History of the Palaeontology Department

The palaeontology collection is one of the oldest in the Museum and contains some of its greatest treasures.

Robert Etheridge Jr, Curator, 1895-1919

Robert Etheridge Jr, Curator, 1895-1919
Photographer:  © Australian Museum

Early Days

The Australian Museum has always valued the collection of fossils. From early in its history, fossils were collected on expeditions, and also by exchange, donation, and purchase. In 1862 Krefft made the earliest significant purchase of Jurassic fossils.

The fossil collection was mentioned in 1837 in the Australian Museum’s first catalogue: “A Catalogue of the Specimens of National History and Miscellaneous Curiosities Deposited in the Australian Museum”, and subsequently in “A Short Guide to the Australian Fossil Remains in the Australian Museum”, which was written by Krefft in 1870.

The value and size of the Palaeontology collection was enhanced in 1880, when Ramsay purchased one of the largest, and historically most important, collections of fossils from Krantz (Germany) for £600.

On the 1st of June 1887, Robert Etheridge was appointed the first Assistant in Palaeontology; although for half his time he was to work for the Geological Survey on NSW. From as early as 1889 there were indications that Etheridge’s interests were drifting to ethnology, although he continued to publish in palaeontology and add to the palaeontology collection. On the 1st of January 1895, Etheridge was appointed the Museum’s Curator (Director).

The opening of the new Geology Hall in July 1895 allowed for the crowded fossil display to be spread over the ground floor, although displays continued to be hung off the railings.

Drifting

The Palaeontology Department fell into neglect as no-one was appointed to replace Etheridge. Etheridge highlighted this in the Annual Reports (1894, 1896 & 1899) e.g. “Pressure of other duties compels me to confess that my own section was completely neglected, with the exception of the registration of acquisitions, and this will continue to be the case until I am provided with a competent Assistant”. Other staff assisted with palaeontology collecting when undertaking their own field work.

The Trustee Minutes of April 1921 note that the position of Palaeontologist should be filled by an external professional as there was no suitable internal staff member. However Director Charles Anderson moved from Curator of Minerals to Palaeontology.

A new beginning

In 1926, Harold Oswald Fletcher was appointed the first full-time assistant in Palaeontology. He progressed from assistant, to 2nd Class Scientific Assistant, to 1st Class Scientific Assistant and finally, in 1941 he became Curator of Palaeontology.

Following the 1930s review of the overlap of function of the Geological and Mining Museum, and the Museum's Mineralogy and Palaeontology Departments, a large collection of fossils was transferred from the Geological and Mining Museum to the Australian Museum.

One of our early female scientists, Miss Freda Sachs worked in the Palaeontology Department; she was appointed Assistant in Palaeontology in 1957.

The opening of the Hall of Fossils in 1966 marked the first new gallery to be be opened at the Museum in nearly 50 years. It was designed by Brian Bertram in conjunction with Harold Oswald Fletcher, who submitted the contextual and interpretative material.

Palaeontology today

In 1968 Dr Alex Ritchie was appointed as Curator of Palaeontology, and subsequently became the head of the newly created Division of Earth Sciences, which incorporated Palaeontology as well as Mineralogy and Petrology. He took delivery of large parts of the palaeontology collection from the Dept of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Sydney, when they were transferred to the Australian Museum.

Palaeontology staff were very involved in the most successful exhibition ever held at the Australian Museum: the Dinosaurs from China exhibition in 1983. They had to cope with a flood of public enquiries, participate in media interviews, escort distinguished visitors through the exhibition and advise on educational activities.

Robert Jones became Collection Manager of Palaeontology when the Palaeontology Department was incorporated into the Division of Earth Sciences. He retained this position until his retirement after 38 years at the Australian Museum.

In 1991 Gregory D. Edgecombe became a Principal Research Scientist in the Palaeontology Department and worked in the department until 2006 when he moved to the Natural History Museum in London. He made an enormous contribution to Australian palaeontology and arthropod evolution while he was employed at the Australian Museum, including publishing over 120 scientific articles and being awarded the prestigious Australian Academy of Science Fenner Medal for Distinguished Research in Biology in 2004. 

Earth Sciences became Earth and Environmental Science within the Science Division in 2000/2001. In the reorganisation of March 2004, Earth and Environmental Sciences ceased to exist as a separate area and Palaeontology became part of Science and Collections, sometimes known as Research and Collections.

In 2013 Palaeontology was again grouped with Mineralogy and Petrology to become Geoscience, which then was renamed Geosciences and Archaeology.

Curators and Heads of Palaeontology:
R. Etheridge jun. (- 1918/19)
W. W. Thorpe acting [Position of Palaeontologist advertised but not filled] (1919/20 - 1921/22)
C. Anderson (Director) (1922/23 - 1939/40) assisted by
    W. W. Thorpe (1922/23 - 1926/27)
    H. O. Fletcher (1925/26 - 1939/40)
H. O. Fletcher (1940/41 until his retirement on 25/2/1967)
A. Ritchie (22nd Feb. 1968 - 1982/83)
R. Jones - Collection Manager (1985/86 - 2010/11)
Yong Yi Zhen - acting Collection Manager (2010/11-2013)
Ross Pogson - Group Manager and Collection Manager, Geosciences (2013-)

Heads of Earth Sciences/Earth and Environmental Science:
A. Ritchie - head of division (1983/84 - May 1988)
F. L. Sutherland (May 1988 – May 1991)
A. R. Jones (May 1991 – March 2004 when Earth & Environmental Science ceased to exist)

For more information:
The Australian Museum Palaeontology Department A History:1982 – 1967. Tempe Lees. 1981
 


Ms Prue Walker , Volunteer archivist
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