Category Archives: Registrar’s corner

News, stories, and interesting tidbits from the Museum’s registration department.

Julian Tenison Woods, spiritual advisor to Mary McKillop

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Julian Tenison Woods (1832-1889)

Collector, naturalist and Catholic priest Julian Tenison Woods (1832-1889)

Behind the scenes at the Powerhouse, a team of people has been chipping away at a coalface. They are mining the collection. As part of a TAM (Total Asset Management) project, they are digitising early acquisition records to make sure the collection database contains a record of every item collected since the beginning of the Museum in 1882. They are also improving the documentation of some of our important early collections. Among other discoveries, the TAM project has uncovered a small treasure-trove for historians and followers of Mary MacKillop and her mentor, and for scholars of Asian culture.
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Fashionable patchworks

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Dressing Gown detail H5687, The Powerhouse Museum Collection

If you thought patchworks were just for Nannas, think again! The recent Erdem collection at London Fashion Week employed the use of beautiful patchwork-like prints and was received with praise by many fashion journalists and bloggers. This collection, with its harlequin prints was inspired by works in the current V&A exhibition, ‘Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballet ruses, 1909-1929’. Erdem Moralioglu is a London based fashion designer, celebrated for his contemporary and elegant take on printed designs. His floral prints have graced red carpets around the world and are a breath of fresh air against the predominate use of block colours on the catwalk.


Dressing Gown detail H5687, The Powerhouse Museum Collection

Looking at the Museum’s collection, the prints used by Erdem instantly reminded me of this fantastic patchwork Men’s dressing gown from the 1830s-1840s. Knee length with a flaring skirt it is constructed from hundreds of pieced together triangular fragments of multicoloured, plain and brocaded silks and velvets. There are florals, checks, polka dots, stripes and plain fabrics and I think the effect, like Erdem’s recent collection, is quite striking. Each piece, simple enough on its own, gives us a little glimpse into the history of fabric design and production from this period. Looking at this piece is literally like reading a history book.

Patchworking is the process of piecing bits of fabric together to form a larger design. Originally used as a means of using scraps of fabrics by those who couldn’t afford lengths of material, hence the word ‘patch’, it became popular as a middle class women’s craft in the Nineteenth Century. This dressing gown was probably made by the daughters or wife of the wearer, being a suitable pastime for women during this period.

The Museum has a rich collection of objects that employ the technique and look of patchwork in their construction and design. It’s fascinating to see how a process once used as a necessity has merged into a craft and finally graces the catwalks of London Fashion Week.


Rebecca Evans, Assistant Registrar

An Ellis Rowan Mystery

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Collection: Powerhouse Museum

This beautiful painting has been in our collection since the 1920’s. It is one of a collection of paintings by the well known botanical artist Ellis Rowan.

A lot can happen to an object in 90 years.  The Museum has moved from the old Technical College Building to the current Powerhouse site, storage systems move and change, conservation treatment is undertaken, paintings may be framed for exhibition and then remounted for storage.

Another change is record keeping practices, which have moved from hand written, leather bound ledgers, to complex relational databases supporting online content.  One thing remains unchanged, however, and that is for an object to be tracked through any system it must have a unique number.  This number is assigned when the object enters the collection and remains with it for “life”.  It is physically attached to the object and used as the record number in the database.

Somewhere along the line this painting lost its number and although it was safely stored with its fellows, it was not identified nor entered in our database.  There was no obvious entry in the original stock book and it did not help that we were not even sure what flower was depicted.  I sought the help of Mount Annan Botanic Gardens and the plant was identified as Brunonia australis, a smallish Australian native herb .  

It was then back to check the stock book. There was no entry for Brunonia australis, but there was an entry for Boronia australis.  Boronia is a far better known Australian plant with pink flowers that looks nothing like the plant in this painting! 

So the mystery was solved: a “typo” in 1920 had led this painting to lie unidentified for many years.


The original 1920s registry entry

The painting is now correctly numbered, entered in the database and the record available on the Internet.

The finer details of textiles storage

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The first group of the week to take part in the object handling refresher. Photography by Melanie Pitkin.

