of a Viceroy sending an elephant home to the Secretary of State with a suitable covering note or label, and says that there is nothing except practical convenience to prevent the elephant being treated as an annexure2; although he says that such a case would have been solved administratively by the question of housing - the elephant would have gone to the zoo3.

Our basic Australian text, Keeping Archives, agrees with Jenkinson's views, stating that it is in the best interest of the object or artefact to be placed in the custody of the relevant professionals, for example museum curators, to be given the care it needs, and to be subject to expertise in interpretation and control. The essential procedure is seen as maintaining the links to the object's documentation4. There does not seem, however, to be much exploration in archival theory on the relationship of archives and objects.

I would suggest that, generally, archivists view the proper place of objects as being in a museum. Our view is slightly ambivalent, for while we don't like to see the detachment of objects from their documentation, their segregation is often desirable for better storage and use. It is not that objects per se do not belong in archives but that generally, for reasons of space, storage requirements, use and access, objects are felt to best belong in museums.

Nevertheless, Archives often end up keeping items of heritage or museological value, usually those generated by their institution, because there is no better place in their institution for them to be held. Most archivists have a few cupboards or shelves of these museum pieces. Because we often work as sole archivists, or with a small staff, and with backlogs of undescribed series, these objects remain rarely or minimally listed. They often sit in a similar limbo to our ephemera collections.

It may be that archivists' views on objects reflect a profession too steeped in the textual record: perhaps we should handle objects with more aplomb. Non-archivists certainly see historical items living naturally in archives. In the recent evacuation of Grace Bros in Sydney from its Broadway store, the Sydney Morning Herald referred to the treasures from the past - tills, hat stands, desks, antique barbers' chairs - as 'an archivist's heaven'5. Few governing bodies distinguish between museum and archival objects, with all items of 'historic value' seen as naturally the responsibility of the archives. Anne Cooke has reflected on the interconnectedness of archives and memorabilia in schools in her article entitled 'What do I do with the rowing oar?'6

In my own archives, our rather haphazard collections of heritage objects are known as material archives, and consist of those objects generated by the museum, but which are not part of the collections. They include desks and bookcases, display cases, old labels, scientific instruments, and tools. I believe they are documentation of the institution but confess to having had little time to work with them. Their main use has been for publicity and display.

Archivists face the choice of keeping such objects with the archival holdings or transferring them to museum collections, while retaining the link to their provenance. Storage and conservation requirements are often the major factor in the decision. I am still working out where objects are to be positioned in the archival universe. I am sure that we will be giving much more thought to this issue as debates over total archives and documentation strategies progress, and as we feel the impact of the demands of researchers into material culture.

Objects in the Collections

But what I want mostly to talk about here is the archival link to the museum's scientific collections through various forms of documentation. Jenkinson's elephant could have come to the Australian Museum as a skeleton or a stuffed specimen. How it would have been documented, how the museum's collections generally are documented and the history of that documentation, reveals much of interest on the history of the sciences involved.

The Australian Museum, founded in 1827, with its first Committee of Superintendence established in 1836, is a museum of the natural sciences and anthropology. It is also a major scientific research institution. Seventeen scientific sections live within four divisions, with a staff of 100 research scientists, collection managers and technical support staff. The scientific sections include 45% of the total museum staff. The collections cover invertebrate zoology - arachnology, entomology, crustacea, malacology, marine ecology and worms; vertebrate zoology - herpetology, ichthyology, mammalogy, ornithology, terrestrial ecology and the evolutionary biology unit; earth sciences - mineralogy and palaeontology; and anthropology, with collection strengths in Aboriginal and Pacific artefacts. The collections include 4 million insects, 1 million molluscs; 450,000 fishes, 95,000 artefacts; 75,000 birds; 25,000 mammals; 145,000 reptiles; 48,000 rocks and minerals and 70,000 fossils. A lot of things to work with.

