Australian Museum Historical Timeline
Milestones and events from our 180-year history.
1827 – The Colonial or Sydney Museum is established by Lord Bathurst, Secretary of State for the Colonies with a budget of £200 a year to cover all running costs.
1829 – The Colonial Museum’s first custodian, William Holmes, is appointed. A carpenter and keen naturalist, he is the Museum’s first Zoologist and our fist collector. Unfortunately his Museum career is cut short when he is ‘shot by accidental discharge of gun while collecting birds and other curiosities’ at Moreton Bay (Brisbane) in August 1831.
1830 – The Museum is located at Bent Street (Macquarie Place), in the shed and outhouse of a building that had previously housed the first Post Office in Australia.
1831 – After Holmes’ death, the Museum moves to rooms in the Legislative Council building in Macquarie Street where it came under the control of Edward Deas Thomson, clerk to the Council. Thomson appoints his convict messenger, William Galvin to look after the collection.
1836 - Convict John Roach is appointed the Museum’s first taxidermist, ‘Collector and bird stuffer’. Roach later set up his own taxidermy and curio shop in Hunter Street, Sydney.
1835 – Dr George Bennett is appointed Secretary and Curator
1836 – The Museum changes its name to The Australian Museum, governed by a Committee of Superintendence headed by prominent colonist Alexander Macleay
1837 – The Museum’s first catalogue is published by George Bennett. It includes 36 Australian mammal species, birds, fish, shells, fossils, nine aboriginal artifacts and 16 from Melanesia.
1841 – Geologist Rev William Branwhite Clarke (previously Headmaster of the King’s School, Parramatta) is appointed Secretary and Curator. Resigns 1843
1841 – The Museum moves to rooms in the newly constructed Court House at Woolloomooloo (now Oxford St, Darlinghurst)
1844 – Plans are drawn up for a new Museum building. Money (£3000) is allocated in 1845 by the Legislative Council and a site identified on William St, on land previously occupied by a convict garden.
1844 – WS Wall is appointed Curator. He makes a disastrous collecting trip to the Murrumbidgee river, running out of money and food after 2 weeks. Returning to Camden for provisions he sets out again, only to become stranded again 5 weeks later. After a miserable 5 months, Wall returns to the Museum with 138 birds and sixteen mammals.
1846 – Building work starts on the William St site to the plans of Mortimer Lewis, Colonial Architect.
1846 – WS Wall and his family move into the Museum buildings
1849 – WS Wall prepares and mounts the skeleton of a whale outside the Museum. A popular attraction, the skeleton is the subject of the Museum’s first Memoir, written in 1851. Such is the whale’s fame that it even had its own original music, ‘The Catadon Polka’. Composed by George Strong in 1853 and dedicated to WS Wall the music is first performed at the Royal Victoria Theatre in 1854.
Wall is also in charge of a small menagerie operated by the Museum in Hyde Park, Sydney’s first zoo.
1853 – The Museum Act is passed. This set up the current structure of trustees and gave the Museum an endowment of £1000 per annum to be spent at the trustees discretion.
1853 – George French Angas is appointed Secretary, working with WS Wall in a fractious relationship. Angas moves into the Museum, reducing Wall’s accommodation to one bedroom and a sitting room. Only the Board room is used for Museum business.
1854 – The Museum buildings opens to the public with an exhibition of NSW products on their way to the Paris International Exhibition of 1855.
1857 – the Museum is formally opened to the Public with one exhibition gallery.
1859 – Lobbying begins for a new Museum building to be built on College St.
1860 - Simon Rood Pittard is appointed curator.
1861 – Building starts on the College St wing. Completed in 1867 it tripled exhibition space.
1861 - Gerard Krefft is appointed curator having previously worked with Pittard as Assistant Curator
1869 – Krefft spends his honeymoon excavating the remains of the Diprotodon in the Liverpool ranges. Later this year he does further excavation work at Wellington Caves in NSW.
1870 – Krefft describes the Queensland lungfish Neoceratodus forsteri “ a living fossil’ for the first time after seeing it served at a friend (Mr Forster’s) for dinner.
1873 – The theft of a gold specimen from the Museum brings to a head conflict between Krefft’s evolutionary ideas and the conservative Trustees, led by William Macleay and Edward Hill. They demand Krefft’s resignation.
