Review of ‘Treasures of the Nicholson Museum, The University of Sydney’

18th November 2013

Reviewed by Vincent Megaw*

Treasures of the NM book cover‘Treasures of the Nicholson Museum, The University of Sydney’ edited by D.T. Potts and K.N. Sowada, 2004, The Nicholson Museum, University of Sydney, Sydney, 120 pp. ISBN 0-909-602-17-4.

‘The Senate have much pleasure in recording a further instance of the munificence of the Provost Sir Charles Nicholson, to whose personal exertions and liberality the University owes so much, viz., the donation of his large and valuable collection of Etruscan, Greek, Roman, and Egyptian Antiquities.’ Thus reads the Report of the University of Sydney for the Year Ending December 31, 1860 and, given that new publications on the archaeological collections of Australian museums—any archaeology, any museum—are as rare as a Bronze Age barrow in Uluru National Park it would seem that a volume dedicated to what Dan Potts in his introductory ‘Anatomy of a collection’ claims as ‘Australia’s largest collection of antiquities from Greece, Italy, the eastern Mediterranean, the Near East and Europe’ should be a cause for celebration. Well, yes—but again, perhaps no …

Let us start on a positive note. Though not cheap for a slimmish paperbound volume which after a few weeks use is proving what a misnomer the term ‘perfect binding’ is, Treasures (the abbreviation I shall use hereafter) is a collection of stunning photographs by the Nicholson’s photographer, Russell Workman, accompanied by (not always totally accurate) commentaries by a number of Sydney-based archaeologists—plus one Melbournian ringin. It offers an attractive introduction to a sampling of objects from the Near East, Egypt, Cyprus and the Classical world—though why choose a virtually monochromatic subject for the cover? Inside, at least at the visual level, things are much better. Some objects obviously had to find a place: the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B plastered human skull from Kathleen Kenyon’s excavations at Jericho, the Assyrian ivories from Max Mallowan’s excavations at Nimrud, a New Kingdom stela from Sir Charles Nicholson’s original gift, the late fifth-century ‘Aura’ drinking cup from Southern Italy—for my money a rule-proving exception to the normal awfulness of South Italian vase painting—and, largest of all, the Nicholson Hermes, a Hellenistic or early Roman statue, a copy of an earlier Greek original, improved if anything by having been weathered through lying in running water and a gift to the University in 1934 from the Nicholson family. There may be rather too much of Egypt which reflects perhaps the special interests of the second editor but I freely admit that Egyptology has never been my thing.

This is not the first modern publication to present a selection from what was first established as ‘the Nicholsonian Museum of Antiquities’. Almost a century after its foundation, in collaboration with David Jones’ Art Gallery, two exhibitions were mounted, the first with a range of material more widespread than its title might suggest and sourced from a number of museums (Lawler 1970) and the second under the title of, yes, gentle reader, you’ve guessed it, Treasures from the Nicholson Museum (Lawler 1979) restricted to a selection from the University’s collection. These were followed after a lull of nearly two decades by a volume aimed squarely at the specialist market (Cambitoglou and Robinson 1995). In contrast, the earlier history of publication is in fact nothing short of remarkable, mindful of place and time, commencing in 1858 with Joseph Bonomi’s Catalogue of Egyptian and other antiquities followed by a first and in some ways unsurpassed attempt at a complete catalogue (Reeve 1870), Nicholson’s own Aegyptica (1891), and a catalogue of Greek, Etruscan and Roman pottery by the then Principal of Women’s College (Macdonald 1898).

Then, Dale Trendall, Honorary Curator of the Nicholson between 1939-54 and latterly first Professor of Archaeology and the greatest classical archaeologist that the Antipodes has ever produced—who incidentally with W.C. Wentworth was also instrumental in bringing into being the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (as it then was)—not only added importantly to the classical holdings but in 1941 prepared a Guide to the cast collection. Examples of these casts can be seen on the walls of the Nicholson in the 1950s photograph which acts as a frontispiece to Treasures. Unfortunately in the ‘60s during the refurbishment of the Nicholson the then Honorary Curator decided that the casts no longer had a role to play and gave a number of them away to Sydney schools, apparently unaware that many of the casts made in Berlin in the Imperial Cast Workshops more than a century ago were in themselves highly valuable as records of monuments now damaged or otherwise unavailable. Trendall’s remarkable service in World War II as a cryptographer, didn’t prevent him producing two editions of the Nicholson Museum Handbook, more an introductory text to Classical art and archaeology than a guide to the Nicholson Museum (Trendall 1945; id. 1948).

