Critical collections: why museum collections matter
Video | Updated 3 years ago
Alec Coles, Chief Executive Officer, WA Museum
In the digital age, it has been claimed, collections are no longer important: after all, surely we can find what we are looking for on the Web? Alec Coles could not disagree more! In a world where authenticity is at a premium, he believes that collections are a museum’s unique product and museums and their collections have never been more relevant.
I feel like - I was going to say “I feel” but that’s presumptuous. I hope I’m amongst friends. I can’t do this now, because at the beginning it says “Thank you Felena,” but you haven’t introduced me, so I can’t thank you. Yeah. That was in case I forgot.
Well, good evening everybody and thanks for spreading yourselves out at least to make it look a bit more respectable. So I’m clearly a big draw on these occasions, and apologies to those who I told this to before, and those who were at JD Hills’ lecture, but I’d like to tell my story of my friend. I used to visit Britain – it’s a true story. I was invited to a sort of village hall somewhere in Aberdeenshire, which for those who don’t know the British Isles, it’s kind out of the back of beyond in Scotland, and he felt he ought to go to give this evening talk, and he flew up, had to get a taxi out into the wilds. Had to have the taxi wait for him, because it was the only way to get back, and got in this cold village hall and there was only one other person there.
So he sort of kicked around for a while and then he said “Well unfortunate,” you know, “obviously nobody else is going to come. So we might as well knock it on the head and I’ll just get back in my taxi,” and this guy - and I’m sorry Ian because I really can’t do a – maybe you’ve heard me do this before anyway - and this Aberdonian, said “Oh no, no. I really want to hear what you’ve got to say.” So, this one person, audience of one, made him give his talk, and then duly asked the question at the end of it. And he said “Well thank you very much. I’ll now go and get my taxi,” at which point this guy said, “No, I’m the other speaker.” So, and then made him sit through it. But there we go.
Can I acknowledge all of our distinguished guests this evening. I’m trying to work out which staff are here to curry favour and support me, and which are here to catch me out, and can I also begin by acknowledging the Whadjuk Noongar people as the traditional custodians of this place, and pay my respects to their elders past and present, and as many of you all know, this is an important place for Noongar people. The limestone bar that used to go across the river here was somewhere where they hunted and fished, and indeed, the removal of that bar was a cause of some stress, and therefore, it’s still an important place for our Noongar nation, and so we pay our respects.
Fremantle also of course, the first point of arrival for many migrants, as is evidenced by the Welcome Walls out there, but we do obviously acknowledge the Aboriginal people of Australia as probably, and almost beyond argument now, the longest settled civilisation on the planet, and one of the questions that I will ask later on, is how collections can reflect that, and sometimes what the physicality of collections is.
So, let’s just do a bit of – well, bad start. So, the origins of museums, obviously when we trace the history of museums, we track back to classical Greece and the idea of the Temple of the Muses. These were places of art, culture, learning and collections are actually perhaps incidental to this. And again, perhaps we should remember this, because this is one of the moves we’re making. We just signed up our deal with Yirra Yaakin trying to bring, if you like, drama back into the Temple of the Muses, and these are the nine muses, and if I hadn’t got so many slides, I’d tell you who they all are, but let’s move swiftly on.
So, this again will be familiar to many of my museum colleagues. These were some of the ideas of the first museums. This was, I think, arguably the earliest pictorial record of a natural history cabinet of Ferrante Imperato’s Dell’Historia Naturale in Naples, and it’s really interesting, because as well as the collections, you’ll see on the left hand side, all the kind of cupboards and the shelves and the little niches to put things, the books lying open to show that he’s really on top of things, and I say, little pigeon holes for all the specimens there. It reminds me very much of Di Jones’s office actually.
Moving somewhat on, this is the other one that is famously featured and this is the cabinet of Ole Worm or Olaus Wormius (1588-1654), and again, you can see the 17th century cabinets filled with preserved animals, horns, tusks, skeletons, minerals and fascinating man-made objects, sculptures wondrously old, wondrously fine or wondrously small, clockwork autometer, and obviously they also had mythical creatures. So, amongst other things, Worm’s collection included a woolly fern thought to be a plant-sheep fabulous creature, and these were very kind of popular at the time, but I think he was credited as the person who did identify the narwhal’s tusk as not being the tusk of a unicorn. So, things had moved on somewhat from there.
And then of course, there was the Age of Enlightenment, which depending on your viewpoint, probably had its roots slightly before the beginning of the 18th Century. Some would say that Newton’s Principia mathematica in 1687 was maybe the start of that. And this was the age of advancing knowledge. It promoted science, intellectual interchange and opposed superstition. It formed the roots of the British Museum. So Hans Sloane’s collection, which is very much about trying to understand the world, well, it was gifted to the nation on condition, that the nation would provide a home for it, and of course it duly did. And later on I guess, museums became seen as public good and something to improve society, almost a form of social engineering.
So, I don’t know why it does that. Why collect? Well, I’ll just go back there actually. Collecting is a ubiquitous human activity spanning all ages, all kinds of societies, and the studying of it can reveal an extraordinary range of connections between the world of things, and the human world of ideas, values and meanings. And there’s a lot of debate about what museums are really about. Are they about things, or are they about ideas? I’ll come back to that in a moment.
It’s interesting actually, in doing a bit of research on this, I also found that there are a lot of negative and undesirable traits associated with collecting. Apparently it’s a sign of avoidance behaviour. So you collect things, rather than getting on with what you should have done. It’s sociopathic. So you engage with your collections rather than having to talk to anybody else. Clearly all the people who would have been here this evening are back with their collections. A management of unconscious fears by sort of gathering things around you. Unmet social needs - if you can’t get people to be nice to you, maybe your collections will be nice to you, and my favourite one is the compensation of unfulfilled sexual desires. I’m going to be looking at our curators in a whole different light, having read that, I have to say.
But I will argue that in the museum context, at least, there are many good reasons that we collect, but it’s important to consider why do we collect what we collect? What is revealed by the ways we accumulate, hoard and display, and indeed, disperse our collections, and how do these things change across cultures? And ironically, though I am making the case for collections, I caution against the fetishising of them, or of their taking over the museum – draw a breath – for I believe that collections are not the museum’s core business. They are not an end in themselves. They are one of the tools that enable the real core business of a public museum, which is delivering public value around issues of culture, identity, environment and confidence, and dare I say it, collections are useless if they’re not used. How they’re used could be many different ways, obviously.
