Histories of Natural History Collections & Collecting, Albany, WA.

Copy of Collecting the West.jpg

by Tiffany Shellam

In Albany on the 25th and 26th October, on the beautiful and biodiverse country of Menang Noongar, Collecting the West hosted a two day symposium on the 'Histories of Natural History collections and collecting'. This symposium brought together an eclectic group of researchers, curators, Indigenous knowledge holders and scientists  - From London, Oxford, Melbourne, Perth and Albany - to discuss ideas and tensions relating to the history, and futures, of such collections. Professor Stephen Hopper, a conservation biologist and Lynette Knapp Menang Traditional Owner, began with a conversation about sharing stories on-country, revealing Lynette's deep family-based knowledge of plants, animals and ways of caring for country. Their inspiring collaboration of two-way learning revealed the tensions in abstract natural history collections, and the challenges in a traditional temporal approach in current practice.

 

Other speakers, such as Andrea Witcomb (Deakin University) and Pina Milne (Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne) Serena Marner (Oxford University Herbarium) and Tui Raven (State Library of Western Australia) reminded us that the names of collections - such as the "Matthew McGiver Smyth", or "Ferdinand Von Mueller" collection can be misleading, hiding the labour of others, the agency of Indigenous traders, or the extensive networks that produced or amassed a variety of collections.

Corioli Souter (WA Museum) and Shino Konishi (UWA) illuminated the materiality of collections and the emotions tied to 'collecting the sea'. The passion for 19th century shell collecting by the French, could be read, Konishi argued, as an obsession, and revealing that some naturalist-explorers would collect 'at all costs'.

JD Hill (British Museum) raised the challenge of how we understand what 'collecting place' might mean for making sense of past, present and future collecting practices in and from Western Australia. This made me reflect on the scientific abstraction of collections from their environmental and cultural contexts. Significant knowledge and local reference - about a shell,  for example - can get lost or hidden in the decontextualisation from beach to museum cabinet. Research on the Robert Neill fish collection by  Lester Coyne (Menang Noongar Elder) and myself, which includes fish specimens in Edinburgh  and sketches and manuscript notes in London, we hope to re-contextualise these with Menang knowledge holders. 

 

 Symposium delegates at the UWA Albany Centre.

Symposium delegates at the UWA Albany Centre.

This tension of knowledge abstraction in many of the collections was brought into sharp focus during our two walks on Menang Country: Menang Elder Harley Coyne took the group to the Fish Traps in Oyster Harbour, telling us many significant stories about knowledge and specimens in country. Stephen Hopper guided a walk at Teaching Rock (Babinger Boy), near Quaranup where we learned about karda mia (lizard traps) and gnamma construction. 

 

Some presenters discussed the background to local, formative collections, such as early geological collections by explorers, government agents and settlers, some of which in turn became the foundational collections of the Swan River Mechanics Institute, the Perth Museum and later WA Museum.  Some of these early rock collections have been forgotten in overseas institutions. Tui Raven from the State Library of Western Australia revealed one interesting and innovative project which is using  natural history collections from an early colonial expedition - John Forrest's 1874 expedition from Geraldton to Adelaide, in a unique way. This project is engaging with Aboriginal peoples in the Yamaji region, Western Desert and Ngaanyatajarra Lands to share traditional ecological knowledge of the country through which the explorers travelled. 

 

Curators from interstate and international collecting institutions discussed the mobility of collections in the colonial era and today. Dermot A. Henry (Museums Victoria) described the fashion in which collectors from the east headed to the goldfields in the west, bringing many geological specimens back to Victoria as a result. Mark Nesbitt (Economic Botany, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK) revealed the movement of specimens, raw plant materials and objects in and out of the Museum of Economic Botany in the period 1847-1987. His project is mapping the circulation of specimens across international networks of exchange in the 19th and 20th centuries.

 

Rich discussions and new connections were forged during the symposium and the Collecting the West team are pleased to initiate these new conversations.

 Tiffany Shellam & Lester Coyne, who co-presented the paper ‘Assembling a fish archive: Robert Neill and Menang Nyungar knowledge’ at the symposium.

Tiffany Shellam & Lester Coyne, who co-presented the paper ‘Assembling a fish archive: Robert Neill and Menang Nyungar knowledge’ at the symposium.

