Australian Museum as a Site Study - AM History for Teachers

Background information about the history of the Australian Museum and its exhibitions.

Lewis Wing c. 1870s

H. Barnes © Australian Museum

The Australian Museum Today

  • Is on Gadigal land (the traditional Aboriginal custodians of the land)
  • Is the oldest museum in Australia
  • Is the sixth oldest natural history museum in world
  • Has approximately 200 staff
  • Holds 14.5 million specimens and objects in its collections
  • Is one of most important scientific institutions in the Pacific Region

The Birth of the Museum

The Museum began operations in the 1820's and continued in various locations around colonial Sydney:

  • 1830 Shed in Bent Street - old Post Office
  • 1831 Legislative Council
  • 1836-40 Residence of Chief Justice - Macquarie Pl (Bridge St)
  • 1840 Surveyor General's house - Macquarie St
  • 1842 New Court House, Woollomooloo

Many specimens were sent to London and put in gentlemen's 'cabinets of curiosities'.

The museum was founded in 1827 when Earl Bathurst, Secretary of State for the Colonies, wrote from London, on 30 March, to Lieutenant-General Darling, Governor of NSW.

Bathurst's letter excerpt:

"It having been represented to me that it would be desirable were the government to afford its aid towards the formation of a Publik Museum at New South Wales where it is stated that many rare and curios specimens of Natural History are to be procured... I am disposed .... to allow a sum, not exceeding 200 pounds per annum... to be dispersed for the purpose of assisting in the accomplishment of this object."

The Museum was referred to as the Sydney or Colonial Museum until 1836 when the Australian Museum name was decided as it was the first museum in Australia.

In 1845 Governor Burke approved a budget of £3000 for construction of a permanent museum.

In 1853 an Act of Parliament created a body corporate of 24 trustees.

Before the Museum was built here this site was used as an enclosed convict garden. Hyde Park Barracks' convicts used it to grow food for themselves.

The Buildings of the Australian Museum

Lewis Wing 1846-1852
  • The building is named after the architect Mortimer Lewis, Colonial Architect, who had designed Darlinghurst Courthouse (Woolloomooloo), the original Customs House (Circular Quay) and South Head Signalling Station (Vaucluse)
  • The Lewis Wing was started in 1846 and completed in 1852. The total cost was £16000 and it took 11 years to build.
  • The Australian Museum was not officially opened until 1857 as further funds were needed to fit out the interior of the museum.
  • 10 000 visitors attended in the first week it opened. Many visitors had never seen an echidna, platypus etc.
  • The Curator's (today's Director) residence was originally in what is now the non-public area. Today it is used as the Director's office, Finance department and Human Resources.
  • The Curator lived there until 1881. The Curator's office and sitting room were on the ground floor. The kitchen and laundry were in the basement and the family sitting room and bedrooms were on the first floor.
  • During WWII the skylight glass was removed for public safety. In 1947 the glass was re-installed. It was frosted, curved and imported from Europe and very expensive. Two months later a hailstorm shattered most panes.
Barnet Wing 1861-66
  • More space was required when the Museum opened.
  • In 1861 funds were approved for a new wing.
  • Colonial Architect James Barnet was the designer.
  • He also designed Sydney GPO, NSW Lands Title Office, Mortuary Station (Central), Garden Palace (RBG) and Macquarie Lighthouse
  • The original design was very grand and included an Art Gallery and Library with the main Museum entrance on William Street with very grand stairs. The design was considered too grandiose and too expensive.
  • When completed the exterior of new Barnet Wing impressed people but the interior left much to be desired. It was not suitable for exhibitions because of intrusive pillars, small windows that restricted light, the long and narrow room, difficult entries and many corners
  • The Legislative Council reported on the new wing saying the designer was more concerned with the look of the building than its practical purpose. Report extract:

'The edifice is too narrow;the approaches from the street are wrongly placed and faulty in design;the interior is crowded with heavy pillars which waste space and obstruct the light;the interior walls are broken by angles and recesses;there is a useless gallery above the second floorand there is every part of the building abundant evidence of thearchitect's desire to subordinate utility to ornament".

