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.