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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.

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: Microphone from the Macleay scientific instruments collection. 


Dr Craig Barker

Head, Public Engagement, Chau Chak Wing Museum

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