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Object Matters

The Chau Chak Wing Museum's monthly podcast series
Join Dr Craig Barker as he and a guest discuss one item in detail from the museum’s collections of art, archaeology, natural history, science and culture.

The Future of Museums

Episode 17

18 May 2021 was International Museums Day, an annual celebration created by the International Council of Museums (ICOM), designed to raise awareness about museums and their role in enriching culture and sharing knowledge. The theme for 2021 was The Future of Museums: Recover and Reimagine

Four panellists from the Museum and Heritage Studies program at the University of Sydney joined Dr Craig Barker on International Museums Day in a live panel in the Nelson Meers Foundation Auditorium. Discussing the future of museums and some of the current issues facing the museum sector globally and here in Australia, this special episode of Object Matters dissects the concept of a 21st century museum.


Thomas Hikade on Sir Flinders Petrie’s Diopolis Parva seriation chart

Episode 16


Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) is an important and somewhat controversial figure in the history of archaeology. The grandson of Matthew Flinders, Petrie rose from a surveyor to becoming the Professor of Egyptology at the University College London, where the Petrie Museum was named in his honour. He excavated more than 60 sites in Egypt during his career and a number of others in the Levant in his twilight years, pioneering a range of methodologies and techniques that would become standard practice in archaeology in the 20th century. 

Under the auspices of the Egyptian Exploration Fund (EEF), now Egyptian Exploration Society, Petrie worked at the sites of Hu and Abadiyeh (Diospolis Parva) near Naqada in Upper Egypt for a single season from 1898-1899. His 1901 publication of the excavation contained a plate featuring illustrations of ceramic pots laid out in a chronological sequence that would revolutionise archaeology. From thousands of objects excavated from more than 2200 pit graves dated to the fourth millennium BC, each recorded on small bits of card, Petrie was able to develop the concept of sequence dating; that is that particular styles of pottery were associated with specific time period so a relative chronology could be developed where objects were older or newer than other objects from other graves within the sequence.

The Pharaonic Obsessions exhibition in the Chau Chak Wing Museum has a carefully recreated version of the published sequence-date chart including objects found during the EEF excavations at Diopolis Parva. The Nicholson Collection is home to hundreds of pots found by Petrie in the pre-dynastic graves of the cemeteries. 

Chart details: Flinders Petrie “Diospolis Parva: The Cemeteries of Abadiyeh and Hu 1898-99” Plate 2. Courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society.

Guest: Dr Thomas Hikade is an archaeologist who specialises in Egyptian prehistory and occasionally lectures for the University of Sydney. In this special episode of Object Matters for National Archaeology Week 2021 he joins Dr Craig Barker to talk about the influence Petrie would have on archaeology, the importance of this chart in the way subsequent generations of archaeologists processed materials and his own work researching stone tools and ceramics from the fourth millennium BC in Egypt and the Middle East.

The Collection Managers 

Episode 15

Behind the scenes it takes a mighty team to care for the Chau Chak Wing Museum’s vast collections. In this episode, Craig Barker invites nine CCWM Collection Management staff members to discuss how they document, digitise, register, monitor and care for the objects that matter so much to us all.

We explore their roles at the museum, the philosophy and practicalities of collection care and the processes the team undertook to move more than 110,000 objects physically into the museum in 2020.

Guests: Maree Clutterbuck (Head, Collection Management), Chris Jones (Collection Manager, Documentation), Julie Taylor (Museum Registration Officer), Madeleine Sneddon (Acting Museum Conservator), David James (Museum Photographer), Virginia Ho (Assistant Museum Registration Officer), Aggie Lu (Assistant Museum Registration Officer), Rachel Lawrence (Museum Registration Officer), Damien Stone (Assistant Museum Registration Officer).

Dr Seppi Lehner on an Early Dynastic copper alloy axe from Ur in Iraq

Episode 14

Middle Eastern archaeologist from the University of Sydney Dr Joseph ‘Seppi’ Lehner speaks to  Dr Craig Barker about a number of bronze and copper alloy objects in the Museum collection, recovered in the British Museum and University of Pennsylvania excavations at Ur in Iraq, directed by Sir Leonard Woolley in the 1920s and 1930s.

