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Knowing the Collections audit report

By: Frank Howarth, Category: Museullaneous, Date: 03 Sep 2010

There have been various media stories in the past few days concerning the Museum's collections. These stories relate to the recommendations of the Audit Office of NSW in the report Knowing the Collections: Australian Museum, released on 1 September 2010. Read on for further clarification and information.
 

The Australian Museum has the country’s largest collection of natural history specimens and cultural objects and its holdings are significant both nationally and internationally. More than 18 million specimens and objects have been acquired by the Museum over the past 180 years, most before the advent of computerised records. As a consequence, there is an enormous backlog of work required to digitise collection records (that is, create a computer database) so that the information is easily accessible to researchers and the public in line with our mission of engendering discovery, fostering research and engaging with communities.

This current Audit looks at the information the Museum holds on its collections, its inventory controls and how well staff can locate the objects in its care. Despite some potentially misleading wording in a press release from the NSW Auditor-General’s office, the Audit did not look at the security-related issues raised in the 2003 ICAC investigation into thefts at the Museum. It is unfortunate that media attention has focused on the legacy of an issue that has been substantially and successfully resolved. In fact, of ICAC’s 33 recommendations across operational areas, including staff training, internal investigation processes, collection management, security and reporting, all except one (the complete digitisation of the collections) have been implemented.

Full digitisation of records remains a challenge given the size and scope of the collections held by the Australian Museum. We estimate that these 18 million specimens will require approximately 3.9 million separate records for the collection to be fully digitised. However, significant progress has been made and more than 1.6 million collection records have been compiled since the current collection database was implemented seven years ago.

The Museum welcomes the largely helpful recommendations made in the Audit report itself. In response, we will be implementing measures to improve inventory control and to more transparently prioritise collection management activities. Even before the current Audit was carried out, we have been actively working towards a world-class collection management system.

However, the resources required to complete the digitisation of the collection are significant. The task of dealing with the backlog of items acquired over two centuries is enormous and with current resourcing will take decades to complete to the extent possible. The reality is that our Government funding reduces each year in real terms and we are always trying to do more with less. If we are to build on our progress to date, we will need adequate levels of funding to meet the challenge of this historic legacy.

3 September 2010