Aggregating Cultural Heritage Data to Interrogate the History of Colonial Collecting: Reconstructing Western Australian Collections in the “Collecting the West” Project

Dr Toby Burrows1

1School of Humanities, University Of Western Australia, Nedlands, Australia


The “Collecting the West” project has been identifying indigenous objects and natural history specimens which were originally collected in Western Australia and are now located in institutions across Great Britain, Europe, and North America, as well as eastern Australia. These materials were collected by Western explorers, colonial administrators, and entrepreneurs.


Assembling the descriptive data and digital images for these items into a single database is essential for giving an overall picture of what was collected and when, and for documenting who the collectors were, and which museum and library collections acquired these materials. The “Collecting the West” database is using the nodegoat software, which provides data management, network analysis, and a visualisation environment designed specifically for historical humanities data.


The presentation will discuss and demonstrate the different ways in which the data can be explored and visualized. It will also consider issues which have arisen during the database construction, especially those related to data modelling and linking across a complex range of heterogeneous sources. The database’s potential for addressing broader questions will also be discussed: how these materials ended up in their current locations, why specific museums and libraries acquired them, and why they were collected in the first place.


Finally, the presentation will consider the extent to which such an aggregation of data can contribute to current and future understandings of the history and cultural heritage of Western Australia, and its relevance for digital repatriation and restitution of indigenous objects.


Toby Burrows is a Senior Honorary Research Fellow in the School of Humanities at the University of Western Australia and a Senior Researcher in the Oxford e-Research Centre at the University of Oxford.

His current projects include “Collecting the West”, funded by the Australian Research Council (2016-21), and “Mapping Manuscript Migrations”, funded by the Trans-Atlantic Platform under its “Digging into Data Challenge” (2017-20).

His recent publications focus on the use and reuse of collections data from cultural heritage institutions, the history of cultural heritage collections, and the history of medieval manuscript collecting.

Recent Comments