This week staff from the Museum’s curatorial, registration and conservation departments took part in an object handling refresher focusing on the Museum’s vast textiles collection with Registrar, Sarah Pointon and Conservator, Suzanne Chee. For the past few months, Sarah and Suzanne have been doing an incredible job re-housing some of the Museum’s most beautiful textiles in the basement, not only improving their accessibility to staff, researchers and members of the public participating in basement tours, but also concentrating on the finer and often overlooked details of what it takes to achieve best level storage practices.


Assistant Collections Manager, Einar Docker demonstrates the single sheet of acid free tissue used to protect textiles. Photography by Melanie Pitkin.

Sarah started the session by explaining the move to using one single sheet of acid free tissue paper to protect garments in storage trays as opposed to several sheets arranged together. When returning a tray into a drawer, the individual sheets of tissue (whose lightweight means they are very sensitive to movement) often bunch up or slide around and can be prone to catching on heavily embroidered or detailed garments. By using one single sheet, the sides can be gently tucked in to prevent movement and you can easily lift the sheet in one go (an especially practical capability for those curators among us who lead group basement tours and move about from one stored garment to the next!).


Photography by Melanie Pitkin.


Sarah shows the little details to make object packing and storage easier. Photography by Melanie Pitkin.

To make sure we cut the single sheet of acid free tissue to the right size of the storage tray each time, Sarah and Suzanne attached a piece of fabric to the correct length of the tray to our packaging rack (as Sarah demonstrates above).


Every object is tagged and barcoded (see around the tops of the coat hangers). Photography by Melanie Pitkin.

The Museum also physically labels every object. In addition to a number written on a fabric strip, which is then sewn to a concealed part of the garment, an acid free paper tag describing the object, its location and barcode is placed with it (in the case of the vests, above, they hang around the neck of the coat hanger). To minimise object handling, all tags suspended from the coat hanger face in the same direction (to the left). But, of course, they only continue to hang in that direction if we all remember to return the label to its original position!

We were also reminded of the importance of working with and handling objects more generally, not just in terms of textiles, and I’ve decided to include them here:

1. Always wear gloves when handling objects both for the object’s protection, as well as your own
2. Lift objects – never drag, push or pull them. Lift objects by their most stable surface – never use handles or other projecting parts.
3. Don’t stack fragile objects such as ceramics and glass.
4. Pad objects with pillows and tissues to prevent rolling and vibration.
5. Some objects may need to be secured by ties and straps during transit. Always use a barrier between the tie and the object.
6. Ask for assistance with the move if you are not confident doing it yourself. Always ask for assistance when moving large or heavy objects and large paper objects.
7. Use as few moves as possible. Move the trolley/tray etc. to the object, not the other way around.
8. Always use special equipment such as tweezers for stamps, flat support boards for paper objects etc.
9. Cover objects when it is required to move them outdoors
10. Never rush as this is when accidents are most likely to happen

You can never be reminded of safe object handling practices too many times and the Museum organises such refresher sessions as these on a fairly regular basis to ensure consistency and best standard practice across all departments working with collections. As further upgrades to our storage takes place, we will also share these with you on our blog.

A railway carriage, 417 parts and a Museum cataloguer

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Photography by Kate Pollard. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Here in the Registration department we encounter many challenges working with such a varied and vast museum collection. Recently I completed cataloguing one of the largest objects in the collection; the Governor General’s Railway Carriage. Yes, that’s an entire carriage, completely furnished with sofas, beds, plates, forks, vases, brooms, a fire extinguisher and pillow cases, just to name a few. With 417 parts I knew this was going to be an interesting project.


Collection: Powerhouse Museum


Collection: Powerhouse Museum

One of the most luxurious carriages in Australia, the Governor Generals’ Railway Carriage was used between 1901 and 1964 for a range of state visits including Queen Elizabeth’s royal visit of 1954. With ornate ceilings, three bedrooms each with an ensuite bathroom, a sitting room and a dining room, it really was the height of rail luxury in its day.


