Collecting the West and “Building Cultural Heritage Knowledge” at the British Museum

by CTW CI Toby Burrows

Dr Toby Burrows

Dr Toby Burrows

Rebecca Repper

Rebecca Repper

Toby Burrows and Rebecca Repper spoke about Collecting the West at the international symposium “Building Cultural Heritage Knowledge”, held at the British Museum on 27th and 28th July. The symposium aimed to highlight the challenges for sustainable knowledge building between cultural heritage institutions, universities and the other interested audiences.

The questions addressed included: how do we combine knowledge, skills and experience to create digital resources that have high research value and meaningful content, and are interesting to a wide range of people and groups? How can we avoid digital disruption and fragmentation? What role should cultural heritage institutions and organisations play in preserving and disseminating knowledge?

The speakers discussed digital projects at the Frick Collection in New York, the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Oxford University, Stanford University, UCLA, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and the British Museum. Several of these projects involve the use of ResearchSpace, the British Museum’s innovative new platform for gathering and sharing cultural heritage knowledge.

In a wide-ranging and stimulating keynote address, Andrew Prescott (Professor of Digital Humanities at Glasgow University) noted that new digital and network technologies have profoundly changed the way in which we engage with the holdings of galleries, libraries and museums. He urged scholars and curators to work together to develop more nuanced and sophisticated views of culture in a digital environment, through initiatives like ResearchSpace.

Toby and Rebecca talked about the way in which Collecting the West is engaging with ResearchSpace. Rebecca presented the work she has been doing on mapping photograph datasets from the WA Museum and the State Library for incorporation into ResearchSpace. Toby talked about the history of collecting related to Western Australia, and especially the way in which W.A. is represented in British and European collections. There was a great deal of interest in the issues surrounding indigenous objects from W.A. which are now held in Britain and Europe, and the way in which ResearchSpace could be used to bring them together in a digital setting.

Childhood Links to the Mechanics’ and Literary Institutes of Yesteryear 

By Research Associate Dr Denise Cook

I have happy childhood memories of borrowing books from the Evan Davies Library in Fremantle. One year I collected ghosts; actually the number of books I could read over summer. On work experience from school, I remember sitting on the floor by the shelves, reading the books rather than putting them away! Recently this all came back to me when I discovered that the library was in what had been the Fremantle Literary Institute building. Today the downstairs section houses the Dome café. 

Looking west up Hay Street, Perth, with Swan River Mechanics’ Institute on left and partially completed Town Hall on right, 1868. Photo courtesy of City of Perth History Centre Collection

Looking west up Hay Street, Perth, with Swan River Mechanics’ Institute on left and partially completed Town Hall on right, 1868. Photo courtesy of City of Perth History Centre Collection

I am currently researching early libraries in Perth to find out what was here before the State Library opened in 1889. It turns out, there was a fair bit, but you mostly had to pay for it. For example, in 1840, subscribers could join the Western Australian Book Society, where a case of books was ordered from England, lent out to members, then sold to make way for the next case of books (1). There was also a Church of England lending library in the 1840s, initiated by the author Rev. Hugh White of Dublin. He donated books he had written to form a library for “the benefit of the labouring classes” in the Swan River Colony (2). Others in the colony, including the Rev. J.B. Wittenoom, contributed, until there were 300 books on theology, science, history, biography, and travels. In 1846, the library was open on Friday afternoons, and books were loaned out free for a month (3).  


However, the most important and widespread early libraries in Western Australia were part of Mechanics’ Institutes and other similar organisations, such as Working Men’s Associations (4). These aimed to offer “intellectual recreation and improvement” by providing a library, offering public lectures, and facilitating discussion groups (5). They were also seen as an opportunity to keep working men away from public drinking places (6). The first in the colony was the Swan River Mechanics’ Institute, established in 1851, then the Fremantle Mechanics’ Institute opened in 1852. Many others followed (7). Initially they were for men only, who had to be approved as members, and pay a subscription (8). As well as having library books for loan, newspapers and other periodicals were available in the reading room. In 1861, it was noteworthy that 32 books were borrowed on the same day! (9) Over time, the other activities dropped off, and the library became the most important part of the institutes. As a consequence, many were renamed Literary Institutes (10).  