Collecting the West at the Digital Humanities Pathways Forum, Perth, for National Science Week.

by PhD candidate Rebecca Repper

On Friday 18th May I had the pleasure of presenting at the Digital Humanities Pathways Forum, Perth, held at the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre. This was a meeting of a diverse range of industry and academic professionals interested in digital approaches to studying and activating knowledge in the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences. A prominent theme of the forum was development and challenges towards building stronger collaboration between the GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) and university sectors, both in research and infrastructure. The Collecting the West project exists within this nexus—working with our industry partners to build better knowledge and practice regarding Western Australian collections for the future.

 

 Rebecca Repper presenting. Image tweeted by  @eResearchSA .

Rebecca Repper presenting. Image tweeted by @eResearchSA.

The morning session focused on existing projects and industry in Perth, where we heard from Alec Coles and the current initiatives underway as part of the new WA Museum development; Jill Benn from the University of Western Australia Library and how the Libraries can be instrumental infrastructure for digital and collaborative research; Prof Jane Lydon on the ‘Returning Photos’ project which collaborated with several collecting bodies to create a single ongoing digital resource, as well as mediated contact and repatriation of the photographic record to people on country; and Craig Pett on the GALE primary sources digitisation project and the changing use of that resource and its metadata within research. This session gave way to a panel discussion on the connections between the GLAM sector and Universities. Remarks were made on future opportunities to develop these partnerships, and how to ensure the communication and availability of information on, and experiences with, the products of research collaborations. Some emphasis was given for the need to promote ‘deliverables’ beyond that of the standard publication and reports, recognise future students and researchers as integral to our ‘research infrastructure’ and to make sure they have the training and tools at their disposal, and the need to ‘future proof’ knowledge outcomes against redundancy. Our reliance on government funding in Australia was particularly questioned.

 

The afternoon session opened with a series of lightning talks by current research projects, during which I presented my early research into representation of photograph collections in the CIDOC-CRM ontology, and the benefits for understanding and convergence of collections. Other presentations were: Dr Luke Hopper (ECU/WAAPA) on how biomechanics visualisations (more known for their use in producing CGI characters like Gollum and examining Cricket bowling action) were being used to analyse Dance technique; Andrew Woods’ (Curtin) overview of two collaborative projects, one with the WA Museum on their investigation of the HMAS Sydney (II) wreck site, and the other with the State Library on identifying duplicates and correlations within their pictorial collections; and Dr Sam Barron (UWA) on how augmented reality environments might aid in teaching abstract concepts. Discussion then opened to a panel that raised questions around barriers to HASS research and future needs. Infrastructure that can accommodate not only the demands of research but protect it against extreme events (such as weather) was raised. The question of how the HASS sector could promote its research in such a way that emphasised its relevance, which would aid in securing funding and necessary infrastructure, was hotly discussed, as well as whether ‘Digital Humanities’ is an appropriate umbrella term to communicate our research, or just a buzz word that is not being taken seriously. Lastly, should Australia be focusing on international partnerships, or fostering our own national ‘scene’? Paul Arthur and Sarah Nisbet in their closing comments emphasised the need for these discussions to occur, and encouraged the Perth community to be proactive in engaging in the broader debate.

 

The day was engaging and an excellent opportunity to network with individuals working in similar fields. There was definitely an eagerness for collaborative projects, but also for their outcomes to have lasting contributions to both knowledge and the wider cultural sector. Alec Coles mentioned Collecting the West specifically in this context. The recent lacklustre contribution by the Federal Government towards National Research Infrastructure for HASS was seen as a set-back, but also a challenge. The turn out and discussion at the forum showed that the Perth research community are already working towards meeting that challenge.

Collection Turf War? Collection competition for WA’s early manuscripts

by Rebecca Repper

Today, when we consider where we might find items of historic value to our state, it seems logical to first approach our State organisations: the WA Museum, State Library of Western Australia, and State Records Office. Indeed, this is what J.S. Battye, then Librarian and General Secretary for our Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery of Western Australia, thought. He arranged for the historical and government archives to be collected and deposited in the Public Library. There were occasions when he was offered material that was pertinent to another state’s history, and then he referred the donor to that State’s institution. However, statehood is only ever an informal jurisdiction for collecting, and it seems that in one exchange (State Records Office AU WA S3326- cons1198 2000) Battye became aware of another collecting institution straying onto (what we would consider) our turf.