Now, I have inserted these historical and bibliographical notes since, while they are in part capable of being picked up by the sharp-eyed field worker wandering amongst the text matter of Treasures, it lacks a certain number of features which would have considerably added to its usefulness and of which a bibliography of publications concerned with the Nicholson is simply one. Thus we have a list of ‘Curators of the Nicholson Museum’ but not a list of the Assistant Curators who, with sundry other assistants, have for the past four decades and more shouldered the greater part of the curatorial duties of the Museum; Karin Sowada, the co-editor of Treasures is one such. This lacuna is all the more unforgivable since the list of curators is sourced from an unpublished history of the Nicholson completed in 1990 by Kate Lawler, Assistant Curator in the ‘60s. This certainly is made clear by Dan Potts in his introduction; what is not clear is why this study planned originally in two parts, languishes in manuscript form in the Museum. And I cannot tell a lie, it might also be thought odd that Potts does not seem to have made use of let alone quote from, a much slighter—but published—history of the Nicholson (Megaw 1965).

But there are odder gaps; Potts seems to have airbrushed out whole chapters of the development of the Nicholson particularly during the ‘60s when Judy Birmingham was appointed Lecturer in Near Eastern Archaeology, one of several imports to Sydney intended to realise the vision of J.R.B. Stewart of a Department of Archaeology which reflected all aspects of the archaeology of the Mediterranean and the lands bordering on it; Jim Stewart was the foundation Edwin Cuthbert Hall Professor of Middle Eastern Archaeology and thus Dan Potts’ predecessor at one remove. Before Potts, came Basil Hennessey, Sydney born and a Sydney graduate who served for a period of time as the Director of the British School at Jerusalem. It follows, I suppose, as no surprise that those who actually carried out the major transformation of the Nicholson which culminated in its re-opening in 1966, an event which after 40 years will soon see a further re-birth, receive absolutely no acknowledgement in Treasures, the most glaring omission being that of R.K. ‘Dick’ Harding, Photographic Technician in the Museum, joiner, artist, orchidist, preparator and designer extraordinary. Notwithstanding, Dick I’m sure will appreciate Russell Workman’s photography.

There was in Jim Stewart’s grand design one major flaw and that was his implacable resistance to the study of let alone research into Australia’s own archaeology. This led to a bifurcation in the study of archaeology at Sydney which I believe has proven to be a major stumbling block in the development of the discipline and what should have led to Sydney’s recognition as an international centre supreme in Australia and equal to any in the Northern Hemisphere. But this takes us away from Treasures with its insidious invitation just to enjoy objects for their own sake. Can it be that there is something else missing? Back to basics, and let’s glance through Reeve’s 1870 Catalogue again; under items 1178-90 we find ‘spear heads of flint. . .found at Abbeville in France, and presented to Sydney University Museum by M. Boucher de Perthes’. While Reeve may not have got his facts quite right, there is no doubt that in these ‘spears’ the Nicholson has an important collection of Acheulean handaxes, of impeccable provenance and thus at upwards of a million years amongst the oldest human artefacts located in any Australian collection. Yes, you’ve guessed it, there is nothing in Treasures, absolutely not a single object from prehistoric, provincial Roman and early historic Europe although amongst the 25,000 objects in the Museum — certainly now a few more than the 1400 or so listed in Reeve’s catalogue — there is a range of material more than worthy of inclusion ranging from Boucher de Perthe’s handaxes through British Bell-Beaker pottery and Hungarian bronzes to Irish Late Bronze Age gold, Celtic coinage from a key hoard in the Channel Islands and Saxon brooches, not to mention a fine Villanovan cinerary urn, the last prehistoric European object to have been purchased for the Nicholson — again some time in the later ‘60s. In 1962 there was in fact a major exhibition mounted to display the much expanded range of European material which, at Stewart’s request had been assembled by the new Lecturer in European Archaeology (Anon. 1962) followed a year later by a much expanded exhibition at the ANU (Barnard et al. 1963). If the editors of Treasures had forgotten what European material they have in their charge they could have refreshed their minds by consulting one of a series of Handlists prepared in advance of the 1966 re-opening, interim guides which added short introductory texts to a complete listing of all material on display (Anon. n.d.). Finally made redundant by the current alterations, these Handlists, with one addition marking a partial re-design of what was termed the ‘New Gallery’ (Cambitoglou 1978) were still available for consultation when last I visited the Nicholson; plus ça change …