Collection: Powerhouse Museum


Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Working as a cataloguer in Registration means that you spend a lot of time working closely with a large range of museum objects; from the beautiful to the bizarre. Through close observation recording object dimensions, descriptions and marks of each and every part: spoon, chair, pillowcase, comb, vase, vacuum cleaner… you really get to know an object intimately. Although I started this project with slight trepidation, not really having in interest in trains and being slightly confronted with such a large task, I definitely completed it with a new appreciation for this part of our collection.


Photography by Kate Pollard. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

I guess that’s one of the best things about working in Rego; learning and working with such a diverse, large and perhaps at times peculiar collection.

Rebecca Evans, Assistant Registrar

Giving beetles the boot!

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Photography: Celia Johnstone © Powerhouse Museum, all rights reserved

My name is Katrina Trewin and I am currently completing a placement in the Museum’s Archives. The professional placement forms part of my Master of Information Studies degree at Charles Sturt University, which I am undertaking via Distance Education thanks to the magic of online subject delivery!

During my time here at the Powerhouse Archives, I have been working on arranging and describing the archive of Enoch Taylor & Co., a shoe manufacturing company which has operated in Sydney from 1851 through to the present day. The Museum Archives acquired this collection in 2009, together with several shoes produced by Enoch Taylor & Co, during the company’s peak in the 1940s-1950s. The archive complements the collection of shoes and serves as an important historical resource for shoe manufacture and shoe import in Australia, as well as reflecting the changes in social custom and fashion through the decades.


Collection: Powerhouse Museum

My favourite items in the archive are the promotional catalogues, which showcase various shoe designs. The catalogues are undated, but from the illustrations and typography it appears they were produced in the 1930s or 1940s. Other interesting items in the archive include press copy letter books from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, through to 1925. I have never come across letter books before and was interested to learn that this is how copies were made prior to the use of carbon paper. There are letters about the day to day operation of the company, and every so often a reference to the impact of World War I on shipping and labour.

As it turns out, the museum’s relationship with Enoch Taylor & Co. began long before the acquisition of this collection. In the Institutional archives, Archives Manager Helen Yoxall discovered a letter from the company to the Museum, dated 1891. The letter seeks the museum’s advice about an insect that was attacking shoes at the Enoch Taylor & Co. warehouse. The Museum’s entomologist, Walter Froggatt, identified the beetle and made recommendations for its eradication. The Museum subsequently published Froggatt’s work in 1892, no doubt sealing the fate of all the beetles munching on leather shoes throughout Sydney at the time!

Thankyou to everyone in the Museum’s Registration department, especially Helen Yoxall, for making me welcome. It’s been a valuable learning experience and great to see behind the scenes of museum collection management.

Katrina Trewin, Archives Intern

Editor’s comment: Also in the Enoch Taylor collection and archive is, what we believe to be, a shoe gauge (for measuring the thickness of boots made for the army). However, we aren’t certain of this and would like to know more. If you think you might be able to help, please click here.

Ready for Winter?

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Collection: Powerhouse Museum

In Sydney, we have just had our first “cold snap” for Winter and this made me think of these Electric Slippers from our collection.

The slippers were made by the Sharp Corporation in Japan. They feature thick rubber soles with an electric cord leading from the front toe of each slipper. The cord is separate for approximately 30 cms and then it joins into a single electric cord about 2 metres long, ending in an electric plug!

The museum record states (with perhaps just a touch of indignation)

To most Australians, who do not know what it feels like to have really cold feet, the electric shoes are a comical invention, but for those who have to survive cold winters and the elderly suffering from arthritis, they are extremely practical

I must admit that I find them a bit odd. We do not have an exact date of manufacture. The database lists somewhere between 1970 and 1998. To me, they look as if they would predate the widespread use of the TV remote control, so I guess if you had them set up in front of your favourite armchair and stayed glued to the ABC they would do a fine job.

Australian AIDS memorial quilt project

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Photography Powerhouse Museum © all rights reserved

Since 2007, a team of industrious Castle Hill volunteers have been documenting the Australian AIDS Memorial Quilt. The ‘Quilt’ itself is actually over 100 quilts, each of which is made up of panels remembering individuals who have died from HIV/AIDS since 1982.

