One of the questions asked today on Ask a Curator day on Twitter was:

Q: Interested to know if the curators have a favourite piece, or does it change with each new exhibition?

Our curators came up with a lot of different answers:


I love Middleton VC’s service dress uniform for the personal connection. He was a family friend prior to the war and trained in my hometown. (You can read more about R. H  Middleton over here.)

Another is our quirky First World War knitting pattern which gives you directions for knitting two socks at once.


The German camouflage observation post (called a “Baumbeobachter” by the Germans, literally meaning “tree observer”) because it looks so real.


It varies, and personally I can never settle on one item. I am constantly discovering items which are new to me but have been in the collection since 1919; and new donations always have a wee treasure or story lurking in them. Also, as you note, exhibition development allows you to investigate and research individual items more intensely, and thus appreciate their provenance, history and associations. As a curator, you have your areas of expertise and speciality but exhibitions, due to their broader scope, will present subjects and objects with which you have no familiarity. It’s often a steep but rewarding learning experience.   

Objects in themselves are interesting, often beautifully made, but it is the stories which accompany them which elevates them to a higher level and provides the colour and associations which an anonymous version of the same object would lack. Thus, one of my recent faves is REL34430, a tiny squashed celluloid doll accompanied by a note “God send you back to us”. God never did unfortunately – it was owned by Private Walter Davis of 2/18 Battalion who was captured by the Japanese at Singapore and died in captivity on 4 August 1945, eleven days before the end of the war, of dysentery. Brought up by his aunt and uncle, and obviously with close family ties, he tossed a message in a bottle overboard on his way to Singapore in February 1941 assuring them he was alright. The message  actually found its way to his family in 1945. This doll was amongst his effects – squashed, dissembled, but complete and obviously of huge importance to him in the camps in Malaya and Japan as a link back to the life he knew and which must have seemed a galaxy away by 1945. 

Without this story, the doll is merely a badly damaged piece of celluloid which no one is likely to give a second thought to.


My favourite work of art is Dobell’s “The Billy Boy”. There’s something innately human about the subject character that appeals to me.

My favourite object is probably the Beaufort bomber, because I spent so much time working on it, and became good friends with a number of Beaufort squadron veterans.

My favourite part of the Australian War Memorial is the Roll of Honour/Commemorative area, after hours. It’s so calm and peaceful there.


My favourite is the Bean collection. (Charles Edward Woodrow Bean was Australia’s official war correspondent during the First World War and was later appointed official historian for that conflict. The personal records created by Bean in the course of those appointments now form part of the official records series: AWM38 Official History, 1914–18 War: Records of C.E.W. Bean, Official Historian. The Memorial has digitised 286 volumes of diaries, notebooks, and folders kept by Bean during and after the war and used by him to write the official history of the First World War.)


The war diary for 1 Naval Bombardment (AWM52 4/10/1) because when I was researching my grandfather’s service I found a group photo of the unit taken in Morotai that included him.  ( While on active service, Australian Army headquarters, formations, and units are required to keep a unit war diary recording their daily activities.  The diary that Jennie names is one of these.  You can read more about the official diaries  over here. )


I like the photos that Sean Hobbs bought back in 2007 – especially this one  because I think it really captures what it can be like to be working in a  place where the concept of a “set” bedtime is completely foreign. Being in a warzone means you are on high alert the whole time and the way in which Private Ormes is just grabbing rest where he can really shows that. I also am interested in the way in which he has put aside all of his “protection” – helmet, flak jacket.

Today, 1 September, is Ask a Curator day on Twitter.  One of the first questions we had was this one:

Q: Is there an overall index to colonial defence personnel pre 1900 either for each state or together?

The answer is, not really, but there are some starting places.  Because there is too much information to put on Twitter, we have written a blog post to list these sources. 

There are a some books:

Donohoe, James Hugh, 1941-;    The British Army in Australia 1788-1870 : index of personnel.   J S Shaw North,  1996.