In a letter dated 12th February 1917, Hugh Wright, the Librarian of the Mitchell Library, Sydney wrote the following to the Hon Sir Edward Stone, then Lieutenant-Governor of Western Australia and former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Western Australia. Stone was then President and Trustee of Western Australia’s Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery, and may have been startled to read:

'I desire to bring before your notice the existence of this library [The Mitchell Library] which is in no sense parochial but which is devoted to the collection of manuscripts, books, pamphlets, maps, engravings, etc., on any topic relating to Australia and the surrounding islands. As the library may be used only by bona fide students, and not by “loafers”, the users of the institutions are those who are doing good work …I think this explanation is necessary so that you may understand my appeal to your public spirit to present to this library any [material]… that may be useful to the future historian or biographer in writing up the rise and progress of your State.'

So far, this letter is polite, if somewhat parochial (to use his own term) in its disregard for the right of a wider community to have access to its history. It is in ending his letter that the Librarian perhaps oversteps the mark.

'As this is the only library in the Commonwealth that is endeavouring to collect and preserve such valuable records, that might otherwise be destroyed by fire or damp or rats, or be torn up by descendants who cared not to preserve old papers, I hope you will give my request your serious consideration.'

 Portrait of Hugh Wright, 1931, Silver Gelatin print mounted, P1/2102, State Library of New South Wales, http://archival.sl.nsw.gov.au/Details/archive/110339789.

Portrait of Hugh Wright, 1931, Silver Gelatin print mounted, P1/2102, State Library of New South Wales, http://archival.sl.nsw.gov.au/Details/archive/110339789.

You must admit, he had a flair for the dramatic. But was this ignorance, or impertinence? How on earth did the Librarian overlook the existence of the Perth Library, Museum and Art Gallery, or any of the other early state institutions? Moreover, how did he overlook the fact that he was addressing the letter to President and Trustee of Western Australia’s premier institution! Sir Edward Stone apparently forwarded the letter to Battye for reply. Battye’s letter to Wright, dated the 5th March 1917, is short and to the point. The meat of his reply is as follows:

'So far as the subject matter of your letter is concerned, I may point out that for years past I have made it my special care to collect for this Library all material of an historical character likely to be of value in the future. Such being the case, the Trustees are not prepared to transfer that work, or the results of that work, to an institution outside the State.'

Wright’s reply on the 19th of the same month does not try in any way to assuage misunderstandings between the two institutions. He begins:

'I am very much surprised by the tenor of your letter … And am inclined to think that you dictated it with a feeling of that parochial spirit which unfortunately militates against the progress of Australia and as you are evidently not seized with the circumstances under which my letter … was written[.] I am inclined to overlook what to me seems a rather impertinent tone in your reply.'

His defence is that his letter was a personal one (he did not know that Stone was associated with the Public Library), and one that did not refer to the library (Perth) in any way. As it was not an official letter to the library, he did not break from that courteousness that directed any formal communication to an institution through the General Secretary and not the President or Chairman.

Wright saves his best until last however, first by implying that Battye needs advice on how to do his job:

'Why he [Sir Edward Stone] submitted it to you I cannot tell unless it was done to spur you on to issue a similar circular letter with a view to collecting further material of your local pioneers.'

And secondly, bragging:

'I am pleased to tell you that through the intermediary of this Queensland friend [who advised him to contact Stone] I have already received the manuscript journal of one of your pioneers.'

Battye’s reply of the 30th March 1917 is the last in the exchange (that I know of), and it seems he decided to spell out to Wright how offence had been given:

'So far as the subject matter is concerned, I am afraid you do not quite appreciate the fact, firstly, that the officer acting in the interests of the National Library of the State is not acting parochially; secondly, that the State institution is the proper depository of documents relating to this history of that State; thirdly, that the Mitchell Library after all is a New South Wales institution and not a Commonwealth institution and recent events have not, in the opinion of many, given the New South Wales the right to speak in the name of Australia or any other State.'

This is an echo of a sentiment he expressed in an interview with the West Australian, published Tuesday 15th January 1907: ‘… the Mitchell collection of Australian literature, which was undoubtedly the best collection of its kind that was ever likely to be got together. Mr Battye thought it really should belong to the Commonwealth, and not any particular State, because it contained much original matter that could not be duplicated.’ It is not clear what the allusion to ‘recent events’ in the letter by Battye may refer. It is first raised by Wright in the phrase ‘the circumstances under which my letter was written’ (above). It may be Federation, which saw the decision to place the Nation’s capital in N.S.W. at a location that would come to be named Canberra (as a compromise to placing the capital in either Sydney or Melbourne, who wanted the honour for themselves). However, in 1917, the Parliament was still sitting in Melbourne. I also wonder if Battye may have been somewhat biased against Wright as a Sydneysider, as Battye was originally a Victorian before taking the position as Librarian in WA.

