The Museum's Early Days

Australia's oldest museum was founded in 1827.

Lewis Wing c. 1870s

H. Barnes © Australian Museum

Establishment

At the start of the 19th century the recently explored Australian coast was an object of amazement and curiosity. British surveyor Captain P.P King wrote "no country has ever produced a more extraordinary assemblage of indigenous productions - no country has proved richer than Australia in every branch of natural history".

On 30 March 1827 Earl Bathurst, British Secretary of State for the Colonies, wrote to Governor Ralph Darling authorising the sum of 200 pounds per annum for the formation of a 'Publick Museum at New South Wales'. And so the 'Colonial' or 'Sydney Museum' as it was first known, was born.

Starting Out - Trials and Tribulations


The Museum's first ill-fated custodian was carpenter William Holmes. Appointed as 'Zoologist' on 16 June 1829, he unfortunately shot and killed himself while collecting birds at Moreton Bay, Qld in 1831.

Its first premises were also short-lived. The Museum moved from a room in the Colonial Secretary's Office to various locations in government offices around the city. Finally, a custom designed building on the current site at the corner of College and William streets was completed in 1849, and opened to an expectant public in May 1857.

Collecting, preserving and filling the Museum's display cabinets with specimens, was the main focus of the Museum's founding Chairman Alexander Macleay and its first Curator and Secretary Dr George Bennett. In 1844, William Sheridan Wall described the trials of an early collecting trip with tales of terrible weather, dying bullocks, bushranger attack and hunger, "had the rain continued much longer everything we had must have perished...we were without provisions of any sort and had to go to bed with nothing but a drink of sugar and water...".

Administration


The early Museum was administered directly by the colonial government until 1836 when a Committee of Superintendence to jointly manage the now renamed Australian Museum and the Botanic Gardens was formed. In 1853, the passing of the Australian Museum Act put the Museum on a more formal footing and management by a Board of Trustees was established.

Becoming Scientific


Under the dedicated curatorship of German emigrant Gerard Krefft in the 1860s, the Museum came to be recognized as a truly 'scientific' establishment. Important specimens were purchased and exchanged with international institutions, vigorous debate and correspondence with European scientists including Charles Darwin was conducted by Krefft and the collections continued to grow. In 1866, for example, collector George Masters returned from a Tasmanian trip laden with specimens including the 'thylacine pup in spirits', still an icon of Tasmanian tiger research today.

The Garden Palace fire of 1882 saw the tragic loss of much of the Museum's ethnographic collection. E.P Ramsay, the first Australian to head the Museum, spent the next twenty years building it up again and recruiting trained science staff for the first time.

The focus had shifted from simply 'collecting and preserving' to the added complexities of describing, naming and identifying in detail the morphology and anatomy of the Museum's collections. These early decades had laid the foundations for a museum transformed in the 21st century into a dynamic centre of biological, ecological and ethnographic research, education and discovery.


Rose Docker , Archivist
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