Using the NT Archives Service

IMG_2269Behind the scenes at NTAS. Just think about all the surprises waiting inside those boxes!

Since starting the Creative in Residence, quite a few people have asked me how the NT Archive Service works. I’ll try and explain what I’ve learnt so far, but for a more thorough explanation the best thing is to book an appointment with the staff and go in and have a chat.

I’ll be honest, it was a little daunting when I first started, but luckily the staff are very approachable, helpful (and patient)! Once that first little cardboard box of mysteries arrived – I was hooked!

In a nutshell, the NT Archive Service are responsible for preserving and managing government and community archives. They have collections of oral histories, offical government documents, photographic collections, personal diaries, great books and so much more! Due to the large volume of archives, most things aren’t digitised so often there are multiple ways to search around a topic or person of interest.



NTAS have been collecting amazing Northern Territory stories for many years through audio recordings and these are called the Oral History Collection.

Now I’ve already mentioned that the Archives can get very addictive and the oral histories are definitely in this category! Reading an oral history transcript feels like sitting down with an old Northern Territory Nanna or Pop and hearing those golden stories of ‘the olden days’ – you just want to know more! The anecdotes, the different language and political/cultural views portrayed in the interviews are FASCINATING! For me, reading the oral histories have really helped take me back in time and gain a deeper understanding of what the NT used to be like.

Searching the oral history collection is probably the most straightforward of the archives searches.  There is an online search tool ( where you can search for a topic or name and then browse the index of the oral history transcript. If you find something that you’re interested in then you can order the transcript of the interview and you can even order the original recording itself.

I highly recommend going into NTAS, settling down with a good transcript and having a read. I guarantee you you’ll be back for more!



Being a visual person, (and also making an animated historical story), I am of course, keen to access the PHOTOGRAPHIC COLLECTIONS in the Archives.

Ordering a box of photographs is better than Christmas! You look at the box and sometimes you know what you’re getting, but more often than not, it’s a bit of a surprise. Hunting for what you’re looking for can be time consuming  but finding intriguing old gems is it’s own reward! It might just be me, but holding an original photograph in your hands that captures what the very first European settlement looked like or what Aboriginal body decoration looked like in the Top End in the 1800s is mind-blowing. I’ve been using the photographs to get a sense of what the town of Darwin (originally called Palmerston) looked like around the time of my character (1890). I want to know what the fashion looked like, the buildings, the landscape, the transport, the weapons etc. I could look at old photos all day, which is lucky because that’s what I’m doing!

Recognise Mitchell Street below?

NTRS 3420_P1_photo 24 Mitchell Street

From the Foelsche Collection NTRS 3420_P1_photo 24 Mitchell Street

Digging Deep – The Inwards Correspondence

If you’d told me a few months ago that I’d totally get a thrill from digging into old Government correspondence records, well I wouldn’t have believed you (!)…but… last week I learnt how to use microfilm at NTAS to search the original government Residents correspondence (also called The Inwards Correspondence) in search of some primary sources related to my first character – Rodney Spencer.

I wasn’t sure if I’d find anything but to my absolute delight I managed to dig up original documents relating to the Rodney Spencer “cigar scandal”. No, it’s not like Bill Clinton’s cigar scandal (!), I better take a moment to explain…

Rodney Spencer, as we’ve established was the first white man convicted for murdering an Aboriginal man in the Northern Territory (1889). This fact alone is quite shocking (as many Aboriginal people had been murdered by whites) but what I find rather incredulous is that when Rodney Spencer was in Fannie Bay Gaol, he was sent daily deliveries of Havana Cigars!

In searching the Inwards Correspondence I found a telegram from Adelaide (remember that the NT was under South Australian jurisdiction until 1911) questioning the rumours  that Spencer was receiving cigars in gaol. I also found the NT reply stating that Spencer had been issued cigars by the doctor and required them for his health and ‘to help him sleep’. Finding and holding these original documents was very exciting!




The original documents above are from NTRS 790 Box 38 Government Resident of the NT Inwards Correspondence 1870-1912


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