1874 – A Parliamentary committee is set up to enquire into the Museum and asks Krefft to resign. Krefft refuses to leave and is (it is said) forcibly ejected from the Museum with the help of two prize fighters who carry him out of the front door.
1874 – Edward Pierson Ramsay is appointed head of the Museum, aged 32 and the first Australian-born curator.
1876 - 1900
1877 – Edward Palmer is employed to make the first official catalogue of the Museum’s collections. He works two days a week for one guinea a day. By May 1880 he has catalogued 6000 specimens. The uncompleted Palmer catalogue is still in use today.
1878 - Henry Barnes is employed as taxidermist and later pioneers the use of photography at the Museum
1879 – Thousands of objects from the Australian Museum’s anthropological collections are placed on display in the Ethnographic Court at the Sydney International Exhibition, housed in the Garden Palace (in the current Botanic Gardens)
1882 – The Garden Palace burns down, still housing 2000 Australian Museum collection items. All are presumed lost.
1882 – Museum Secretary CR Buckland is found to have embezzled more than £550 from the Museum’s accounts over the past 3 years.
1883 – Ramsay attends the International Fisheries Exhibition in London. Ramsay also travels extensively in Europe, visiting Museums and collecting more than 3500 specimens.
1887 – Robert Etheridge leads the Museum’s first three-week field trip to Lord Howe Island.
1888 – Ramsay and his family move out of the Museum buildings, making way for more scientific and curatorial staff and the Museum’s expanding library. There are now eight scientific staff employed at the Museum and 19 other employees.
1890 – The first Records of the Australian Museum is published, featuring papers relevant to the Museum’s collections and still published today.
Third storey is added to the William St wing, adding office and scientific workrooms and a new third story, geological gallery to the Long Gallery.
1893 – Economic depression in NSW means a drastic budget cut. 12 employees, including all 3 newly-appointed cadets, are retrenched (from a staff of 34). Salaries of remaining employees are cut.
1895 – Ramsay retires with the Museum in decline, government funding halved, staff shortages, collecting and acquisitions at a standstill, displays overcrowded. Robert Etheridge jnr, who had worked as paleontologist since 1887, is appointed to replace Ramsay. He has 6 scientific staff.
1897 – A single storey south wing is built along the boundary with Sydney Grammar School for workshops and storage. A stone Spirit House is constructed in the interior courtyard for storing specimens preserved in alcohol.
1899 – Work begins on the Vernon wing. Its new spacious and light galleries de-clutter the Museum’s displays and mark the move from the ‘curio’ approach of the earlier galleries.
1900 - 1975
1901 – Museum’s first volunteer recruited.
1904 – Charles Hedley leads a multi-disciplinary expedition to Masthead Island
1905 – Gallery demonstrations begin as the first popular educational activities of the Museum. These prove popular (particular those led by Charles Hedley), and result in a successful bid for government funds to build a lecture theatre (opened in 1910)
1907 – Began system of scientific ‘cadetships’ (junior, untrained scientific assistants). 6 cadets appointed by 1908.
1910 – The Vernon wing plus new lecture theatre opens. To mark the occasion, a sperm whale skeleton is suspended at the front entrance to the Museum. Collected in 1871, the skeleton remains on display today.
1910 – Charles Hedley (US) and Charles Anderson (Europe) both take leave to go oversees to study museum operations.
1915 – Wartime austerity means budget cuts. No acquisitions are to be made, lectures are cancelled, publications suspended.
1915 – Scientific cadet and herpetologist DB Fry killed in WWI, aged 23.
1920 – Joyce Allan appointed to the permanent staff, the first woman on the scientific staff. She had worked temporarily at the Museum for Hedley since 1917. She would remain at the Museum unitl 1956.
1921 – Mineralogist Charles Anderson is appointed Director. After a contentious appointment process, Charles Hedley is appointed ‘Keeper of Collections’
1921 – Museum expedition to Lord Howe Island led by Allan McCulloch to collect specimens and ideas for the new dioramas in the Long Gallery.
1921 – First issue of the Australian Museum Magazine printed in April. Promoted for a general audience, the magazine was lavishly illustrated, with staff paid for their contributions.