 Cartoon by Ben Strange, published in the Western Mail, Friday 4th January, 1918, in relation to the results of the second conscription plebiscite held in Australia on the 20th December 1917.

Cartoon by Ben Strange, published in the Western Mail, Friday 4th January, 1918, in relation to the results of the second conscription plebiscite held in Australia on the 20th December 1917.

Alternatively, the letters may allude to the events of World War One that at the time of this letter had been raging shy of three years. The atmosphere would have been particularly fraught with the current debates surrounding conscription. Australia had returned a ‘No’ vote on 28 October 1916 with serious consequences at Federal level with a split in the Labor party. Western Australia and New South Wales were poles apart on this issue, with W.A. strongly in favour, and N.S.W. against. The second plebiscite on this issue on 20 December 1917 was similarly returned. The polarity in the results inspired this cartoon, ‘East is East and West is West’ by Ben Strange, published in the Western Mail, Friday 4th Jan, 1918. These letters were written after the first plebiscite, Federal elections were to be held in May 1917, and the conscription debate still raged. There was also a burgeoning self-identity and worth associated with being ‘Australian’, rather than part of the British Empire. This was something Battye himself was aware of, and spoke publicly about (for example, see below). Awareness and appreciation that the Australian experience was a distinct history to be told was one that spurred War Correspondent Charles Bean to lobby for better management and retainment of our own war documentation, and this spurred the creation of an Australian War Records Section, the forerunner of the Australian War Memorial.

Battye ends his correspondence by outlining the crux of the issue, that he considers that the State institution is the best depository for historical material regarding that State, regardless of the limited means available to the Perth institution.

'I am still of opinion that the Mitchell Library, whilst entitled to secure whatever it can by purchase, is not entitled to rake the other States in its own interests, and I am therefore of opinion that the Western Australian pioneer who forwarded you a manuscript journal relating to Western Australian matters, could have found a better place for it in the National institution of his own State … We have been collecting material of that character here for nearly twenty years past, and therefore do not require any incentive from outside to continue our labours.

I do not, however, want you to think that there is any personal question involved in all this. I quite appreciate the fact that you are pushing the interests of the Mitchell Library to the best of your ability … but I would ask you not to forget that I am doing the same so far as this place is concerned, and although we have neither the facilities not the money that you have, still we have done a very great deal.'

It is well known that the Mitchell Library has a significant collection of manuscript material pertaining to other states’ history. Hugh Wright is particularly recognised for his efforts towards securing Pioneer’s manuscripts, accredited with ‘persuading families that the Mitchell Library was a safe and proper repository for their treasures’ (Whitaker 2018:26). A guide to this material for Western Australia was created by Pam Matthews (Matthews 1981) and is available in the State Library of WA (The Mitchell Library’s collection can also be searched online (http://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/)). The Mitchell Library was able to be proactive in collecting part due to a generous endowment by its namesake, David Scott Mitchell, whose personal collection, collected over a period of forty years, was also bequeathed to the library. Their approach may also be understood through their history. The State Library of New South Wales, of which the Mitchell Library is part, is the oldest library in Australia, established in 1826. This is the same year that the settlement at King George’s Sound in Albany was ordered, some three years before the Swan River Colony, and over fifty years before Western Australia’s founding collecting institutions. Moreover, Sydney was one of the most successful colonial cities, which, together with Melbourne, would make it vie to be Australia’s capital city. These factors, and its early establishment within the Australian collecting sector would have contributed to it establishing a collection and collecting behaviour that reflected a nation’s history, rather than that of the State of New South Wales. This mentality can also be seen in the name of Sydney’s museum, the ‘Australian Museum’, and in Melbourne’s ‘National Gallery of Victoria’. The breadth of material donated by Mitchell and the endowment gave it more freedom to pursue this identity. Hugh Wright’s tenure as Librarian at The Mitchell Library definitely reflects an organisation that was creating a collection of national importance. Moreover, the Mitchell Library had an independent income with which to support its ambitious collecting policy, whereas many institutions at this time were suffering severe budget cuts due to the War, and these would continue well into the middle of the twentieth century thanks to the depression and World War Two. Hugh Wright perhaps saw it his duty to actively collect material that other institutions could not afford to acquire, or care for properly, due to their limited means (but his accusations of ‘parochial’ spirit perhaps suggests he just thought anyone outside of Sydney was not progressive in their appreciation of Australian history).