Donohoe, James Hugh, 1941-;     The British Army in Australia : index of personnel: v. 1. 1788-1820.  J. Donohoe,  1993.

Statham, Pamela, 1944-; Jenkins, Sarah.; Booker, John, 1941-; Cox and Co.;   A Colonial regiment : new sources relating to the New South Wales Corps, 1789-1810. P. Statham,  c1992.  (NOTES:  Bibliography: p. 387-389. Includes a biographical listing of every soldier who served in the NSW Corps from 1790 to 1800 (called the Register) as compiled from various sources by Sarah Jenkins, and a transcription of a book of accounts detailing the financial transactions of the. orps with its Army Agent in London from 1800 to 1805 (entitled the Ledger), introduced and transcribed by John Booker. ) 

(try this quick search in Trove for more)

 And there are some records:

AWM1 Pre-Federation and Commonwealth records  contains some nominal rolls. (This record is listed on the National Archives of Australia's RecordSearch database, but you would need to come here to the Memorial to see it.)

National Archives of Australia Fact sheet 134 – Colonial defence personnel records held in Melbourne

The Memorial has nominal rolls for pre-1900 conflicts

We also have indices to 19th century NSW Corps service personnel in hardcopy in PR86/062: (though the link to reference images from that page is currently broken - we are working on it).

 Thanks to Jennie Norberry and Jessie Webb, who work in our Research Centre, for this information.


English sculptor Gladys Blaiberg (1882-1969) created paper sculptures of Australian troops in London during the First World War. In 1917, Blaiberg volunteered to work in the Australian Forces canteen in London where her interest in the Australian presence became a source of inspiration for her paper figures. Largely caricaturing the Australian troops, she became fascinated with their spirited sense of humour and irreverence for authority. In 1917-18, Blaiberg even exhibited the sculptures in her studio for the entertainment of the Australian troops. 

In 1971, Gladys Blaiberg’s family presented to the Memorial thirty four paper sculptures depicting Australian soldiers during the First World War. They provide a rich source of historical material relating the experience of Australian troops based in London on leave and undergoing rehabilitation. This work continues in its relevance today. 

Gladys Blaiberg’s sculptures will be included in the Memorial’s touring exhibition, Of love and war, which will open to the public at the State Library of Queensland on 4 November 2010. 

Should you have any information regarding the copyright holder for Gladys Blaiberg, please contact the Memorial by emailing;

There were grave fears for the strength of Australians fighting in the malaria prone regions of the Pacific during the Second World War. By June 1943, it was estimated 25,000 Australians in Papua and New Guinea had contracted malaria. Supplies of quinine, used to treat malaria since the First World War, and the synthetic drug atebrin were inadequate to meet demand. The Land Headquarters Medical Research Unit was quickly established in Cairns, Queensland where a specialist team of researchers trialled synthetic anti-malarial drugs. This exhibition of works on paper, paintings, sculpture and posters records the vital role played by the volunteers who took part in the experiments and the top secret research which assisted in combating malaria on the frontline.

See this exhibition which is currently on display in the Link Gallery at the Australian War Memorial.

Nora Heysen (1911-2003), Sponging a malaria patient

Please note: Care has been taken to transcribe these entries without alteration to preserve the original language of Herbert Vincent Reynolds. Indian Mule Teams in Mule Gully, being loaded supplies for the troops. Lines of mules are tethered in the background.

