Professor John Mulvaney—a belated farewell

National News Categories: 
Publish date: 
12 Mar 2017
Author: 
Alice Cannon, Museum Victoria

Professor John Mulvaney died in September of last year.1 Often referred to as the “father of Australian archaeology”, many may not be aware that he also played a pivotal role in the establishment of the Australian conservation profession.

Founder of the Australian National University’s School of Archaeology and Anthropology and an active campaigner for the protection of Australia’s Indigenous heritage, Professor Mulvaney was a member of the 1974 Committee of Inquiry on Museums and National Collections. The results of the inquiry were tabled as the Pigott report (after the chair of the committee, Peter Pigott), which is often quoted in the conservation literature referring to our early years. John Mulvaney also headed a separate committee to investigate a Gallery of Aboriginal Australia, the results of which were tabled and published together with the findings of the main inquiry.2

Most members of the committee had rarely been behind the scenes of Australian museums and were shocked by the evident deterioration of collections and inadequate housing. Additionally, there were few spaces for conservation laboratories and fewer than 10 trained conservators working within Australia. Amongst many other things, the committee recommended the establishment of a Cultural Materials Conservation Institute and a postgraduate training course for conservators.

The inquiry was an initiative of the Whitlam government, which fell days after the Pigott report was tabled. Professor Mulvaney (and others) continued to lobby behind the scenes for action and, as a result, the first course in materials conservation was established at the Canberra College of Advanced Education (CCAE, now the University of Canberra) at the end of 1977. Professor Colin Pearson, often seen as the “father of the Australian conservation profession”, was appointed to run the program. Colin Pearson also died last year, in April.3

I only really am aware of John Mulvaney and his contributions because he and his wife Jean were my family’s friendly back-fence neighbours, when I was growing up in Canberra. I learned of his role after I enrolled in the conservation undergraduate program at the University of Canberra, the course he was so integral in founding. I’m a bit sad that as a naïve student I never thought to take advantage of our next-door-ness to ask him about those early days. But retrospectively I would like to thank him for his dedication to Australia’s history and heritage and, of course, for his role in enabling Australia’s conservation profession to blossom and thrive.