Copper-alloy axe

Copper-alloy axe, 2900–2350 BC, Iraq, donated by the British Museum 1935, NM35.9.1

In particular they discuss a copper alloy axe head found in one of the tombs dating to the Early Dynastic period (c. 2900-2350 BC), and talk more broadly about archaeology in Mesopotamia, the ancient trade in metals and resources, and potential links between metal objects in Ur and the mines and production centres Seppi is excavating in Oman.

View the object record

Two WWI photographs by Frank Hurley

Episode 13

In this special episode of Object Matters, Dr Craig Barker is joined by Toni Hurley, teacher, educator, historian, one-time president of the History Teachers Association and known to generations of school students as a co-author of the Antiquity series of textbooks. Toni is also the grand-daughter of renowned Australian photographer Frank Hurley (1885-1962).

War planes

Frank Hurley, Machines returning to the hangars, 1918, lantern slide, Chau Chak Wing Museum, HP90.28.2808

In this podcast Toni and Craig discuss two lantern slides of Hurley photographs, formerly from the Geology Department collection. Both are images of the 1st AFC Australian Flying Corps campaigning in Palestine in World War One, and Hurley’s pioneering work recording the missions of the Flying Corp in the Middle East both from the ground and from the air. We discuss Frank Hurley as a grandfather and a photographer, his love of the Middle East, his experiences in Antarctica and Papua New Guinea, the importance and controversies of his war photographs, including composite images and the role of museum collections in school history education. We also look at Frank Hurley’s love of risk and his interest in aerial photography during this pioneering phase of aviation and aerial warfare.

Frank Hurley photograph of planes

Frank Hurley, A machine descending to the Hangars of the 1st Australian Flying Corps, Palestine, 1917-1918, lantern slide, Chau Chak Wing Museum, HP90.28.2741

View the object records:

  1. Machines returning to the hangars
  2. A machine descending to the Hangars of the 1st Australian Flying Corps, Palestine

Cellist by Walter Bowring

Episode 12

Cellist by Walter Bowring


Walter Bowring, Cellist, c. 1927
Oil on canvas
University Art Collection, UA1968.3

In this episode of Object Matters Dr Craig Barker is joined by Chris Jones the Chau Chak Wing Museum’s Collection Manager, Documentation.

An oil painting by Walter Armiger Bowring (1887-1971) in the museum’s art collection titled Cellist of c. 1927 has long intrigued Chris. A musician in an artists studio looks not a musical score but rather an abstract painting. Chris ponders if Bowring is gently mocking the 1920s modernist concepts popularised by Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo, Roy De Maistre and others about the relationship between art and music and questions who the cellist in the painting may have been. Chris also explores the role of data management and digitisation in a museum.

View the object record.

Guest: Chris Jones is responsible for the administration of the Sydney University Museum's collections database Axiell Emu and associated digitisation projects. He has previously worked in museums and archives in New Zealand, and the National Gallery of Victoria before joining the University in 2012.

On artists Lindy Lee and Wang Youshen

Episode eleven

Dr Shuxia Chen, Curator of the China Gallery at the Chau Chak Wing Museum, joins Dr Craig Barker to welcome the Year of the Ox with two artworks from the collection. Photocopy works by Chinese-Australian artist Lindy Lee and Beijing artist Wang Youshen from the late 1980s and early 1990s are discussed in reference to Shuxia’s own art historical research and together we examine how artists were looking for new ways to combine Eastern and Western traditions during that creative and experimental period.

Lindy Lee photocopy artwork


  • Above: Lindy Lee, Untitled III (after Antonello da Messina), 1987, JW Power Collection, PW1987.18.a-p
Wang Youshen, Portrait Series: Document I, 1990

Guest: Dr Shuxia Chen joined the Chau Chak Wing Museum as its inaugural China Gallery curator in 2019. Her research interests include the relations between art, society and politics, cultural networks and artist groups in Asia.

A Pompeian wall painting fragment

Episode ten

Diana Wood Conroy, Emeritus Professor of Visual Arts at the University of Wollongong is an artist, author and archaeologist with a long connection to the Chau Chak Wing Museum collections - as an undergraduate student in the 1960s she assisted in the Nicholson Museum stocktake and redisplay of the collection. Since the 1970s Diana has worked primarily in tapestry and has worked closely with Tiwi artists. Her work explores relationships between classical, Aboriginal and personal worlds in tapestry and drawing, and her works are held in national and international collections. 