This is our mission, which I’m sure most people in this room could recite in their sleep, but I believe that if collections are the heart of our mission, then public value is our soul. So you hear about people talking about museums of collections for core business, but it is really about using those collections.
Collections and meaning – who makes the meaning? Well, we don’t actually run art galleries here, but obviously I’ve got a bit of form in those areas, and probably above all, art collections are something that people could accuse of being subjective and apart from anything else, it’s a good excuse to share this cartoon, which is one of my favourites. And I know that all collecting is subjective, but art galleries reflect taste and connoisseurship, an elitist word that I abhor, I have to say, whereas I think museums, if done properly, should provide a more rounded account of our world, not objective, not neutral, but at least based on a reasonable and detailed exploration of our world, and art can do the same, but I don’t think to the same extent.
But sometimes those worlds collide of course, and natural science objects take on monetary values, artistic values. This is the Glory Of The Sea cone, Conus glorianmaris which for many, many years was – well probably still is – but certainly was one of the most sought after natural history objects on the commercial market. And then of course at the other end there is the value of nature, as I say, what our collections tell us about the natural world, and what in fact they do to help us understand what can happen to the world when things go wrong, and of course this is an illustration of one of the few extant remains of a Dodo.
This is an illustration of the one in the Oxford University Museum. The Oxford University Museum has a head and a foot. There’s a skull in Copenhagen, and there was – I think there’s – well, there’s supposed to be an egg in East London, but I don’t think anybody’s ever proved that, at all. That’s East London in the Eastern Cape, not in the UK. But actually this Oxford one, this great sort of story about how it was moth eaten and somebody threw it on a fire and somebody rescued the head and the foot, we actually think that probably isn’t true anymore, but it was just that these were the only bits that were rescuable. But this is the only bit of soft tissue and this is a museum – it actually went to The Tradescants at the Ashmolean Museum. So it’s now in the Oxford University Museum, and it’s one of say, two places in the world that you can actually see and study this now extinct animal.
Collections put us in touch with the past. So we collect to discover our origins, that of our society and our environment, and these unassuming bone beads from Devil’s Lair near the Margaret River, are probably both historic and artistic. They represent the adornment of Aboriginal people who lived in WA's South West up to 20,000 years ago, and again, these are the kinds of things, probably rather more prosaic – the Ruthven Printing Press. The first newspapers in Western Australia were actually produced on this press. Apparently commercial printing ink was not available. So a substitute ink was made with soot and mutton fat. So goodness knows what the newspapers smelled like when they came off it. The rollers were dressed with treacle and glue and it could knock out 50 copies an hour of the newspapers - the Fremantle Observer, Perth Gazette and the Western Australian Journal first published in 1831, and again, a very important moment, I suggest, for WA.
Natural history items. So we’re kind of going through a conspectus of the sort of things that we collect. Natural history items are key to understanding our environment and our rare Megamouth Shark, just around the corner, was washed ashore in Mandurah in 1988. At the time it was only the third specimen known, and again, if you’ve not seen it, do go out and have a look. Ian McLeod in the front row here, has spent a good part of the last, probably the last two years actually, reconditioning it, restoring it in a new solution. It’s now stored in Glycerol instead of Ethanol, and looking very well on it, and it illustrates another dimension to what museums do of course, which is conserving these collections, which is a big responsibility.
We also collect the beautiful, the exceptional, and coming soon, coming very soon – next week in fact is the Unveiled Exhibition which I hope you all come and see in the Perth Museum - that’s on loan to us from the V&A - and this has made us start to think about our contemporary collecting and how we collect today, because we’re going to be showing 200 years of incredible wedding dresses and other wedding regalia from the V&A, augmenting it with our own collection. But we’ve also commissioned a piece from local WA designer Aurelio Costarella, which will become part of our collection, as a result of this. So actually in this sense, that whole idea of making meaning, we’re creating meaning ourselves by commissioning a piece.
And, as well as the beautiful and exceptional, there’s the courageous and exceptional, and in this case, Lieutenant Frederick William Bell, the first Western Australian to be awarded the Victoria Cross in the Boer War. Bell was born in Perth in 1875, and in 1901, under heavy fire, was riding to safety when he saw a dismounted soldier, obviously in peril. He returned to pick him up and his horse fell under the weight of two men. Bell insisted the soldier take the horse, and then he gave covering fire. He was awarded a VC and that VC is now in the collection for the WA Museum which is quite an unusual thing because as I’m sure you’re aware, most Australian VCs are in the Australian War Memorial. So we’re very, very proud of that one.
And of course you can’t talk about exceptional collections down here really without talking about Australia II, and again, I suspect there’s very little I need to say about that. But it is interesting because, like every collection item, it carries many messages with it. Of course, there’s something about national pride, there’s definitely something about Western Australian pride there, but there’s also something about technology, the design of the famous winged keel that actually arguably caused it to win.
Now, I have to say, there are some things that I do find rather strange in museums. Not everything is to everybody’s taste, and forgive me if this is being un-Australian of me, but I’ve never quite understood the attraction of Phar Lap in the Melbourne Museum. Phar Lap of course, I think won the Melbourne Cup only once, but did win something like 51 races, and as a result, his hide is now stuffed and in the Melbourne Museum. His skeleton is in Te Papa because he was a New Zealand horse, and his heart is in the Australian National Museum in Canberra, and for the 150th running of the Melbourne Cup, they actually brought together the skeleton and the hide in Melbourne. Apparently they weren’t allowed to borrow the heart, because the conservators wouldn’t let them, honestly. But this is, notwithstanding the big temporary exhibition, this is the Melbourne Museum’s most popular exhibit. I don’t get it, but the fact is that some people do, and that’s the thing we have to remember, is that different things mean different things to different people.
I guess with that sort of conspectus of the sort of things that we have in our collection, we set about defining what it was that we need to do to actually, not objectify, because that would be the wrong word, but to actually look at our collections, categorise them, but also look at where we should be collecting, and what were the themes. I always refer, this is the Kerry Stokes question because Kerry Stokes who knows us very well, who has lent very generously to the museums here, so he’s not a man who doesn’t know museums, but one of the first things he ever said to me when I arrived here was, “Well, you’ve got a difficult job on here because we’re not really sure what the museum is about, because it’s got a bit of this, a bit of Aboriginal, a bit of maritime history, it’s got natural history, it does research, it does education. What’s it all about?” I actually think that’s its strength by the way, but I think it’s something that we need to articulate.
So we sat on these three themes which have become I suppose, the mainstay of our thinking about the new museum in Perth, but also about the whole Museum. So what are we about and how do our collections relate it? So it’s about these three things: being Western Australian, discovering Western Australia, and exploring the world.
