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SAM revising collections stocktake policies

David Eccles, SA Museum digs up missing Burke and Wills treasure after stocktake fail, InDaily, 6 March 2024

The state Auditor-General has criticised the South Australian Museum’s management of historic collections, saying that while it had now found a Burke and Wills breastplate worth $320,000 it couldn’t locate during a stocktake, other items remain missing.

A breastplate awarded to Indigenous people at Cooper Creek after the tragic 1861 Burke and Wills expedition and valued at $320,000 has been found after going missing during an SA Museum stocktake.
A breastplate awarded to Indigenous people at Cooper Creek after the tragic 1861 Burke and Wills expedition and valued at $320,000 has been found after going missing during an SA Museum stocktake.

The report by Auditor-General Andrew Blaskett, an update to the annual report for the year to June 2023, was tabled in state parliament on Tuesday.

Under “significant audit findings”, it voiced concerns about storage and management of heritage collections and said the SA Museum “could not locate 50 high-value items with a combined value of about $1.3 million” during its 2022/2023 stocktake.

Missing items then included a “9 ¾ Commemorative Breastplate – Burke and Wills Expedition (valued at $320,000)  ¾ Painting; acrylic on metal lined door – ‘Rain Dreaming’ (valued at $275,000)  ¾ Animal powered sledge – Australasian Antarctic Exhibition (valued at $240,000)”.

The inscribed brass breastplate, analysed and authenticated by the Australian National Museum, was discovered in 2001 by two brothers while bushwalking in South Australia’s far north-east.

It was originally presented to the Yandruwandha people of Cooper Creek by the Royal Society of Victoria in 1862, for the help given to explorer John King after Robert Burke and William Wills died of starvation during their ill-fated 1861 expedition.

In 2007, then state Aboriginal Affairs Minister Jay Weatherill stepped in to stop the breastplate being privately auctioned by declaring it an Aboriginal object of significance.

“This breastplate is a significant piece of our shared Australian history,” Weatherill said at the time.

“It is one of the earliest symbols of reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians.

“As such it has enormous historical value to both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.”

The Auditor-General’s report yesterday said that the museum had been searching for the missing items since the stocktake and had “advised us that it has located the Burke and Wills commemorative breastplate” and other significant pieces.

“… both the ‘Rain Dreaming’ door painting and the animal powered sledge (Australasian  Antarctic Exhibition) were catalogued as items within the heritage collections in error,” the report said, while “the door painting was painted over before the item was relocated to the Museum, and the sledge was a duplicate record of an existing asset”.

However, other unidentified pieces remained on the missing list.

“The remaining items that the Museum Board has yet to sight can be categorised as: four items that are documented as ‘on loan’ to other institutions. These institutions will be contacted to confirm the items’ presence,” the report said.

“Items that have become disassociated from their registration information, making it difficult to establish the details of them. Items that appear to be absent from the collection.”

The Auditor-General wrote that Museum Board had accumulated a “vast number of items of scientific or historical interest” over the years and that caring for them was among its legal responsibilities.

“The Museum Board was not able to quantify the number of items stored but not catalogued and recorded into its heritage collections,” Blaskett wrote.

“While it advised us that the number of uncatalogued items has evolved over a long time and reflects historical records management issues, we noted that there was no documented strategy or plan to catalogue these items.”

Saying the “stocktake process needs to improve”, the Auditor-General said the board had committed to developing a plan to process uncatalogued items, but in the meantime “as part of a large‐scale reorganisation of its collections, many of the Museum Board’s uncatalogued items will be documented for tracking purposes”.

The board would also develop a new stocktake policy, including defining high‐value items and setting out “the actions required when objects cannot be located in future stocktakes”.

Photo: Charlie Gilchrist/InDaily.

In a statement to InDaily, the SA Museum welcomed the Auditor-General’s report and said it “has already been working to address the issues it has raised as part of a holistic effort to improve the resourcing and management of our extensive collections assets”.

“These issues highlight historic challenges that our Museum has faced in managing its collections data, challenges that many major museums around the world are facing, given the scale of vast and often distributed collections,” it said.

The museum said the breastplate “was never ‘missing’, but was in a safe and secure location at all times”.

“However, the difficulties of the stocktake team in locating the breastplate highlight issues in the Museum’s collections location data,” it said.

“In addition to this breastplate, 29 of the 50 flagged objects have been located. We anticipate the status of the remaining items – a small handful in relation to the millions of objects and specimens in our care – will be resolved in the near future.

“Some of the items highlighted by the stocktake report were on loan to other institutions, while other accounting issues were the result of record duplication or disassociation of objects from their records over time.

“These historic issues are some of those canvassed in the recent Board-initiated review of the Museum’s Research and Collections Division that began in May 2023.

“Collections management is an absolute priority for the South Australian Museum, and part of the currently proposed organisational reform will create stronger investment in the transparent and systematic documentation and management of our collections, which are of enormous significance to South Australia’s community and the world.”

InDaily reported in 2019 that the SA Museum was forced to store many items in a leaky warehouse at Netley, including an extensive Indigenous collection that it said made the building “culturally, one of the most important places in Australia”.

In 2023, InDaily reported that a new, $86 million centre at Walkley Heights to house collections from the SA Museum, Art Gallery of SA, State Library and SA History Trust, announced by the former Marshall Government and intended to open in 2024, had stalled.

Last month, InDaily reported on a planned SA Museum shake-up of research and displays under new director David Gaimster, which former director Tim Flannery then claimed could “destroy” the North Terrace institution.