Great Expectations?

Great Expectations?
Being appointed as the inaugural Bettison & James Treasures Curator is an amazing privilege
24 February 2014

Being appointed to the role as a senior curator here at the National Library, especially as the inaugural Bettison & James Treasures Curator, is an amazing privilege. It is also a little daunting. I thought about naming this blog “Great Expectations”, partially because it is one of my favourite books and Dickens is such a marvellous author, but also because in this role, with such an amazing collection and now, with less than three years to make it all come together, it is clear that both I, and the Library, have great expectations for the position.

Nat Williams with Pip and Dick Smith in the Mapping Our World exhibition

Pip & Dick Smith on a tour of the "Mapping Our World" exhibition and the Treasures Gallery with me

Since commencing in the role in early July, after undertaking the Linnaeus Estate Fellowship near Byron Bay (which was a very timely and gratefully received opportunity to think, write and plan for the Curatorship),  I have been delving into the collections and some of this research will become apparent through blog entries over the months ahead. It became apparent to me early on as I looked into the Nan Kivell collection here that this should be at least one major focus of the next year’s work. The collection is so dense with extraordinary material and, even though I thought I knew it reasonably well, I have found items which have brought Nan Kivell’s collecting to life for me; hopefully they will do this for the audiences that I speak to about his collections and his rather elastic attitude to the truth when it came to telling his version of his life story. 

Research into his biographical details continues as I contact people around the world and I've been making some interesting discoveries which I hope to publish when finished because, as one of Australia's greatest benefactors, Nan Kivell's largesse is little known, nor in some respects understood.

I was honoured to be asked to present this year's Bettison Oration as a part of the Adelaide Festival of Ideas in October.  I used the opportunity to talk about the Nan Kivell Collection and the nature of benefaction in Australian cultural life. The illustrated lecture was recorded by Radio Adelaide and podcast on the AFOI website.

 oil on composition board ; 127 x 71.2 cm.

Portrait of Rex de C. Nan Kivell by Bryan Kneale (1960)

The audience responded warmly to the topic and the surprising stories connected to Nan Kivell and his collecting and there has been some interest in repurposing the lecture for different opportunities over the months ahead. Most recently, the National Library’s Patrons were given a version of the talk and they also appeared intrigued by Nan Kivell’s collecting and his story telling activities. He certainly was a complex character who successfully reinvented himself from provincial and humble origins in New Zealand to become one of the greatest collectors and art dealers of his day in London. I look forward to sharing some of the remarkable stories from the Nan Kivell collection with you over the months ahead. 

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