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Bringing Themes to Life:
Museums and Galleries Foundation NSW

The right of Bruce Baskerville to be identified as the moral rights author of this work is hereby asserted in accordance with the Copyright Amendment (Moral Rights) Act 2000 of the Commonwealth of Australia.

Bringing Themes to Life workshop
The Writer's Centre,
Rozelle 26th September 2002


my introduction to themes was a boy stamp collector - birds, famous people, flowers, history, kings & queens, colours, shapes


  • 1970s developed in US National Park Service -to try and understand the significance of buildings, battle sites and ruins located within national parks.
  • 1980s Australian heritage agencies began to use historical themes as a way to try and focus on heritage items other than mansions and large public buildings. In NSW themes began to be articulated in the SHIP.
  • 1992 AHC began development of national themes framework.
  • 1996 NSW Heritage Manual published, contained list of 35 'State Themes'.
  • 2000 Nine 'Australian Historical Themes' adopted by AHC.
  • 2001 State Themes revised as 39 'NSW Historical Themes'.


A historical theme is a storyline that connects things with an underlying or unifying idea.

ways to arrange objects according to similar characteristics

familiar approach in museum world?

An example

philately generally lacks analytical context, except technical description

the kangaroo series is a notable exception: monarchist/republican, and white Australia interpretations:

  • a theme of 'White Australia' can unify seemingly disparate objects/places
  • White Australia postcard - picture in garden book,
  • White Australia theatre poster - high school curriculum materials,
  • Asiatic Quarters at Quarantine Station - proposed tourism facility.

conclusion - this was more than government policy - it was a widely embraced social attitude, especially in southern Australia, which still resonates today.


the objects/places are not blank slates nor even palimpsests - layers of stories and meanings continue to be ascribed to them over time, without earlier layers being erased, just often temporarily hidden

stories provide context for understanding objects/places, for eliciting layers.

neither museum nor heritage tells the 'whole' story or the only story - rather, they conserve or archive physical evidence for story tellers, present and future, to engage with.

constructing themes/stories can prompt the collection/conservation of some objects/places rather than others - thematic studies are an examples - although all collecting/identifying methods have this effect - but themes focus on meanings rather than things per se.

telling stories that link physical evidence of the stories (i.e interpreting the objects/places) has been a minor role in museum/heritage (except the technical descriptions)

themes are a way to elicit/attribute meanings or contexts - to tell stories about, or linking, objects/places.

while curators/heritati assess and ascribe stories to objects/places in their collections, others also tell their own stories of these same objects/places - the citizen participating in civil society.

so what is the purpose of museum/heritage stories/themes?

Is it as simple/crude as implementing/supporting social policies of government of the day?

we consciously construct these stories/themes - they are often 'technical manual' in approach (i.e. architectural/engineering/materials conservation/taxonomic), rather than 'social history' - in this way they support the sequestering of knowledge and the primacy of the expert

however they can also contribute to the functioning of civil society - they can allow for/facilitate active citizenship - provide contexts for questioning how/why things are the way they are - encourage the intellectual endeavour of the active, participatory citizen.

themes can be used to provide connecting storylines - based upon similarities and links between objects/places, especially the less visually obvious links and similarities.

curators/heritati can present objects/places within the contexts of these storylines, rather than the isolating 'technical manual' approach.

these storylines/stories/themes can be very powerful constructs that can facilitate leading/responding to questions of identity and citizenship.

it is important to remember that there is always more than one story/theme within which an object/place can be located - especially, there is always more than the technical description that we are used too - including the stories of the museum/heritage itself and their changes over time.


  • back to stamp collecting examples - one stamp can be placed in many contexts/themes/stories, not just the usual context of 'techno-philately' - so can the objects/places we curate/manage
  • themes provide a means of achieving diverse, active contextualisations that can continue to evolve over time - a means to move beyond singular, static descriptions that evoke a timeless technical expertise that cannot be questioned.
  • themes can thus facilitate the continuance of museum collections and heritage items in a society in which questions of identity continue to be important.
Bruce Baskerville