The documentation of these specimens and artefacts has changed considerably over time, reflecting changes in how these objects have been perceived. The museum's records reveal the growth and changing nature of the holdings, through the influence of scientific and cultural factors. Documentation changes as interpretation changes, and as the type of objects collected changes.

Collections are constantly used and amended; the documentation never becomes inactive in the archival sense. So collection documentation, for example object accession files and registers, rarely comes to the archives . If the old registers are transferred, it is because their format is now electronic, although the archives may hold a microfilmed safety set. Interestingly, the computerisation of collection management, which is slowly taking place, can alter the collections. The collection database can make explicit much information which was previously unavailable. It was almost impossible, using written registers, to list specimens by locality, for example, 'marine invertebrates from the Port Jackson area', but now this can be done. Collecting from the field is now directed to some extent by gaps in the collection which are revealed by the database.

On the whole, biological collections rarely come with large amounts of associated documentation. (I don't include here field data and scientific research work, which are either entered into the registration data or become part of the scientist's own papers.) Some donated collections come with their owners' observational data or registers, but generally the object sits alone with its label. This is a substantial difference from what happens in museums of social history, where objects can come with large amounts of associated documentation. For example, the Powerhouse Museum, when it acquired Lawrence Hargrave's flying machines, also acquired a large quantity of his papers. These acquired archives are registered with the objects as part of the collections. For museum archivists generally, the relationship of archivist and collection documentation is still being learnt and worked out.

Documenting the Collections

Little information survives on the early collections of the museum, which were displayed as cabinets of exotica, with the important specimens shipped back to the imperial home. The museum was very small, at first comprising one room. Even when its permanent home near Hyde park was built in the mid-19th century, it remained a very small institution until the end of the 19th century, with a scientific staff of no more than eight.

It was under the curatorship of Gerard Krefft in the 1860s that the nucleus of the research collections was established. Krefft, scientific discoverer of the Queensland lungfish and author of important first texts on Australia's natural history, was a trained scientist, and 'among the first to resist simply compiling data for Europeans to use'7. He was the sole scientific staff member. Under the succeeding curator, Edward Ramsay, scientific assistants were employed and departments formalised.

The scientific staff, employed from the 1880s, were later called curators, and they managed the collections as well as carrying out research. The 19th century research work of the museum was almost entirely taxonomic. Objects were collected as things in themselves, or for their position in their classification family. This was the great work of 19th century natural history, which largely occurred in museums: 'collecting categorising and classifying creation'8.

The Registers

The most obvious and most important format of collection documentation are the registers. The first formal collection register (known as the Palmer register) was established in 1877, and included all specimens. This was followed by a division into A and B Registers, before the establishment in 1886 of departmental registers. Each major group of organisms or artefacts is given a unique prefix of a letter or letters from the alphabet, eg E for ethnology; I for fish.

Each department at the Australian Museum has always maintained its own collections. Unlike many museums which have central registration and collection management systems, with a single run of object/accession files, the Australian Museum has always had decentralised collection management, perhaps generated by the clearly distinct categories into which the collection falls: birds, fossils, snakes.

Far less detail was gathered on the objects than later research scientists would collect. Collecting was often done with a general lack of system and often opportunistically.9 In fact finding out about early specimens and artefacts remains a detective puzzle. The Museum used professional collectors who struggled to make a living. E.J Cairn, collecting in Western Australia in 1886, found his specimens which had been left with a local Post Master almost entirely ruined:

The box containing the birds were being utilised by an old hen to lay in & were nearly all spoilt, the insects (of which I had a large number) riddled & completely useless, & the animal skins...knocked about.

At the same time, the material that he had sent before through 'a man named Marshall' had never arrived.10

The amount of data recorded about specimens and artefacts has increased and become more specific as scientific questions and procedures have changed. For example, locations, which once would have been given as simply 'near x' are now pinpointed with geographical precision. Environmental details are now recorded in the growing electronic collection databases allowing information manipulation impossible in the old manual systems.

