Origins of the Annette Kellerman collection

Kellerman wore mermaid costumes like this in her films. She was able to swim like a fish with her legs and feet held together inside the costume. MAAS collection. 2000/66/4
Kellerman wore mermaid costumes like this in her films. She was able to swim like a fish with her legs and feet held together inside the costume. MAAS collection. 2000/66/4

Annette Kellerman’s successes in a number of fields are extraordinary. Born in Sydney in 1886, she became an international celebrity as an endurance swimmer, a highly paid entertainer of the vaudeville stage and a star of American silent films. She played a key role in popularising the modern one-piece swimsuit for women, became a successful businesswoman and wrote self-help books about health, beauty and exercise. Her stage act included high diving and underwater ballet, with the elaborate staging of tanks, slides and waterfalls. In her feature films she typically portrayed a mermaid character who engages with the human world.

The exhibition Million Dollar Mermaid: Annette Kellerman presents the story of this forgotten Australian superstar’s achievements and pays tribute to the artistry of her performances. It features stunning costumes and swimsuits from the Museum’s collection. Nearly every object on display belonged to Annette Kellerman. How did the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences acquire her outfits and accessories?

In the 1960s Annette and her husband Jimmie returned permanently from the USA and lived their final years in retirement on Queensland’s Gold Coast. She wondered what to do with the trunks of costumes, accessories, photographs and documents that she had kept from her stage and film career. She continued to devote her efforts to charity fundraising, sometimes staging pageants at the local RSL club in which young women dressed in her old stage costumes.

She considered donating her collection to an institution. In 1975 she saw a segment on ABC-TV’s This Day Tonight about the recently created Dennis Wolanski Library and Archives of Performing Arts at the Sydney Opera House. Having learnt to swim in the 1890s at Cavill’s Floating Baths in Farm Cove, near where the Opera House stands, Kellerman decided this was the appropriate institution for her collection. Frank Barnes, the Opera House’s general manager, agreed that the opportunity to acquire the collection should not be missed.

Barbara Firth, a member of the Ladies Committee of the Sydney Opera House Appeal Fund and an honorary coordinator of the performing arts archive, went to the Gold Coast and took possession of the entire collection on behalf of the Opera House. Within weeks Kellerman had passed away, on Thursday 6 November 1975. The following year the Sydney Opera House drew upon the collection to present an exhibition called Splish Splash, about swimming.

Kellerman and her cast wore glamorous dresses and exotic headwear. Most of her surviving costumes are one-off creations, custom-made for the stage. MAAS collection. 2000/66/32, 61, 52-X
Kellerman and her cast wore glamorous dresses and exotic headwear. Most of her surviving costumes are one-off creations, custom-made for the stage. MAAS collection. 2000/66/32, 61, 52-X

In the late 1990s the objects in the Annette Kellerman collection were transferred, with other objects from the Dennis Wolanski Library and Archive of Performing Arts, to the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences. The Kellerman collection’s paper material, including stunning photographs, was transferred to the State Library of New South Wales.

Barbara Firth’s biography of Kellerman, written with Emily Gibson and titled The Original Million Dollar Mermaid, was published by Allen & Unwin in 2005.

And now in 2016 Million Dollar Mermaid: Annette Kellerman is on display at the Powerhouse Museum. Kellerman’s costumes and accessories form the basis of this new exhibition, along with photos and segments from her films. They are part of her substantial legacy to New South Wales and the world.

Peter Cox, Curator

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