Hidden collections at the ANU

A piece I wrote with Kylie Message for International Museums Day 2024.

Original here: https://hercanberra.com.au/city/film-theatre-music/international-museum-day-was-great-butdo-you-know-whats-hidden-away-at-anu/

Everyone knows that universities are full of people and ideas.

But did you know they are also full of objects? University collections provide a window into the stories Australians tell about our country and its past.

As tools for teaching and research they shape our shared pursuit of knowledge. They also include weird and wonderful objects! Last week’s International Museums Day (IMD) focused on the potential for museums to unlock knowledge – but there are so many ways to unlock knowledge outside of those hallowed walls.

Today we’re sharing some of the many lesser-known and quirkier gems hidden in the Australian National University’s collections. They show that university collections are not cobwebby places full of dead things, but are places of life, joy, and beauty.

Flashing emeralds

Lots of collections at ANU are tucked away between staff offices, science labs and student classrooms. On the Black Mountain side of campus, you will find the Banks building. Now run-down and leaking, it was designed in 1963 by acclaimed modernist architect Robin Boyd.

The building is home to the School of Archaeology and Anthropology, which is custodian of some of the university’s most fascinating collections – material reminders of the research of past academics who worked across the world. But finding the collections is no mean feat.

You will need to navigate your way through a musty damp-smelling courtyard that is watched over by keen-eyed water dragons.

Behind the plainest door on the echoey corridor are some old-fashioned storage shelves. If you peer into the darkness, you will see flashing emeralds.

On closer inspection you will see these are not jewels at all but beautiful iridescent green scarab beetles, woven into a headdress or wig that was collected in Papua New Guinea in the 1950s. The shining beetles form an edging to what looks like a delicate sculpture of bark, fur, resin, hair and shells. Although it was collected over half a century ago, these beautiful objects offer current researchers the opportunity to make new connections with communities in PNG and collaborate with Indigenous groups.

More than the eye can see 

ANU Earth Sciences Collection (CoS, 2019).

Despite Canberrans’ mixed feelings about pollen in Springtime, the ANU’s pollen and spore collection at the PalaeoWorks Laboratory (Department of Archaeology and Natural History) shows how important it is for ensuring human and environmental futures. It is the largest collection of modern pollen and spores from the Australasian and Pacific region. It has been used by scholars working to solve problems related to respiratory health and allergens. It has contributed to understandings about the geographical origin of honey. It is even used to identify when a thunderstorm asthma event is on the way.

But like the many artists that have been inspired by this collection to make sculptures and prints, we love the shapes and morphologies of pollen grains that are revealed in magnified images of pollen.

Please do touch the antiquities! 

ANU Classics Curator Dr Georgia Pike-Rowney holding the 3D printed vase. Photo Angel Leelasorn.

University collections have precious and fragile objects that are thousands of years old. But unlike collections in public museums, the ANU Classics Museum has a teaching space that lets students (carefully!) handle pieces of ancient pottery that are over 2000 years old.

Other objects are too fragile to be handed around, like the painted Johnson Vase that shows Hercules stabbing the Nemean Lion. It is 2500 years old and too precious to be taken out of its display case. So ANU Masters student, Angel Leelasorn, had an idea to let people handle this large and heavy vase.

She created a 3D model of the vase and printed it out as a full-size replica in black resin to mimic the black-painted pottery. Although it lacks the delicate painted decoration, it lets people get a sense of what it is like to heft a large vase and to explore its shape with their hands.

Printed models offer an opportunity for audiences to get up close and personal with our cultural heritage, even while the original precious objects remain safe.

“I always thought the ‘Do Not Touch’ signs actually showed people want to touch things!” says Angel.  “We take our sight for granted, but I wanted to offer a chance for people, especially those with low vision, to immerse themselves in the collection in a new way.”

Tuning into the future

Henrion Square Pianoforte (Jamie Kidston 2021). Image supplied.

The School of Music has long been a loved feature of the Canberra community. While you may be familiar with Llewellyn Hall’s fine acoustics, did you know the School has a collection of wooden keyboard instruments that dates back over 250 years?

Many of these instruments are elegant, wooden, European pianos and they sit incongruously in the building’s Brutalist concrete classrooms designed in the 1970s. These pianos are not ‘museum pieces’, they don’t sit silent. They are brought back to life by regularly being played by students and staff.

The oldest piano in the collection is a Henrion, named after its maker who died in the French Revolution. The piano was created in 1770 – a date that stands out as the year when Captain James Cook navigated the east coast of the continent.

In 2020, ANU lecturer, Christopher Sainsbury invited four Indigenous composers to write music for this piano. These new pieces found both discord and beauty in the historical instrument. One of the composers, Nardi Simpson, said that while the ‘old piano didn’t do the things I wanted and didn’t sound the way I wanted it to, but it taught me that our strength is in our collective voice’. The composers and piano joined forces to create something that was both breathtaking and meaningful – truth-telling in action.

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