Monday, 1 August 2016

A Tale of Two Cities

National Museum of Australia
For the past three weeks I have been physically located at the National Museum of Australia as part of a research and development grant from the Australia  Council, as mentioned in my previous post. Very broadly, my area of interest is to research the botanical holdings of the NMA with a view to making work that reflects early Australian botanical collections and more specifically the involvement of women as collectors and important contributors to our understanding of Australian botany.

After being trained to use the NMA databases, there are two objects that have initially sparked my interest, that I have started to research further.  These objects are two albums of Seaweed collections made in the 19th century : one from Port Arthur in Tasmania, and the other from the Port Phillip Bay in Victoria. These two albums have been the subject of great interest amongst the People and The Environment (PATE) team, with research initiated by Dr Kirsten Wehner, Head of PATE,  who has written a comprehensive post on the PATE blog here. This article has some lovely images of the Port Phillip album's contents, explains why it was collected for the NMA, and how it is important in the context of social history. Kirsten also goes behind the scenes to show readers how an object is photographed and catalogued for collection. Neither of these albums are on public display - they are quite fragile as you can imagine because they contain real plant specimens, and this could be why there are few left in existence today.

Front page of the Port Phillip Seaweed Album
Photo : George Serras, NMA.

Page of the Port Phillip Seaweed Album
Photo : George Serras, NMA.

The Port Arthur album is completely different from the Port Phillip one, and it is fascinating to see alternative approaches to seaweed collecting.  Although the Port Phillip Album is anonymous with haphazard entries out of chronological order, attempts were made to classify them scientifically and they are mostly identified with a year or place of collection, predominantly from St Kilda and Queens Cliff (now Queenscliff) between the years of 1859 and 1882.

In contrast, the Port Arthur Album has a hand written signature in the front of the book in pencil - "C.Frere", and the cover has a blue printed label attached with the text 'Seaweeds/and Mosses/collected at Port Arthur Van Diemen's Land/1836. However, each of the 25 pages are filled with dozens of different samples, decoratively adhered to the pages.  There are no collection details - no clue whatsoever as to location, date or specimen type.

So far all my research has been electronic - I have been given permission to access the high res digital photographs of each page of the albums, which has been fantastic because it means I can spend time looking at each entry in close detail before I make an appointment with NMA  to view the albums over at the Mitchell repository. The viewing of these two objects will be subject to supervision with a conservator, due to their fragility, so I will probably identify beforehand which page(s) are important for me to to observe first-hand to limit any damage to the albums.

Last week I also re-visited the Cryptogam Herbarium at the ANBG to go through their phycological collection and exsiccate, so my next post will discuss the differences between collecting for a scientific institution and making a hobby collection; how collecting policies differ between a scientific institution and a museum; and how the collection of  similar objects can be approached in entirely different ways.

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