 The Mitchell Library Reading Room, with the Picture Gallery in the background, 1923. Digital image from Glass Photo-Negative, FL1016826, Collection ON 7, State Library of New South Wales  http://archival.sl.nsw.gov.au/Details/archive/110321310 .

The Mitchell Library Reading Room, with the Picture Gallery in the background, 1923. Digital image from Glass Photo-Negative, FL1016826, Collection ON 7, State Library of New South Wales http://archival.sl.nsw.gov.au/Details/archive/110321310.

Battye and the Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery of Western Australia was in a very different position to Wright – as evidenced by Battye’s statement ‘although we have neither the facilities not the money’. The end of the nineteenth century saw Perth establish both a Public Library, and a Museum and Art Gallery, and these were joined in legislation in 1911. During this time period, the collections grew and plans were put in place for a striking complex, but from World War One the expansion of the Library and Museum were checked by lack of staff, budget, and delays in progressing with the new accommodations. Wright also had an advantage that the Mitchell Library was distinct from the Public Library, whereas Battye had a single budget to provide a Public Library and very little or no dedicated budget to the procurement and care of historical collections (some had been provided in 1903 for the collection and binding of historical government records, and an Archives Committee/Board was revived in 1923, and again in 1929, but provision never lasted until the appointment of an archivist in 1945). The differences between Perth’s financial situation and that of Eastern States’ institutions is something stressed in his interview with the West Australian newspaper, published 15th January, 1907. Battye was by no means inactive during this time, but the amount he was able to achieve through the library was definitely curtailed. Some eight years after these letters in a brief report to the premier regarding the ‘Historical Documents Committee’ (State Records Office AU WA S3326- cons1198 3329), Battye writes that the actions of the Committee are hampered due to no provision being made for expenses by the Government, and that there is no provision for fire proof storage of the collected material. His later involvement with the Western Australian Historical Society (founded 1926), and his own activity in publications and promoting Australian history through lectures and radio broadcasts, may have been a way in which he could push further outside of the constraints of his public office.

This small exchange between Wright and Battye reflects many of the factors that has seen Western Australia’s collections not stay in Western Australia, something that is at the heart of what we are researching with Collecting the West. In this instance, the proactive collecting activity of The Mitchell Library ruffled some feathers, perhaps not least because Battye knew that he did not have the same tools at his disposal for active collecting as Wright. For me, this correspondence exchange provided an amusing distraction while I was in the State Records Office chasing the history of collecting photographs in our WA institutions, and how we document them.

 

 

References:

‘About Public Libraries. Interview with Mr. J.S. Battye. His Impressions of Eastern States Institutions.’ (1907, January 15) The West Australian, Perth: 3. <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article25693750> accessed Mar 12, 2018.

 

‘East is East and West is West [Illustration].’ (1918, January 4). Western Mail (Illustrated Section), Perth: 7. <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-page3492648> accessed Mar 12, 2018.

 

‘National Sentiment. Australia’s Great Need.’ (1913, November 17) The West Australian, Perth: 4. <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article26890403> accessed Retrieved Mar 12, 2018.

 

Mathews, Pam (1981). A guide to manuscript material relating to Western Australia held in the Mitchell Library, Sydney <http://catalogue.slwa.wa.gov.au/record=b1246468~S1> accessed Mar 12, 2018.

 

An overview of the career of Hugh Wright:

Whitaker, Anne-Maree (2018). ‘The Librarian as Historian’: Hugh Wright, C. H. Bertie and Their Circle, Journal of the Australian Library and Information Association 67.1: 20-30. <https://doi.org/10.1080/24750158.2017.1404229> accessed Mar 12, 2018.

 

Thanks to the State Records Office for their continued help in the archives, to Jane Lydon and Jenny Gregory for their helpful comments, and to Bobbie Oliver for alerting me to Ben Strange’s marvellous cartoon and discussing with me the importance of the conscription debate at the time.