A fragment of a Pompeian wall painting painted c. 60-79 AD depicting an iris is the starting point to discuss Diana's own work in studying and reconstructing Roman wall paintings in Paphos in Cyprus as exposed by Australian archaeologists over the past two decades as well as exploring the concept of the artist in both ancient and modern cultures.

Object record: NM80.49

Guest: Diana Wood Conroy, Emeritus Professor of Visual Arts at the University of Wollongong, artist, author and archaeologist.

Neo Assyrian ivory plague from Nimrud in Iraq

Episode Nine


Conservation is one of the most important and often most misunderstood roles within a museum. In this episode of Object Matters Dr Craig Barker is joined by the Chau Chak Wing Museum’s former Conservator Alayne Alvis to discuss the function of conservation and the role of a conservator in the process of collection management and exhibitions. The object the pair discuss dates to c. 730-720 BC and is a Neo Assyrian carved ivory plaque of a female figure that Alayne has worked very closely with. Excavated by Sir Max Mallowan from Fort Shalmaneser at Nimrud in Iraq in the 1950s, the discussion leads from the difference between field conservation and museum conservation, the ethics of working with ivory and the crime writer Agatha Christie’s role in the excavation of Assyrian ivories.

What can we learn from objects as a result of the close analysis and detailed observations afforded by conservation treatment?

View the object record: NM59.12.

Muse article: Bollen, E. and Alvis, A. (2013) The Mystery of the Nimrud Ivory, MUSE, 5, pp. 15-17

Guest: Alayne Alvis was Conservator for the collections of the University of Sydney for over a decade, and the inaugural Conservator for the Chau Chak Wing Museum.

Promesse de mandat territorial

Episode Eight

Museums often amass much ephemeral material as well as collection objects; these ‘minor’ pieces can enhance our understanding of the broader pattern of collecting.

In this episode, Dr Craig Barker is joined by Candace Richards, Assistant Curator of the Nicholson Collection. Together they discuss a ‘Promesse de mandat territorial'; a French bank note issued in 1796, two years before the Napoleonic campaign in Egypt. The note came to Australia via the family of the noted figure in Egyptology and University of Sydney alumnus Grafton Elliot Smith (1871-1937). 

This single piece of paper provides an opportunity to talk about European colonial influence in Egypt in the 18th,19th and 20th centuries, and the rush for European powers to uncover Egyptian antiquities. It also enables a discussion on the concept of object biographies and understanding how objects have their own histories, including the importance of these modern objects within collections of ancient artefacts and the modern engagement with ancient Egypt as explored in the Chau Chak Wing Museum exhibition Pharaonic Obsessions: Ancient Egypt, an Australian Story.

Guest: Candace Richards is an archaeologist and Assistant Curator of the Nicholson Collection at the Chau Chak Wing Museum.

French bank note

'Promesse de mandat territorial', 100 franc paper bank note, France, 1796, Donated by Mrs Elwyn M Andrews and Miss Elizabeth C Bootle in memory of their great-uncle Sir Grafton Elliot Smith 1984, Nicholson Collection, NM2017.2

Cerussite specimen from
Broken Hill

Episode Seven

Mineral specimen

Cerussite, collected in 1890s by Edward William Aldridge, Macleay Collections (SC2010.25)

In this episode David Ellis joins Dr Craig Barker to discuss his love of mineralogy and the remarkable history of a mineral from deep in the earth’s past, and its journey from Broken Hill to the Chau Chak Wing Museum.

Cerussite is a mineral consisting of lead carbonate and as such is an important ore of lead. Indeed the name is based on the Latin word cerussa or white lead. Cerussite mineral specimens can also be extraordinarily beautiful and highly valued by collectors. The specimen David has chosen for this episode is no different. Acquired at Broken Hill in New South Wales in the 1890s, it passed through several hands before ending up at the University of Sydney.