Too many buttons - sorry, I’ve gone one too far there. So, being Western Australian, it should be a state museum for all Western Australians. It must deal with issues of identity, diversity, community, understanding ourselves, understanding each other, and it is about a state that has both the oldest settled civilisation in the world, but also probably one of the most rapidly diversifying ones. And as I say, to paraphrase the SBS tagline which we thought of it before they did, we’ve got 2.2 million stories and counting. Maybe not 7 billion, but still quite a lot, and every Western Australian has got a story to tell.
And I think one of the things that I want to start out with is the fact that not all collections are physical or original objects. So the Dwyer Collection of photographs I’ll talk about a bit later, becomes an authentic collection in cataloguing and documenting an important part in WA's history. The archive collections reveal the cargos I see. Colleagues who’ve done an awful lot of work on the passenger registers and the like, these are all part of the collections and some people call them ‘metadata’. I think they’re all part of the collections. But some collections are stories and memories, and this is particularly important with Aboriginal people who regard themselves as custodians of their heritage and their law, And this can mean physical objects - obviously it does in some cases - but it can equally mean dreaming stories, or a relationship with country.
You hear academics talk about ‘intangible heritage’ to bracket these collections, but that’s another term that I really hate, and I hate it because here, a dreaming story is something extremely tangible to an Aboriginal person and we shouldn’t put our own value judgements on that.
So I’m delighted that the Museum has just signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Aboriginal company Yirra Yaakin to create and perform Aboriginal cultural events in the museum, and this is one way to acknowledge that not all collections are physical, but also to ensure that our representation of Aboriginal culture, is both historic and contemporary. And this is actually the image for a show they did called Kaarla Kaatijin which was part of the Awesome Festival at the Museum earlier this year.
Being Western Australian – so in the same vein as the beads I showed earlier, these bone points are from Devil’s Lair in the Margaret River, and like the beads, these are dated somewhere between 12 and 20,000 years, but the oldest bone points – unfortunately I don’t have a photograph of them from the cave – are 43,000 years old, and gradually, we seem to be pushing back the date that we think that Aboriginal people actually inhabited WA. Certainly in the Kimberley now, some of the rock art I believe again, has been dated back to around about 40,000 years ago. And how do we know this? We know it from collections. This is where the evidence is, and the fact that we’ve actually got them, allows us to find these things out.
I’m on really shaky ground now with all my colleagues in the room, so I’ll keep it simple, you’ll be glad to know. But this is the celebrated de Vlamingh Plate which marks one incident in the long period of contact between the Dutch sailors of the VOC and the WA coast. De Vlamingh’s instructions for his Voyage of Discovery to the West Coast of the South Land, specifically suggested pewter plates as landmarks, and apparently he did erect a variety of signs along the coast, but I believe this is the only one that we’ve ever found. I’m looking a bit hesitantly over there in case somebody shakes their head and says “No.” Anybody want to dissent from that?
This was actually - in 1697 the upper steersman Michiel Blom, on the Geelvink, de Vlamingh’s ship, discovered Dirk Hartog’s original plate, which was the one there from 1616 that we’ll be celebrating 400 years of, shortly. And he actually - apparently it was in a state of some disrepair, so he removed the plate and replaced it with this one, which he actually repeated the inscription from the Hartog Plate, and then added their own inscription too.
The Hartog Plate is now in the Rijksmuseum and I heard kind of an outrageous story that it’s not in very good condition, but I don’t know if that’s true at all. That’s the kind of thing people are talking – it’s true. It’s true. Somebody’s nodding. I know it’s old, yeah I know. I know. There’s none of us in the condition we were out there, let’s be honest, but again, what an important part of the history and the identity of WA. You can’t do this stuff without the original material, and this is my contention. So having said at the beginning, I don’t believe that the material is necessarily the core business, I actually do believe it’s critical to what we do, and it’s critical to understanding the world.
A couple of other moments, I guess moving up to the colonisation stage now. The dry blower from Kalgoorlie, something invented in the Goldfields, to separate the gold from the residue around it, and important because of course, long before C.Y O’Connor, water was at a bit of a premium in the Goldfields. So, using water based methods of separating gold was not really an option, and that’s why the dry blower was invented.
And then on the right hand side, the convict chain gang uniform. I always tease our colleague Ann Delroy about this because she always likes showing people the leg irons when she takes people around the store. I’m sure she’d like to see me in a pair of them, but that’s another story. But just five pieces of clothing survive from the convict period in Western Australia, and this jacket and trousers are two of those, and it was worn as extra punishment by prisoners who were sentenced to work in leg chains.
So actually, you can’t really see it on there, but the legs have got button-up bits which is not a fashion accessory, so you can actually button them an unbutton them around the leg irons. And of course, these rather bizarre colours that would immediately identify you if you were to escape, and they are actually stamped with the infamous broad arrow of British Government property. And again, an important item in our history, an important thing that reminds us, though although WA wasn’t a convict colony per se, it certainly had its fair share over about an 18 year period, which allowed us to build the colony up.
I mentioned Dwyer before, and the collection of photographs that is really - I’m sure many of you have seen these photographs, or some of them - they’re a fantastic record of life in the Goldfields at the time. Kalgoorlie was a really buzzing place at the time. I think it was the first place to have – is it right, it was the first town in Australia to have electric lighting, I think, Kalgoorlie. It really was a happening place, and Dwyer’s photographs – I think this was election night – I’ll tell you what, a good thing in Australia of course is that voting is obligatory, but you wouldn’t see that on an election night in the UK at the moment. The political process is so discredited that apparently now we get far more votes for our TV reality programs like – I think there’s a version of Dancing with the Stars gets more votes than the people vote in the general election now. So that’s a sign of the times. But anyway, not so in Kalgoorlie. People were out there. They wanted to know what was happening on election night.
And this is an interesting project. This is something we did with ABC Open, and basically encouraged people to go with a historic photograph, and take a contemporary photograph, and compare them. It actually – so they work with the ABC. It was a big online project and certainly was very, very popular. It was called Now and Then. It was a national project, but it was great to see things like this, and again, obviously something like the Super Pit has seen a fair few changes over that period.
Some collections - I should have said at the beginning, and I will say it anyway, I do want to thank all my colleagues because so many people, have given me so much stuff to talk about. The downside of that is some of you will be disappointed because it didn’t all get in, and maybe all of you will be disappointed because we probably won’t finish ‘til about 9 o’clock because a lot of it did get in. But, I sort of did this – “I’ll put it all in and edit it back,” and by the time I’d done that, I had 160 slides. So you’ll be glad to know I did actually edit it back from there.
