Conserving heritage for continuing community access to knowledge


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A collection of 220 educational plant specimens listed in the Victorian Heritage Register is now available for public viewing thanks to conservation work by the University of Melbourne in partnership with the Ballaarat Mechanics’ Institute.

Key points

  • Items in the Ballaarat Mechanics’ Institute heritage-listed collection were unavailable for public access due to their fragility
  • University of Melbourne conservators worked with the institute to identify, plan and undertake work conserving significant items in the collection
  • A rare 150-year-old set of educational Australian plant specimens can now remain available in the institute’s library, continuing to serve the community for which it was intended
  • The work was funded by a Victorian government Living Heritage Program grant and supported by student volunteers from the University of Melbourne Master of Cultural Materials Conservation program.

The outcome

Items of historical significance owned by the Ballaarat Mechanics’ Institute (BMI) will be safe and accessible for years to come as result of the partnership with the University of Melbourne.

“The BMI has been an avid collector of books and artefacts since its inception in 1859, and now has a Victorian Heritage Register-listed book collection valued at over $2 million, as well as an extensive lending library and newspaper files,” Ballaarat Mechanics’ Institute life member Rex Bridges says.

Contained in the collection are 150-year-old volumes of 220 indigenous Australian plant specimens compiled and published by Baron Ferdinand von Mueller. Von Mueller was the founder of the National Herbarium of Victoria and first director of Melbourne's Royal Botanic Gardens.

By stabilising each of the 220 sheets, conservators have ensured handling the collection won’t cause further damage.

The result of this conservation has seen the von Mueller collection become a permanent and valued part of the BMI heritage history. Rex Bridges, BMI life member

The project, which also involved conserving a collection of rare books and a damaged 19th century painting, was funded by a $170,000 Living Heritage Program grant from the Victorian government.

Supporting the work were two volunteers studying a Master of Cultural Materials Conservation at the University of Melbourne.

“We were able to work quite autonomously. They trusted us to make decisions and apply all the theory that we've learned in our course,” says Emma Dacey, one of the student volunteers who has since completed her degree.

“I really felt like we were part of the team, conducting meaningful work, and not just the lackeys doing 1000 tear repairs.”

The need

Before government-funded libraries, mechanics’ institutes gave people access to knowledge: books, newspapers, periodicals, lectures and scientific demonstrations. In Victoria today, fewer than 10 mechanics’ institutes still offer these services.

Founded in 1859, the Ballaarat Mechanics’ Institute has continuously provided library services to its members throughout its history. It houses one of the largest and most intact collections of historical mechanics’ institute materials – including a rare set of educational plant specimens.

The three volumes compiled by von Mueller were originally loose, filed between a front and rear board. They needed to be handled with the specimen side always up, and the pages never turned over. Rex Bridges, BMI life member
A dried plant with clusters of round yellow flowers labelled Aster stellatus, with a shadow of the specimen imprinted on the opposite page
Three volumes of Educational Collections of Australian Plants under the auspices of the Victorian Government were issued by Ferdinand von Mueller to the Ballaarat Mechanics’ Institute in 1873-1876.

“They were kept in a four-drawer filing cabinet and were only available for inspection by request,” Bridges says.

Ferdinand von Mueller was an acclaimed botanist who was generous with his knowledge.

“He really wanted these volumes to be out in regional areas, because he thought people in the city have more access to information,” says paper and photograph conservator Katy Glen, who led the conservation of the volumes.

The three volumes of von Mueller’s educational collection were distributed to a small number of libraries, athenaeums, museums and mechanics’ institutes – including the Ballaarat Mechanics’ Institute.

“It's wonderful that these 150-year-old specimens are still part of the collection to which they were originally intended,” says Glen.

Conservation of damaged and fragile items in the heritage-listed collection enables community access and engagement with the collection. This preserves part of the region’s history and allows the Ballaarat Mechanics’ Institute to continue serving the community as a place for sharing knowledge.

The process

The Ballaarat Mechanics’ Institute and Grimwade Conservation Services worked closely together to agree on an approach to conserving the objects. BMI also remained involved throughout the project.

“The team from the BMI were really invested. They came to the lab while we were working on the herbaria, and it was really instructive to engage with the people who cared about these objects,” says Dacey.

Conservation doesn’t mean erasing all flaws.

“You want to have a respect for the object. Its current condition reflects its age and the life that it has lived,” says Glen.

“It was really important for us to only undertake what we considered absolutely necessary for their ongoing preservation.”

The von Mueller volumes had multiple tears around page edges and distortion caused by stacking three-dimensional plant specimens. To address these issues, the 220 sheets were supported on archival board and transferred into new boxes for long-term storage – but the bulk of the work involved hundreds of tear repairs.

A dried plant specimen with dried yellow star-like flowers and one with fluffy seeds, both labelled Clematis microphylla, mounted with thin paper strips on yellowing paper
Pages of the Ferdinand von Mueller plant collection volumes were often torn, and the specimens damaged.

For tear repairs, the conservators used Japanese kozo paper. It’s made of long, loosely tangled mulberry fibres, which makes the paper light but very flexible and strong. The paper is also alkaline, deterring acid deterioration of the paper over time. The repair strips are pasted on with a pure starch paste which also ages well and can be removed in the future if needed.

“There's a common understanding in conservation that interventions such as repairs and stabilisation should be reversible,” says Dacey.

“We do a lot of work recording the interventions, the actions that we've taken, basically to say, if anybody ever wants to reverse them or look at [the object] for research, they're very easily identified.”

Developing the solution

Grimwade Conservation Services has one of the best-equipped conservation laboratories in Australia. The team partners with organisations from small historical societies and regional galleries to larger private collections, government institutions, museums, galleries and councils.

“We deliver conservation solutions for institutions and private clients throughout Australia and the Asia-Pacific region. We offer a broad range of services, and that includes the specialties of paper, photographs, paintings, objects, textiles and archaeology,” Glen says.

The team can assist with recovery of cultural materials following disasters like bushfires and flooding. Following the devastating flooding in eastern Australia in 2022, they released a series of videos to help people recover flood-affected items.

Grimwade Conservation Services is closely associated with the Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation, which teaches the masters program in conservation.

“We have a really close engagement with the next generation of emerging conservators,” says Glen.

Learn more about partnering with us


  • Grimwade Conservation Services
  • Ballaarat Mechanics’ Institute

Funding support

$170,000 Victorian Government Living Heritage Grant program funding


  • Katy Glen
  • Emma Dacey
  • Julia Silvester
  • Libby Melzer
  • Cushla Hill
  • Peter Mitchelson
  • Paula Nicholson

First published on 17 October 2023.

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