AM CEO Kim McKay talks to Vanessa Finney, Manager of Archives and Rare Books about the Australian Museum's newest exhibition Transformations - Art of the Scott Sisters.

"It (the Scott sisters archive) consists of 100 amazing, incredible, beautiful, jewel-like paintings, but behind that sits a larger archive of manuscripts, notebooks, sketches and drawings, which make it an unusually comprehensive view into 19th century science done by women which is incredibly rare in the Australian context." - Vanessa Finney.

Kim McKay: Welcome to AMplify, the Australian Museum's regular podcast where I get to chat to a lot of the museum's behind-the-scenes people. I'm Kim McKay, the director and CEO, and today I'm very fortunate to have the wonderful Vanessa Finney here. Vanessa heads up archives at the Australian Museum, and apart from that she is also a bit of a whizz on the Scott sisters, and that's the subject of today's podcast, is reflecting on this extraordinary new exhibition the Australian Museum has. Welcome Vanessa.

Vanessa Finney: Thanks Kim.

Kim McKay: Now, you've been at the museum how long now?

Vanessa Finney: Ten years.

Kim McKay: Wow, that's a long period of time. So 10 years as an archivist. Can you just reflect on how you got into being an archivist at the museum?

Vanessa Finney: I'm an accidental archivist I think. So I wanted to have an academic career earlier in my life, but family life got in the way of that and I retrained as an archivist. I worked part-time in various places until I came to the museum about a decade ago, very luckily.

Kim McKay: Well, lucky from the museum's point of view as well, not just yours because we have an extraordinary archive here, of course we're 190 years old this year, and that archive of course is not just papers, is it, it's all sorts of material.

Vanessa Finney: No, it's not just paper, we have an amazing photography collection right back to the 1860s. So we also have objects, so scientific instruments and bits and pieces associated with people who've worked at the museum.

Kim McKay: So the archives are quite different, in a way, to our collections, the museum collections, they are a collection in their own right, but are handled slightly differently.

Vanessa Finney: We fall under the State Records Act, so we actually have a legislative mandate to keep archives, to record what we do here. And yes and no we are different from the collections, we support the collections, and the collections don't mean much without us because the material that's in the archives will tell you where the collection came from, who collected it.

Kim McKay: Right, it gives the context.

Vanessa Finney: Exactly.

Kim McKay: And of course it makes me think twice every time I write a letter to someone because I know that it's going to go into the museum's archives and in about 100 years somebody will say who was this crazy woman.

Vanessa Finney: Well, let's hope so, because of course your material is going to be digital and much more difficult to handle than the paper that we've got from the last 100 years.

Kim McKay: That's right, and you can see sometimes in some of those letters, the correspondence, the beautiful copperplate handwriting in the inks that were used in the day. And of course I guess with our printer technology and emails now we lose some of that personality.

Vanessa Finney: Oh I think so, most certainly.

Kim McKay: Yes, it's different, I always try and…just for you Vanessa I do sometimes write handwritten notes to people and photocopy them so we can have some reflection there.

Vanessa Finney: But of course we've got all your email and in there there's quite a lot of personality.

Kim McKay: I try. Sometimes I put kisses behind things and I'm sure they're going to look back and say what was this woman doing all the time, sending kisses to people? Now, of course at the moment we have on display Transformations: Art of the Scott Sisters, and it's on display for our 190th because these two extraordinary women, Harriet and Helena Scott, formed so much of the Australian Museum's early collection of their extraordinary drawings of butterflies and moths as well as other fauna of Australia. So you are a bit passionate about them, to say the least. Tell us how you came to know these two extraordinary women in the collection.

Vanessa Finney: Well, I came to know them from working with their amazing archive which is absolutely the jewel in our collection. So it consists of 100 amazing, incredible, beautiful, jewel-like paintings, but behind that sits a larger archive of manuscripts, notebooks and sketches and drawings which really make it an unusually comprehensive view into 19th century science done by women, which is incredibly rare in the Australian context.

Kim McKay: It is rare because I know in some of the correspondence I've read, that Harriet and Helena wrote to friends of theirs, they wanted to study science at Sydney University but of course weren't able to because they were women.

