Should cultural institutions be primary caretakers or should families be encouraged to look after their own heritage. Is a museum or archive’s role to collect unique material for the benefit of society or should private collectors share the expense of the storage and conservation. The Sisters of Mercy West Perth, in Western Australia, has recently faced this very quandry which resulted in the photographic album being returned to the family. Before repatriation, the images were digitised and put online through the Collections Australia Network (CAN).
Portrait of student of St Brigid’s College, Perth, Layfayette Studios, c1934
Annie Medley found a beautiful black album in the Sisters of Mercy West Perth archives, its pages filled with silver gelatin prints of convent school life at St Brigid’s Lesmurdie. The album belonged to student Betty Phillips who, after caring for it for 70 years, decided to donate it to the archives with the belief that her family would not care for it. But in 2009, Mrs Phillips’ children asked for the book to be returned to the family. The sisters honoured this request but it has been a great loss to the archive collection. Ms Medley, a congregation archivist at the Sisters of Mercy, started researching the history of the book and its carefully composed images made by Layfayette Studio in the 1930s.
These investigations have raised questions such as – Could the album have been used to advertise the school to prospective students and their parents or was it made specifically for Betty Phillips? What is unusual about the album, she says, is that it is the only one known to exist. She encourages anyone to come forward who knows of another example of this documentation from the between the war period.
As soon as the family asked for the album to be returned, Ms Medley worked hard to produce high quality scans of the photographs and photographed the album before repatriating the unique material. This week the Collections Australia Network (CAN) put the photographs online so that this remarkable record of lifestyle in a 1930s convent can be accessed by other students and the Sisters of Mercy across the world.
Interior of boarders bedroom of St Brigid’s College Lesmurdie. Layfayette Studios, c1934.