Last Thursday it was the 190 years since the Australian Museum was established so today we thought we’d have a very quick look at the long history of our oldest museum.
On 30 March 1827 the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, Earl Bathurst, wrote a letter to the Governor Ralph Darling, authorising the sum of 200 pounds per year for the establishment of a ‘Publick Museum at New South Wales, where it is stated that many rare and curious specimens of Natural History are to be procured.’
Originally named the Colonial Museum, its focus was initially only on Australian flora and fauna. As the expertise of its staff increased over the decades, the museum expanded to include anthropological, geological and palaeontological collections. It received its current name, the Australian Museum, in 1836.
The museum’s collections were displayed in a range of locations around Sydney until the late 1840s when the Colonial Architect, Mortimer Lewis, was commissioned to design the sandstone building opposite Hyde Park on College Street. It would take more than a decade from when Lewis first commenced work on the design before it was opened to the public in May 1857. James Barnet, a later Colonial Architect, expanded the building in the 1860s.
The original exhibition displays conformed to the ‘cabinets of curiosity’ style of displays seen in museums across Europe since at least the 16th century. The dioramas showing habitat groups were installed in the museum in the 1920s and 1930s, and the Lord Howe Island diorama, featuring seabirds nesting is Australia’s oldest surviving natural history diorama.
My fellow guest historian, Lisa Murray, has spoken before about the tragic fire of the Garden Palace in 1882, which saw the majority of the museum’s ethnographic collection destroyed. The curator, Edward P Ramsay would spend the next 20 years gradually rebuilding the collection. He also employed research staff, meaning that there was a shift in the organisation from just a collection to a research & education centre as we know it today.
In the 1950s, the museum’s galleries and exhibitions were overhauled, a process that continues today. One of the more intriguing innovations took place in the 1970s, when the museum launched one of its earliest outreach projects to bring its collections to regional communities. On 8 March 1978, the Australian Museum Train was officially launched at Central Station by the then NSW Premier, Neville Wran. The train featured two dedicated carriages which were renovated at the Eveleigh Railway Workshops and contained natural history exhibits and a teaching space. The service continued to run until 1988.
Further reading (remember to click on the links above too!):
The Australian Museum, by Laila Ellmoos on the Dictionary of Sydney
The Australian Museum blog, Museullaneous
Our History, Australian Museum
Rare and Curious, An Illustrated History of the Australian Museum 1827 – 1979, by Ronald Strahan
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