In the 1970s the Australian Museum acquired one of the world’s best collections of Balinese paintings, assembled via research in Bali by Professor Anthony Forge from the Australian National University. The immediate result of this acquisition was the exhibition entitled the ‘Balinese Traditional Paintings’ staged at the Museum in 1978 and accompanied by a catalogue in the form of a popular but erudite book written by Forge. The exhibition popularised and explained traditional Balinese paintings to the public. The book remains one of the major references on the subject for students, scholars and Balinese artists.

Importantly, the Museum also inherited a large part of the extensive research documentation that Forge produced in the course of his fieldwork. This documentation encompasses an intangible heritage, a body of knowledge and practices that make the Bali painting tradition alive and flourishing. It is one of the Museum’s best examples of collecting intangible heritage and the collection is greatly esteemed because it has such an extensive intangible component.

The Australian Museum continued in a collaborative research project with the University of Sydney, aiming to understand Balinese paintings and related collections, narratives, aesthetics and ultimately - society. This wide-ranging research intends to analyse the various aspects of the Bali paintings’ artistic tradition, including its evolution and current circumstances. It also tackles an important ethical issue: the right to this knowledge.

The solution was to create an extensive digital repository that will make the paintings from various major and less prominent world collections and related documentation accessible not only to students and scholars but, more importantly, to the Balinese community and the artists themselves. This repository will allow internet access to the rich body of data, knowledge and images, surpassing any physical access possible. The repository will go a long way towards documenting and safeguarding the intangible heritage of Balinese paintings within their social and cultural context. It will also create an interactive platform for community participation.

On its part, the Australian Museum is refining the data and narratives of the Forge Collection, and publishing this material on the Museum’s web site, fulfilling our obligations and aspirations to bring collections and related intangible heritage to the communities and public alike.

The research began in July 2009 and runs to July 2012 as part of the Australian Research Council Linkage Project ‘Understanding Balinese Paintings: Collections, Narrative, Aesthetics and Society’. The participants are professors Adrian Vickers and Peter Worsley, as well as PhD candidate Siobhan Campbell from the University of Sydney; Dr Stan Florek and Vinod Daniel from the Australian Museum.