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Collection Spotlight

The Museum presents a regularly changing display of documents and objects from the Bank's rich and diverse archival collection. These ‘collection spotlight’ displays present items that have rarely been seen before by the public and give deeper historical context to the banknotes with which Australians are already so familiar. A selection of our past collection spotlight displays are presented below.

Blood Money

Banknotes are an important way of representing a nation's history and identity. They invite us to recall the past and to imagine the future. For that reason, artists have been drawn to them as a way to contemplate alternative histories and national narratives and to challenge existing ones. Dr. Ryan Presley (b. 1987) is an Aboriginal Australian artist who lives in Brisbane. His father's family is Marri Ngarr and originate from the Moyle River region in the Northern Territory. His mother's family were Scandinavian immigrants to Australia.

For around a decade, Presley has been developing a body of work called Blood Money. Through Blood Money, Presley has created an alternative banknote series that re-imagines Australia’s currency as a celebration of Aboriginal history. By replacing the existing banknote portraits with those of significant Aboriginal Australians, Presley aims to restore their voices in Australian history. Presley’s work aims to challenge the myth of Aboriginal passivity in the colonial period and to recall acts of resistance to dispossession. As an assertion of Indigenous Australian sovereignty, Presley has replaced the name ‘Australia’ with the name of the cultural group of the person depicted on the banknote.

$10 ‘Blood Money’ banknote, 2018 by Ryan Presley featuring Oodgeroo Noonuccal (1920-1993). Artwork reproduced with permission of the artist.
$10 ‘Blood Money’ banknote, 2018 by Ryan Presley featuring Vincent Lingiari AM (1919-1988). Artwork reproduced with permission of the artist.
Flip Banknote
$20 ‘Blood Money’ banknote, 2018 by Ryan Presley featuring Jandamarra (1873-1897). Artwork reproduced with permission of the artist.
$20 ‘Blood Money’ banknote, 2018 by Ryan Presley featuring Woloa (1800-1831). Artwork reproduced with permission of the artist.
Flip Banknote
$50 ‘Blood Money’ banknote, 2018 by Ryan Presley featuring Pemulwuy (1750-1802). Artwork reproduced with permission of the artist.
$50 ‘Blood Money’ banknote, 2018 by Ryan Presley featuring Fanny Balbuk (1840-1907). Artwork reproduced with permission of the artist.
Flip Banknote
$100 ‘Blood Money’ banknote, 2018 by Ryan Presley featuring Dundalli (c.1820-1855). Artwork reproduced with permission of the artist.
$100 ‘Blood Money’ banknote, 2018 by Ryan Presley featuring Gladys Tybingoompa. Artwork reproduced with permission of the artist.
Flip Banknote

This body of work was originally commissioned by the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane in 2018. It was exhibited in the solo exhibition Prosperity at the IMA in 2018 and in Primavera at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney in 2019. As part of the 2019 Sydney Festival, Presley installed a ‘Blood Money Currency Exchange Terminal’ in the foyer of the Museum of Contemporary Art. In exchange for Australian currency, visitors could acquire Presley's alternative currency. The Blood Money was assigned a higher value than Australian dollars – $15 AUD could buy 10 Blood Money dollars, for instance. Presley used this differential to represent the cost to Indigenous Australians of colonialism in terms of the extraction of assets and resources. The money collected was donated to charities working with young Aboriginal people in Sydney and Alice Springs.

Presley worked with the Reserve Bank’s archives and museum in developing this body of work. He also consulted the Bank to ensure his work aligned with its anti-counterfeiting security guidelines.

A complete series of Presley's Blood Money from the 2019 Blood Money Exchange Terminal is held by the Reserve Bank archives and is currently displayed in the Reserve Bank of Australia Museum. It is presented in conjunction with NAIDOC Week 2019, for which the theme is ‘Voice. Treaty. Truth’. Click the booklet below to read the biographies of the people represented on the ‘Blood Money’ banknotes.

Read the Flipbook or download the book


One of the defining characteristics of Australia's geography is the vast distances that separate its population centres. Therefore, Australia has a unique reliance upon aviation. Australia embraced the benefits of aviation earlier than many other nations, and it has produced many pioneering aviators and accomplished innovators in aeronautical technology. The importance of aviation to Australia has been reflected in several previous banknotes. The Museum has prepared a display on the theme of pioneers and innovators in aviation. The display presents early design proposals for Australian banknotes that feature the boomerang – one of the earliest aerofoils made by humans.

The £5 banknote in the 1953/54 series showed a boomerang among other objects associated with Aboriginal culture and an arrangement of subjects representing agricultural enterprise in Australia. This was the first time Indigenous culture had been introduced into the design of Australia's banknotes.

The £5 banknote issued from 1953 was the first to include Indigenous elements (the boomerang and shield in the centre) in the design of Australian currency. Reserve Bank of Australia Archvies, NP-003808.

As Australia prepared to convert its currency to the decimal system in the early 1960s, designs were developed for a new series of banknotes. A number of early designs for the ‘Royal’ (as the currency was originally called) included the boomerang as a central design element.

Preliminary design for the ‘1 Royal’ banknote from 1963, featuring a boomerang. Reserve Bank of Australia Archives, NP-002811.

Preliminary design for the ‘1 Royal’ banknote from 1963, featuring a boomerang. Reserve Bank of Australia Archives, NP-002811.