The Australian AIDS Memorial Quilt Project began in 1988 and provided a focus for the expression of community grief as the AIDS epidemic grew and was part of a worldwide movement to promote compassion, education and understanding about AIDS and its human toll. The Museum received the quilt in 2007.


A block from the AIDS quilt. Photography Powerhouse Museum © all rights reserved

The volunteers work on the quilts out at the Powerhouse Discovery Centre in Castle Hill (the Museum’s off-site storage and collection care facility). The volunteers’ record information about the people remembered on the quilts and about the friends and families who made the panels. Special trays are constructed to move and store the large and heavy quilts. They are packed using archival materials, including ‘pool noodles’ to prevent the fabric lying in sharp folds which may later crack.


Collection Powerhouse Museum © all rights reserved

The Museum has recently issued a press release seeking to contact panel makers and contributors and request their permissions to make public the documentation and stories on each of the quilts in this valuable and very personal memorial.

To contribute towards the documentation of these quilts, contact Nicky Balmer, Registration Department, Powerhouse Museum on 02 9217 0117 or

I’ll have my stewed fruit in that nappy please

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Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Recently I was poking about in the database when I came across a glass dish described as a ‘nappy’. Initially I thought this must be a case of the wrong image attached to the object record (a rare occurrence of course!) but with further searching I found we had quite a few small glass dishes with the description ‘nappy’. Most of these are from the Crown Corning Glassware collection.

Asking about the Registration office and also my older relatives no one was familiar with the term. However, an Internet search revealed the following:

Definition: a shallow open serving dish with no rim
Pronunciation: nah-pee
Also Known As: the old term for a small bowl, with or without one or two handles, often used when referring to Depression glass or antique china

Answers.Com gives the derivation as “Probably from dialectal nap, bowl, from Middle English, from Old English hnæp”

This particular ‘nappy’ is press moulded carnival glass from a collection featuring Australian and New Zealand flora and fauna motifs.

Crown Crystal Catalogues in the 1930s and 1940s certainly listed ‘nappy’ as the description for many of its small sweet dishes. However, it is easy to understand why this term has fallen from general use, particularly for an eating bowl!

Organs for you

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Collection: Powerhouse Museum

It’s Organ Donor Awareness Week and this reminded me of a very popular former exhibition object known as ‘Chocka Bits’

One of the most dramatic advances in surgery occurred when it became possible to replace body parts, either with artificial implants or with human or animal transplants. The first artificial implant was a heart pacemaker developed in Sweden in 1959. Metal and plastic replacement hip joints followed in 1961. Skin grafts had been carried out as early as the 1860s but transplantation did not become truly successful until the problem of rejection was overcome. The first effective immuno-suppressant drugs were introduced in 1960, making organ replacement possible. Kidney transplants came first, followed by heart transplants in 1967.

‘Chocka Bits’ was commissioned for the ‘Mind and body’ exhibition to display artificial body parts in a life-like mannequin. Over thirty different implants were obtained from different manufacturers and an experienced model making company was contracted to undertake the fabrication and fitting out of the mannequin.

‘Chocka Bits’ was installed in 1989 and was very popular with visitors, in fact it received so much attention that by 1992 its skin was looking very dilapidated and it had lost several foot bones and an artificial testicle (Chocka Bits is a hermaphroditic figure). After a lengthy period of repair, during which time it was given a new, hard fibreglass skin, ‘Chocka Bits’ was returned to ‘Mind and body’ in 1993. It remained on display until the exhibition was dismantled in 1995, by which time most of its ‘bits’ would have been made obsolete by the rapid advances in replacement surgery in the intervening decade.

Despite the dramatic life saving outcomes possible for transplant recipients the decision to provide organ donations remains a sensitive issue for many. Campaigns such as Organ Donor Awareness Week and World Kidney Day seek to bring the issue to community attention and encourage family members to discuss donation, know each other’s wishes and register their decision.