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The Future of Our History: The migration of the Nicholson Museum

The past and the changing future of the Nicholson Museum.

Image by Rowan Conroy

On 28 February, the University of Sydney’s (USyd) 160-year-old Nicholson Museum will close its cobwebbed doors. The museum, tucked away inside the walls of the Quadrangle, is home to the largest collection of antiquities in the Southern Hemisphere. It will be integrated into the Chau Chak Wing Museum and united with its siblings, the Macleay and University art collections, both of which migrated from their original sites last year.

The relocation of the Nicholson Museum reflects our collective re-evaluation of the character of USyd. Once a jewel in the colonial crown, it is now a learning resource for aspiring archeologists and historians, a popular school excursion site, and a place to pay homage to cultures both living and lost.

The move will see our aging Nicholson Museum reborn phoenix-style. When reopened in late August, it will include an Indigenous Australian history and culture collection alongside the current Egyptian, Greek, Middle Eastern, Cypriot and Italian collections. This in turn represents the University’s shift from ancient history and culture toward global history and culture, recognising the importance of foreign cultures, whilst also educating visitors about those that define our history.

To find out more about the change in location and focus of the museum, I spoke with Mr. James Fraser, who has been the Senior Curator of the Nicholson Museum for three years calling it a “dream job” as it allows him the breadth to “flex his curatorial muscles.” According to Fraser, the Museum enjoys a high level of public engagement hosting between 80,000 and 100,000 visitors each year, 10,000 of those being school age. He believes it to be a pivotal learning resource not only to USyd, but to the City of Sydney and to the country.

Fraser’s most rewarding experience as a curator occurred three years ago when he and his colleagues discovered that a cedarwood coffin from the 26th Egyptian dynasty, which was purchased in the 1850s by Nicholson and thought to be empty, contained mummified human remains. This discovery triggered months of deliberation, which culminated in the decision to excavate the remains, reorganise them inside the coffin and display them in a more respectful manner. Hieroglyphs indicated that the body is that of an Egyptian high priestess, Mer-Neith-it-es. The mummy will be moved to the Chau Chak Wing Museum to be displayed there when the Nicholson Museum reopens.

Before the creation of the Chau Chak Wing Museum, if you wanted to see Aboriginal, Torres Strait and Pacific Islanders’ cultural material, you had to visit the Macleay Museum, located at the top of the Edgeworth David building, down a little alley, past some bins, and up a staircase. Now, USyd is able to contextualise ancient cultures with global cultures in a single, accessible location.

The Nicholson Museum last underwent change when it was refurbished by Alexander Cambitoglou in the 1960s, transforming it from a Victorian-era style museum to a modern university museum. Despite its connection to us as USyd students, its significance as the largest, most diverse antiquities collection extends beyond the University campus and its evolution reflects the progression of ethics and education in Australia.

When the Museum was founded in 1860 by Charles Nicholson, it was intended to bring a sense of enlightened learning to the colony of New South Wales by exposing British people to cultures starkly different from their own. The University has adapted to its contemporary context since then, but stirring a desire for knowledge in those who visit and study its collections remains critical to the Museum’s ethos.

The Nicholson Museum is open from 10am to 4:30pm Monday – Friday until the 28th of February. Mr. Fraser is leaving us in April to become curator of the Levant and Anatolia at the British Museum.