  • The Corinthian pillars were removed in 1912 but the pilasters remain.
Integration of Lewis and Barnet Wings 1890
  • The Museum remained very popular but still needed more space.
  • The difference in the height of the two wings was considered "ungainly".
  • In 1890 Government (Colonial) Architect Walter Vernon was given the task of enlarging and improving the building:
  • A third storey was added to the Lewis Wing
  • Pillars were taken out around the Director's door
  • Battlements around the roof line matched the Barnet Wing
  • Third storey windows of the Lewis matched the Barnet Wing
Vernon Wing 1899-1909
  • The AM was pleased with Vernon's integration of the Lewis and Barnet Wings so he was asked to design the new south wing (Vernon) in 1897
  • East Vernon Wing was built 1899-1901. It was joined to the Barnet Wing with a covered walkway).
  • The West Vernon Wing and lecture hall (Halstrom Theatre/ Theatrette) were built 1908-1909.
  • The original skylights were covered in 1950s when the effect of the light on specimens and objects was realised.
  • The heritage features (iron columns, ornate ceilings, heritage tiles, wooden showcases) were covered up with panelling, false floors and lighting brackets on the ground and first floors. Mezzanine floors and ramps were built on the first floor in the 1980s.
  • In 2008 the Museum preserved, restored and reconstructed the top floor:
  • Preserved existing heritage features so there would be no further deterioration
  • Restored structures to their original state by the removal of excess material (ramps, -mezzanines, panelling)
  • Reconstructed a skylight similar to the original one. It is back-lit with artificial rather than natural light.
  • The new exhibits of the Surviving Australia exhibition complement the heritage features of the building but do not hide them.
Halstrom Theatre 1910
  • In 1910 the Halstrom Theatre (now called the Theatrette) opened to the public for lectures and demonstrations by scientists. This was innovative at the time and very popular
  • Since 1910 there have been many changes to the theatre:
  • The picture rail was removed
  • The whole floor was raised
  • The fire exit door was blocked
  • Heritage tiles and floorboards were covered with carpet
  • Sound absorption material has been installed
Parkes-Farmer Wing 1959-63
  • The building is named after two successive Government Architects.
  • The basement was built 1959-60.
  • The superstructure was built 1960-63
  • The same Hawkesbury sandstone as the Lewis Wing was used.
  • The building is the same height as the Lewis Wing.
  • There are no windows and it was a very modern design at the time.
  • This wing doubled the AM's floor space.
Courtyard Wing 1986-88
  • The courtyard area was originally was used as a garden at the back of the Lewis Wing. It was then paved and used for deliveries and as a carpark.
  • This wing was built from 1986-88 for Australia's Bi-centenary.
  • The four major wings were linked with a glass roof. This created an interior space for visitors now known as the Atrium.
Collections and Research Building 2006-2008
  • The building's height matches the Lewis and Parkes-Farmer Wings.
  • The space is used to store some of the Museum's natural history collections and to carry out scientific research.
Heritage and Conservation

There is now a much greater appreciation of conservation and heritage issues.

  • The AM is listed on the State Heritage Register.
  • It has to apply to the local City of Sydney Council and to the Heritage Council of NSW to make any additions and alterations. This is covered by NSW State Law.
  • The AM has a comprehensive 100 page Conservation Management Plan with policies and guidelines for conservation. It is updated every 7-8 years.

A History of Australian Museum's Exhibitions

European Museums before 1820s

Before the 1820s European museums were 'cabinets of curios'. Many strange specimens and objects were displayed, sometimes with no apparent theme or organisation.

1820s-1850s
  • The AM was housed in various government buildings around Sydney
  • From the 1820s to the 1850s the AM collections were extremely important for the new colony.
  • Many specimens, such as the platypus, echidna and the Tasmanian devil, had never been seen by Europeans.
  • Some very enthusiastic collectors from Europe built up collections in areas of their own interest and donated them to the Museum.
  • The AM's fieldwork was collecting.
1850s-1920s
  • Exhibits were in wooden showcases with glass. There was no touching.
  • Many specimens were exactly the same as an institution's status at this time was determined by the number of specimens on display.
  • No interpretive information was provided for visitors. A specimen or object just had a label and sometimes not even that!
  • Human remains were freely displayed with no cultural or personal sensitivity.
  • The curators chose the specimens or objects for display.
  • Displays had a theme and some organisation.
1920s-1950s
  • Diorama style exhibits were introduced. This new style showed animals in their habitat and introduced some artistic creativity and colour to displays.
  • The curators still chose specimens or objects for display.
  • Electric lights were installed in the centre of the room so the light reflected off the glass showcases adversely affecting the visitors' view of the displays.
  • There was still no interpretative information, just labels only. 
1950s-1980s
  • Designers were used for the first time in the development of exhibitions. In consultation with scientists they chose specimens or objects.
  • Designers decided the way the specimens and objects were displayed. A real design element was introduced to exhibitions.
  • The exhibitions were not as crowded. The quality of objects or specimens was considered more important than the quantity.
  • Some text and interpretation were introduced.
  • A new holistic approach was taken. The scientists and designers put the specimens and objects into their environmental, biological, cultural or chronological context.
  • Individual showcase lighting was introduced.
1980s onwards

A huge variety of interpretive strategies were introduced. Text, diagrams, computers, audios, videos, artworks, reconstructions, hands-on exhibits, interactive exhibits were all used.

Exhibitions reflect society's beliefs and values

Museum exhibitions have always reflected society's beliefs and values.

Beliefs:

In the 1800s museum exhibitions in Australia reflected the Christian view of Creationism.
In today's museums exhibition displays reflect evolution as a science.

Values:

In the 1800s European settlers wanted to see the Australian animals they had never seen before. In 1857 10 000 visitors came to the AM in its first week of opening.
Today's society is concerned about the loss of biodiversity, habitat destruction, climate change and the preservation of cultural heritage. These issues are integrated into exhibitions or may be their primary theme.

Museums are always evolving and changing with new knowledge and technology. Exhibitions change slowly because new exhibitions require a large amount of human and financial resources to develop them.


Ms Helen Wheeler , Education Project Officer
Last Updated:

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