Australia State of the Environment Report 2001 (Theme Report)
Lead Author: Jane Lennon, Jane Lennon and Associates Pty Ltd, Authors
Published by CSIRO on behalf of the Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2001
ISBN 0 643 06752 3
State of knowledge about Australia's heritage (continued)
Swart demons and proto-human woodsprites
swarm in a forested dim cage
sealed under glass for eighty years...
An orderly forest of apes. Preserved
Heritage objects are a concern in state of the environment reporting because associated objects and collections are regarded as being part of the significance of heritage places. In some cases the associated objects will remain within the place, as in the case of house furnishings, industrial equipment or archaeological remains, for example; or they might be removed to another repository, as in the case of museum collections of historic or Indigenous artefacts, or herbariums and natural sciences collections of Type Specimens.
Exhibition of now rare Aboriginal materials at Qantilda Museum, Winton, Qld.
Now renamed Qantilda Pioneer Place, the museum has a typical collection of memorabilia of the area, including displays of old machinery, an extensive display of Qantas material and a special Aboriginal section. It is linked to the Queensland Heritage Trails Network.
Source: Jane Lennon (1997)
These baskets, with their distinctive pointed ends, are only found in the Cardwell and Cairns districts of northern Queensland. This one, collected in the 19th century, is part of the National Museum of Australia's collection.
Source: National Museum of Australia
Venus gold ore-crushing Battery, Charters Towers, Qld - restoration of interior timber supports.
Source: Jane Lennon (2000)
Only places which have been assessed as significant fall within the scope of this report, whereas all objects held within collecting institutions have been included regardless of whether they have been assessed as significant or not. As part of the development of this report, Artlab Australia carried out extensive sampling of collecting institutions to ascertain the nature of their cataloguing and treatment of collections, as reported below. This approach has not been particularly useful in ascertaining the existence and condition of collections of heritage objects, as they are buried, for most statistical purposes, among a larger sea of objects not necessarily associated in any significant way with a specific place. The bulk of the analysis, however, makes the assumption that the general trends in collections as a whole probably also applies to objects directly related to heritage places.
One of the main aims of the Commonwealth's Heritage Collections Council, which represents the Cultural Ministers Council and the museums sector, is to identify the extent, type and significance of the distributed national collection of heritage objects. Its database of Australian Museums & Galleries Online (AMOL, see http://www.amol.org.au/ ) goes some way towards this, but it does not have a comprehensive nation-wide coverage. The Heritage Collections Council also oversees national strategies for the care and management of heritage collections, and in 1998 published Australia's Heritage Collections - National Conservation and Preservation Policy and Strategy in which the significance of museum collections was affirmed, and the pressing need to undertake significance assessments of individual objects and collections as a tool for prioritising their management and care was raised. The Victorian Heritage Strategy also shares this objective and is also concerned with the management of in situ objects or those associated with places, an area not addressed by the Commonwealth's Collections Strategy.
Some State heritage registers list places and their collections, such as an historic homestead with its mural paintings, as is the case with the Walter Withers paintings in the grand drawing room at Purrumbete in the Western District of Victoria. However, it is impossible from the format of current registers to separate out the small number listed with their collections, usually furnishings and fittings, related to former functions, such as newspaper printing (Chiltern, Victoria), a chemist shop (Childers, Queensland) or a gold ore-crushing batteries (Venus Battery, Charters Towers, Queensland). The ACT heritage register specifically includes objects, and Calthorpe's House is one place of potential national significance in this category because of its related collections still held at the house.
However, knowledge of heritage objects is confined largely to information about the collections of State, Territory and Commonwealth collecting institutions, local and regional museums and the universities. For this report a survey of collections across Australia was undertaken and data were collected from each category of collecting agency to form the basis for this report (see Artlab Australia analysis, in Pearson et al. 2001, pp.16-26, 43-55). All Commonwealth, State and Territory museums, art galleries and libraries, archives, botanic gardens and herbariums were surveyed, as was a sample of regional and local museums and art galleries. The basic information relevant to knowledge was the percentage of objects in collections that were adequately catalogued, on the assumption that if cataloguing were poor or non-existent then 'knowledge' would be poor.
Catalogues generally provide useful information on the state of knowledge of both the natural and cultural environments as contained in heritage collections. However, it must be stressed that the level of documentation across the heritage collections sector varies widely in terms of scope, specific content and accuracy. Environment Australia's indicators relate specifically to data that connect objects to their natural and cultural environment of origin so that they can assist in the assessment of significance.
For the purposes of national state of the environment reporting, 'adequately catalogued' is defined as information on the object contained in a register which includes specific information on all of the following:
|For natural environment objects||For cultural heritage objects|
A While the survey revealed that very few catalogues include the condition of objects, related databases (i.e. conservation records) often contain condition records. It is appropriate that a durable definition of 'adequately catalogued' should include information on object condition.
It should also be stressed that the level of accessibility to existing catalogues varies. Few museums have a central computerised cataloguing system for their collections. Catalogues are generally distributed across several hardware and software environments or exist solely in hard copy format. Accessibility per se is not considered a prerequisite for adequacy.
