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Recognition for historical collection

08 May 2014

Recognition for historical collection Image

When a pile of dusty boxes were pulled from beneath the stage of the Mission to Seafarers in 2007, no-one could have imagined how historically significant their contents would be.
But last month, cultural heritage experts Context published a report recognising the state and national significance of the mission’s heritage collection, which includes these boxed items.

Mission to Seafarers’ CEO Andrea Fleming said the boxes were discovered when a search for more storage space led to a cleanup.

“I won’t be ashamed to say I opened them up (the boxes) and thought ‘oh well, we might need another skip’,” she said.

 However, it didn’t take long to realise how important the documents, letters and photos enclosed in the boxes were.

“Not only were they very old but they were very well preserved. In such an old building, in the dungeon almost, to find this was quite miraculous,” Ms Fleming said.

According to Mission curator Catherine McClay, the fact the boxes were underground likely contributed to their preservation.

“Because it was underground it means it was a very stable temperature, so that’s probably the number one reason there was so little damage, even though it would have been damp down there,” Ms McClay said.

The mission’s entire collection consists of around 10,000 items ranging from documents, letters and photographs, to the stain-glassed windows and pulpit in the chapel.

The earliest identified item in the collection is a minute book and letter book, which date to 1856.

“It’s very much a living museum,” Ms McClay said. “Most of the physical objects that are on the heritage register are still scattered around the mission.”

Collection management activities and a cataloguing process began in 2011 and, to date, approximately 350 items have been catalogued.

The Context assessment published last month, was one of the steps in Museum Australia’s Museum Accreditation Program, which the mission is currently undergoing.

It identified the mission’s collection as the largest and most complete Australian collection of material relating to seafarers’ welfare, the Mission to Seafarers in Australian and the Ladies Harbour Lights Guild.

It also acknowledged that the collection continues to be generated and used by the mission in the same building making it a “living” collection in a “living” museum.

According to Ms McClay, this recognition gives the mission, and its collection, a sense of legitimacy.

Ms Fleming agreed and said this was helpful in terms to the ongoing negotiations for the future of the mission and its freehold.

“The recommendation of the report that the collection should stay here, in-situ, as a working museum, works to our benefit as we eventually go back to the State Government to negotiate what’s going on here,” she said.

The Context assessment also recommends that the mission continue with the Museum Accreditation Program, that it undertake an oral history program with people associated with the mission and that it prioritise collection management procedures and move towards digitising the collection.

According to Ms McClay, the Museum Accreditation Program will help the mission to develop collection management policies, which relate to preservation, the acquisition of new items and the development of a de-accession policy to determine which items in the collection are less significant and don’t necessarily need to be retained.

“That might include administrative things, like financial documents, which don’t necessarily tell a story,” Ms McClay said.

While finance records may not reveal interesting stories from the mission’s past, plenty of items in the collection do.

The collection includes the records of the women’s auxiliary group, the Harbour Lights Guild, which organised social events and entertainment for visiting seafarers.

“We have hundreds of photographs of those events, which are really unique from a social history perspective,” Ms McClay said.

The guild collection also includes around 50 letters received by one of its members from seafarers she met at the mission.

According to Ms McClay, the social etiquette rules of the guild asked members not to associate too closely with seafarers.

“This woman broke all of the rules and was corresponding with eight different men who were Australian and from all around the world, who were doing a lot of traveling,” Ms McClay said.

“One of her descendants donated the letters she received from those gentlemen, along with the photographs they had taken while they were in Melbourne and had sent back to her.”

Another item in the collection is a 1897 petition signed by 21 international ship’s captains and addressed to the executive committee of the Victorian Seaman’s Mission Melbourne. It requests that a facility be created on the Yarra River at the Australian Wharves rather than at the Melbourne Wharves at Port Melbourne.

“If a site could be obtained immediately above the gasworks – but on the opposite side of the Flinders Street Extension, that is to say the lower part of the land on which The Harbour Trust Offices are built, it would be most convenient for the shipping on both the north and south side of the river,” the petition states.

As Ms McClay explained, the petition asserts the importance of the mission’s current location, saying it would be required by seafarers because it was central and would cater to their needs.

“It’s interesting because it confirms how important this location was and continues to be,” Ms McClay said.

According to Ms Fleming, the heritage and museum program has provided an opportunity to engage with and talk about the mission with a new, broader audience.

“There’s an interest in preserving the building, there’s an interest in preserving the collection and there are grants available to us to more develop this,” she said.

“It’s really been a wonderful opportunity, a blessing for the Mission to Seafarers to find this collection in the condition that it’s in.”

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