Australian Museum Timeline

 

The Australian Museum has undergone some turbulent times since it was established in 1827.

1820s

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 first 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.

 

1830s

1830 The Museum is located at Bent Street (Macquarie Place), in the shed and outhouse of a building that previously housed the first Post Office in Australia.
1831 After Holmes’ death, the Museum is moved to rooms in the Legislative Council building in Macquarie Street where it comes under the control of Edward Deas Thomson, clerk to the Council. Thomson appoints his convict messenger, William Galvin to look after the collection.
1835 Dr George Bennett is appointed Secretary and Curator
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.
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 artefacts and 16 from Melanesia.

 

1840s

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 W. S. 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 Street site to the plans of Mortimer Lewis, Colonial Architect.
1846 W. S. Wall and his family move into the Museum buildings
1849 W. S. 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 W. S. Wall the music is first performed at the Royal Victoria Theatre in 1854.
1849 Wall is also in charge of a small menagerie operated by the Museum in Hyde Park, Sydney’s first zoo.

 

1850s

1853  The Museum Act is passed. This set up the current structure of trustees and allocated the Museum an endowment of £1000 per annum to be spent at the trustees’ discretion.
1853  George French Angas is appointed Secretary, working with W. S. 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 open 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 Street.

 

1860s

1860  Simon Rood Pittard is appointed curator.
1861  Building starts on the College Street wing.
1864 Gerard Krefft is appointed curator having previously worked with Pittard as Assistant Curator
1868 The Barnet Wing (started in 1861) is opened. Completed the previous year, it triples the exhibition space.
1869 Krefft spends his honeymoon excavating the remains of the Diprotodon in the Liverpool ranges. Later this year he carries out further excavation work at Wellington Caves in NSW.

 

1870s

1870  Krefft describes the Queensland lungfish Neoceratodus forsteri ‘a living fossil’ for the first time after seeing it served by a friend (Mr Forster) 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.
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).

 

1880s

1882  The Garden Palace burns down, still housing 2000 Australian Museum collection items. All are presumed lost.
1882  Museum Secretary C. R. Buckland is found to have embezzled more than £550 from the Museum’s accounts over the past 3 years.
1883 The first Guide to the Museum is produced.
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.

 

1890s

1890  The first ‘Records of the Australian Museum’ is published, featuring papers relevant to the Museum’s collections and is still published today.
1890 A third storey is added to the William Street wing, adding office and scientific workrooms and a new third storey, geological gallery to the Long Gallery
1893  The economic depression in NSW means a drastic budget cut. Twelve employees, including all three 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 and displays overcrowded. Robert Etheridge jnr, who had worked as palaeontologist since 1887, is appointed to replace Ramsay. He has six 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.

 

1900s

1901  The Museum’s first volunteer is 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  The Museum begins a system of scientific ‘cadetships’ (junior, untrained scientific assistants). Six cadets are appointed by 1908.

 

1910s

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 D. B. Fry is killed in WWI, aged 23.

 

1920s

1920  Joyce Allan is appointed to the permanent staff, the first woman on the scientific staff. She had worked temporarily at the Museum for Hedley since 1917. She remains at the Museum until 1956.
1921  Mineralogist Charles Anderson is appointed Director. After a contentious appointment process, Charles Hedley is appointed ‘Keeper of Collections’.
1921  A Museum expedition to Lord Howe Island is 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 is 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 three 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, T. R. Bavin.
1929  H. O. Fletcher is released from duty to join Mawson’s Antarctic expedition as assistant biologist and taxidermist.

 

1930s

1930  Public Service Board inspection of the Museum finds it overstaffed with scientists in general underemployed. Employees became Public Servants; future scientific staff to be recruited from science graduates.
1930  Frederick McCarthy undertakes a 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 originally opposed the acceptance of the car on the grounds that the Museum could not afford to run it.
1933  Dr. C. Anderson, H. O. Fletcher and G. C. Clutton expedition to Cuddie Springs (near Brewarrina) which uncovers the bones of Australian megafauna.
1937  Gilbert Whitley joins Wanderer expedition to Middleton Reef. The aims of the expedition were to obtain salvage from the wreck of the Annasona, to study the life of the reefs, especially the fishes, and trace the currents in the vicinity .
1939  H. O. Fletcher takes part in the Madigan expedition to the Simpson Desert in Central Australia.

 

1940s

1940  Director Charles Anderson retires; he dies four years later. Geologist Dr A. B. Walkom is appointed Director.
1942  Miss Amy Alfreda Vickery bequeaths to the Museum her stamp collection, one of the most valuable in Australia.
1946  Butterfly theft by researcher Colin Wyatt. 3000 specimens are recovered, stolen from the Australian Museum and the South Australian Museum in Adelaide.
1946  Mr A. A. Strom is appointed as the first Education Officer.
1947  A system of Science Trainees started.
1948  Frederick McCarthy takes part in Australian-American Arnhem Land Expedition under the leadership of Charles Mountford.