But some of the collections come to us in odd ways and some seem personal and prosaic, but often these are imbued with the most powerful stories. On the right hand side there – is that screen alright with these lights on? I suddenly noticed. Can anybody do anything about the lights? Yes – it’s that one there. It’s the one that shine – that’s better. That has two – that’s much better because you can see more of the screen and less of me. I prefer both of those things.
So, I say, some of these collections are imbued with the most powerful stories, and on the right hand side there is a gentleman called Lionel Graham who was a carpenter in WA in Pemberton during the Second World War. Now obviously during the war, imports to Australia were disrupted and there was obviously a shift of production from domestic goods to make wartime materials, and toys and other childhood items, were among the luxuries which obviously disappeared from the shops. So, Lionel, the carpenter, started making toys from found materials for Christmas and birthday gifts for his son, one of whom is Colin who’s sat on one of them there, and not surprisingly, requests poured in from extended family and friends, and gradually he just became the sort of toy maker of Pemberton and the region, and people would come from all over - from Manjimup, from Northcliffe, from all over the South West to come and get his toys.
So, it was apparently white ants got into them and a lot of them were thrown away, but luckily for us, this is one of a few that were actually rescued from a tip near Pemberton, from somebody who thought, “Why are those being thrown out?” brought them in. We didn’t actually know what they were. I think they actually originally went to the ECU Museum. So Steven Anstey who’s on our staff now, was at the Museum of Childhood at ECU and after a bit of detective work, it was discovered that this was in fact one of Lionel’s creation, and again, personal stories, but very much indicative of the time.
The other important thing of course is keeping up to date, and I think, I wasn’t around at the time, but I suspect the government probably got a little bit rattled when somebody said “We’re going to be acquiring a helicopter.” But actually this is the helicopter that we acquired and this is called the Jandamarra Crossing, and this is a piece that was created by Aboriginal people in the Kimberley, working with an artist in residence. And many of you will know the story of Jandamarra who was originally kind of enlisted by the local Police to assist with meting out justice, particularly to Aboriginal groups, but realised that he was really working against his people, and pretty much mutinied and became a real thorn in the side of the authorities in the Kimberly.
He was actually called ‘Pigeon’ because they could never find him. It was like he flew from one place to the other and so the inspiration for this – and it’s a fantastic piece. I think you can see the kind of skids – the feet are actually made of Emu feet there. The case of the helicopter is made of crushed Emu beer cans, and there’s all sorts of references in here about contemporary issues in Aboriginal communities in the Kimberley as well. It’s a very important way of ensuring that our collections stay fresh.
And also just at the moment we’ve just acquired, on loan at the moment, with a view to creating an exhibition, a large collection of material from the late WA actor Heath Ledger, certainly one of WA's most celebrated personalities, and I say, we hope that that will help us create an exhibition. This is actually a painting that we showed last year by Vincent Fantauzzo, a triptych of Heath.
So that was all about being Western Australian, and there could have been so much more, all on the cutting room floor. I apologise to those who sent things. So what about discovering Western Australia? I say it’s the second pillar. It’s about a gateway to this extraordinary state, one that the Museum itself is so involved in actually the discovery of. With its ancient landscape, its earliest evidence of life on earth, it’s unrivalled by diversity in many ways. This is an extraordinary place and the Museum is well placed to investigate it and present it.
Again, how do you pick from so many things? How many species every year, Di? About 100 terrestrial, probably about 100 marine new species every year discovered, just by our staff in WA. So it is difficult to pick. This I guess, has to be one of our most celebrated fossils, and these are what I call ‘Secrets in the stones’. This is on the Gogo Station, also in the Kimberley, and these nodules are picked up.
There’s thousands of them there, still, and if you know what you’re doing, if you’re a geologist, a conservation geologist, you can start to develop these, probably using something like acetic acid to out of these Devonian nodules, to start to find what’s actually inside, and what tends to be inside, are these skulls of these bony, armoured fish, very characteristic of the Devonian period. And when it’s fully developed like that, you actually get the skulls out of them, and what’s really almost unique about these is, fossils tend to be formed obviously in sedimentary conditions. They’re crushed, they’re flat. Most things you get are a flat pack version of what the animal or the plant looked like in real life. These, absolutely not. You get the full 3D effect, and they are absolutely unique.
This is probably almost our most famous - and I’ll come onto that later - this was actually adopted as the official state fossil emblem of Western Australia. I can never say it. I try, so hard. Mcnamaraspis, and it seems to have one too few vowels in there, but there we are – kaprios, named after Ken McNamara who was one of the staff here - he’s back in WA at the moment - but one of the staff here, at the museum, named by his colleague, John Long, also one of the staff here, and these are absolutely of international importance and fame. They also happen to be David Attenborough’s favourite thing in Western Australia, and I’ll maybe talk a bit more about that later. That will about quarter to 9:00 I’ll get onto that bit.
The marsupial megafauna. Coming from the Northern Hemisphere as I do, I’m very familiar with the ideas of woolly mammoths and rhinoceroses and saber-toothed cats and all that kind of thing, which were the Pleistocene fauna of the Northern hemisphere. Australia had its own equivalent of that, and they were all marsupials, and you probably all know about them, but believe me, the world doesn’t know about them, and this is a fantastic story to be told here.
The Diprotodons, these enormous wombat like things that used to lumber around, were preyed upon by things like Thylacoleo carnifex which I got really told off the other day, because I said “It’s called the Marsupial Lion” and somebody jumped down my throat and said “It’s not a lion.” “I know it’s not a lion, but that’s what we call it because it was a predator.” But it’s not a lion. It’s not a cat. It’s a marsupial. But, these are found in the Nullarbor Caves. The WA Museum has the only complete skeleton of one in existence, as far as I’m aware, and again, the work that can be done on these, more and more becomes possible as the techniques improve.
Really, getting behind time now. A lot of our work led by Di Jones and her team relates to statutory environmental assessment. As Di knows, I always like to say, when people say “What do those people do?” I say “They’re saving the world.” That is what they’re doing. They’re finding out what we didn’t know was there, what is there. Often, not only do they find what is there, but they find things we’ve never seen before, and these are the new species that as I said, are named and described on an annual basis, literally by the dozen.
