Spanning continents and centuries, the items in the ANU Collections offer a glimpse into the past, while also providing a valuable resource for research and teaching
Hundreds of thousands of glass plate negatives of the southern night sky, 850 seed and nut specimens, more than 1,000 objects collected from New Guinea in the 1950s and 60s — the curious collections at ANU are something to behold.
Many are lurking in the back of cupboards, behind locked doors, or in basements or labs. Whenever anything weird or wonderful is uncovered, Senior Collections Adviser Claire Sheridan gets a call.
“I am often asked, ‘Hey, I found this thing, can you come and have a look?’, and then we begin the process of finding out what it is, where it’s from and whether it’s meant to be here,” she says.
“It’s so interesting to explore the legacy of collecting and the history of ANU through the items we have. The collections are very much the result of academic curiosity, what’s left behind and what’s been actively curated since ANU started.
“The job is never the same. One day I’m in a meeting with external stakeholders and the next I’m clearing material from a tunnel under University House or trying to stop a hyperactive goat from getting into a shipping container full of mid-century furniture.”
ANU Collections are spread across many buildings on campus, as well as the Kioloa Coastal Campus, Spring Valley Farm and the Mount Stromlo and Siding Spring observatories.
Some items find a temporary home in Sheridan’s office on museum-grade shelving. “I often hold active provenance cases or material that’s undergoing investigation for restitution, or stuff that people have found but they don’t yet know what to do with,” she says.
One of her favourite pieces is in the ANU Classics Museum. It’s a small, bright blue, very unassuming Roman imperial unguentarium, or cosmetics bottle, with a pointed base. “It always blows my mind that something so small and fragile has survived so well in the archaeological record. It dates back to the mid-first century AD.”
While a museum’s lens is typically on preservation and public display, ANU looks at how collections can be reactivated for research and teaching, and importantly, reconnected with First Nations or Asia-Pacific communities.
The ANU Collections team is working with the First Nations Portfolio to improve processes around the management and return of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander objects and cultural material.
“The collections team is also extending these standards to the way Asia-Pacific cultural material is managed and activated at ANU,” Sheridan says.
“I am fortunate to work with an incredibly dedicated community of academic and professional stakeholders who have championed these collections for years — it’s the only reason many have survived this long.”
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