Data from the Artlab Australia survey on national trends for the proportion of collections held in State, Territory and national collecting institutions that are adequately catalogued are presented in Table 7. Overall only 37% of State, Territory and national collecting organisations had adequately catalogued collections, the libraries having the highest level of cataloguing, at 77%, while the museums and related collections were a low 23%. Within the latter category the natural sciences collections had the lowest level of cataloguing, largely because of their huge scale, and they will probably never be fully catalogued. Botanic gardens and herbariums have about 61% of their collections catalogued.
|Type of institutions/collection||Proportion catalogued|
|Museums and related collections||23%|
|Botanic gardens and herbariums||61%|
Source: Artlab Australia, in Pearson et al. (2001).
It was not surprising to find that the library sector has the highest proportion of collections catalogued: 77%. The library sector has a long history of collections management, and from an historical perspective the outcome was predictable.
Archives, botanic gardens and herbariums and galleries were found to be approximately on a par at about 60% catalogued, whereas museums had a low 23%. The low score for museums is influenced largely by the considerable scale of natural science collections, many of which remain and will continue to remain uncatalogued. The five zoos surveyed provided some interesting qualitative information about heritage collections, but little quantitative data. The bulk of information resources maintained by zoos relate to living collections. Over the last 15 years aquariums have developed separately from zoos (for example, in Townsville, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne) and these are not addressed in this report.
The Tropical House in the Botanic Gardens of Adelaide, SA.
The building is in fair to good condition and has high integrity. It continues to be used for its designed use as a conservatory.
Source: Duncan Marshall (2000)
The low overall aggregate figure of 37% for State, Territory and Commonwealth collecting organisations is largely a result of the effect of the museums sector, and more specifically the natural science collections.
In the small museum and gallery sector the picture is different (see Table 8). Small galleries have a very good cataloguing rate for their collections, with 87% of small galleries having over 91% of their collections catalogued. Small museums do not compare so well, with 21% having less than 30% of their collections catalogued, and only 42% having over 91% of their collections catalogued.
|Proportion catalogued||Number of art galleries||Percentage of art galleries||Number of museums||Percentage of museums|
Source: Artlab Australia, in Pearson et al. (2001).
Comparing data from university collections (Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee 1998) with other sectors reveals that 39% of university collections had 50% or less items catalogued and a significant 56% of their collections had 90% or above of their collection catalogued. However, since university collections are teaching collections and are used differently to small museum collections generally exhibiting local history, it is difficult to compare the two categories.
Because corresponding data are not available for 1995, it is not possible to quantify any changes in this picture. However, the perception is that the proportion of collections catalogued is greater in 2000 than it was in 1995.
Heritage objects are also identified by the coverage they receive from the operations of the Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act 1986 when an object of heritage significance is proposed for sale and export overseas and thus might be lost to Australia's cultural heritage. Regulations introduced in 1999 include:
- a standard 30 year age threshold for most objects (art, technological, scientific, documents and historic objects),
- prohibition of export of Victoria Cross medals won by Australians,
- works by living artists have been included once sold by the artist (and where the work meets other criteria);
- protection of Indigenous works of art over 20 years old in order to include works from the 1970s, including the seminal Papunya school,
- monetary thresholds for fine and decorative arts have been updated to reflect changing market values and increased emphasis on Australian rather than foreign works;
- no controls on foreign objects except where an object has significance to Australia,
- assessment of all objects in terms of their historical significance, as well as under the relevant object category criteria, and
- no export permits required for fossils and meteorites already represented in museum collections by the equivalent or better examples.
In 1998-99, permits were issued for the export of 123 cultural heritage objects in 71 applications. In general, the exporters were seeking to sell objects on the international market or to exchange objects with overseas collectors. Permits were also issued to allow the temporary export of 79 Australian protected objects for exhibition or conservation, including an ichthyosaur skull and relics from an Australian historic shipwreck, the grain clipper Fides, for exhibition in Finland where the ship was originally built.
- In all heritage sectors the proportion of collections catalogued appears to be expanding, but the observation made by Margaret Anderson in 1991 remains the case: that small and large museums generally have documentation systems that are idiosyncratic and inadequate to meet current demands of scholarly and public access (Anderson 1991).
- There is no coherent, agreed, national definition or shared view of what might constitute cultural heritage or cultural heritage collections. Neither are there agreed national approaches to the management of collections across the major organisations with responsibilities in this area, despite the release of the National Conservation and Preservation Policy and Strategy for Australia's heritage collections.
- The future challenge is to identify what heritage objects and collections actually relate to place and to state of the environment reporting. The question of the extent and condition of objects relating to place was unable to be tested on a broad scale, even in those collections that are relatively well documented. While the geographical location from which an object was collected or to which it originally related is one of the fields used in defining 'adequately catalogued', this information was usually not readily accessible or able to be analysed as an aggregated group of objects, because few museums have centralised computer catalogues for all their collections. In some specific areas, such as Indigenous objects and material being returned to traditional owners, it has been possible to be more specific about the state of the object-places connection. The fact that objects and places are inseparable on shipwreck sites reinforces the statement that places and objects should not be separated in discussing the condition of this category of heritage. However, this is precisely what the Commonwealth does: it has a Shipwreck Register and a separate objects register/catalogue.
- A more rigorous framework is needed for future state of the environment reporting in relation to objects, to better accommodate the complexity of the existing collections revealed by the year 2000 analysis.