 

1950s

1950  The cabinets containing the Vickery Stamp Collection are completed and the exhibition made available to the public.
1952  H. O. Fletcher leads a Museum Collecting Expedition to North-west Australia to collect fossils, minerals and zoological material.
1954  Dr. Walkom retires and Dr. John William Evans is appointed the new director.
1955  The first Science Trainees obtain doctoral degrees.
1958  The theatre is remodelled, financed by a generous gift from Sir Edward Hallstrom. It is subsequently renamed the Hallstrom Theatre.
1959  The new Mammal Gallery is opened.
1959  Annual visitor numbers increase steadily to more than 300,000 visitors annually.

 

1960s

1960  Basement and sub-basement of William Street wing are opened. For the first time, the Museum has purpose-built scientific workspaces.
1960  Support staff for scientists are increased to one assistant or technical officer per collection; this means that curators can spend more time on scientific research on their collections. The number of scientific publications quickly increase.
1963  Remaining floors of the William Street (Parkes-Farmer) wing are opened. They include ethnographic and fossil galleries, and a new library and café.
1965  Evans retires and is replaced by Frank Talbot, previously Curator of Fish. At 36 years of age he is one of the youngest scientists on staff.
1966  First field work on One Tree Island, Great Barrier Reef. By 1971, a permanently-manned field station has been set up there.
1966  Frank Talbot receives the Museum’s first ARC grant - $3000 for ichthyological 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  A four-storey spirit house is constructed.

 

1970s

1970  The Museum undertakes a major field trip with Royal Botanical Gardens Sydney, National Parks and Wildlife Service, and CSIRO to carry out an environmental survey of Lord Howe Island.
1970  The 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 television.
1971  The Museum undertakes its first commercial scientific work – a three-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 three months, 1500 people had joined.
1973  Lizard Island Research station is 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. Twenty staff members are being paid from external funding. Research publications increase from 17 in 1969 to 79 in 1974.
1974  The Hall of Life exhibit opens. Designed as almost solely educational, for the first time it contains 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  Dr. Des Griffin appointed Director of the Museum.
1976 Reader’s Digest Complete Book of Australian Birds is published using photographs from NPI.
1976  The Museum now has 150 staff.
1976  Visitors numbers to the Museum reach 600,000.
1977  NPI became the National Photographic Index of Australian wildlife with a broader mandate to cover all species of Australian wildlife.
1978  Launch of the ‘Australian Museum Train’ program to take exhibitions and educational services to the regions.
1979  Important Balinese temple paintings from the Forge Collection (purchased in 1976) go on display for the first time.
1979  A program of regular concerts and educational Sunday activities for ‘families’ begins.

 

1980s

1980  A visiting curator scheme commences which allows for visiting scientists to study or research major collections.
1981  For the first time a media preview is held before an exhibition opening, gaining interest because the Awareness Exhibition includes viewer-participation.
1981  The controversial “Stuffed with Life” slogan appears on Government buses.
1982  The Australian Museum is recipient of the Museum of the Year Award for best new exhibition for its ‘Mammals in Australia’ Gallery.
1982  Following the upgrade of facilities at the Lizard Island Research Station it is deemed the ‘leading research base’ on the Great Barrier Reef.
1983  The first travelling ethnological exhibition ‘Abelam - Museum on the Road’ leaves the museum.
1983  The new Skeleton Gallery opens with its signature piece ‘The Bone Ranger Rides Again’.
1984  The ‘Dinosaurs from China’ exhibition brings over a quarter of a million visitors to the Museum – the most successful exhibition to date.
1984  In recognition of the commitment to efficient collections information management a ‘Database Manager’s’ position is established and a minicomputer system purchased.
1985  The Aboriginal Australia Gallery is opened.
1985  The Insect Gallery is opened.
1985  The Museum purchases a collection of opalised fossils including the oldest known platypus/echidna like animal.
1986  The Planet of Minerals gallery is opened.
1986  Museum anthropologist Betty Meehan is ‘embedded’ with several Aboriginal communities to enhance the documentation of the museum’s anthropological collection.
1986  An interactive space designed for children is opened; it is known as the Discovery Room.
1987  The Australian Museum embarks on a repatriation program and together with the Canadian Museum of Civilization and representatives of the Kwakwakak'wakw (Kwakiutl) people of Canada's Northwest Coast, the Museum begins to repatriate material from the Cape Mudge area of British Columbia.
1988  Richard Leakey opens the ‘Tracks Through Time: The Story of Human Evolution ’ exhibition, followed by ’Rituals of the Human Lifecycle’, an exposition of human cultural diversity.
1988  Establishment of the Australian Museum Foundation to raise funds through corporate patronage.
1989  Opening of Taonga Maori, a splendid display of artefacts from New Zealand. The opening in the presence of N. Z. Governor General Sir Paul Reeves is one of the most spectacular and most publicised the Australian Museum has ever staged.

