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Fascinating stories hidden amongst the Australian Museum’s most important records

By: Patricia Egan, Category: Science, Date: 17 Jan 2014

The Australian Museum Trust Minutes reveals fascinating stories of the life of the museum.

Fascinating stories hidden amongst the Australian Museum’s most important records #1

 © Australian Museum

When the Australian Museum (or Colonial Museum as it was previously known) was instituted the Trust not only oversaw all aspects of museum life but also recorded it.

Every page is an insight into a body of men trying to gather a comprehensive natural history collection of the new Continent, educate not only the public who were hungry for knowledge but also satiate European academics whilst also managing the day-to-day life of the Museum.

What often intrigue me are the gems in the minutiae – the stories of the people who worked in the museum and the people it serves. Here is a random selection...

The teenage excitement is almost palpable behind the bland Trust minute in 1971 that notes 8 teenage members of the Discoverers’ Club & 2 staff were marooned for days by floods at Nadgee Nature Reserve in 1971.

The Director’s relief is obvious in his report to the Trustees in 1971 that it was a credit to the staff that, despite being a busy holiday day, the whole museum had been cleared of people within 15 mins due to a bomb-scare. The phone call had been taken by the cool-headed Miss Pope, usually remembered as an eminent malacologist during her lunch break.

When a museum has occupied the same site for over 150 years it is inevitable that the minutes frequently refers to the maintenance and construction of buildings along with the internal tension between the competing tensions of work area; storage areas and exhibition space  - a tension that continues to this day.

Even here there are stories that get overlooked – the museum was open for 13 years before seats were provided for visitors (in 1870) and in 1967 approval was given to spend $1 a week on flowers to “beautify” the reception desk. The havoc wrought by the pigeons for decades is nowhere as was evident as in 1907 when the Trustees were reminded that the police had pointed out it would be illegal to shoot the pigeons with an air gun.

Here, in the minutes, is the record of the hiring of staff, granting of leave and acknowledgement of countless staff contributions. By today’s standards the demands on staff would seem onerous as in 1926 Miss Ethel King, then on post-operative leave, was exhorted to return to complete the painting of a taxidermied fish!

In 1967 Miss Helen Ashton, from the Art & Design Section was given financial assistance with her airfare when she took 6 months unpaid leave to travel and visit other museums. Unfortunately her report to the Trust in 1968 has not survived. In 1976 flexitime was introduced for the staff, a right not only now taken for granted but also with the same core hours.

Sometimes the stories raise more questions that are answered  – why was a motion that prohibited Museum staff from selling or dealing in Museum specimens passed in 1861?

The extraordinary contributions of trust members are well documented – or are they? Forgotten is the remarkable contribution of George Henry Abbott who upon his death in 1942 “Trustees stood for a brief period in respect of his memory”- he had been a trustee for a remarkable 25 years!

The Australian Museum has a proud tradition of participating in field trips and expeditions , though again the gaps are intriguing. What lies behind the 1934 decision to approve “Fletcher and a Taxidermist to collect trilobites at Mt Isa” despite the President’s objections? How would the museum’s collections be different if in 1871 the Trustees had agreed to fund Oliver Stokes to join and collect in the Overland Telegraph Expedition?

Many of these marvellous gems have been bought to our attention by our volunteer, John Rankin, who has undertaken the enormous task of indexing the Australian Museum Trust Minutes.