This week a very special piece of pewter is coming to the museum … the Hartog plate, on loan from the Rijksmuseum to mark 400 years since Dutch mariner Dirk Hartog made the first recorded European landing on the west coast of Australia in October 1616. As a testimony of his visit, Hartog left behind an inscribed pewter plate that is recognised as the oldest European artefact found on Australian soil.
The Roman artist who painted the beautiful wall fresco in the Villa of Livia could never have dreamt that 2,000 years later it would be reproduced at actual size and on display in an exhibition on the other side of the world.
As a national cultural agency, the museum provides support for Maritime Heritage nationally and the importance of supporting local communities, smaller museums and historical societies to care for, conserve, preserve, interpret and display Australia’s maritime heritage is recognised. Several of the avenues for doing this involve funding opportunities and engagement in collaborative travelling exhibition development.
What a museum without its collection? The stories we tell are imbued in the objects the museum collects and the conservation department is tasked with caring for these objects. Our conservation team look after a range of artefacts, from paper to paintings, ceramics, textiles and even archaeological material recovered from the seabed. From small coins to the HMB Endeavour replica, every object is condition reported, treated and conserved. The team monitor the environmental conditions our objects are either stored or displayed in, checking light levels, relative humidity and maintaining a stable temperature.
In the spirit of National Archaeology Week 2016 we took the opportunity to open the floor to you, our audience and community, with the hashtag #AskAnArchaeologist. This was a chance for you to ask your questions about all things archaeology and maritime heritage to our team.
When you tell people that you work at the museum, most will assume that you are a curator. Little do they realise that there are many other career paths in the cultural sector. Indeed, few teenagers would be advised by their guidance counsellor to study materials science at university. But those unfortunate souls will never get the chance to wear a onesie at work.
Object conservators specialise in the preservation, treatment and care of three-dimensional and mixed-media objects. In the collection, our conservators work on a wide range of objects including cannons, boats, model ships, swimsuits, canoes, glass-plate negatives, ethnographic items, marine archaeological objects and paintings. The diverse nature of the collection means our conservators often have to employ a range of preventative measures and treatment methodologies to look after a single collection item.
Dismantling Shackleton: Escape from Antarctica was a normal day for our object conservators. The objects were on loan from Museum Victoria and they were wonderful additions to bring the story of Shackleton’s epic Antarctic escape to life. Several of the taxidermy specimens required the team to don filtered masks and hazmat suits. As one conservator called it, ‘the science onesie: which is the only acceptable type of onesie’.
These specimens were over fifty years old and had been created with a series of treatments to keep insects away. Such treatments used hazardous chemicals including lead, arsenic, mercury and bromine. Decades later, these treatments are still rather effective at keeping the bugs away – and can still be harmful to humans if the proper safety precautions aren’t followed.
Hence the need for a science onesie.
After condition reporting the objects, our conservators suited up. Their Tyvek coveralls are made from a flash-spun, high-density polyethylene which provides a barrier against hazardous dry particles, aerosols and light liquid splashes. The outfits were completed by half-face respirators with particle filters.
Removing the objects from display was a delicate and time-consuming job. Each step required planning and consideration of how best to move the objects from their plinths and sliding the objects into their specialised packing crates.
Team work, coordination and communication are key qualities of an object conservator on jobs such as this, especially when you and your co-worker are handling a 100-year-old albatross while wearing a suit that doesn’t breathe, a mask which muffles your voice and cumbersome oversized gloves protecting your hands.
But our conservators are talented professionals with great passion for their jobs. They ensured that the operation ran smoothly. The objects are now safely in their crates ahead of their return to Museum Victoria.
Object conservation is a vital skill for the care of our collection. Materials science is an intriguing field of study with unique job opportunities. Suiting up to move a taxidermy penguin is certainly a fascinating day on the job.
– Kate Pentecost, Digital Curator
If you wish to get up close to our collection but want to wear an onesie, head over to our Google Cultural Institute page.
The museum is undergoing an exciting change to its permanent galleries. After more than 15 years, on 29 February the Watermarks Gallery set its sails for the last time (pardon the pun). The gallery first opened in 2001 and told the story of how water and the ocean plays a vital role in the lives of all Australians and how the coast has inspired our recreational lives.
Applications are now open for the 2016–2017 round of the Maritime Museums of Australia Project Support Scheme (MMAPPS), with applications closing on 31 March 2016. Check the website for more details on how to apply.
In recognition that much of Australia’s maritime heritage exists in regional organisations outside the major collecting institutions, the museum is committed to providing outreach support. We are proud to administer this national outreach program, awarding grants annually, of up to $10,000 each, and supporting internships so that regional organisations can continue to care for, conserve, preserve, interpret and display Australia’s maritime heritage.
Ok, so we didn’t blast the cannon in the conventional sense, but stabilising a 289yr old cannon was almost as satisfying!
In June 1727, a Dutch East India Trading Company ship, the Zeewijk, was headed for Batavia (Jakarta) when it wrecked off the coast of Western Australia. The survivors made it to Gun Island and were able to salvage chests of coins and other cargo but could not float the ship. In July 1727, a longboat with 11 survivors was sent for help, never to be heard from again.