Related Documentation on Objects

Archives hold much information that can be used in interpreting and using objects. Apart from specific collection documentation, much can be learnt about the collections from the institutional records. Central administrative records, eg. acquisition schedules and official correspondence, yield much evidence. These sources are now combed by museum staff in efforts to find data on specimens and artefacts.

Collections are acquired in several ways - donation, purchase, exchange or collection in the field - and correspondence can tell something of acquisitions and the fate of collections. Information can be found on the process of collection, for example on who the collectors were. Expedition reports offer accounts of interest to historians as well as the details of what was collected. Payment books can provide slim clues as to the work of artists and illustrators, people who are very hard to track down.

The collections maintained by the museum have been refined over time, reflecting the development of institutional acquisition policies. The modern corporate strategic plans and internal science management planning reveal the changing priorities of scientific research and attitudes to the collections. Whole collections have been transferred or lent permanently to more appropriate institutions: Cook relics to the Mitchell library; numismatics to Powerhouse; egyptology to Macquarie university. There is a self-evident documentation link between institutional administrative records and objects in collections.

The scientific object is no longer collected as a thing in itself, but is looked at as part of its surrounding environment. The object is contexted. This parallels what is happening in other areas of the museum world - for example, the decorative art item, once collected as a thing in itself, is being reattached to its surroundings.

Museum science, after a period of uncertainty, with taxonomy at the bottom of the biological science ladder, has become an active participant in debates on the environment and global science. The importance of systematics for understanding biological diversity has brought a renewed interest in the museum collections as stores of ecological knowledge.

Anthropology has been the site of perhaps some of the greatest scrutiny over the meaning of objects and their place in museums. Archival records, especially correspondence, have proven vital in the process of the return of Aboriginal cultural property, especially skeletal remains. Discovering where exactly a body had been disinterred has been a prime use of the documentary record. Institutional records have also been used intensively by researchers to analyse the cultural assumptions of the racial science practised in the 19th century.

A great change has been taking place in museums: they are no longer about the presentation of objects but ideas. A great shift has occurred in how we see: we no longer see a line from primitive to civilised, the 'Victorian paradigm of ascending progress'11, which was the vision of the museum in the 19th century. In our post-modern world, where 'all truths including anthropological and scientific ones are now viewed as contingent, contextual, and relative'12, we look horizontally. We now have multiple ways of knowing, explaining, being in the world.

Robert Sullivan, of the Smithsonian Institution, sees the role of natural history museums into the next century being to reconnect 'our collections, exhibitions, and interpretative programs, and take steps to synthesise the fragmented, isolated, and specialised knowledge that characterised preceding natural history museums.'13

Documenting the Work of Scientists

Another function of our archives, impacting on how objects are collected and used, is to document the work of scientists. The task for me is not one of collecting the instruments of science. Work in the natural sciences, whether in the field or the laboratory, mostly uses simple, regular scientific equipment. Some is developed, but generally from common objects. Odds and ends of this equipment have come into the material archives. I hope, of course, to collect these things better.

Much more important for me, however, is maintaining the link of the scientist to their work on the collections, and this involves trying to acquire their papers. Scientists tend to see their working papers as their personal papers. For example, field diaries are seen not as institutional documents but as personal documents, and this is becoming a different problem again with data now being entered in the field directly into a computer.

The papers of museum scientists include their research notes and papers, correspondence, work done on outside grants and consultancies, evidence given on environmental impact findings, committees and membership of institutions, teaching and refereeing, and so they go on. The owners see their reprint collections as most important, correspondence as unimportant. For archives, of course, the values are reversed. Specimens collected by staff scientists belong to the museum, but the position of their papers is not outlined in any policy. Written papers reveal little of the experience of field work. How do our scientists work in the field? We hold little on this. We intend to try to rectify this in the archives for example by organising photographs to be taken in the field.

