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;
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Jenkinson, Selected Writings of Sir Hilary Jenkinson, London,
2 Jenkinson, op
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
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.,