1924 – Public lectures are so popular that there are 3 different series of 16 lectures each – evening lectures, school groups and evening ‘extension’ lectures in the outer suburbs.
1926 – Tension between progressive Trustees and scientific staff over the role of the Museum spills into the popular press with a series of letters and articles in the Daily Telegraph under the heading ‘Museum Turmoil’. According to the Telegraph ‘a basic principle is involved – whether the Museum should be primarily for ‘show purposes’ or whether its chief purpose should be education through scientific research’.
1927 – The Museum celebrates its centenary in a very low key way with the unveiling of a new bronze plaque by the NSW Premier, TR Bavin.
1930 – Public Service Board inspection of the Museum finds it overstaffed with scientists in general underemployed. Employees became Public Servants, scientific staff were to be recruited from science graduates.
1930 – RO Chalmers released from duty to join Mawson’s Antarctic expedition as assistant biologist and taxidermist.
Whitley expedition to Middleton Reef
Fletcher expedition to Central Australia
McCarthy systematic study of prehistoric remains across NSW
1932 – The Museum’s first car is donated by Harvard Museum of Comparative Anatomy expedition to northern Australia when they leave the country. Secretary Wells had opposed the acceptance of the car on the grounds that the Museum could not afford to run it.
1940 – Director Charles Anderson retired (he died in 1944). Geologist Dr AB Walkom is appointed Director.
1946 – Butterfly theft by researcher Colin Wyatt. 3000 specimens are recovered, stolen from the Australian Museum and the SA Museum in Adelaide.
1954 – Walkom retires and John William Evans is appointed.
1955 – Design and Art Department created to radically overhaul Museum displays
1955 – 250,000 visitors annually
1960 – Basement and sub-basement of William St wing opened. For the first time, the Museum had purpose-built scientific workspaces.
Increases in support staff for scientists, to one assistant or technical officer per collection, mean that curators can spend more time on scientific research on their collections. The number of scientific publications quickly increases.
1963 – Five more floors of the William St (Parkes-Farmer) wing are opened. They include a new library, café, ethnographic and fossil galleries.
1966 – Evans retires and is replace by Frank Talbot (at 36 years old one of the youngest scientists of staff, previously Curator of Fish)
1966 – first field work on One Tree Island, Great Barrier Reef. By 1971, a permanently-manned field station had been set up.
1966 – Frank Talbot receives the Museum’s first ARC grant -- $3000 for icthyological research
1967 – new Hall of Fossils is opened, the first major gallery exhibit to be created in nearly fifty years.
1968 – Department of Environmental Studies created to bring a wider, ecological view to broad problems of environmental conservation under Dr Harry Recher.
1968 – National Photographic Index of Australian Birds begins, conceived by Donald Trounson as a collection of photographs of every bird in Australia
1969 – 4- storey spirit house constructed
1970 – major field trip with RBGS, NPWS, CSIRO to do an environmental survey of Lord Howe Island
1970 – first of a series of nine Australian Museum films (funded by BHP) are produced by Museum photographer Howard Hughes. Completed in 1974, the series sold over 100 prints and was shown on Australian tv.
1971 – first commercial scientific work – a 3-year faunal survey at Sydney Heads.
1972 – The Australian Museum Society (TAMS) is formed chaired by Carol Serventy to support the Museum’s activities and ‘interest a broad stratum of the Australian public in the Museum, in the Australian environment and in conservation in its widest sense’. Within 3 months, 1500 people had joined.
1973 – Lizard Island Research station established with a donation by Henry Loomis. Cottages are built in 1974 and a laboratory in 1976.
1973 – Grants are funding about half the cost of research activities. 20 staff are being paid from external funding. Research publications increase from 17 in 1969 to 79 in 1974.
1974 – Hall of Life exhibit opens. Designed as almost solely educational, for the first time it contained almost no Museum specimens.
1975 – One Tree Island facilities are handed over to the University of Sydney
1975 – Australian Museum Act clarifies role of Trustees and Minister
1976 – Reader’s Digest Complete Book of Australian Birds is published using photographs from NPI
1976 – the Museum now has 150 staff.
1976 – 600,000 visitors visit the Museum
1977 – NPI became the National Photographic Index of Australian wildlife with a broader mandate to cover all species of Australian wildlife.
Vanessa Finney , Manager, Archives and Records