A Collection in search of a home
The Museum occupied five different buildings before it finally came home to its current site.
Map of Early Museum Sites
Creator: Woolcott and Clarke © City of Sydney Archives – Historical Atlas of Sydney
Probably the first home of the Colonial Museum, as it was known in 1829, was a shed in Bent Street Sydney behind the Judge-Advocate’s residence and office. The Museum may have had an earlier home, but no evidence of this has been found.
Sydney’s first post office operated out of this shed from 1826 to 1829, after which it moved to the site of the GPO building in Martin Place. The Sydney Gazette of the 31st August 1830 cites ‘the Old Post Office’ as the location of the Museum’s ‘beautiful collection of Australian curiosities’, superintended by William Holmes and available for viewing by the public.
The clerk of the Legislative Council, Edward Deas Thomson, added responsibility for the Colonial Museum to his workload when this collection was moved to the Legislative Council building in Macquarie Street in 1831. However, Mr Thomson’s messenger, William Galvin, actually cared for the collection, later assisted by John Roach, an assigned prisoner who had worked as a taxidermist in London.
By 1836, when the Museum was set up in the house in Macquarie Place previously occupied the Chief Justice, responsibility for the collection had passed from Mr Thomson to Dr George Bennett. According to Ronald Strahan in his book Rare and Curious:
‘This building was the westernmost on a block bounded by the present Bent, Gresham and Bridge Streets (Macquarie Place then included the eastern end of Bridge Street). The Museum was on the ground floor and the upper floor housed the Public Subscription Library.’
New specimens were regularly being added to the collection, so when the Museum outgrew its allotted space, it moved to the building known as ‘St James’ Parsonage’ in Macquarie Street in 1840. During its brief stay there, Rev William Branwhite Clarke took over from Dr Bennett. A single room was made available to accommodate the rapidly growing collection, and proved quite inadequate to the task.
However, the Museum required only one more temporary home, and late in 1841 the collection was moved to the newly constructed Court House at Darlinghurst. During its stay at the Court House, Rev William Branwhite Clarke resigned and Mr William Sheridan Wall assumed his role, and it was he who presided over the move to the current Museum site.
The construction of the Museum was a lengthy process, beginning in January 1846. The exterior walls were completed by 1848, however it was not until 1849 that Mr Wall and his family were able to move in. By this time the specimens from the Court House were stored in the uncompleted building, but it was not open to the public until May 1857.
Ms Prue Walker , Volunteer archivist