Written by Candace Richards, The University of Sydney
I first stepped foot in the Nicholson Museum as a high school student on a class excursion eager to become an archaeologist one day. I was lucky enough to join the ranks of the Nicholson’s volunteers as an undergraduate and have gone on to work with the collections as an educator, a collections’ auditor and am now the Assistant Curator for the Nicholson Collection. While I continue to be enthralled by the antiquity that surrounds me, I have become more and more fascinated with the people who have made the Nicholson Collection what it is today. With over 30,000 items representing many ancient Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures, the collection reflects the interests, specialities and relationships of the people who helped it grow over the past 160 years. Unfortunately, when the story of the Nicholson Collection is told, it is often only the people in the most prestigious position, that of Honorary Curator (also Head Curator or Senior Curator), who are highlighted. As this position has been exclusively held by men, an official institutional history has been created without any women. To recover the stories of women and their role in shaping museum collections we must look beyond the Curator.
Excerpt from Beyond the Curator as presented at ASCS41, Thursday 31 January 2020. Images: Administration, Kate Lawler; Archaeologists, Joan Du Plat Taylor; Education, Ethel Hunter; Research, Louisa Macdonald; Family Support, Liska Woodhouse; Technical Support, Judy Birmingham; Donors, Calcite Bowl NM60.51 (Nicholson Colleciton, Chau Chak Wing Museum) ; ? Apulian skyphos NM95.16 (Nicholson Collection, Chau Chak Wing Museum)
The roles of women in museums varied greatly throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, largely responding to the social constraints of gender roles in contemporaneous society. In 20th century Australia, women were restricted from the public service due to their marital status up until 1966 when the Marriage Bar was finally removed from the Public Service Act. Legislation like this had a number of knock-on effects for women’s education more broadly, but also the roles women were able to pursue in museums and universities. Nevertheless, a great many women made a substantive contribution to Australian museums including the Nicholson.
Archival research at the Nicholson has revealed that women’s contributions come in many forms including administrative and technical support often undertaken behind the scenes for the improvement of the collections; research and publication of the collections; education and public outreach; collecting activities, often as part of archaeological research on behalf of the museum or financing collecting practices; donors to the collection; and finally, as family support when women are often active in the research or collecting process and then if outliving their partner assume responsibility for the management of collections and posthumous legacies. The teasing out of the individual stories and collective roles women played is part of my long-term research project ‘The Hidden Women of the Nicholson Museum.’ It is hoped that in addition to highlighting the many accomplishments and contributions women have made throughout the history of the Nicholson, we can examine how we construct our own histories, and offer new approaches to constructing historically accurate and inclusive institutional narratives.
I was delighted to be able to contribute to the Australasian Women in Ancient World Studies panel on the history of women in the discipline at ASCS 41 and introduce this research project. I hope it will continue to contribute to the broader goals of AWAWS to document the varied ways in which women have forged new paths in ancient world studies and mentored the next generation of women in the discipline.
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The contribution made by women to ancient world studies in Australia and New Zealand has often been neglected. Our blog aims to bring you new research and insights into some of these remarkable women.
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The black and white background images used throughout this website are from the Woodhouse Archive and provided by the Nicholson Collection, The University of Sydney.