Heritage items worth $1.3m missing from SA Museum stocktake

Fifty high-value heritage items worth $1.3 million went missing from a South Australian Museum stocktake in 2023, an audit report has revealed.

Auditor General Andrew Blaskett: heritage management needs to improve

The items included a Burke and Wills commemorative breastplate and a sledge from the 1911-1914 Antarctic Exhibition, which have since been accounted for, while others remain missing.

The South Australian government needs to do better in storing and managing the state’s heritage collections, auditor general Andrew Blaskett says in an update to the annual report for the year ending June 2023, which was tabled in parliament this week.

“The storage and management of heritage items needs to improve,” the report concludes.

The state’s heritage assets are currently valued at $1.4 billion, including Art Gallery Board Assets ($810 million), the Museum Board ($389 million) and the South Australian Libraries Board ($144.5 million).

Museum stocktaking needs to improve

Management of the Museum Board’s vast collection of items of scientific and historical interest came in for criciticism, with the audit finding a failure adequately account for uncatalogued items, and a lack of  a documented plan to catalogue them.

The report says the museum Board also needs to “clarify its expectations on the nature scope and frequency of stocktakes”.

It says in its 2023 stocktake the museum was unable to find scores of high-value items, including a Burke and Wills commemorative breastplate valued at $320,000 and a sledge from the Australasian Antarctic Exhibition valued at $240,000.

“We noted that in its 2023 stocktake program, the Museum Board could not locate 50 high‐value items with a combined value of about $1.3 million. It had not initiated any further procedures when it was unable to locate these items,” the report says.

The Museum Board has since informed the audit office that the Burke and Wills breastplate has been located and the missing sledge, which had been wrongly catalogued as a heritage item, was a duplicate of an existing asset.

A Painted door titled “Rain Dreaming’ valued at $275,000 was painted over before being relocated to the museum.

The remaining missing items include four that are on loan to other institutions, items that have become ‘disassociated from their registration information”, and items that “appear to be absent from the collection”.

Inadequate art storage facilities

The report also took aim at management of the South Australian Art Gallery’s collection, saying it’s at risk of overcrowding and damage.

The auditor general says the Art Gallery Board’s storage facilities are “inadequate to safely store its heritage collection”. 

The report notes this has been noted since 2019, however $86.5 million has been allocated to relcate part of the collection to a new purpose-built facility by 2026.

“This is expected to reduce the risk to the collections by storing them under appropriate environmental and spatial conditions,” the report says.

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