Knowing the Collections

The Auditor-General, Mr Peter Achterstraat, today called for improvements in the management of the Australian Museum’s collections. The Museum holds over 18 million objects of cultural, biological and geological significance to Australia and the Asia-Pacific region. While the Museum’s collections are valued at more than $750 million, many of its items are irreplaceable.

“Much of the collection is unregistered or poorly catalogued. A great deal of information is held on paper, cards, slides and old photographs. Very few items are given a value and most do not have their condition recorded”, said Mr Achterstraat. “Too much reliance is placed on the curator and staff knowing what is in the collection and where it is,” he added 

“The Museum needs to have a better understanding of what it has so it can provide the public and scientific community with ready access to the many items held at the Museum”, said Mr Achterstraat. “Items of special interest to the community or of high monetary value need to be protected against loss or damage”, he added.

In 2003 the Independent Commission Against Corruption reported on the theft of thousands of specimens from the Museum between 1997 and 2002. Missing items included animal skulls, skeletons, a stuffed lion, birds and rare books. The Commission found that the Museum’s inventory was incomplete and its security and collection management practices were inadequate. 

“With less than half of one per cent of the Museum’s collection on public display, it is starting to improve access to its collections. Its efforts range from placing information on the internet for use by the public and scientific users, to helping indigenous Australian and Pacific Islander communities reconnect with their respective cultures”, said Mr Achterstraat. “The Museum’s electronic collections database has been in place for seven years and now includes 1.6 million records,” he added.

These were some of the findings released today by the NSW Audit Office in the Knowing the Collections report. The audit looked at the information the Museum holds on its collections, its inventory controls and how readily it can locate the objects in its care.

Mr Achterstraat outlined three key solutions to improve how the Museum manages its collections. The Museum needs to prioritise its collections in terms of their use and importance. It then needs to ensure the most sought after and significant items are looked after. Finally, they should pursue the computerisation of their collections catalogue.

“The Museum’s collections have been donated or paid for out of the public purse and must be shared with the community and properly care for,” Mr Achterstraat concluded.

Further information

Barry Underwood, Executive Officer, on 9275 7220/0403 073 664 or email