 

1990s

1990  Launch of the Australian Museum Eureka Prizes to reward outstanding achievement in Australian science research and the communication of science to the broader community.
1990 The Museum opens its Discovery Space.
1990 Discovery the Night Parrot by Museum ornithologist Walter Boles, a bird species thought to have been extinct.
1991  Australian Museum Business Services, the Museum’s professional consulting arm, commences.
1991 Two regular events prove particularly popular – ‘Open Day’ bringing nearly 10,000 visitors to look behind the scenes and the annual ‘Dinosaur Picnic’ bringing thousands to the Museum.
1992 Gargantuans from the Garden exhibition opens, featuring giant moving animatronic creatures together with actual specimens, large models, stereoscopic scanning electron microscope (SEM) images, interactive displays, audio visuals, models, dioramas, and photos.
1993 Quantum, a beloved weekly science television series in Australia, champions the plight of ‘Eric’ - the opalised fossil remains of an Australian pliosaur. The ‘Save Eric’ campaign raises donations from corporate sponsors, and fundraising efforts led by Australian schoolchildren produces over $450,000 with which the Australian Museum is able to successfully purchase the pliosaur for display in the Museum.
1994 Australia’s first museum theatre program is introduced; it is designed to innovatively interpret exhibitions and ideas.
1994 Opening of ‘Search & Discover’, a new information and resource centre for natural science and Aboriginal cultural heritage.
1995 Museum mammalogist Dr Tim Flannery describes a new species of tree-kangaroo, Dingiso Dendrolagus mbaiso, after learning of the existence of this black and white tree kangaroo from the high altitude, mossy forests of the Sudirman Range in West Papua several years previously.
1996 The Albert Chapman mineral gallery is opened to permanently display the world renowned collection which has been purchased by the NSW Government in 1988 and transferred to the Australian Museum in 1995. Over half of the vast collection of 820 specimens is Australian.
1997 Dianne Bray and Mark McGrouther of the Museum’s ichthyology section, join staff from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and the Milwaukee Public Museum, on a five week trip to survey the fishes of the northern part of Vanuatu - part of this unique collection is now held in the Australian Museum's extensive Fish Collection.
1998 Opening of Djamu, the Museum’s offsite Indigenous Gallery at Customs House, Circular Quay.
1999 Dr Mike Archer appointed Director of the Museum.
1999 Sixty-three years after the last animal died, the Rheuben Griffiths Trust is launched to fund research into cloning the extinct Tasmanian Tiger using DNA extracted from a preserved thylacine pup in the Australian Museum collection.
1999 ‘Kids Island’ opens to the delight of the under-5s.

 

2000s

2000  The Australian Museum website wins the NSW Premier’s 2000 Public Sector Gold Award for best practice in the provision of services using the internet.
2001 A rural associate museum ‘The Age of Fishes Museum’ in Canowindra is officially opened and the spectacular mineral and dinosaur Somerville Collection is donated by Warren Somerville to be part of the permanent collection of the Australian Museum.
2002 The Museum celebrates its 175th birthday.
2003 Announcement of the discovery by Museum scientists and others of 15 remote Aboriginal sites with rock paintings, drawings, stencils and engravings in Wollemi National Park.
2004 Frank Howarth is appointed Director of the Museum.
2004 Staging of a major exhibition showcasing content from the Museum’s own collections ‘Uncovered: Treasures of the Australian Museum’.
2005  The Australian Museum/Rio Tinto partnership launches BioMaps – Australia’s most advanced biodiversity mapping and analysis website at the time.
2006 Rebranding of the Museum and launch of the new logo depicting an Aboriginal rock engraving of an echidna and carrying the tagline ‘nature culture discover’.
2007 The Museum celebrates its 180th anniversary.
2008 The new Collection and Research building on the College Street site is completed adding 5000 square metres of office, laboratory and storage areas for scientists.
2008 Two new permanent galleries are opened: ‘Dinosaurs’ and ‘Surviving Australia’.
2008 The Museum joins the International Barcode of Life project to create an online DNA barcode register of 500,000 species worldwide.
2009 Science in the City, Science in the Suburbs and Science in the Bush delivers hands-on science workshops, shows, talks and an Expo to 12,000 high school and primary school students in communities across NSW.

 

2010s

2010  ‘Body Pacifica’ a multi exhibition program is launched with a three day festival celebrating Pacific culture.
2011  The Australian Museum launches its first iPhone App - about Australia's most dangerous animals called ‘DangerOz’.
2012 Opening of the major exhibition ‘Alexander the Great’. It’s the largest collection of treasures to ever come to Australia from the world famous State Hermitage in St Petersburg, Russia with over 400 objects from classical antiquity through to the modern age, spanning a period of almost 2500 years.
2013 Launch of the Koala Genome Project .A consortium of Australian scientists led by the Australian Museum and the Queensland University of Technology announced a world first break through with the completion of the initial sequencing of the koala genome, the genetic blueprint for koalas. 

 


Ms Prue Walker , Volunteer archivist
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