'A Shield Loaded with History: Encounters, Objects and Exhibitions' A fascinating new paper by Maria Nugent and CTW Partner Investigator Gaye Sculthorpe.

rahs20.v049.i01.cover.jpg

Nugent, Maria, and Gaye Sculthorpe. "A Shield Loaded with History: Encounters, Objects and Exhibitions." Australian Historical Studies 49, no. 1 (2018/01/02 2018): 28-43.

Abstract

This article discusses an Aboriginal shield in the British Museum which is widely believed to have been used in the first encounter between Lieutenant James Cook's expedition and the Gweagal people at Botany Bay in late April 1770. It traces the ways in which the shield became ‘Cook-related’, and increasingly represented and exhibited in that way. In the wake of its exhibition at the National Museum of Australia in late 2015 and early 2016, the shield gained further public prominence and has become enmeshed within a wider politics of reconciliation. A recent request from the La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council to the British Museum to review knowledge about the shield has contributed to a reappraisal of claims about its connection to Cook's 1770 expedition. Preliminary findings of this review are presented. In the process, the article addresses larger questions concerning the politics surrounding the interpretation of the shield as a historically ‘loaded’ object.

Read more in Australian Historical Studies 49:  http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/2UVbme8zpf2Tpk2wnE6U/full

 

 

 

PhD project: From ‘wretched savages’ to the world's  ‘most beautiful’ artefacts: British ethnographic  collections from Western Australia

Photos.jpg

Welcome to new CTW PhD candidate, Nicola Froggatt. 
(Royal Holloway, University of London & the British Museum)
Supervisor Gaye Sculthorpe, British Museum.

My project explores the history of Indigenous Australian material culture now in the British Museum and other UK collections. My focus is on the ways in which artefacts from Western Australia were collected by visitors and settlers in the region, and then made their way to the UK. By analysing these cross-cultural journeys, I hope to show how these items have helped to shape colonial and postcolonial ideas about value, place and identity.

Over the course of the project I will examine the different kinds of objects that were collected and sent to the UK. I will also conduct research into their makers (where known), their collectors, the range of objects collected and the methods of collection. By shedding further light on these processes, I hope to help increase our understanding of how and why collectors engaged with Indigenous Australians and their material culture.


 

 Carved baobab nut (nineteenth century)&nbsp; ©&nbsp;The Trustees of the British Museum.

Carved baobab nut (nineteenth century) 
© The Trustees of the British Museum.

Collecting the data, but what to do with it? My July training experience in Oxford and London

by Rebecca Repper

 

 The Digital Humanities Oxford Summer School, St Anne's College, Oxford.

The Digital Humanities Oxford Summer School, St Anne's College, Oxford.

In July I had the pleasure of focusing on some training for my research project 'Reconnecting Western Australia's Photographic Collections'. I was not even 6 months into my PhD candidacy, but I am planning to be looking at a lot of collection metadata from at least four different institutions. I needed to make sure that what I was envisaging to do was possible (for me), and practical (with the time and resources I have). Therefore, the purpose of this training was to make sure that I understood the basic skills that I would need to access and understand the collection data, and also the possibilities to process that data so that I could ask the questions I needed.

 

 Enjoying some networking opportunities at DHOxSS.

Enjoying some networking opportunities at DHOxSS.

You might not think about it this way, but cultural heritage institutions like Libraries, Museums and Archives do not just collect items, such as books, paintings or artefacts, but they collect data - a lot of data. Each 'thing' in their collection has masses of associated information, such as its provenance, where it is from, who created it, who collected it, what the item is, what it is made out of, what is its size, what curatorial department it belongs to, what exhibitions it has been part of, what it depicts or talks about … the list goes on. As I said - LOTS OF DATA! And today, most of this data is stored and processed with computers. I need to make sure I can tell the computer what I want to do with all of that data.