This is why the Australian Museum Archives is a collecting archives, as well as an institutional archives. We attempt to collect the papers of staff or people who have been associated with the museum, to ensure that the scientific work of the museum is documented.

Exhibitions and Displays

Public programs in museums include, of course, the exhibition of objects. The presentation of science to the public seems to me a little explored area. It has progressed from those overfilled 19th century display cases - the rows and rows of insects that I saw at the Queensland Museum as a child, cases shrouded with a cloth that had to be pulled back for the contents to be seen - to the development of display groups and dioramas, to galleries then exhibitions on a theme, to the current mix of permanent and semi-permanent galleries with constantly changing temporary public programs.

Exhibitions and displays, and participation in international exhibitions, reflect not only the history of museology and how objects have been used, but also how science has been interpreted and presented to the public. The wider participation of scientists in museum activities, the messages they hope to impart, the changing priorities, can reveal much of the relationship of the object and how it is seen. Foreign large mammals, once museum showpieces, languish now in off-site storage. The analysis of gender and other cultural assumptions in museum exhibits is happening now, looking at the nature of sciences practised largely by white Anglo-Saxon males.

Documentation of exhibitions has grown, reflecting their increased complexity. For the 19th century, we have only a few photographs to show how display cases looked. We now have exhibition initiation documents, project team minutes, audience assessments and audio-visual records. Objects from the collections have become less important as the content of exhibitions; indeed some public programs use nothing from the museum collections, as they explore new areas or borrow from other institutions.


The Australian Museum comes under the NSW Archives Act, but it has always maintained its own in-house archives, and seems set to continue to do so. Some museums have their records held in state archival repositories, but this, to us, would break the links between collections and their documentation. Of course, archives are expensive to keep and maintain, and the development of museum archives by professional archivists is a recent development.

I hope to bring the few collections of papers brought in with objects under the intellectual, if not physical control, of the archives. With the decentralised collection management practised at the Australian Museum, it can be difficult to discover what may have arrived with a collection.

My role is to try to understand how collections are managed and used; to interact with collection managers bringing to their attention the archival point of view and to try to explain to scientists the value of their papers as archives. I believe I provide a link across collections. While the archival holdings previously survived within the library, the appointment of a professional archivist has led, I believe, to a fuller use of the records. No one else had the time to come to understand the many record-keeping systems used by the museum over 150 years. Familiarity with the records leads to their better use.

Raised archival consciousness is probably my best indicator in ensuring the survival of important records. Major problems remain to be solved, especially with electronic records. The relationships of archivist and curator, and archivist and scientist have to be based on understanding. Each has to see the other's benefit. We are only at the beginning of the process, but we are all aware of each other now, even if expressions are somewhat puzzled.


1 Hilary Jenkinson, Selected Writings of Sir Hilary Jenkinson, London, 1980, p.238.

2 Jenkinson, op cit., p.238.

3 Hilary Jenkinson, A Manual of Archive Administration, London, 1937, p.7. My thanks to Peter Orlovich for this reference.

4 Ann Pederson (ed), Keeping Archives, Sydney, 1987, p.5.

5 Sydney Morning Herald, 24 October, 1992.

6 Anne Cooke, '"What do I do with the rowing oar?" The role of memorabilia in school archives', Archives and Manuscripts, vol. 19, no. 1, May 1991.

7 Sally Kohlstedt, 'Historical Records in Australian Museums of Natural History', Australian Historical Bibliography, Bulletin 10, September 1984, p.64.

8 Robert Sullivan, 'Trouble in Paradigms', Museum News, Jan/Feb 1992, p.41.

9 On the history of the Anthropology collections, see E. Bonshek, 'Objects, people and identity: an interplay between past and present at the Australian Museum', draft paper for International Conference on Anthropology and Museums, Taiwan Museum 1992.

10 E.J. Cairn to E. Ramsay 30 April 1886, AMA8: 165/1886 (Australian Museum Archives)

11 Sullivan, op.cit., p.41.

12 ibid.

13 ibid.

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