This is one. This is a pseudoscorpion. They’ve all got horrible names, these. Synsphyronus christopherdarwini which is obviously named after Darwin’s great grandson, in his honour, and then just – yes, it’s coming up – does anybody know what that one’s called?
Audience member: A spider.
Yeah, we’ll give you that. Well, actually nobody knows what it’s called yet, because it’s the first one that’s ever been found. It’s a trapdoor spider that was brought in – or has it got a name yet? No, it hasn’t got. I didn’t think it got a name yet. Phew. I thought I was going to be corrected then for a moment. It’s been called the ‘Albino Spider’ because it’s got some white on it, but it’s not albino at all. In no sense is it albino. It’s just got a white cephalothorax. But it rose to fame last year because it actually was number three in National Geographic’s Weird Animals of the Year. So it’s certainly gone a long way, but again, the important point is - Mark Harvey who heads up our Terrestrial Zoology team, is an arachnologist. So he knows a fair about these things, but he’s also the master of understatement. He described this as “They’re really quite rare. It is the only one that’s ever been found,” but there we go.
This is important in all sorts of ways. This is the Western Rock Lobster, the mainstay of a huge economic fishery of course, off the Western Australian coast, and on the left hand side – and again I’m on shaky ground here because Di Jones is an absolute expert in crustaceans – but there are many things that kind of look similar, but they’re not the same, and they don’t taste the same, and they don’t look the same. So, the original Western Rock Lobster Panulirus cygnus was actually named by the Western Australian Museum. In 1963 I think it was, it was recognised as a separate species and in the left hand of that picture is the type specimen which is in the Museum, and whenever you discover a new species of animal, you have to name the specimen that you actually describe the name from, and that becomes the irrefutable evidence of it. Everybody in the world has to go back, if they either want to question that or if they want to split that group into more species, or if they want to suggest that actually it was really something else. That is the only one. God forbid if anything happened to that. You can’t replace it. That is it. That is the type specimen and it is the highest kind of value of zoological material you can get. How many have we got Di, type specimens? Thousands, thousands. That’s the importance of the collections that we have here.
Something maybe – well probably not more familiar than a Western Rock Lobster with Christmas coming, but even so, the cockatoos that you will read constantly about in the newspapers, get us into a lot of trouble sometimes when our colleague Ron gets a bit excitable about some of these things. But, I don’t know if anybody else is good at that. I mean, when you see them there, like close up – Baudin’s isn’t it? This one on the right hand side is Carnaby’s because it’s got the shorter bill. Very, very difficult for people like me to tell in the wild. They do have a different call as well.
But Carnaby’s in particular, is in some danger. It’s a particular Western Australian speciality, and again, the work that’s going on in the Museum is very much geared towards understanding the ecology, the behaviour of these species, and indeed the taxonomy. And in fact, funnily enough, only yesterday I was at a conference over east with the Director of National Museums Liverpool, and only today I discovered - and he discovered, because neither of us knew - that we are actually collaborating with National Museums Liverpool because they’ve got a specimen of one of these Baudin’s cockatoos that may be a different, certainly a subspecies again. But this is all done through museum collections. You couldn’t do it without the real stuff.
This is a bit more esoteric. I think this is a Bill Humphreys one – Lasionectes axleyi and it’s a Remipede crustacean. Only Di Jones would have known that. Again, it was discovered named by Bill Humphreys, our colleague in the Museum in 1996. We have the type specimen and it’s the only example of that group that lives in the Southern Hemisphere, and it was found here. And again, if we’re going to understand our world, how do we do it?
Working out the relationships which are in these. It’s important to know who’s related to whom and when in the evolutionary process they appear. This helps us sort out, or look at environmental stress, environmental impacts. It helps us look at geological and geomorphological change. And these are geckos of the genus Crenadactylus, tiny little things from the Western side of Australia, and what’s going on here, again, the museum, Paul Doughty, our colleague, is working on these, and as you can see up there, this is a sort of tree diagram working out who’s related to who, where they split up, how they might have split up, whether it was down to geographic influences, whether it was down to climatic influences – this all helps us understand our world.
We talked about a lot about new species which is very exciting, but we also get new things that shouldn’t be here, appearing. So, we get invasions of alien species and this is the – you know how kind of parochial we can get over here – this is the Eastern Australian scallop which has started appearing over here, and one of many species I guess, that partly because of the movement of shipping between the East Coast and Fremantle, and possibly partly because of other reasons as well, these things are starting to spread, and obviously they become, or can become a threat, to our native species.
Our third pillar is Exploring the World. This is very important to me. I don’t think there are many Australian museums that do this really well. This could be our unique selling point in Australia, actually looking out to the world and becoming something, or creating something, where the museum really does start to introduce the world to WA, and WA to the world.
And probably worth starting off with the fact that – I love throwing out these statements like “WA is the oldest place in the world.” Well, that’s a bit of a silly statement, but it’s got the oldest rocks in the world, and these zircon crystals from the Kimberley - again we’ve got examples in the Museum collection – have been studied and, I don’t know how they do this, maybe somebody here does, but it’s been worked out they’re 4.4 billion years old. The Earth is supposed to have formed 4.5 billions years ago, so they’re 4.4/4.5. They are the oldest rock crystals known on the planet, and they’re in museum collections. If they weren’t there, if we didn’t have the opportunity to study them, how would we know?
Although where possible, obviously Aboriginal rock art should be left in situ. Again there were occasions where in the past it’s been removed from country. It needs saving, it needs rescuing and again, collections in the museum preserve this. WA probably and unarguably, in terms of its rock art, its rock art is on a scale and significance - nowhere else will you find that in the world. There’s more rock art in the Kimberley than – I mean, the rock art everybody’s probably familiar with from the books, in southern France, it can’t really hold a candle to this in terms of the extent of it. It’s a real unique element of WA’s cultural history and it’s something that we need to preserve.
Here’s something closer to home again – the Batavia - the second oldest shipwreck in Australian waters, allegedly. Who knows. We might find another one, mightn’t we, one day? But, this is obviously – if you’ve not seen it, if you’ve not been to the Shipwrecks Museum, the old Maritime Museum, just about, I don’t know what, 4 or 6 hundred metres away from here on Cliff Street, please go along. This is the most complete reconstruction of original materials of a Dutch East Indiaman in the world, and again, by being able to work with the original timbers, just imagine what secrets they can give up.
