Ten years and beyond for UniSA’s Architecture Museum

Freemasons Hall, North Terrace, Adelaide, 1923, Bruce and Harral Architects, Hurren, Langman and James collection, S251</> ART AND DESIGN
Freemasons Hall, North Terrace, Adelaide, 1923, Bruce and Harral Architects, Hurren, Langman and James collection, S251.

UniSA’s Architecture Museum might be one of Adelaide’s best-kept secrets. Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, the Museum is not only a treasure trove of the design ideas and practice of leading local architects and planners, but also of the political and historical events that altered and shaped our built environment.

Museum Director, Associate Professor Christine Garnaut reflects on the evolution of the Museum and just how its contents are making a contribution to research today.

Australia’s distinctive foundation and political history, along with the patterns of development of its states and territories, its geographic differences and expansive size have influenced the ‘distributed’ character and the content of its cultural collections.

Today, collections of Australian architectural and related records are held primarily in state and national libraries and archives and by several universities and chapters of the Australian Institute of Architects.

But UniSA’s School of Art, Architecture and Design holds a nationally unique collection of records from architects and allied professionals working in private practice. The collection was known originally as the Architecture Archive and has been built up over more than four decades. Housed in the purpose-built Architecture Museum, it was launched in 2005, in the Kaurna Building on City West campus.

The only one of its kind in Australia, the Museum is a member of the International Confederation of Architectural Museums (ICAM), the regional network ICAM Australasia, and Museums Australia.

Architect Adjunct Professor Donald Johnson taken in the Architecture Museum in 2013 by Richard Aitken. Architect Adjunct Professor Donald Johnson taken in the Architecture Museum in 2013 by Richard Aitken.

Architect, architectural historian, and UniSA Adjunct Professor Donald Leslie Johnson started the collection.

Prof Johnson was educated in the United States but moved to Adelaide in the late 1960s to take up academic positions initially at the University of Adelaide and later at Flinders University.

He taught architectural history in the Fine Arts program at Flinders University from the early 1970s when he became aware that the records of South Australian architects in private practice were being lost because no state, professional or academic agency collected them. Attuned to the then nascent development of architectural archives in America, and appreciating their potential research value, he started a private collection.

Prof Johnson’s intent was to collect ‘working records’. He accepted all types of items – drawings, specifications, accounts, correspondence, photographs, notebooks and diaries, press clippings, drawing equipment – on the basis that drawings and their related records would help future researchers to understand “the conception and practice of both the individual architect and of the architecture profession generally at that time”.

He believed an individual’s and or a firm’s working records were critical, not only for researchers to appreciate the design process, but also to interpret the context in which architectural projects were developed and executed.

Prof Johnson also assembled a library of architects’ books, journals, trade brochures and catalogues.

He understood that if the collection were to grow, the records needed to be described, integrated in an information management system, and displayed and widely publicised.

He even secured a physically appropriate space where the collection could be stored under archival conditions and employed a part-time archivist and volunteers to organise records.

The Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA) (SA Chapter) advertised Prof Johnson’s venture and the collection grew to about 30,000 items in the next 15 years.

In 1990 he donated it to the School of the Built Environment at the South Australian Institute of Technology (SAIT), a predecessor institution of UniSA, where it was known as the Architecture Archive.

Under the purview of the School of the Built Environment the work of accessioning the collection continued as funds permitted. In 1997 the School of Art, Architecture and Design moved from City East to City West campus and the space where the Johnson collection was housed was re-purposed. The collection was packed away and stored until a new space was secured in the Playford Building at City East when the School of Art, Architecture and Design revived activities associated with its management.

In early 2005, the Architecture Archive was moved into a permanent, purpose-designed home, co-located with the School of Art, Architecture and Design. The new location heralded a new entity, the Architecture Museum.

Since its establishment, a part-time Director and Collections Manager have managed the Architecture Museum under the guidance of an advisory group. A dedicated team of volunteers helps with cataloguing and storing the records. The collection is accessed by a wide group of people within UniSA, across South Australia, interstate and overseas.

Student work, 1932, Russell S. Ellis, Ellis collection, S89/69/6.Student work, 1932, Russell S. Ellis, Ellis collection, S89/69/6.

Today the collection holds more than 200,000 items, including about 20,000 drawings and a 200-volume library. It includes work from renowned to less well-known architects and allied professionals, and a variety of record groups.

While it includes 19th century items, the collection’s temporal focus is the 20th century and especially the period 1910 to 1980. The Museum is also home to a substantial special collection of British and European 18th and 19th century architectural prints and engravings. The core focus of the library is as Prof Johnson established it – books, monographs, journals, and trade catalogues and brochures. However, the scope has broadened to include publications on South Australia’s history – to help researchers understand the context in which projects were created – and books donated in conjunction with the special collection of prints and engravings.

Over the past 10 years, the Museum has developed a diverse research program centering on publications such as its award winning monographs and online database of biographies of South Australian architects, exhibitions, and public lectures.

The collection is used as a research and teaching and learning resource in various courses especially in the Architecture and Interior Architecture programs. All of the Museum’s publications have been designed by Communication Design students.

One student has been supported by a PhD scholarship funded by the architectural practice HASSELL while several undergraduate students undertaking individual research projects have been funded by the Desmond Tan Scholarship in Architectural History and by e-Research SA, UniSA, and Division of Educations, Arts and Social SciencesVacation Research Scholarships.

From the outset, the Architecture Museum established research partnerships with industry including architecture and design firms, state government departments, and organisations and agencies associated with the Galleries, Libraries and Museums sector.

Prof Johnson began his collection at a time when the future research potential of architects’ paper records was being recognised internationally. Four decades later, the rise of digital technologies has led to new approaches to design and to a new suite of digital records that will be the archives of the future.

Prof Johnson started his collection on the cusp of a wave of appreciation for architectural records in the 1970s, so today the Architecture Museum is looking to the preservation not only of paper-based records but also of a new and evolving digital record group. The mission continues of keeping archives for the benefit of the current and next generations of researchers.