Sydney University Museums (SUM) has one of the largest and finest university collections of antiquities, art, ethnography, history and natural history in Australia with more than 100,000 artefacts and upwards of 600,000 natural history specimens. The collections are held across three museums: Nicholson Museum (antiquities), Macleay Museum (natural history, Aboriginal, Torres Strait and Pacific Islanders’ cultural material, scientific instruments, and historic photography), and University Art Gallery.
The University of Sydney previously had thirty-five museums/collections that acted independently and were associated with different faculty. In 1996 a review of all collections and museums in Australian Universities was conducted by the University Museums Review Committee and resulted in the Cinderella Collections Report.
As a consequence of the report a Director was appointed in 2002 to manage the three public museums as one entity. Subsequently a Registrar was employed in 2003 and over the next decade new roles were created for conservation, storage, exhibition and data management. This centralised team works across all collections. In addition, each of the three museums has a curatorial team responsible for research and interpretation of each collection. Within The University of Sydney structure SUM is part of Museums and Cultural Engagement which also includes The Seymour Centre (a performance space) and the Information Centre (a point of contact for general inquiries). [See diagrams 1 and 2]
Collections Management is a small team and although we have specific responsibilities we all help out with tasks and projects when needed. SUM also employs people on temporary contracts for specific project work. Current projects include an audit and rehousing of the wet collections and bird collections, an audit of the art collection, and imaging and cataloguing of a recent large acquisition of artworks. Volunteers have played an important role and have been used extensively – in particular for collection moves.
A centralised collection management team allows processes to be streamlined and standardised. The pool of knowledge and experience can be of benefit across collections and there is the possibility to transplant ideas and solutions between seemingly dissimilar types of collections.
Limited resources may mean that staff are stretched across collections. It is a challenge to ensure balance of attention for all collections – especially with limited resources. A counterpoint to this is that attention is distributed based on need of the collections rather than a particular interest in a collecting area.
Developing a good understanding of the scope and nature of the collections can take longer when working across multiple collections rather than being dedicated to a specific collection. This means that there is a strong imperative to work with the curatorial teams and draw on the wide range of experience and knowledge within SUM.
By Chris Jones, Assistant Collections Manager – database and documentation at Sydney University Museums.