I’ve done something strange with that photograph. Sorry Pat. That might have been one of yours I’ve ruined there by making it too light, but the objects that come from the Batavia, was that the Bronze Astrolabe here, help us, or help those people, people like Myra, work out that it really was the Batavia. So, on that you can see when it’s cleaned up and studied, the mark of the VOC in Amsterdam, the Dutch East India Company, and then up there you can see the date – 1628, which was the year before she was wrecked. So these are the kind of things that help confirm the identity of the shipwrecks. Where are they? They’re in museums. Who’s looking after them? Who’s conserving them? Who’s developing them so we can find these things? Museums.
Oh dear, look at the time. I’m going to skid past that one. I have to put that in. Visions of the Wonderful is the title of a recent book about Philip Henry Gosse who was a naturalist of some repute in Devon who studied marine organisms, and this is one of our colleagues Jane Fromont, and that thing she’s holding in her hand, which looks a very long, long bow, is actually a glass spicule that was formed at about 900 metres depth by a sponge. Who on earth has ever seen anything like that before? I hadn’t. It’s sort of my current favourite object in the collection. I’ll change. I’m fickle. I’ll have something else now. But, there’s a bit of a close-up on the right hand side where you can see the actual sponge bit there. How do these things do that, and how would we know? These are now being studied, in the Museum.
We also have an important role to play in not only conservation of the environment, or out there in the environment, but combating illegal trade, and these are some of the things that we have in our collection which have actually been seized by Customs, and these are all made of elephant - so elephant ivory, African elephant skin briefcase, Asian elephant shoes there. Obviously for conservation reasons, trade in these is prohibited, and the Museum is often called in to identify material like that.
We’ll move past that as well because we’re running out of time.
A couple of times I’ll refer to the universe here or maybe [49:50], but what is – we talked about contemporary collector, we talked about Jandamarra Crossing, we talked about Heath Ledger. What is the big event that happened this year, or one of the big events that happened this year? WA was selected as one of the co centres for the Square Kilometre Array, for the massive radio telescope that will help us understand the heavens much more than we have before.
Again, I find it difficult talking about this because when you talk to the guys, they talk about how big the computers are going to be to collect all this data, and it’s actually going to be bigger than all the computers in the world, just to collect this data and I sort of can’t get my head around that, but this has been a project on the books for such a long time, and it’s really amazing that WA has achieved the success of being part of that. This will be up in the Murchison and I was very proud that I collected this, and this is one of the antennae ranges which is one of the precursors for the Square Kilometre Array. I did ask first. I didn’t just go up in the Murchison and sort of steal it in case you were thinking.
Audience member:[50:59] likely to have found another 15 of those albino spiders?
I might have done. I might have. Good point.
So, can collections change the world? Well, what do you think my answer to that is? Yes, obviously they can. This is a bit of a sort of – it works on all levels this, actually. These are the stromatolites that WA is famous for. So on the left hand side, living, breathing stromatolites. Stromatolites are these sort of concretionary processes that are built up and at the centre of these, are living cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae people sometimes call them, but they’re actually a bacteria, and they create these amazing little domes. So if you go up to Shark Bay you will have seen these. Clifton Pool, there’s thrombolites down south of here. Cervantes, there’s some, and they’re really, really interesting and there aren’t many in the world, and these are the living ones.
But actually, if you go up into the Pilbara, or actually much easier, if you go into the Museum store, you will find fossil stromatolites. These appear to be something like 3.5 billion years old. These are as far as we’re aware at the moment, the oldest evidence of life on earth, and they’re sitting in our collections, and studied in our collections. So I think that’s world changing, because that makes us think about the age of the earth. It makes us think about the age of life, and it helps us move that on, but actually, these really were world changing, because these were probably some of the first, well they are. They’re the earliest evidence of life on earth that we’ve got.
The first organisms on the planet would have started to create oxygen. The first thing that did was bind up all the iron that was floating around in various compounds in the water. So the whole economy of WA in terms of the iron extraction, is probably down to these guys. But of course, once they’d bound up all the iron, then the oxygen went into the atmosphere, and these are the things that actually created an oxygen rich atmosphere which life could move out onto the land. So, actually, they really did change the world.
But also, thinking about again, the importance of our, and the age of our civilisation, our Aboriginal civilisation, these pierced shells are from Mandu Mandu creek near Exmouth, are again, some of the earliest body ornamentation made by humans anywhere, in the world. If we start to think about how humans grew and changed, and why did they start wearing ornamentation, and I say you would be hard pressed to find much, that’s actually older than that in terms of pure ornamentation.
Going international for a while, our friends at the British Museum - on the left hand side of course, the Rosetta Stone. Phar Lap is the most popular exhibit in the Melbourne Museum. The Rosetta Stone is the most popular exhibit in the British Museum. Draw what comparisons you will from what. But obviously, the thing about the Rosetta Stone, it was inscribed with a decree at Memphis in 196 BC, and it’s written in three languages. It’s written in Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, it’s written in Demotic script and it’s written in Ancient Greek, and obviously because it was written in Ancient Greek, it provided the key to translating so much Egyptian hieroglyphic and Demotic script from before that time. It’s changed the world. How would we have understood that without it?
On the right hand side – sorry guys. I know a lot of you have heard me talk about this before, but this I think, is a really important piece, and it was important to us because it was, if you like, the hero image for our Extraordinary Stories exhibition. The first time the British Museum had ever leant it, and it came here. It’s a bronze head sculpture from Nigeria, and it changed – well when it was made, about 700 years ago in Ife in Nigeria, it’s interesting. Neil MacGregor writes of it; “It’s quite clearly the portrait of a person, but we don’t know who. It’s without question by a very great artist, but we don’t know who, and it must have been made for a ceremony, but we don’t know what,” but what is certain, is that it’s African, it’s royal and it epitomises the great medieval civilisations of Africa at that time.
And when this and 12 others were found in 1938, the German Archaeologist Leo Frobenius refused to believe that it could have been made by Africans, because Africa was the ‘savage continent’. Africans couldn’t possibly have been capable of making something so beautiful by this lost wax method. Of course subsequently it proved it was. Africa was having its own renaissance at that time, it actually changed the way the world thought about Africans.
Other things, just randomly selected from places I’ve been recently. So, the Southern Cross flag from the Eureka Stockade at Ballarat, such an important moment in Australian labour history, in Australian civil rights. On the right hand side, the Treaty of Waitangi, the document which sets out the rights of Maori and Pakeha people in New Zealand, and even now, is the subject of – well is the subject of redisplay. It was actually redisplayed this week in the National Library in Wellington, but it also continues to resonate with a Waitangi Treaty Commission that continues to hear the cases of Maori iwi.