The remaining survivors were able to use salvaged materials from the Zeewijk and local mangrove timbers to construct a new ship, the Sloepie. It was in the Sloepie that the remaining 88 crew members set sail, yet only 82, of the original 208 people, made it to Batavia. It is believed that the Sloepie represents the first European-style ship constructed in Australia and with Australian timber.
In 1840 those aboard the HMS Beagle discovered relics at the camp site, and further relics were discovered during guano mining in the 1880s and 1890s. Over the years, many more objects were found until the Western Australian Maritime Museum conducted a series of expeditions on the wreck site from 1976 .
One cannon from the Zeewijk wrecksite was treated by the Western Australian Maritime Museum using electrolysis, and was later allocated to the Australian National Maritime Museum.
This Sunday 2 February 2014, you might notice something rather unexpected standing on Pyrmont Bridge. Migaloo is one of 125 painted rhino sculptures that will form a sculpture trail across Sydney from February to April to help raise awareness and funds for Taronga’s world leading Black Rhino breeding program. Painted by artist Alejandra Diaz, the museum’s rhino depicts Australia’s famous white humpback whale, one of only two ever sighted.
Named after an Indigenous Australian word meaning ‘white fella’, Migaloo is regularly sighted migrating up Australia’s east coast from Antarctica to the waters of Tropical North Queensland. The inspiration for Migaloo the Wild! Rhino came from two exciting upcoming exhibitions here at the museum – Amazing whales – Evolution and survival (from 20 March 2014) and Beautiful Whale – Photographs by Bryant Austin (from 11 April 2014).
The museum is proud to sponsor this exciting program supporting Taronga’s Black Rhino breeding program and other wildlife conservation projects.
Download the Wild!Rhinos App to learn the whereabouts of all 125 Wild! Rhinos.
‘Conservation kayaking’, by former conservator Julie O’Connor. From Signals 103 (June-August 2013).
Centrally located in Sydney Harbour, Goat Island is managed by NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS). As part of the recent Sydney Harbour National Parks Management Plan, NPWS plans to encourage greater use of the island.
NPWS officers are working with volunteer organisations to preserve the botanical and biological environment surrounding the island’s buildings. During August, September and October 2012, I made three visits to historic Goat Island with a group of conservation kayakers, which offered an insight into the island’s maritime history.
On each visit to the island, we launched our kayaks from Birchgrove Park, and then circumnavigated the island from east to west. Approaching from the south-east, we passed an Aboriginal shell midden, a pile of discarded shells on the shore. This is the last dietary remnant of the Sydney Aboriginal people who used Goat Island before its colonial occupation from the 1820s. It later became a source of lime for mortar during the construction of buildings on the island.
If you read my previous blog, you might know that we’re currently treating the Sirius anchor while it’s on display inside the Australian National Maritime Museum.
Sometimes, actions taken to protect objects change their appearance. When the Sirius anchor was prepared for its original conservation treatment in 1986, a thick layer of marine concretion and organic growth acquired during nearly 200 years underwater was removed with hammer, chisel and a descaling gun. This exposed the corroded metal of the anchor and allowed it to be treated by electrolysis – this process converts corroded iron to black metal and removes salts. When treatment was completed the Sirius anchor was painted with an anticorrosive coating. The thick, black, glossy paint flowed into the crevices and channels throughout the anchor, rounding off the anchor’s surface and filling in some of its texture.
Now that the coating has reached the end of its life and we are removing it, the Sirius anchor is slowly being re-revealed. The exposed surface has the characteristic ‘eroded wood’ appearance of corroded wrought iron. We can now see the complex texture of the anchor, with its chains of islands, undulating channels, serrated points and small hollows. We have also found the holes drilled into the anchor to take the cathode rods used in the electrolysis process.
The anchor was created by hammering together a series of iron bars under intense heat. The direction of channels and ridges in the anchor’s surface show the meeting and fusing of these bars. The construction of the anchor, disguised for 25 years, is now becoming visible again.
The Sirius anchor has been on display in the museum since 1991. Despite its monumental size, there is a tendency for visitors to hurry past the anchor to temporary exhibitions and perhaps not really see it. Yet now, as we work on the anchor, visitors are stopping by for a chat and they have lots of questions about what we’re doing.
Some visitors are surprised to discover that there is such a day-job as conservation. Indeed, one visitor asked us if we were real! Perhaps they had never seen anything other than a manikin in a display environment.
Usually – in order not to disrupt the visitor experience – we undertake the maintenance of permanent displays before opening hours, almost secretively. But this means that the public have little opportunity to appreciate what goes into putting and keeping objects on display.
While working on the anchor we’ve met a First Fleet descendent whose ancestor came to Australia on Sirius, chemistry students studying aspects of maritime archaeology, and children fascinated by the tools and muck which are all part of large object conservation. We’re loving meeting visitors while giving the anchor the conservation care it needs.
We’ll be working on the anchor on weekdays until July 5, so be sure to stop by and meet this significant piece of Australian history and the people who look after it.
These are paper conservators.
This is a textiles conservator.
Artefacts from shipwrecks have often travelled far and undergone much before being exhibited. This is true of the gudgeon was selected for display in our upcoming exhibition East of India – Forgotten trade with Australia. It’s believed to come from the wreck of the Cato, a merchant vessel built in Stockton, Britain in 1799. Cato was carrying a shipment of coal destined for India – possibly Australia’s first coal export. Coal blocks were found at the wreck site, one of which is displayed in the East of India exhibition.