We live surrounded by material things. Some are mundane and utilitarian, others exotic objects of desire, but all our belongings have something to say about who we are and how we live. Objects reflect both culture and history. Individually and collectively, they shape our lives, link us to others and connect us to the past. Yet objects are often strangely absent from accounts of past lives. This seminar series aims to unpack some of the stories that objects can tell about the present and about the past.  We also hope to provide a forum for discussion for those of us interested in material histories. We aim to cast the net widely, with no limitations on either time or space.

In presenting this series the Old Treasury Building is working in partnership with colleagues from Deakin University and the Australian Catholic University. We have chosen a lunchtime slot (1-1.50PM AEST), to keep presentations concise and focused, but still allow audience participation. This is a free digital seminar series, with recordings available after each seminar for anyone who cannot join us on the day. Access information will be provided on registration. To register for the next seminar in the series please click on the link below.

Each seminar will present two researchers who will speak for 12-15 minutes each on objects that are linked by a common theme. If you are engaged in research on any aspect of material history and interested in presenting in the series, please contact the convenors via the MHSS contact form.

View recordings of previous presentations here.

Objects at Sea

Friday 7 June at 1pm


Luke Keogh: The Wardian Case: Lost at Sea or a Case for Stories?

In 1829, the surgeon and amateur naturalist Nathanial Bagshaw Ward accidentally discovered that plants enclosed in airtight glass cases could survive for long periods without watering. The Wardian case, as it became known, revolutionised the movement of plants around the globe. In the cases plants had greater chance of survival when in transit. After the first successful experiment on a journey from London to Sydney and back, the cases were used for over a century and had a major impact on the distribution of plants around the globe. As a museum object, the Wardian case is almost lost in collections worldwide, with only thirteen of these boxes remaining. In this presentation Luke Keogh travels across the oceans with live plants in Wardian cases and delves into the ways to approach the histories of lost museum objects.
Photo: Garden workers and a representative from the United States Department of Agriculture pose with a Wardian case at the Dominica Botanic Garden, Roseau, 1932. Photo by P.H. Dorsett. Collection of the Archives of the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.

Luke Keogh is a curator and historian. His book The Wardian Case (Chicago, 2020) won the NSW Premiers General History Prize and was Garden Media Guild’s Book of the Year. He lectures into the museums and history programs at Deakin University.


Dr Peter Hobbins: Pickled and preserved: a brandy bottle, a drunken sailor and a shipwreck

Why would a ship’s captain steer his vessel toward shore on a night that was literally dark and stormy? Did it have anything to do with the 3000 cases of brandy, spirits and ale in the hold? Indeed, was Captain Samuel Bache drunk when the barque Queen of Nations grounded just north of Wollongong on 31 May 1881? This presentation focuses on a fragile survivor of that shipwreck – a brandy bottle. What might this vessel and its tempting amber fluid tell us about materiality, mobility, consumption, labour, economics, environment, safety and psychology at a moment of technological transformation in sea travel?
Photo:This brandy bottle survived the 1881 shipwreck of Queen of Nations and is now in the care of the Illawarra Historical Society in Wollongong.

Dr Peter Hobbins leads the curatorial, library and publications teams at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney. As a curator and historian of science, technology and medicine, he focuses on what we can learn about the past when things go wrong, including snakebite, pandemics, aircraft crashes and shipwrecks.


Material Histories is presented by Old Treasury Building in partnership with Deakin University and Australian Catholic University.

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