Recently, I have been looking at the minute books of the Swan River Mechanics’ Institute, which are now in the City of Perth Library. Renamed the Perth Literary Institute in 1909, the Perth City Council took over the library in 1957. The 1850s minutes contain decisions made in meetings, such as voting to allow particular men to join, getting bookcases made, and raffling old copies of the Illustrated London News. However, the most engaging aspect was the summaries of lengthy discussions on topics such as women’s intelligence, and spiritualism. It has been hard to tear my eyes away from these, but maybe not much has changed in relation to me and libraries! 


[1] Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal, January 18, 1840, 10.; “Western Australia Book Society," Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal, July 18, 1840, 2.; "Swan River Reading Society," Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal, August 29, 1840, 2.

[2] "Report of the Committee of the Colonial Church Association [in Western Australia]," InquirerDecember 18, 1844, 4.

[3] Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal August 8, 1846, 2.; "Report of the Committee of the Colonial Church Association [in Western Australia]", Inquirer December 18, 1844, 4.

[4] See for example "Ninth Annual Report of the Perth Working Men's Association," Perth Gazette and West Australian Times, 2 May 1873, 3.

[5] “Swan River Mechanics’ Institute,” Perth Gazette and Independent Journal of Politics and News, 16 May 1851, 4.

[6] Peter Rose, Wendy Birman and Michael White, “‘Respectable’ and ‘Useful’: the Institute Movement in Western Australia,” in Pioneering Culture: Mechanics’ Institutes and Schools of Arts in Australia, ed. Philip C. Candy (Adelaide: Auslib Press, 1994), 128.

[7] Rose, Birman and White, “‘Respectable’ and ‘Useful,’: the Institute Movement in Western Australia,” 139.

[8] Jo Darbyshire, Peruse: A History of the City of Perth Library 1851–2016 (Perth: City of Perth Library, 2016); Minutes of the Swan River Mechanics’ Institute, 3 May 1892, City of Perth History Centre Collection.

[9] Minutes of the Swan River Mechanics’ Institute, 1 July 1861.

[10] Rose, Birman and White, “‘Respectable’ and ‘Useful’: the Institute Movement in Western Australia,” 133-4, 136.

Banner image: Looking west up Hay Street, Perth, with Swan River Mechanics’ Institute on left and partially completed Town Hall on right, 1868. Photo courtesy of City of Perth History Centre Collection.

June 27, 2017

Reconnecting Western Australia's Photographic Collections

by PhD candidate Rebecca Repper

Photography is a popular medium for understanding, representing and communicating our collective past and cultural heritage, both tangible and intangible. I am particularly fascinated with photography for this very reason. It permeates through all types of collections and institutions - Galleries, Museums, Libraries and Archives, of Art, Science, History, Technology and more - but how it is represented in those collections has very real impacts on how we as researchers and as the public of those collecting bodies can access and understand the photographs and photography.

PhD candidate Rebecca Repper

PhD candidate Rebecca Repper

Western Australia is represented in and by millions of photographs within public collecting institutions, not least the partner institutions of the Collecting the West project. Reaching an understanding of what 'WA' has collected, and what is of 'WA' that has been collected elsewhere, is fragmented through the very different and discrete systems that must be consulted that exist in each of these organisations. This problem is compounded by the fact that institutional collection management systems, the catalogues you and I consult when searching, are often ill suited to record the complex information related to photographic items.

In seeking to understand these issues, I will research the policies and decisions that have led to how WA's photographic record is documented, and in what way these impact our understanding and access to the photographic material of Western Australia. Moreover, I seek to explore through an applied investigation if these complex and disparate collections can effectively collate into a single interface using the International Standard CIDOC CRM, a process known as interoperability. Through this applied investigation I will determine whether the resulting dataset can be effectively queried and therefore whether this is a methodology through which we can access and research WA's collections collectively. I hope to establish whether there are any mitigating factors inherent within the institutional datasets, the CIDOC CRM, or the photographic medium itself that hinder the practical implementation of the international standard.