‘At about 7am an enemy aeroplane dropped 3 bombs, one of which exploded in the lines of an Indian transport column at the head of Clarkes gully, several mules were killed but no further damage seems to have been done. One of the field guns of Burgess no 9 battery which is in position just above our camp has been set up in such a way s to be able to fire at enemy aeroplanes, we have not anti-aircraft guns here on shore though some of the battleships have them mounted. A consistent heavy rumble of artillery has been coming from the direction of Cape Helles all day. A large biplane circled overhead for about half an hour this evening. Preparations have been made for an attack upon enemy positions in front of Tasmania Post. Out howitzers have been very active all day. At 10pm mines were exploded in front of Tasmania Post and out infantry attacked the enemy trenches. “A” section were on duty at the aid posts and at 11pm “B” section were called out and we were given instructions to work in relays from Tasmania Post to a new relay post at Dawkins Point and from here to the C.C. Station to Anzac Cove. The mates and I happened to be detailed to work the top relay which included the steep climb from Clarkes Gully to Tasmania Post.’

Please note: Care has been taken to transcribe these entries without alteration to preserve the original language of Herbert Vincent Reynolds. 'Sunset, Lemnos' By George Lambert

‘Six T.B.Destroyers have been cruising about all day, we have seen very little of them lately. Two have been doing patrol work about here for the past week and have been the only war boats about. The weather has been very warm for the past few weeks and it’s getting extremely hot now, the sun is very fierce and the nights fairly warm. Some exceptionally beautiful sunrises and sunsets are to be seen here at times. Last evening three large transports steamed across from Imbros to Cape Helles.’

Please note: Care has been taken to transcribe these entries without alteration to preserve the original language of Herbert Vincent Reynolds.  Informal group portrait of eight unidentified 4th Field Ambulance stretcher bearers at a relay station on the Gallipoli Peninsula.

‘Having spell from duty today I took the opportunity of visiting some old mates in the 4th Fld Amb, where I fell in with a bit of luck in getting a couple of tins of milk. The enemy fired several nasty shells on to the beach in the cover this afternoon. As I was coming back to our camp one shell alone wounded 7. The new 4.7 naval gun fired its first shell at about 6pm, to our surprise her second shot was answered by the enemy with a large shell from a new heavy gun of theirs. Our gun fired six shells all of which were replies to by the enemy gun, they seem to have a pretty good knowledge of the position of our new gun as all their shells have exploded in the vicinity, one in particular being very close.’  

For the classroom: Can you think of any types of reunions that might take place today?

Late last year the Memorial received a pair of Second World War escape and evasion (E&E) boots as part of a donation. We already held two pairs of 1943 Pattern E&E boots in the collection which were designed so that if an airman baled out or crash landed over enemy territory, he could cut away the suede upper with a concealed knife. This would turn his boots into 'civilian' style shoes to help him evade capture by the Germans. Neither pair held by the Memorial had their original knife (they often get separated from the boots), so I hoped this new pair might. When I first saw the new boots I thought they looked a bit strange. They were similar to the 1943 Pattern boots, but were of a different design to the boots already held. The fleece lined calf section was not suede, but instead was polished leather. The zipper was located at the front of the boot, not to the side and the strap at the top looked different. 

I knew prototype versions of the 1943 Pattern boot had been made in 1941 and 1942 and when I looked into it further, I was thrilled to discover that the new boots were indeed a pair of the rare version 1 prototypes! This version was made in relatively small numbers in 1941 and early 1942. They were issued to select air crew by MI9 to test their functionality. This particular pair is well worn and appears to have also been used after the war.  Due to their rarity, these boots are special, but what makes them even more special to the Memorial is that they were issued to, and used by, a known Australian airman – Flight Lieutenant Daniel Joseph Reid, DFC. 

When this prototype proved useful, a second version was developed later in 1942, this prototype also being rare. The main difference between the two protoypes was the movement of the zipper from the front of the boot to the side so the shoe laces would not get caught in the zip. As a result of this change, the strap along the top was shortened. The new zipper placement remained as a feature of the official 1943 Pattern boot. Recently the Memorial was fortunate enough to acquire a pair of version 2 prototype boots. This pair has no known service history, but they illustrate the development of the escape boot that was issued to Australian air men. 

Both pairs of boots are very welcome additions to the Memorial's collections. You may be wondering if either pair included the original knife. Unfortunately not, but hopefully one day we will get one!