From our collection, a uniform worn by Stefan Gebski, a Polish political prisoner who was in a number of concentration camps with the Nazis in the Second World War. Amazingly, he survived, one of the one in three people that survived the concentration camps, and he came to WA, and he continued to wear this uniform for some years, because actually he had nothing. This was one of the few bits of clothing that he had. He continued to wear it, but of course, when he didn’t have to wear it anymore, he thought it was important to keep it, to remind us of what had gone before.
I’m really losing it in terms of the timing here. I have to go really fast.
So, environmental quality. So much that we’re doing here – I picked a British example here because it’s such a celebrated one. This is the famous peppered moth – I’m sure you’ve all heard of it – Biston betularia, and the point about this is on the left hand side is a nice lichen covered tree trunk, and on the right hand side is a sooty covered tree trunk due to the sort of industrial pollution in Northern England. The peppered moth should look like the white one there, or actually, should look like that one there, because it’s so brilliantly camouflaged against its background. But again, by looking at museum collections over many years, it was realised that the population changed or swayed massively in favour of this dark melanic form because of course, these were much better camouflaged against the polluted tree trunks of Northern England. And this was one of many, I suppose, stimuli, to really start dealing with the issues of industrial pollution in the UK.
Egg collections are always a little bit contentious, but Di Jones has a good phrase. What is it? “Our collections are there to answer the questions we hadn’t thought of yet,” or something like that, “We have yet to ask.” You put it so much more eloquently. Nobody knew when they were collected, because egg collecting’s a pretty despicable thing to do in this day and age, but nobody knew that the egg collections in the UK would prove to be the catalyst to understand the terrible damage that organochlorine pesticides like DDT were wreaking.
And what happened was, by measuring – these were actually kestrel eggs, but the thickness of the – what was happening is the birds of prey which were across the top of the food chain where all these pesticides were being concentrated, their breeding success was plummeting and it turned out it was the thickness of the egg shells, was getting thinner and thinner, and basically the young just weren’t making it through, and the reason behind that was the organochlorines. This was famously celebrated in Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring which was probably one of the, I suppose, the standards of the environmental generation.
I’d better put a WA example in which of course is the Numbat, another state emblem, but something else that by looking at our collections, we can get a sense of where it was, why it was there, what kind of life it was living, and those collections hopefully ultimately, will help us contribute to the, I suppose, the return of the Numbat to something like its previous numbers.
Sorry, and I did get one in. I had to get one in at the end. This was a question that hadn’t been asked, and you can ask Ian about it later because he’ll describe it in much more detail, and with much more authority than I can, but this is off the Xantho. This is some of the metal work off the Xantho which was wrecked in 1872. A whole story about the Xantho - if you want to go down to the Shipwrecks Galleries, there’s a gallery about it. You can go and see somebody turn the engine that’s been incredibly restored there.
But I think I’m right in saying, what we’ve got here are almost annual rings of deposition, of corrosion deposition, and the punch line of this is that this was happening about every seven years, is that right? This was at Port Gregory, and as a result of that, Ian was able to demonstrate that this silting up occurred about every seven years, and it was an absolutely inappropriate place to develop a deep water port, which was what they were looking at, at the time. So the whole development was predicated on this, and who would have known that the Xantho, the wreck of the Xantho would have given us that insight.
Transforming lives – I believe we do transform lives. This is my subtitle to this – the power of goo, because that looks like some goo in a jar there, and actually when you look at the living thing, it doesn’t look much better, but it’s actually a sponge - back to Jane Fromont again – a Haliclona species, and it’s only been found in South-Western Australia. We think it’s endemic, and it produces a compound called Salicylihalamide. You’ll be familiar I’m sure with salicylic acid which is Aspirin, and this has a unique chemical make up which inhibits one of the enzymes in mammalian cells, and the activity that that enzyme, which is mammalian vacuolar ATPase, is implicated in osteoporosis, renal disease, HIV infection and tumour metastasis. This could be the next wonder drug, who knows, and we’ve got a whole collection of species, particularly of sponge, deep frozen, just waiting for the opportunity for people to study this. This is the power of collections.
I had to put this in. JD Hill used this photograph in his talk, and I found it on the web. This is the power of collections. Who would have thought – there’s Neil MacGregor in the back with a sort of case going through the middle of his nose there – Neil MacGregor, the Director of the British Museum. Who would have thought that the Director of the British Museum would have been there in Tehran with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the President of Iran, not known for his kind of a generous attitude towards the West as it were, even being persuaded to point in that way that museum people point at an object. And this is the Cyrus Cylinder from the British Museum which was loaned to Tehran, where I think something like 2 million people went to see it in a very short amount of time, which is such an important piece again, in the history of Iran. International diplomacy – it’s something we do.
Here’s another universe thing. Renae Woodhams who I work with, always accuses me of hyperbole, because I say “That’s the oldest in the world,” “It’s the biggest.” So we’re searching for the key to the universe now. We’ve gone beyond the world, and this is the Desert Fireball Network in WA, and this is again, something that we’re a partner in, tracking meteorites as they come through the atmosphere, picking them up, and working out where they’ve come from, and this is a partnership with Curtin University, with Imperial College in London, and with an observatory in Prague, and through this, we will get a much better sense of the origin of the universe in fact.
Do we still need collections? Nearly there guys. The digital question – I don’t want to snitch, but our Treasury said when we set out on the path of the new museum, “Why do you need a museum, because everything’s digital now, isn’t it?” So, that’s alright then. We don’t need a museum. You know what I say? I say DNA test that.
Assay that. The coins from the Gilt Dragon on the left there, that are being tested, really to find out which mints they’ve come from, where they’ve come from. Right hand side, a caryatid from the Zuytdorp, which again, will help us find out where the timber came from, how old it was. You can’t actually do that with a digital image. What’s going on here Ian? These were coins that were found to be short on silver, I believe. You made some outrageous suggestion that Philip of Spain was short changing people by forging coins. State forgery. It’s an outrage. You couldn’t do that with a digital image.
Anybody know who that is?
Correct. The light’s a bit of a clue, isn’t it? A bit of a clue.
What did Edison do?
No, I wasn’t around then, but – go on, indulge me. He invented the light bulb.