 

My first stop was the lovely University of Oxford to attend the Digital Humanities Oxford Summer School (DHOxSS). Here I was enrolled in the course 'Humanities Data: A Hands-On Approach' which focused on tools, methods and concepts for managing, organizing, cleaning and processing data. This was very much an introductory level series of workshops designed at showing participants just enough so they could identify what may or may not be of use. They started us with an HTML file (what you get when you are on a webpage, right click and 'view page source') and asked us to 'find the data'. I honestly could not find the data - it was an important lesson about not being scared to start familiarizing ourselves with code so that we can problem solve our way forward in a digital world. Over the coming days we were introduced to the light and dark side of MS Excel (it can be your friend, and your darkest enemy), trying our hand at SQL, cleaning data in OpenRefine, visualizing data in open access tools like 'FusionTables', and a taster of Python. These practical workshops were balanced with presentations from current digital humanities projects (you can access them on their Oxford podcast series), and seminars with great information about planning and managing data projects, data structures, copyright and open access of data. I also had the opportunity to meet with a lot of other people working with cultural heritage data and gained some amazing insight into the potential and challenges in our fields of interest. Although I did not learn all the answers and tricks to working with collection data in this week of training, I did learn which tools to start focusing on to start effectively working with my .csv and .xml files of collection data.

 

For the remainder of the month of July, I was placed with The British Museum ResearchSpace project. Here I practically learned how to map a dataset from its source to the CIDOC-CRM standard with the held of Dominic Oldman and the ResearchSpace team, and in such a way that it can be imported into the ResearchSpace platform. I am mapping data into CIDOC-CRM so that I may understand the data about photographs collectively instead of separately. CIDOC-CRM is an information standard developed by the CIDOC Documentation Standards Working Group and the International Council of Museums (ICOM) with the aim to express the full richness of cultural heritage materials' data, and is an official international standard (ISO 21127:2014). This 'richness' expressed by CIDOC-CRM should be ideal for photographs' data because photographs are collected across all types of collecting institutions. Both the State Library of WA and the WA Museum have some of their data available online - so I utilized this data for my training in mapping to CIDOC-CRM. I was surprised at how the mapping process challenged my assumptions about the collection data, and clarified the meaning of data fields. The difference in how the State Library and Museum created photograph 'records' was revealed tangibly through the mapping, despite there being many commonalities in types of information recorded. I am looking forward to delving into the data more to understand these differences and commonalities in the coming years. Through this process I utilized the Google Docs App draw.io to visualize my mapping, OpenRefine to clean and process my datasets from spreadsheets to .xml files, and the 3M mapper tool. I will need to use Python to edit .xml files, but I am still working on my skills in this area.

 The 'Building Cultural Heritage Knowledge' Symposium, held at The British Museum.

The 'Building Cultural Heritage Knowledge' Symposium, held at The British Museum.

 Dominic Oldman presenting at the final day Workshop of the 'Building Cultural Heritage Knowledge' Symposium.

Dominic Oldman presenting at the final day Workshop of the 'Building Cultural Heritage Knowledge' Symposium.

 

My month concluded at the ResearchSpace Symposium and workshop 'Building Cultural Heritage Knowledge' where I presented alongside Dr. Toby Burrows, sharing my progress working with and understanding WA's photographic collections. You can read Toby's blog about the conference here on the CTW website. I was able to attend the Symposium thanks to a bursary funded by the conference funder the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation through ResearchSpace, and a UWA Graduate Research School Travel Grant. I can't thank them enough for helping me get to the U.K. for this training. I finished my month very much aware at how much digital methodologies are becoming an integral part of how we manage and research data, and how much there is to learn. The bells and whistles of the digital world can be quite distracting (I strongly recommend listening to some of Andrew Prescott's closing address at DHOxSS), but some of the presentations at DHOxSS and the Research Space Symposium reminded me also of the very practical and necessary outcomes of some of these tools and projects. I feel like I have made a proactive leap to my own data methodology and research, and I strongly recommend anyone wishing to work with collection data to start delving and not be daunted by the digital world.

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. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article638823; “Western Australia Book Society," Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal, July 18, 1840, 2. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-page1644; "Swan River Reading Society," Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal, August 29, 1840, 2. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-page1668.

[2] "Report of the Committee of the Colonial Church Association [in Western Australia]," InquirerDecember 18, 1844, 4. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article65583944.

[3] Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal August 8, 1846, 2. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article646878; "Report of the Committee of the Colonial Church Association [in Western Australia]", Inquirer December 18, 1844, 4. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article65583944.

[4] See for example "Ninth Annual Report of the Perth Working Men's Association," Perth Gazette and West Australian Times, 2 May 1873, 3. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article3752303.

[5] “Swan River Mechanics’ Institute,” Perth Gazette and Independent Journal of Politics and News, 16 May 1851, 4. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article3172474.

[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