The many donations to the Australian War Memorial’s National Collection come in all shapes and sizes as well as conditions. Many collections are treasured family objects that are passed on through generations which represent stories of family members who were involved in Australia’s military commitments. Others are rescued from disposal centres or found in op shops and deposited to the Memorial from strangers who have no knowledge of the person the collection relates to. As interesting as these stories are, I often notice the varied packaging in which these objects, whether treasured or found, arrive at the Memorial.

In 2005, SBS Radio hosted a program called ‘Migrant Memories- Australian at War’ which includes interviews with children about their experiences growing up in a theatre of war. The interviews were donated to the Memorial by SBS Radio in a presentation to the Director in 2005. The CD’s came in specially designed presentation cases in an ornate box, pictured below.

Another example from the Memorial’s Sound Collection is a set of recorded letters which Peter Winter sent to and from his family whilst serving in South Vietnam with 7RAR as a 2nd Lieutenant from February 1970 to March 1971. These sound tape reels were sent to the Memorial in boxes ranging from original sound tape reel boxes to Aspirin boxes. Sometimes, the packaging of items tells a whole story of its own and shows what was available at the time of sending objects home to the family.

A recent acquisition for our Vietnam recorded letter collection is from Bryan O’Donnell who donated a sound reel recorded letter which was sent to Australia during his time of service in a purpose made sound reel postage case. Bryan served with 5RAR as a Private in the Infantry Corps and was stationed in South Vietnam from May 1966 to May 1967. He tells his parents about his duties and that he is taking many slides to send home.

Whilst the sound recordings of the National Collection at the Memorial are important in commemorating the sacrifice of Australians who have died in war as well as the experiences of those who returned home to us, the packaging the recordings arrive at the Memorial sometimes have an interesting story too, like these three examples. As we move into the digital world, the sound section is continually receiving digitally recorded material making the original boxes increasingly rare and interesting object to receive.


1941 was a year of battle. It was a time of victories and defeat. Australian soldiers, sailors, and airmen fought their first major battles of the Second World War in North Africa and in the Mediterranean. Australian and British troops won a series of early successes in Libya and later in Syria. But they also suffered greatly on mainland Greece and on Crete. When a rapid German offensive swept the British from Libya, all that stopped the Germans from continuing into Egypt was the defiant garrison at Tobruk.

Members of the 2/11th Battalion, having penetrated the outer defences of Tobruk, assemble again on the escarpment on the south side of the harbour after attacking ack ack gun positions. The men were all from C Company, mostly from 14 platoon, 22 January 1941.

For the eight months from April until December 1941, Australian and British soldiers – with Indian, Polish, and Czech troops – held Tobruk against besieging German and Italian forces. British and Australian warships helped keep the defenders supplied, bringing in food, ammunition, and reinforcements, and evacuating the wounded. Australian airmen, meanwhile, made an important contribution to the air war fought above the desert battlefields. 

When the Australians captured Tobruk in January 1941, they found large amounts of abandoned Italian equipment and stockpiles of ammunition. In part to relieve boredom and in part to help support the British artillery, the Australian infantrymen became part-time gunners using captured Italian guns. Learning largely through trial and error, the “bush artillery” quickly became a feature of Tobruk’s defences. Infantrymen from the 2/17th Battalion with an Italian 75mm gun wait to go into action, 27 August 1941.

2011 marks the 70th anniversary of the first Australian battles of the war. To commemorate these significant events, planning is now well under way for a special anniversary exhibition that will open at the Memorial in March 2011. Drawing on the Memorial’s rich collection of war relics, photographs, artworks, and documents, this exhibition will highlight Australia’s involvement in these early campaigns with a specific focus on the famous siege of Tobruk. 

In the weeks and months to come, the Memorial’s historians and curators will be featuring some of the stories and experiences of different men and women who served in the Middle East during 1941 as we prepare for the exhibition’s opening next year.

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