University's hidden gems
Mirna Heruc recalls she was gripped by an 'enormous mental migraine' on the first day of her senior role at the University of Adelaide nine years ago.
She had just been appointed Manager of the newly created Art & Heritage Collections unit with a job description requiring her to research, document and curate the University's entire collection of artefacts.
The enormity and importance of the challenge quickly dawned. With a rich and dynamic history stretching back to its founding year in 1874, the University has collections like no other in the State.
Over the decades it has been generating and collecting valuable documents, books, artworks, natural history specimens, archaeological items, furniture, early medical equipment ... The list goes on.
There are important works from the intellectual pursuits of some of Australia's greatest academics and pioneers.
They include a basement full of rocks collected by explorer and University professor Sir Douglas Mawson when he was in Antarctica, and photographs of Nobel Laureate Sir William Bragg's experiments with the first X-rays
Then there's the University's Tate Museum, which contains a fascinating collection of fossils, shells and meteorites collected by, among others, Professor Ralph Tate, Elder Chair of Natural Science (1875-1901).
Ms Heruc admits that she still has moments of being overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the various collections and their cultural and historical importance.
"The University of Adelaide is the third oldest university in Australia and was founded at a time when there was
a great desire for intellectual academic achievement," she said.
"The founders had the exciting notion of recruiting super intelligent people to come and teach in what was in effect a colonial outpost.
"We still have their work, intellectual gems showing their early interrogation of South Australia, helping to define our history and forming the basis of our industries now - geological research which was essential for mining, for example, and the research efforts coming out of Roseworthy and Waite which were crucial for the success of agricultural development in this State
Since Ms Heruc and her colleagues began their task in 2004 they have organised the artefacts into an extraordinary 39 separate collections, all valuable in their own right.
They include 18 art, heritage and teaching collections totalling about 500,000 objects. The artefacts range from significant artworks such as The Judges series of 12 paintings by the renowned Australian artist Arthur Boyd to a Resilient Tapered Threshing machine developed by Department of Agronomy, patented in 1980 and distributed worldwide.
The Visual Arts Collection developed strongly during the 1960s through the Works of Art Committee established by university staff to fund the purchase of works of art.
Over nearly 10 years Ms Heruc and her colleagues have been sorting through records and meeting with key individuals to identify and document other areas of the vast collection.
Three of the team are University of Adelaide graduates, Ms Heruc, an anthropologist, arts administrator and teacher; Collections Officer, Anna Rivett, an archaeologist and museologist; and Special Projects Officer, Elizabeth Pascale, an art historian and curator. Together with the fourth member of their team, Installation Technician Julian Tremayne, they have created excitement around the University collections and its heritage, reaching out to broader community.
There is also a volunteer group of 27 who meet every Tuesday to assist with cataloguing collection objects, tour guiding and research.
"We spend a lot of time investigating what people do and finding out what materials they might have stored away," Ms Heruc said. "Some people have been here close to 50 years and it's important we speak to them before they leave to capture their knowledge. It's a process that turns up some amazing things.
"Sometimes people ring to say they've found a cupboard full of rubbish and they're thinking of getting a skip - we end up getting there fairly quickly and usually find some gems.
"And then there are items which fall into the grey zone, items that we are fairly confident are important but we're not exactly sure in what way. It all has to be investigated before any decisions can be made."
Fortunately the Art & Heritage Collections unit has not started totally from scratch. During 1985-86 the University had a curator who documented some of the collections. But in reality the work hardly made a dent.
Then in the mid 1990s the Federal Government began a push for universities to audit their collections after the Cinderella Collections report found they were sadly underutilised. It was a catalyst for universities to start cataloguing their collections and to make them more accessible.
Art & Heritage Collections is working diligently to share the University's collections through exhibitions, forums and displays presented in an annual Cultural Program offering on average 40 events per year with contributions of over 70 artists, speakers and community members. They also support various art and cultural activities, and conduct guided tours of the University's first home, the Mitchell Building, Bonython Hall, University campuses and public art.
Long-term Ms Heruc would love to see the University have its own museum to display key narratives of selected collections, tell the University's story and showcase the significant contribution it has made to South Australia.
"This would also enable it to organise cultural exchanges with other institutions," says Ms Heruc. "The major issues are funds and space - all something that can be worked on."
In the meantime Art & Heritage Collections will continue its process of exploration and discovery. "At the moment we've just scratched the tip of the iceberg."