The specimen also represents the important role the teaching of geology at the University of Sydney from the 1860s onwards had on Australia’s economic and social history. David also takes us on the journey from conception of a new museum for the University’s collections, to the opening of the new institution and his vision for the Chau Chak Wing Museum.

Visit the object record

Guest: David Ellis is the Director of Museums and Cultural Engagement at the University of Sydney and is Director of the Chau Chak Wing Museum. He has held senior positions at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, the International Cultural Corporation of Australia (now Exhibitions Australia), the National Library of Australia and the NSW Ministry of the Arts. He has artworks in numerous Australian collections.

Nikolai Miklouho-Maclay’s jar of neurological specimens

Episode six

Jar of neurological specimens.

Jar of partially dissected bird and small mammal brains collected by Nikolai Miklouho-Maclay in 1876-77. Macleay Collections, NHB.8040.


In this episode, Dr Craig Barker is joined by Dr Jude Philp, Senior Curator of the Macleay Collections and anthropologist. Together they discuss a jar of partially dissected bird and small mammal brains, each individually wrapped in muslin or gauze. These specimens were collected by Russian scientist Nikolai Miklouho-Maclay (1846-1888) from the Madang province of Papua New Guinea in 1876-77 and donated the University of Sydney by his Australian widow Margaret in 1889. From the jar tumble stories of Miklouho-Maclay’s extraordinary life and adventures, his service to science, and remarkably open-minded attitude towards understanding human cultures and despair at European colonial impact upon the lives of others.

The jar, and other items collected by Miklouho-Maclay also provide an opportunity to discuss some of the ethical considerations related to the collection of animal and human remains at the time which sit at the centre of modern debates about the roles of museums in understanding and contextualising colonisation and giving voices to those who lost them during the colonial era.

Miklouho-Maclay’s work was much admired during his lifetime: as legendary Russian author Leon Tolstoy wrote to him, "I do not know what contribution these collections and discoveries will make to the science which you serve but your experience among the natives is epoch-making in the science which I serve, namely the science of how people may live with one another. Write that story and you will make a great contribution to the service of humanity" (quoted in Mikloucho-Maclay: New Guinea Diaries 1871-1883, translated by C.L. Sentinella (1975 Kristen Press). 

Visit the object record to learn more. 

Guest: Dr Jude Philp, anthropologist and Senior Curator of the Macleay Collections at the Chau Chak Wing Museum. 

Deep time in the Sydney basin

Episode 5


Deep time is a geological concept - the idea of unimaginable lengths of time. Our guest this episode Matt Poll, Curator of Indigenous Heritage at the Chau Chak Wing Museum, selects a stone axe to illustrate the deep time history of Sydney.

Stone axe

Mogo, (hand axe) Deerubin peoples, Sydney. Castlereigh, Penrith Lakes GaK.3014 - 26,700 +1700 -1500 T/L DATE c.45,000. Donated by Father Eugene Stockton 1984, ET2014.431 [ET85.5.82.4].

The hand axe was found on the lands of the Deerubbin peoples of western Sydney, at Castlereigh, Penrith Lakes. Located by Father Eugene Stockton, it was donated to the Macleay Museum in 1984. It has since been dated using the scientific technique of thermoluminescence to c.45,000 years old: a true example of the deep time history of the people who inhabited the Sydney basin long before European settlement.

In this episode Matt discusses the significance of objects such as this axe in terms of understanding the relationship between land and the Aboriginal people of Australia and in the value of overturning preconceived notions of history and archaeology in this country.

Visit the object record to learn more. 

Guest: Matt Poll, Curator Indigenous Heritage and Repatriation Project, Macleay Collections, Chau Chak Wing Museum

JW Power and Femme à L’ombrelle

Episode four


Senior Curator of the University Art Collection, Dr Ann Stephen introduces us to Dr John Joseph Wardell Power (1881-1943), painter, author, medical doctor and philanthropist. In this episode, Ann introduces his life and work by focusing on a single painting, Femme à L’ombrelle (c. 1926), in the Chau Chak Wing Museum collection. JW Power, as he preferred to be known, is renowned in Australian art for his generous bequest to the University of Sydney which aimed to bring the latest ideas about contemporary art to the people of Australia; resulting in the establishment of the Power Institute and the foundation of the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Painting by J. W. Power

JW Power, Femme à L’ombrelle c. 1926, oil on canvas 130 x 79 cm.

