By Ryna Ordynat (Masters Student, Deakin University)
Between September 2016 and February 2017, I had the amazing opportunity to take part in the Invisible Farmer Project headed by Liza Dale-Hallett (Senior Curator of Sustainable Futures) at Museums Victoria. I was keen to do an internship as part of the Master of Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies at Deakin University, and especially one with the prospect of working with women's histories and collection management. I began applying to various museums and heritage organisations around Melbourne, one of which was of course the Museums Victoria, and was thrilled to hear back from them, offering me the chance to be part of a project that focused on telling the rarely heard stories of Australian women farmers.
Soon after starting at Melbourne Museum I learnt that photographic imagery of Australian women farmers was scarce in the public domain. I also learnt that even though the agricultural collection of Museums Victoria is extensive – especially in regards to photography related to agriculture – women still appeared rarely, or were difficult to locate. I was therefore excited to learn that the work I was about to do would make an attempt to bring the photographs of women farmers in Australia to greater prominence. The internship carried with it the opportunity to work with and research the museum’s image collections, and to track down photographs depicting Australian farm women.
The Invisible Farmer Project at Melbourne Museum
At Museums Victoria the Invisible Farmer Project draws on the ‘Sustainable Futures’ collection, comprising over 86,000 sustainability and agriculture-related objects, documents and images. There are thousands of photographs in the online collections catalogue that capture rural life in Australia from the mid-19th century. The issue that my internship addressed was the obscurity of the many photographs like these which depicted women on farms. Why was it so difficult to locate images of farm women in the catalogues? Why were women largely invisible in the collections? I came to understand that the reason was often due to inaccurate or incomplete metadata and tags associated with the photograph, making it difficult or even impossible to locate such images.
What is metadata?
What is metadata? Simply put, it is a term that refers to the way we describe and classify the objects in the collection, so that users are able to search and find the images under these descriptive categories, keyword searches or ‘tags’. For example, if you give a museum curator an image of a cow in a rural landscape, the types of ‘tags’ or keywords they might use to describe the image would be ‘cow’, ‘rural’, ‘farm’, ‘farming’, ‘agriculture.’ The problem that arises with metadata, however, is the fact that images have sometimes been incorrectly or inadequately tagged, or perhaps they haven’t been tagged at all. This is especially common when dealing with images that have been catalogued using different catalogue systems (before the advent of the Digital Age) that weren’t given a category or ‘tag’ at all, or that were labelled inconsistently. For example, the image of a cow in a rural landscape could have depicted a woman standing beside the cow, but the person that catalogued the image might have failed to make note of this.
Discovering and re-tagging images of Australian farm women
In order to work through the metadata inconsistencies of the online collections, I first had to plan an effective methodology. I began by doing a thorough search of the collection, to better understand the scope of what was available. I noted that most images that appeared in such searches as ‘rural women’ and ‘women farmers’ did not adequately represent the scope of what the collection actually held and my search yielded very few results. I would need to dig deeper and with this in mind I decided to extend the search to make a list of general tagging terms such as ‘agriculture’, ‘farms’, ‘agricultural equipment’, ‘agricultural workers’, ‘rural life’, etc. Additionally, I created a list of more specific tags describing actual tasks, actions or features that may appear in photographs I was looking for, such as ‘milking’, ‘poultry’, ‘harvesting’, ‘farm animals’, ‘cereal crops’ and ‘agricultural produce’. Using these terms revealed many interesting photographs featuring women performing all sorts of tasks on farms in the late 19th and early to mid-20th century. These women's lives, stories and lived experiences would have been indiscoverable, and rendered invisible, without the correct tags and subject headings to search and locate them.
Photograph 1 is a typical example of the problems encountered, where the tags included failed to account for the people and the setting, including the female farm workers. Photograph 3 describes the tractor that appears in the photograph, but fails to mention that it is driven by a woman. Finally, for an extreme example, consider Photograph 2, which had no keywords associated with it whatsoever. In order to address this problem I updated the museum records to include the following keywords: ‘farms’, ‘fruit’, ‘orchards’, ‘agricultural produce’, ‘agricultural workers’, ‘women on farms’, ‘women in agriculture’, ‘women farmers’ and ‘women’s work’.
After I made a list of all photographs I had managed to locate through this method, I developed several new tags and descriptions (such as ‘rural women’, ‘women on farms’, ‘women farmers’, women’s work’, ‘women farmers’, etc.) that would allow me to adjust the metadata to make these photographs more acccessible and visible in the collection. Using the museum’s database software, ‘EMu’, I went through the original catalogue records and edited them to include the appropriate additional tags so that subsequent searches for 'female farmer' would yield much better results.
What I learnt during my internship
It has been a pleasure and a privilege to be part of a project of such importance, and I can safely say that during my time with Museums Victoria I have learned a great deal about the museum industry and the people that form it, about museum collections and how they are managed, and about the important role that curators play in the development, the research, and the significance of the collection. I also came to understand the importance of the relationship that Museums have with the communities that they represent in their collections, and the need to continuously promote, encourage and maintain such relevant connections with people's lives and stories.
Most significantly, I have gained a fascinating insight into the lives of Australian rural women, both past and present. Women appear to always be in the thick of things, getting their hands dirty and busy while managing to keep an eye on their children, riding tractors and getting involved in family and community work. My internship work illustrated to me most vividly how many hidden stories still remain to be seen and told in the collection. It also opened my mind to the fact that this problem of women's invisibility in photographic collections is not unique to Museums Victoria, and would no doubt be experienced across the wider network of museums in Australia and worldwide. It is of utmost importance that museums, collecting bodies and historians start to reflect on this important issue and take remedial steps to properly document the history of Australian farm women.
Want to know more?
Explore Museum Victoria's Collections yourself, here: https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/