Vanessa Finney: Of course, they didn't accept women into the faculty then. But they were lucky that they had a father who encouraged them to be active in their pursuit of science, so not just as artists but also as working naturalists.

Kim McKay: I mean, that's the thing when you see their work that most really intrigues you, how accurate it is, that these aren't just drawings for the sake of doing a lovely drawing of a moth or a butterfly, they are absolutely accurate reflections of what those creatures look like.

Vanessa Finney: And that's right, behind the paintings is a whole lot of activity, including grubbing around in the dirt, looking for the caterpillars, taking them home, putting them in boxes and rearing them and waiting for them to transform and documenting every stage of that transformation.

Kim McKay: Yes, well, they couldn't just sit there with their sketchpad, could they, waiting for that to happen, they would be sitting there all day and all night.

Vanessa Finney: Absolutely, but I think they were because in their notebooks you can see how closely they observed the stages that the caterpillars went through.

Kim McKay: So when they were in their mid-teens I know they moved with their parents to Ash Island, which is on the Hunter River around the Newcastle area, and I think today Ash Island is a more industrial island than it was then, it was very beautiful and they had their home there.

Vanessa Finney: So Ash Island was a pretty isolated place when they went there, access was by boat, and I think that partly explains this project as well, that they could have the isolation and the concentration that they would need in order to become the sort of experts that they became working on the island. So they were there for two decades, and this project continued over that time, and you can see a progression in the amount of detail and attention that's in their paintings.

Kim McKay: I mean, when I see it…firstly it's a breathtaking collection, and in this exhibit Transformations it's so beautiful and it's against the context of some really beautiful animations that we've done as well and also gorgeous piano music, so you can actually sit in this exhibition and really be transported to another time.

Vanessa Finney: I hope so. So that's part of the transformation as well, was to bring it into the digital age and work with some talented animators to enliven those paintings and bring the insects to life, to get that feeling of immersion, like Harriet and Helena, looking at that sort of microscopic level.

Kim McKay: But their drawings also tell us another story, so on one level there's the natural science story of these creatures on the east coast of Australia at that time and they also illustrated books for Gerard Krefft, the curator of the museum at that time, but their drawings and their story tells a different story too, a story of struggle by women who were very talented, who, as we said, couldn't study, and really struggled throughout their life to make a living, didn't they.

Vanessa Finney: So, unfortunately, after the publication of their father's book, which contained some of these paintings…

Kim McKay: This is AW Scott…

Vanessa Finney: This is AW Scott. He went bankrupt in 1866, and so Helena and Harriet had to earn a living from their art, and they clearly found that very difficult. And I think from their correspondence you can see that Harriet in particular found it difficult to assess the value of the work that she was doing and to ask for the money that she needed to survive. And Helena didn't marry and for the rest of her life had to support herself with not just scientific art but commercial art also. And there's some very poignant letters from her when she was in her 70s, writing to her niece, saying that she is still looking for work.

Kim McKay: Which is quite extraordinary. I think in one of those last letters she talks about living with a couple in their home who didn't have any children and she was boarding with them and trying to get by.

Vanessa Finney: Yes, I think the phrase she used is 'keeping the wolf from the door'.

Kim McKay: Many people have to do that, but when you see the level of this artwork…we've all heard about the struggling artist, but here were two women who were extraordinarily talented and who obviously probably did that 10,000 hours thing, you know, they say 10,000 hours, you become so proficient at what you're doing. Well, certainly these two women had become extraordinarily proficient.

Vanessa Finney: Perhaps they were little out of time though. This project took so long to complete, it went over a nearly 50-year period, and in that period scientific illustration had been completely revolutionised by photography, and with their skills in fine art, perhaps they weren't keeping up with the newest technologies.

Kim McKay: So they set out to literally draw every moth and butterfly, caterpillar in Australia, is that correct?

Vanessa Finney: That's right, yes. So in their collection there are I think over 200 species illustrated.

Kim McKay: It really is extraordinary because it has somehow captured the beauty today, and I know the colouring on some of these drawings happened in England, is that correct?

