Three women who left their mark on our collections

6 March 2020
For International Women's Day 2020 we celebrate the careers of a curator, a researcher and an artist
Women have always contributed significantly to the collections and museums at the University of Sydney. Join three of our current curators in celebrating the careers of three such trailblazers: Louisa MacDonald, Elizabeth Hahn and Alison Rehfisch.

Macleay Prodigy: Elizabeth Hahn

In 1958 Elizabeth Hahn (pictured top, centre) was offered the job of Curator of the Macleay Museum. At just 19 years of age she was the youngest person and first woman to be offered this role by her Zoology lecturers, who had overseen her work as a laboratory assistant and recognised her potential. Within a year they were writing to Senate that “Miss Elizabeth Hahn, is by far the most active and interested Curator the Museum has had for years”.

In the four and a half years she worked at the Macleay, Elizabeth transformed the Museum in both practical ways (introducing pest regimes, lighting, hot water and phone lines, a cupboard for the ‘over-flowing’ fish collection, typewriters, assistants and even paper-lining the Macleay cases) and purposeful ones (publishing, curating, photographing, installing and labelling exhibitions and cataloguing well over 200,000 animals). With characteristic good humour and tenacity, she did all this whilst continuing a loan program that that allowed 2000 international research specialists access to specimens. She never returned to work in museums but continued to pursue her love of history, people and science throughout her life. 

- Jude Philp, Senior Curator, Macleay Collections

Macleay Museum in 1972.

Macleay Museum, 1972
Re-invigorating the museum displays for the public was one of Elizabeth’s achievements.

Nicholson Classicist: Louisa MacDonald

Though none have yet been given the head role, many women have contributed to the Nicholson Collection’s 160-year history of research, cataloguing, teaching, publication and management. One of the first was Louisa MacDonald (pictured top, left), who moved to Sydney in 1891, to take up the new position of Principal of Women's College, University of Sydney, which opened the following year. A trained classicist and former British Museum researcher and teacher, it was natural Louisa sought out the Nicholson Collection. During the late 1890s there was no formal curator of the Nicholson Museum. Rather, the museum was managed by a board of three Professors: Walter Scott, George Wood and Edgeworth David.

During this time, Louisa took on the monumental task of cataloguing and researching the Nicholson’s classical antiquities. Her work resulted in the first comprehensive research published on this part of the collection, a text titled Catalogue of the Greek and Etruscan Vases and of the Greek and Roman Lamps in the Nicholson Museum and published by the University of Sydney in 1898. Louisa’s work on the Italian and Greek material helped introduce the colonial collection to a global audience. Her catalogue remained the definitive work on the classical collections until the publication of the ‘Handbook to the Nicholson Museum’ by AD Trendall in 1948.

- Candace Richards, Assistant Curator, Nicholson Collection

A cabinet filled with pottery.

Glass negative; [Greek and Italian pottery display in the Nicholson Museum]; unknown photographer circa 1900.

Sydney Modernist: Alison Rehfisch

One of Sydney's lesser-known modernist artists, Alison Rehfisch (1900–1975, pictured top, right) was born in Sydney in 1900 and received early artistic encouragement from her mother, also an artist. After school she enrolled at Julian Ashton’s art school and went on to hold her first exhibition with Dora Jarrett in 1929 and began exhibiting with the Society of Artists in 1931. She worked closely with fellow modernists 'Dorrit' Black'Rah' FizelleThea Proctor and Adelaide Perry. From 1933–38 she lived Europe and studied at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art, London and exhibiting at the Society of Women Artists, the Royal Institute of Oil Painters and the British Empire Society in England, and in Paris with the Société Nationale des Beaux Arts. She spent time in Spain, France and Germany.

An oil painting depicting balloons, a wine bottle and glasses, bonbons and cigarettes.

Alison Rehfisch, Party Time, c.1934, oil on board, 44 x 35 cm, Hon R P Meagher bequest, donated 2011.

Returning to Sydney she married fellow painter George Duncan (1904–1974) and they exhibited regularly with Macquarie Galleries. In 1947 their studio was destroyed by fire, Rehfrish losing around 200 paintings. Duncan died from cancer in 1974 and bereft and with failing eyesight, Rehfrish took her own life in 1975. She is remembered for her unapologetic use of colour and carefully considered flower paintings, landscapes and still-life compositions. The University Art Collection acquired the celebratory ‘Party Time’ in 2011 through the Hon R P Meagher bequest. 

- Katrina Liberiou, Assistant Curator, Art Collection


Top images (L-R): Louisa Macdonald, 1982. Photography by Kerry & Co., 308 George St, Sydney (State Library NSW, P1/1055); Elizabeth Hahn; Alison Rehfisch, image published in Rachel Power, Alison Rehfisch: A life for art, The Beagle Press Sydney, 2002.

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