As the design process advanced, Australian accomplishments in aviation emerged as the central theme of Australia's first series of $20 banknotes. Preliminary designs from 1964 (shown below), portray Sir Charles Kingsford Smith wearing his flying cap and goggles on the front side. On the reverse side, a nurse of the Royal Flying Doctor Service is at work in front of an ambulance. The first RFDS aircraft Victory stands on an outback runway in the background.

Although these proposals by George Hamori were not developed into the final form of the 1966 series $20 banknote, the final design did celebrate the theme of Australian aviation by featuring Sir Charles Kingsford Smith and Lawrence Hargrave. The story of the Royal Flying Doctor Service was to be incorporated into the 1994 series $20 banknote.

Early design concept for the 1966 series $20 banknote prepared by George Hamori. Reserve Bank of Australia Archives, NP-004199.

To learn more about the personalities behind the portraits on Australia's banknotes, see Notable Australians.

Celebrating science

To mark National Science Week 2018, the Museum presented a selection of archival materials relating to the Bank and science in Australia. Several Australian banknotes have celebrated the contributions of Australian scientists and the role of science and innovation in Australia's society, culture and economy.

The Bank's inaugural Governor, Dr H C Coombs took a keen interest in the development of science in Australia, and highly valued the work of those engaged in it. In a speech to the Australian Academy of Sciences in 1964, he described science as “natural human curiosity highly organised”, and spoke of the need to regard scientific endeavour as a creative pursuit, comparing Australia's great scientists to its great artists, writers and musicians. In making this comparison, Coombs put the view that the accomplishments of science should not be measured purely in terms of its contribution to increased production –

Science is one of the highest forms of creative activity…There is something exciting and worthwhile in itself about the pursuit of knowledge. Let us continue to take simple pleasure and delight that our society produces men capable of this kind of achievement and that we have sufficient wisdom and resources to give them their opportunity.

Dr H C Coombs with Lord Howard Florey in 1966. Reserve Bank of Australia Archives, PN-002753.

The 1973 $50 banknote showed pathologist Lord Howard Florey (1898-1968) whose role in the culturing of penicillin was recognised with the Nobel Prize in 1945. The background showed Penicillin notatum, white blood cells, a culture plate, laboratory mice, colonies of bacteria and chemical bottles. From 1960 to 1965, Florey was the President of the Royal Society, a position once held by Sir Isaac Newton. Florey's association with Queens College, Oxford University was represented by the window of its library and books from its shelves.

The reverse side of the banknote celebrated scientific research into biology, the environment and outer space. Veterinary scientist Ian Clunies Ross (1899-1959) was shown in recognition of his contribution to Australia's scientific boom through his chairmanship of the CSIRO and his abilities as an effective science communicator. The 1973 $50 banknote depicted transistors within computer circuitry – which was still a nascent technology at that time. A pencil drawing of this computer circuitry that was used in the design of the banknote was shown.

The 1973 series $50 banknote featuring Lord Howard Florey and Ian Clunies Ross.

The 1984 $100 banknote celebrated the achievements of geologist, physicist and explorer Sir Douglas Mawson (1892-1958), as well as the astronomer John Tebbutt (1834-1916). An early design concept for the banknote was displayed, which showed Mawson and his ship Aurora in a polar landscape. The final design for the banknote shows Mawson in his polar expedition gear. His interest in geology is represented by the Flinders Ranges behind him showing its rock layers, and his interest in astronomy and physics are represented by the Aurora Australis in the sky above him. Source material used in the design process for this banknote was also displayed.

An early iteration of the design for the 1984 series $100 banknote. Reserve Bank of Australia Archives, NP-002954.

Early design iterations of the banknote showed the astronomer John Tebbutt with a telescope and several constellations. Orbital paths were shown, representing his research into the orbits of comets, planets, and their satellites.

John Tebbutt (1834–1916) began to make astronomical observations from a modest, wooden observatory that he built on his family property in Windsor, New South Wales. It was followed by the construction of a more substantial observatory, which is represented on the banknote to the right of his portrait, with the earlier observatory to the left.

In his Astronomical Memoirs, Tebbutt recalled his first major observation. He detected ‘on the evening of May 13, 1861, while searching the western sky for comets … a faint nebulous object near the star Lacaille 1316 in the constellation Eridanus’. His observations were published in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Empire, which believed that his findings ‘may well excite a feeling of pride and gratification in all who claim Australia as their native or adopted country’. Tebbutt had become the first astronomer to discover the Great Comet of 1861, which was later named after him.

Although he was offered the position of government astronomer for New South Wales, Tebbutt continued to work privately, and published some 400 papers during his career. In 1973 a crater near the moon's Mare Crisium (Sea of Crises) was named in his honour.

Early design concept for the 1984 series $100 banknote featuring John Tebbutt. Reserve Bank of Australia archives, NP-002932.

The 1995 $50 banknote depicted writer and inventor David Unaipon (1872–1967), who demonstrated a keen interest in science throughout his life. He determinedly studied the prospect of a perpetual motion machine and the then theoretical concept of laser light. He lodged 19 patents throughout his lifetime. His design for sheep sheers appeared on the 1995 $50 banknote. In the 1910s, he proposed applying the aeronautical principles behind the boomerang to the design of a helicopter – an invention that was not to be realised until 1936.

Two booklets were produced in connection with the display. One details biographical information relating to each of the figures from science in Australia's banknotes. Another acts as a key to the many scientific subjects shown on the 1973 $50 banknote.

To learn more about the personalities behind the portraits on Australia's banknotes, see Notable Australians.