JW Power collection, University of Sydney, managed by Museum of Contemporary Art, Edith Power bequest 1961, PW 1961.83.

In contrast, his own work as an expatriate Australian artist who spent the 1920s and 30s painting and exhibiting in Europe is little known. Equally at home in London, Paris and Brussels he moved between these cities, immersing himself in both contemporary and historic art. His own hybrid style of painting, part-surreal, part abstract marked him as a member of the international avant-garde. As the renowned dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler recalled “We all knew Power, but we knew him as an artist, we did not know him as a rich man or a surgeon.” His widow Edith Power gifted some 1300 of his works to the university in 1961.

Ann explains why art critic Robert Hughes once commented that, had Power painted these pictures in Australia, “he would possibly be now regarded as the most important figure in our early avant-garde”.

Visit the object record to read more and view larger images. 

Dr Ann Stephen is Senior Curator of the University Art Collection and chair of Art Monthly Australasia. Ann's research focuses on modernism and conceptual art and she is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.



The scallop’s gaze: visual culture in the aquarium

Episode three


Art historian Dr Ann Elias came across the haunting image of a scallop in an aquarium while researching ocean histories and early 20th century underwater photography. Captured by the camera while opening its valves, the scallop almost appears to be grinning at us. Dr Elias was immediately reminded of the work of artist Odilon Redon, who created hybrid human and non-human creatures in his paintings and drawings. The gaze of the scallop also captured the attentions of philosopher Henri Bergson and University of Sydney marine biologist William John Dakin, who proposed contradictory theories about the similarities of scallop eyes and human eyes. Science, philosophy, art and dreams are all on the table in this deep dive into an underwater lantern slide.

Visit the object record to see more about this lantern slide. 

Ann Elias

Guest: Associate Professor Dr Ann Elias is Chair of the Department of Art History at the University of Sydney and is a researcher with the Sydney Environment Institute.

Lantern slide image of a scallop

'Mollusca - Pecten', Zoology Department Lantern Slide Collection, c. 1909-10. Photograph by Francis Ward. Macleay Historic Photography Collections.


Graveside Gifts - three white ground lekythoi

Episode Two


When Dr Paul Donnelly first saw the grieving figures depicted on this trio of white ground lekythoi, he felt an instant human connection. Created in the 5th century BC, these Greek ceramic vessels were intended as a graveside gift for a departed loved one, filled with oil for use in their afterlife. Paul speaks to Dr Craig Barker about these finely crafted vessels and their journey from ancient Athens to the Nicholson Collection in Australia, via World War Two Paris.

Download transcript (docx, 1.1 MB)

Guest: Dr Paul Donnelly, Deputy Director of the Chau Chak Wing Museum and practicing archaeologist.


Attic white ground lekythos, Athens, Greece,

Three attic white ground lekythoi, Athens, Greece, Classical period. Nicholson Collection.

Object details:

  1. Attic white ground lekythos, Athens, Greece, 450-425BC. (NM41.1) View full object record
  2. Attic white ground lekythos, Painter of New York 23.166, Athens, Greece, 450-425BC. (NM41.2) View full object record
  3. Attic white ground lekythos, Triglyph Painter, Athens, Greece, 425-400BC. (NM41.3) View full object record


The Venetian Queen of Cyprus

Episode One

Dr Craig Barker was an archaeology student when he first encountered the captivating painting of Caterina Cornaro, Queen of Cyprus, in his professor’s office. Venetian born Caterina’s rule began with tragedy in 1474, as she took the throne following the death of her husband King James II and infant son, and it ended with sorrow in 1489 as the last monarch of Cyprus was forced to surrender control of Cyprus to the Venetians. 

Visit the object record to read more about the painting. 

Download transcript (docx, 1.1 MB)

Oil painting depicting regal woman in black

Caterina Cornaro Queen of Cyprus
Italian school, circa 1500
Oil on Canvas
Donated by Sir Charles Nicholson 1865



Top banner: Host Dr Craig Barker with Matt Poll.


Dr Craig Barker

Head, Public Engagement, Chau Chak Wing Museum