Week 1: Introductions, reintroductions, and ‘So my degree has come in useful!’

Many people warned me that my time here would fly and looking at the calender I cannot believe that my first week has been and gone.

Thanks to the wonderful teams at Cultural Collections, Special Collections, Ian Potter Museum of Art, and PROV (Public Record Office Australia) I have felt so welcome here. Many award winners have stated it before but I must echo their sentiment – Melbourne feels like a home from home! The clock tower on the Old Arts building, the pockets of green, and the seamless integration of original and new architecture so fondly reminds me of Birmingham.

Whilst on the subject of architecture I wish to point out a particular aspect of the campus at UoM. The campus is closing in on the final few weeks of a new building scheduled to open on 8th August. It is the Melbourne University School of Design. It is as suitably impressive as any purpose-built modern building you see erected in any great city, but it harbours a surprising and unconventional element.


The building weeks before completion against the artist’s original rendering of the building design. Picture credit: http://www.igparker.com/

The 1850s façade, designed by eminent architect Joseph Reed, formerly graced the Bank of NSW in Collins Street (now a popular fashion destination in Melbourne). The façade was moved to the University of Melbourne when the bank decided to expand and became part of the new university Commerce building in the 1940s. Now part of the latest construction, this National Trust-listed façade has helped the new build gain 1 of its 10 innovation points by reusing and preserving cultural heritage. It is the universities first 6 Star Green Star Education Design rating, achieving a perfect 10/10 innovation points. The use of cultural heritage in this way is still relatively rare, but one that may have to be considered for the long term survival of culturally important landmarks. Having the façade as part of a new build ensures it will have essential maintenance and conservation work, will still be a vital competent in the landscape of the city, and will continue to add new dimensions to it’s already varied and interesting history. If there is one lesson to learn about heritage it is that change is inevitable (artefacts will be broken, paintings will be lost, architecture will crumble). All you can hope to do is manage change in a way that is advantageous for the heritage in the long term.*

So, with that slight detour, onto my first week!


Up until Melbourne, my work with heritage has been primarily academic. This week I have had the opportunity to undertake an aspect of collections management that I have been itching to experience: conservation. Obviously, there are a huge amount of techniques and materials to cover and not the time during my four week stay so I was introduced to basic paper conservation. I assisted with a humidifying process (to help flatten a print that had been folded and creased for exhibition), an immersion bath (to clean some deep staining on a lithograph) and I even had the chance to reinforce pages of a damaged book using a heat-activated mending tissue!



My time on Wednesday spent with the special collections was the most surprising. My task to research William Blake and construct a narrative for some of his prints forced me to look at the artist in a different light, set apart from the masterpieces we are so accustomed to. The two prints I am working on are engravings from his 7 year apprenticeship with Basire when he was aged 14-21. They represent two important moments in his career – his rebellious stylistic development and the high point of his profession as a commercial engraver. I feel as though I have been reintroduced to Blake, and that through these engravings I am being allowed to peer into the transitional phase of his young life. It constantly surprises me how collections can challenge perceptions and make what was a one-dimensional fact of history (William Blake: Poet, Painter, Engraver) into a three-dimensional human being (William Blake: Student, Rebel, Unique).

Ancient History degrees ARE useful!…

Ah, yes. The proudest moment any graduate can feel. That glorious wave of vindication that overwhelms you when you can stand there and say “I’VE DONE THIS! I’VE SEEN THIS BEFORE! IT WAS IN A SEMINAR IN MY THIRD YEAR I THINK.”

This paints a fairly accurate portrayal of myself at the Ian Potter Museum of Art on Thursday when I was confronted with box of approximately 150 cylinder seals. For those of you who don’t know a cylinder seal looks like this:


In fact, a lot of cylinder seals look like that – bearded figure, mythical creature, crescent moon, the occasional inscription. I have seen hundreds of them adorning academic material during my undergraduate degree, but I’d never taken the time to study them.


My duty was to identify these seals and find out information about them so that they could be used as part of a teaching collection. Apart from knowing that the originals were in the British Museum, there was absolutely no data related to these objects.  It gave me an entirely new perspective of items I’d once considered mundane during my undergraduate degree. I had to look closely at the cuneiform inscriptions, the iconography, and the style of engraving. Then I challenged my knowledge – how much could I translate? When was that style of Kassite Cross used? My supervisor had said that if I got one identified it would be classed as a success but by the end of the day 6 were bagged and boxed! I felt a huge sense of achievement! I had managed to apply my existing knowledge and skill set. This is where the Universitas 21 Award truly excels – the use of my academic background has not only created a task that I find rewarding and self-fulfilling, but has let me define my own unique space within the organisation I am volunteering at where I feel I am making a worthwhile contribution.

Finally – it’s not all about me…

Apart from my own week, it’s been a very busy for the cultural collections at the University. As well as housing the world renowned Gutenberg Bible, there have been several events. Wednesday kicked off the week with the Nite Art where several of the universities collections opened for an evening for talks and tours. On Friday night there were three openings – the rare book fair (as part of rare book week), the cultural treasures festival, and Basil Sellers Art Prize exhibition at the Ian Potter. Across the weekend, the cultural treasures festival will be taking over the campus wide range of events, and some of the universities buildings are participating in Open House Melbourne. The best part of all this? All events are public facing AND free! This comprehensive list of events showcasing the distinctive and varied collections here embodies the wider, enriching cultural experience of Melbourne city. It is a collection that simultaneously reflects and welcomes all of its inhabitants.

* Disclaimer: what is “advantageous” for heritage is a fluid (and frankly unstable!) concept which is often completely contextually dependant.

Further information:

http://niteart.com.au/ – Nite Art

http://www.rarebookfair.com/ – Rare Book Fair

http://www.unimelb.edu.au/culturalcollections/treasuresfestival/ – Cultural Treasures Festival

http://www.sellersartprize.com.au/ – Basil Sellers Art Prize

http://www.openhousemelbourne.org/ – Open House Melbourne

http://prov.vic.gov.au/ – PROV

http://rylandscollections.wordpress.com/2014/07/19/from-manchester-to-melbourne-gutenberg-bible-on-the-move/ – Gutenberg Bible




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