Audience member: Yes, but also other things like the –
He only did the – I can’t even think, but yeah. I can’t remember what it’s called. What would you call it? Phonograph, wasn’t it? Yeah. Well actually, as somebody who worked in North East England and held a collection of light bulbs, I can tell you categorically that Edison didn’t invent the light bulb. This guy invented the light bulb, Joseph Swan of Gateshead. He invented the light bulb a year before Edison invented it, but he didn’t get his patent out and a year later Edison invented his, along similar principles, and there are Joseph Swan’s light bulbs in the Discovery Museum in Newcastle. There then followed, you might imagine, a long legal patent dispute, but in fact Edison tried to sue him, but didn’t win, and they actually, although they never met, they jointly formed the Ediswan Light Bulb Company. Do you like that? Ediswan. But, important thing about that is, it was a museum collection again, that can actually determine what the true course of history was.
What about this one? This is one still to be solved. Two strapping young men there – the late Max Cramer and Hugh Edwards with the elephant tusk off the wreck of the Zeewijk, or is it? And again, those who know that there wasn’t supposed to be elephant ivory on the Zeewijk, was it smuggled on? That’s been the theory for a long time, but there’s also a theory that maybe there was another wreck there. One of the things we’ll be able to do with this, is actually DNA sequence it, in our new DNA lab, because we’ve got the collection.
More invaders – the Asian Paddle Crab. Can you eat those Di or are they just – oh well, there’s some good in them. But they shouldn’t be here, should they? They’ve invaded and they’re obviously a threat to our native species, again, identified in the museum. And of course, the idea of rediscovering extinct species – the Thylacine. I didn’t actually show a mummified one, but again, I don’t know if we’d ever get DNA out of that. I don’t see why not, to be honest, if need be. Yeah.
Back to the Gogo Fish. Why are the Gogo Fish so important? Our colleague Mikael, he accuses me of hyperbole and then he says, “It’s the first evidence of sex.” It’s not actually the first evidence of sex, if I may say so. There was sex before Gogo Fish, but through the study of these nodules on the fish, eventually, somebody found embryos, and in fact this is a fossilised umbilical cord. This means, the first evidence of live birth vertebrate. The oldest vertebrate embryo in the world. A hugely important step in the evolutionary process. That’s why David Attenborough loves the Gogo Fish so much. That’s why they’re featured in his Life on Earth program, and that’s why Materpiscis - that’s easier to say than Macnamaraspis - Attenborough was named in his honour.
Alex Bevan, one of our colleagues, is very fond of pulling these out. Yeah, “Well look what I’ve got in my hand.” A bit of Mars, a bit of the Moon. These have come from meteorites, and at the moment, until we actually have samples collected on Mars, this is pretty much all we’ve got to go on.
I’m going to finish – I really am going to finish now – emotional ties. We’ve talked about science, we’ve talked about the environment, we’ve talked about all the ways in which museum collections can help us understand the world, but we’ve been doing quite a bit of research lately into our exhibitions, and the thing that really comes through all the time, people think they might come for one reason, but actually when you say, “What did you get out of it?” it’s almost always an emotional experience, and collections can be hugely emotional.
This is another one from my past. This is the Lindisfarne Gospels which is an illuminated script. Absolutely beautiful and iconic piece that sits in the British Library. On rare occasions they lend it to North-East England which is where it was supposedly created on the island of Lindisfarne by monks, and it really is one of the treasures of the British Isles. And the British Library don’t really like lending it to those kind of rough northerners, because we might have seized it, or might have damaged it or something. So they produced these beautiful facsimiles, have a facsimile. Actually no, it’s not the same. And they produced a beautiful digital, what they call ‘Turning the Pages’ where you can actually go and look at each page. It’s beautiful, but it’s not the same as the real thing.
When we borrowed it the last time, I watched people weeping in front of this. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody weep in front of an iPad, well except when it’s broken or something, or when I can’t get it to work. But seriously, that is the power of real things with real associations.
I wanted to finish just with two things that don’t even belong to us, but they’re projects that we’ve been involved with over the last year. For the 70th anniversary of the sinking of HMAS Sydney there was some work done with families, relatives, friends, friends of friends who came back to Geraldton, and they created little story boards, and this was one a woman created and did some writing around it, for Lieutenant Eric Mayo who went down with the Sydney and she actually brought this. I get a bit emotional with this actually, which just shows you the power of collections.
This was a letter that sent by Mayo’s wife - this woman’s grandmother - to Lieutenant Mayo. It never got to him because the Sydney went down. So it was returned to sender. It’s never been opened, probably never will be opened. The granddaughter thinks it’s the letter – follow me with this one – that her mother sent, sorry, her grandmother sent to her husband to say that she was pregnant with this woman’s father, because it would – and the kind of poignancy of something like that, it’s almost impossible to countenance and to me, I just think anybody who says that real things don’t matter, real things do matter, and they do have an emotional attachment.
The final one, which again will be familiar to many of you. This chap here, Keith Hayes, is something like 93 now. He’s still knocking around WA and he looks a bit of a cheeky chap there. He’s in the 2/2nd Commandos, from WA, and these were the guys in East Timor in the Second World War and they were the ones who held off – I mean a couple of hundred of them held off thousands of Japanese forces for months on end, and Keith was one of those, and we did an exhibition about it.
Keith lent us something that again, I don’t think he’s ever let out of his possession since he had it. And the exhibition was what you might – it was called ‘Debt of Honour’ because of the debt that Peter Cosgrove actually said that the Australians owed to the Timorese, and it had all the usual things. It had military in it, it had uniforms, it had guns, but it had this pink handkerchief, and it was to me, the most poignant object in the exhibition. It’s on loan to us. It doesn’t belong to us. Keith lent it to us, his most precious possession.
Keith was on a ration truck that went down into the Timor. It was ambushed by the Japanese and taken over. He and three of his colleagues, including three in that photograph, were thrown off the truck and told to walk behind, and then some Dutch soldiers fired on it, and as a reprisal, the Japanese shot, and bayonetted the four Australian soldiers, and left them for dead. Three of them were dead. Keith wasn’t. He somehow crawled into the undergrowth and was taken in by this woman – Bertha Martinez and she, using all her local knowledge, staunched his wounds, stopped them getting infected. Somehow after a few days of nursing him, got him back to his regiment. He lived to tell the tale. He’s still alive today. She gave him that handkerchief.
And the reason I get emotional about this, is because I saw Keith on the night of this, and it was the first time I think he’d really talked about this, and understandably, he was quite upset, quite emotional. But what a powerful object. What a story that lies behind a very prosaic and simple looking object, and to me, that’s kind of what we’re all about. We’re about saving the world, we’re about understanding the universe and we’re about trying to understand history. But above all, we’re about these emotional ties that make us human, actually, and I think very late, that’s where I’d like to finish.
Chevron is a presenting partner of In the Wild West lecture series.