Karin Sowada seems to have made a seamless transition from State politician to museum curator while Dan Potts has been widely and justly praised for his energetic and fearless pursuit of measures which might lead to protection of what is left of Iraq’s priceless cultural heritage. Together with Alison Betts, Dan has done much to restore some intellectual balance to what under Alexander Cambitoglou’s single-minded and undoubtedly materially highly successful control between 1963–2000 had in effect become a Department of Classical Archaeology with appendages. All the more shameful, then, that the two Editors, by their exclusion from Treasures of any examples of Europe’s nonclassical heritage, should seemingly have deleted part of what to the majority of Australians is their cultural heritage—and that heritage is not that of classical Greece and Rome or even the Near East and Egypt. As with Iraq, ignorance is no defence. However, not all is lost.

Last November a new temporary exhibition opened in the Nicholson entitled Unearthed tales: Treasures of the Nicholson Museum. Curated by Michael Turner, the latest in the list of un-sung Assistant Curators, it is concerned with context not appearance and concentrates on the human stories behind a selection of objects, including several from European prehistory. Maybe in its second modern coming the Nicholson, and perhaps some at least of those who work there, will realise that a modern museum has to be something more than just a collection of beautiful — and even not so beautiful — things.


Anon (Megaw, J.V.S.) 1962 Foundations of Europe 6000 B.C.–A.D .600. Sydney: Nicholson Museum and War Memorial Gallery, University of Sydney (exh. cat.).

Anon (Megaw, J.V.S.) n.d. [1965] Nicholson Museum: European Collection. Sydney: Nicholson Museum, University of Sydney (exh. cat.).

Barnard, N., J. Golson and H. Loofs (eds) 1963 Patterns of Culture: An Exhibition of the Early History of Europe, Asia, and the South Pacific . . . Exhibition Handbook. Canberra: The Australian National University.

Bonomi, J. 1858 Catalogue of Egyptian and other Antiquities Collected by Sir Charles Nicholson. London: Reynolds and Co.

Cambitoglou, A. 1978 Nicholson Museum: New Gallery. Sydney: Nicholson Museum, University of Sydney (exh. cat.).

Cambitoglou, A. and E.G.D. Robinson (eds) 1995 Classical Art in the Nicholson Museum, Sydney. Mainz: Philipp von Zabern.

Lawler, C.A. 1970 Three Thousand Years of Classical Art. Sydney: David Jones’ Art Gallery (exh. cat.).

Lawler, C.A. 1979 Treasures from the Nicholson Museum. Sydney: David Jones’ Art Gallery (exh. cat.).

Macdonald, L. 1898 Catalogue of the Greek and Etruscan Vases and of the Greek and Roman Lamps in the Nicholson Museum, University of Sydney. Sydney: Wm. Brooks and Co.

Megaw, J.V.S. 1965 Museum without walls. Teaching History 15:7–15.

Nicholson, C. 1891 Aegyptica, Comprising a Catalogue of Egyptian Antiquities Collected in the Years 1856, 1857, and now Deposited in the Museum of the University of Sydney. London: Harrison and Sons.

Reeve, E. 1870 Catalogue of the Museum of Antiquities of the Sydney University. Sydney: E. Cunningham and Co.

Trendall, A.D. 1941 A Guide to the Principal Casts of Greek and Roman Sculpture in the Nicholson Museum. Sydney: University of Sydney.

Trendall, A.D. 1948 Handbook to the Nicholson Museum (2nd ed.). Sydney: University of Sydney.

*Editorial note: Between 1961–1972 Vincent Megaw was Lecturer and subsequently Senior Lecturer in European Archaeology at the University of Sydney.

Megaw, V.
Review of ‘Treasures of the Nicholson Museum, The University of Sydney’
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