Vanessa Finney: No, so the paintings were the references for the lithography, so that happened here, and then the final printed plates were sent to England to be hand coloured. So for the books that they produced, every illustration in every book is coloured by hand.

Kim McKay: And they are breathtaking. So you've been studying the Scott sisters for some time now and actually wanting to do a PhD around their work.

Vanessa Finney: The Scott sisters will be a part of the work that I'm doing. So my focus is on field naturalists and then notebooks, and the Scotts' fieldwork will certainly be part of what I'm interested in looking at, especially as working women, very, very rare.

Kim McKay: And today you can study natural science illustration, I believe, at Newcastle University.

Vanessa Finney: That's right, yes.

Kim McKay: And we are looking at actually now creating a scholarship for a young woman artist-come-scientist in the name of the Scott sisters so that we can honour the Scott sisters and at the same time encourage other young people to continue their legacy.

Vanessa Finney: Well, an incredible skill and still relevant today. I mean, scientists tell me that scientific illustrations are still useful because of their ability to give you an average view rather than a photo which is just a moment in time. So scientific illustration is still sitting on the boundary of art and science but still useful in both spheres.

Kim McKay: It really is, and one of the great things about this particular exhibition is we are able to showcase these prints with Fairfax Media. We've struck a special deal where I think 22 of the Scott sisters' prints are available for sale.

Vanessa Finney: That's right, you can buy them through the Fairfax store.

Kim McKay: Which is just marvellous. So if you come to the Australian Museum you can see this extraordinary exhibition until around mid-June, or you could go into our store, the Australian Museum store and we have a whole range of merchandise, some beautiful scarves and a pocket kerchief and even a compact and a calendar around the Scott sisters, it's a great collection to take home with you, but then of course you can also purchase these marvellous prints through the Fairfax store too.

Vanessa Finney: That's right, but please come into the museum and see the real thing.

Kim McKay: I think so. When you walk through that gallery, and it's a new gallery here that we've just created by moving one of the collections, one of the Indigenous collections off-site to our Castle Hill store, it has liberated this new gallery space. So it's in the new exhibition gallery on level one of the museum, and there are more than…how many of their images do we have on display?

Vanessa Finney: 40 of the paintings are on display, with a range of manuscript and other archival material, along with a collection of butterflies from our entomology collection that relate to the paintings that are in the exhibition.

Kim McKay: Well, that must have been fun, having our entomologists find those matching butterflies and moths, was it, to match?

Vanessa Finney: That's right, they did a great job in actually finding almost all of the specimens.

Kim McKay: Which is extraordinary, which is why our natural science collections are so important because they hold that reference material as well as these extraordinary drawings. And when you walk through the exhibition and you look at the detail, for me it's the colours that pop on each of these butterflies and moths, that sweep you away.

Vanessa Finney: Absolutely, and it's amazing that those paintings are still as vibrant today, as the day they were painted. So for a long time they were just kept in a box for maybe 100 years, they haven't been exposed to the light, so we are just lucky to benefit from that, with the amazing depth and brightness of colour.

Kim McKay: I know in our archives, Vanessa, that you manage, we have so many beautiful books and manuscripts, but certainly the Scott sisters collection, as you say, is really the pièce de résistance in that collection.

Vanessa Finney: I think so.

Kim McKay: Well, it's the combination, isn't it, of these two very extraordinary women and getting to know their personalities a little bit and having the fact that they worked here at the museum so regularly.

Vanessa Finney: And that they had such a close connection with people at the museum. What we've tried to do in this exhibition too is bring them out as individuals so you can…Harriet is on one side of the exhibition, Helena on the other, take your time, have a look and see if you can see any differences between them. But we've also tried to bring out some difference in their personality as well because I think they were quite different, as most sisters are.

Kim McKay: Indeed, I have one as well. And I think actually what a lovely exhibition to bring your sister to and to be able to reflect on that. Vanessa Finney, thank you so much for bringing the Scott sisters' Transformations to all of us and for your understanding of their extraordinary work and contribution to the Australian Museum in our 190th year.

Vanessa Finney: Thank you.