Researchers at The University of Western Australia and Deakin University will partner WA’s key cultural institutions including the Museum, State Library and Art Gallery, as well as the British Museum, to investigate the State’s collection of historical items from pre-colonial to modern times.
Professor Alistair Paterson from UWA Archaeology is leading the Australian Research Council Linkage project Collecting the West with Professor Andrea Witcomb from Deakin University.
Professor Paterson said the project was the first to examine the State’s history of collecting from pre-colonial to modern times, from a local, national and international perspective, to achieve a new understanding of how it had framed WA’s place in the world.
During the past 400 years, many objects found in Western Australia had circulated through global, national and local collecting networks, he said.
“In fact, some of the first objects which Europeans used to understand and describe Australia came from WA,” Professor Paterson said.
Project partner investigator Dr Kate Gregory, Battye Historian at the State Library of WA, said the research would uncover more Australian history, unearth untold stories and improve the quality of historical data displayed in cultural institutions.
“It will also help promote our unique State as well as connect West Australians to their history,” Dr Gregory said.
The project will host exhibitions in Perth over the next four years at the State Library, WA Museum and Art Gallery, which draw on the Collecting the West Project. The research will inform these events, including a major exhibition on WA’s 20th century art at the Art Gallery of WA and exhibitions leading up to the opening of the new WA Museum in Perth in 2020.
WA Museum CEO Alec Coles said collections played a key role in telling the story of Western Australia.
“While we have many collections, we also need to think about contemporary collections,” Mr Coles said. “What should we collect in the future and why? This project will help us make those decisions.”
The project is significant for the way in which it brings together art, natural history, ethnographic and historical collections.
Professor Witcomb said this holistic approach to understanding the role of collections in producing a sense of place would also help illuminate the place of Western Australia in national imagination as investigators trace the use of material from WA across the nation. A key international partner in the project is the British Museum, reflecting the global distribution of WA objects. Dr JD Hill, director of research at the British Museum, said shells collected by William Dampier in 1699 went to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the British Museum.
“In fact, the plants he collected from the Dampier Archipelago (Murujuga National Park) are still in Oxford, including what became known as Sturt’s Desert Pea,” Dr Hill said.
“The inscribed plate left by Dirk Hartog on a small island off the westernmost part of Australia in 1616 was found by Willem de Vlamingh in 1697 and taken to Batavia (Jakarta) but was now held in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.”
Professor Paterson said very little was known about the formation of such collections and the institutional, political and social contexts of individual collectors.
“There are so many questions surrounding these items,” he said. “What images of Australia did these fragments from WA present to the world? How did these growing collections eventually inform Western Australian identity, shape its written history, collective memory and sense of place?
“It’s equally important to know how this collecting activity shaped social relations, both during the early colonial period and its aftermath, and between different communities.”