My research is in its very early months. I have been concentrating so far on some fantastic literature from the past 30 years that has focused on the complex and problematic place of photographs and photography within collecting institutions. I recommend Gaby Porter's seminal 1989 paper on this topic, 'The Economy of Truth: Photography in Museums', which is still very much applicable today,[1] as well as Elizabeth Edwards online blog series Institutions and the Production of 'Photographshosted by FotomuseumWinterthur. My applied research will require technical skills associated with collection management standards and digital data conversion, so I am embarking on a month of training in the UK in July. I will be attending the Digital Humanities Oxford Summer School and the ResearchSpace symposium 'Building Cultural Heritage Knowledge', as well as undertaking a fortnight's placement with the ResearchSpace team at The British Museum to develop my understanding of CIDOC CRM and to test my first photography dataset (from the State Library of WA) with this standard. I look forward to reporting back and letting you know how my research develops.


[1] Porter, G., 1989. The Economy of Truth: Photography in Museums. Ten.8, 34, pp.20–33.

Banner image: Glass Plate Negatives in carry case (UCL Institute of Archaeology Collections), photograph by Rebecca Repper.

June 20, 2017

‘The eighth meeting of the Museum Committee was held at 2.45 on Wednesday 4th Sept/95 at the Victoria Library…’

By Research Associate Dr Baige Zylstra

Reading through the minute books of the WA Museum Committee reveals many interesting facts about early collecting practices in WA. Founded in 1895, the Museum Committee was not only responsible for the development of the State’s museum collection, but also the early art collection. The first artwork they acquired for the collection was a copy of Rembrandt’s An old woman. Around the same time they also purchased copies of Greek and Roman statues, which were exhibited in the gallery for many years. These decisions are documented in the committee minutes on 4 September 1895, reproduced here courtesy of the State Records Office. The statues can be seen in photographs of the gallery taken by E.L.Mitchell in 1913, held in the collection of the State Library of Western Australia.

CTW Research Associate Dr Baige Zylstra has been documenting the development of Western Australia’s major public collecting institutions.

Minute Book of the Committee of Management, W.A. Museum, 11/4/1895 – 7/3/1910. Cons No: 1035 1, State Records Office (page 12) with detailed record of expenditure down to the shelves for the 12 jarrah cabinets.

Minute Book of the Committee of Management, W.A. Museum, 11/4/1895 – 7/3/1910. Cons No: 1035 1, State Records Office (page 12) with detailed record of expenditure down to the shelves for the 12 jarrah cabinets.

PhD candidate, Corioli Souter, on her research.

As a museum curator, I am always looking for new ways to interpret our collection. My PhD research is an extension of this objective—creating a narrative about the Indian Ocean world using art, objects and personal experiences over time.

The project is inspired by archival and archaeological work undertaken by the Western Australian Museum and our other project partners including the British Museum. My first foray into the collections at the British Museum was part of our co-collaborated exhibition ‘Travellers and Traders in the Indian Ocean’(2016). That was a ‘dip in the ocean' and my current project is an upscaling of some of the concepts we explored, supplemented with the museum’s archival records and 'hinterland of knowledge’ (thank you Mark Nesbitt). Also, as part of this trip, I was fortunate to be guided through collections at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich and the RijksmuseumScheepvaartmusuem and Tropenmuseum in the Netherlands. There are so many ways in which to tell the story of an ocean and it's littoral people. Perhaps one of the greatest challenges with story telling in a Museum setting(and on an ocean-wide scale) is the identification of interpretive strategies that push boundaries as much as they inspire.

This is just the beginning of my PhD journey and at this stage an exhibit with which I take inspiration is “Planets in my Head” (below), an installation by Yinka Shinibare on display in the
Tropenmuseum. His work raises questions about the legacy of colonialism. This piece depicts the opposing world views of a child of that time. His head is full of thinkers from all four corners of the earth. But only the Western canon was taught at schools in the colonies. The value of the other knowledge was not recognized. In this way, European powers claimed a monopoly not only on trade but also on ideas.

Below:“Planets in my Head”, an installation by Yinka Shinibare on display in the Tropenmuseum, Netherlands. The child has scratched “You can’t trust nobody” into his desk.'

“Planets in my Head”, an installation by Yinka Shinibare on display in the Tropenmuseum, Netherlands.

“Planets in my Head”, an installation by Yinka Shinibare on display in the Tropenmuseum, Netherlands.