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QPAC Museum’s preservation of arts heritage recognised by UNESCO

Exhibitions Manager Maria Cleary talks about the importance of preserving history in the arts

1 min watch

QPAC is well-known as the place to come to for live performance. Perhaps not so well known is the fact that our building also houses a museum that curates and presents regular exhibitions in its Tony Gould Gallery and maintains an extensive collection of Queensland performing arts memorabilia.

We were honoured recently when QPAC Museum was recognised by the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Committee for helping keep Australian performing arts’ heritage alive.

Of particular note to the Committee was The J.C. Williamson Distributed Collection which was officially listed on the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World register in February of this year.

Maria Cleary, our Exhibitions Manager, explains that J.C. Williamson Ltd operated across all aspects of the theatre industry; from owning and managing theatres, importing, creating and presenting shows, to managing artists and building sets and more, from 1874 to 1976, becoming possibly the largest theatrical empire in the world.

“It was the company’s incredible reach across Australia’s theatrical scene that resulted this ‘distributed’ collection which is held in many places across the country,” Maria explains.

“Arts Centre Melbourne is home to the largest J.C. Williamson collection, while other material is held in libraries and private collections, and of course, here at the QPAC Museum.”

“The J.C. Williamson Distributed Collection includes costumes worn by celebrated Australian opera singer, Dame Joan Sutherland OM, AC, DBE and we are lucky enough to hold a collection of Sutherland’s Lucia Di Lammermoor and La Traviata costumes from the 1965 Sutherland-Williamson International Grand Opera Company world tour.”

“Before they went to auction at Sotheby’s in London in 1995, Sutherland owned these beautiful costumes herself, along with a huge collection of costumes from other productions she performed in.”

UNESCO listed costumes worn by Dame Joan Sutherland  

Maria explains that QPAC Museum is an active member of the Australian Museums and Galleries Association’s Performing Arts Heritage Network (PAHN) and throughout 2020, PAHN members worked together on a bid to have their J.C. Williamson collections recognised by UNESCO.

“It was a silver lining of COVID that over many Zoom calls, nine committee members from five states and territories examined various J.C. Williamson Ltd collections to agree upon what best represented the company’s activities as an enduring and highly influential theatre entrepreneur and producer in Australia.”

“We put our bid forward successfully, with QPAC Museum’s Dame Joan Sutherland costume collection achieving recognition as a result,” says Maria.

Dame Joan Sutherland items associated with the 2018 ‘Show and Tell’ exhibition    Sutherland’s ‘Lucia’ costume from Lucia Di Lammermoor, Act 2

We asked Maria what this registration means to QPAC Museum.  

“It’s not only a very clear and public facing affirmation of the significance of this particular part of our collection at QPAC Museum, but also points to the importance of the J.C. Williamson collection more broadly,” she says.

“This recognition by the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World committee will help us advocate for support of the specialist conservation assessment and preservation work required for these very special costumes.”

And what does it mean to Maria personally that QPAC Museum is recognised?

“We’re very aware of our role as custodians of Queensland’s performing arts heritage at QPAC.”

“We’ve revisited the significance of Dame Joan Sutherland’s costumes in relation to the collection as a whole and how it tells a bigger story about the history of performing arts in Queensland.”

“The process of bringing the distributed collections together was wonderfully collegiate. It’s bolstered everyone’s appreciation of what the collections contain, their ability to tell enduring stories and to inform us about what's gone before so that we can consider where we are now and where we go in the future.”

That’s part of the joy and strength of having such a great collection that exists within a bigger collection, one that captures a memory of the performing arts, housed and kept alive with much pride and love at the QPAC Museum.

While the Dame Joan Sutherland costumes are not currently on display at QPAC, you can find the collection in our online catalogue. Go to QPAC Museum and click the online search button.

J.C. Williamson Distributed Collection inscribed on the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Register




Acknowledgement of Traditional Custodians

We pay our respects to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ancestors of this land, their spirits and their legacy. The foundations laid by these ancestors – our First Nations Peoples – gives strength, inspiration and courage to current and future generations, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, towards creating a better Queensland.