The Australian Museum: Behind the Scenes

When I began volunteering at the Australian Museum, I knew very little about what actually happened behind the scenes of a museum. With a background in biology, archaeology, and history, I began putting these skills to good use by helping out in the Australian Archaeological Collections department. For a few weeks I was anxious about what my project could be. How could I help an organisation as large and as organised as the Australian Museum? It was through the help of the readings and discussions completed in this course ‘History Beyond the Classroom’ that I fully realised the importance of the work I was already completing at the museum. This included preparing archaeological material collected by McBryde for registration, including labelling, sorting, and repacking Australian archaeological material to museum standards, and also creating data sheets for these objects. The more work I did on these tasks, the more I began to realise that they were an important form of archiving. They are crucial behind the scenes tasks that are essential for the preservation of these artefacts for future research or the potential future display of these artefacts in the museum galleries. However I began to worry that this project would not be enough to count as a major project, as the work I was doing was so different to the projects of my classmates. This could include oral histories, brochures, and websites. Instead, I decided to help with various smaller projects at the museum in the hope that it would then be sufficient. These other tasks included organising and creating a data sheet for another archaeological collection at Chowder Bay in NSW, and the still continuing project of creating labels, re-bagging, and photographing artefacts from another McBryde archaeological collection. Furthermore, I was also made aware that the First Nations Cultural Program had some projects that needed to be complete.
Whilst my work in the archaeological collections is by no means original, as every artefact and material that is collected by or donated to a museum undergoes a similar process, it is significant work. However, in a way this specific project is original in that each artefact I have worked on is unique. Furthermore, Professor Isabel McBryde recently donated the collection I was working on to the museum from her archaeological excavations across New South Wales (NSW) and Interstate. Professor McBryde has been described as one of the founders of the discipline of Archaeology in Australia, with a career spanning over 40 years. Particularly, the artefacts I worked on were from a site called Graman in NSW and contained faunal material such as bones, teeth, shells, and much to my surprise, also animal droppings. After the McBryde project, I then worked on the projects of organising and creating a data sheet for artefacts from Chowder Bay and also photographing artefacts from another McBryde site. Whilst completing these projects, I had previously hoped that I would be able to use more of my history skills. Luckily for me, I was then able use more of these skills when helping the First Nations Cultural Program.
I have only started helping in the First Nations Cultural Program more recently, and as such I have completed fewer projects with one in particular still ongoing. These projects included a ‘2020 contact list’, bread and portable oven research, and the ongoing adornment web-project. The 2020 contact list is an excel spread sheet of a contact list for this team, as I believe they will be organising an exhibition in 2020 for the 250th anniversary of the Australian Museum, and as such they need to be able to reach out to other organisations and people. Next, I learnt that this team is also in the development stage of a workshop. During this workshop, they hope to teach visitors about Indigenous agriculture and fishing techniques and processes. It will also examine how these processes have changed present day methods and how the future of this industry may change. As part of this workshop, they hope that the visitors will be able to grind their own flour from native seeds and bake bread made from this flour. In order to help with the development of this workshop, I was tasked with seeing if there was a recipe for Indigenous Australian bread made with kangaroo grass flour. Furthermore, I was to help make a list of a few portable ovens with prices, customer reviews, and specifications. Whilst this task seems simple, it was actually very difficult trying to find recipes online with no success. I did however manage to find bakeries and recipe books that focused on using native plants, seeds, and ingredients, which would hopefully direct later research in the right direction. Finally, I have recently started working on a web project based on First Nations body adornment objects from across Australia. Due to the nature of this particular project, I have primarily been using the primary sources of the adornment objects in the museum collection and any notes written by previous museum staff about each object. I will probably also be drawing on secondary sources, which will help me to understand and write about the significance of a particular adornment object to the culture and history of a person or particular tribe. When each article for a particular object or a group of objects is complete, it will then be posted onto the Australian Museum website for their new page on adornment objects. A shorter version of these articles will also be posted onto the museums social media websites to attract a wider audience and to give the public a snippet of more information that could be found on their website. As such a large and well-established organisation, I believe that these methods will hopefully attract a larger audience than I would be able to reach and to communicate the significance of adornment in First Nation cultures. Furthermore, this web project will be an online resource for educational groups on Aboriginal artefacts within the museum. Whilst I am still currently working on this project, I will be more than happy to do so even after this unit of study ends.

The Australian Museum

The organisation that I have chosen to work with is the Australian Museum, located next to Hyde Park in Sydney. This organisation is the oldest museum in Australia, is a non-profit organisation, and is home to a large collection of artefacts from Indigenous Australia and the Pacific, biological specimens, and minerals and fossils. I am particularly interested in the Australian Museum because I am an Australian who grew up overseas. Until I moved to Australia I didn’t know anything about Australian history, let alone Indigenous history and culture. However, I did notice in Australian schools that what I did learn about Aboriginal history was how it intersected and became part of the national history, such as the Stolen Generation and the Mabo Case. Both of which were cases that had a powerful influence on Australian culture.
My Dad was a member of the Australian Museum growing up and it was a place he always took me to whenever we came to Sydney. Having this personal connection from my memories of visiting and also being in the process of completing a double degree Bachelor of Science and Arts, the museum was the perfect opportunity for me to combine my knowledge in my areas of study. With social meaning from my memory and attachment to this place, this especially made understanding the connection between local and national history more present in my eyes.
I have now volunteered within the Australian Archaeological collections department for four weeks. During this time I have helped to sort through, re-bag, and relabel excavation artefacts, input data into the museum system and catalogue, and reformat and name digitalised images. I am concerned whether there will be a specific project that I could do, as established organisations such as the Australian Museum already have well organised departments and staff members to complete these projects. However, there is a constant need for volunteers as their overwhelmingly large collection and constant visitors means that there are always things that need to be completed. I hope that in the coming weeks I will be able to focus on and find a specific project, or perhaps a group of small projects, that will be beneficial to the museum. I believe this project will also increase my understanding of the hard work that goes on behind the scenes of a museum in order to create public engagement with the wider community.