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Australia’s first public museum was established in Sydney in 1827 with the aim of procuring "many rare and curious specimens of Natural History."
In 1829 William Holmes was appointed the first custodian of the fledgling collection, then located in the old post office building in Macquarie Place. Initially known as the Sydney Museum or Colonial Museum, the institution was formally named the Australian Museum in 1836. It was also stipulated that the Museum and Botanic Gardens be jointly governed by a ‘Committee of Superintendence’ made up of eminent men of the colony.
The collection was housed in various buildings around Sydney until colonial architect Mortimer Lewis designed a dedicated museum building. Construction began in 1846 on a site in William Street near Hyde Park, and the new museum opened to the public in 1857 with just one exhibition gallery. Since then the site has been modified many times to accommodate the growing needs of exhibitions, collections and staff. In 2008 a new wing to the east of the site was built to house scientific staff and collections.
Today the Australian Museum continues its dual roles in research and education.
From a "beautiful Collection of Australian curiosities", the Museum has grown to an internationally recognised collection of over 21 million cultural and scientific objects. The Museum plays a leading role in taxonomic and systematic research, and at its research station at Lizard Island conducts significant research on coral reef ecology. Through exhibitions and other public programs the Australian Museum continues to inform and amaze generations of visitors about the unique flora, fauna and cultures of Australia and the Pacific.
Foundations and early days
The genesis of the Australian Museum was a letter written in March 1827 by Earl Bathurst, British Secretary of State for the Colonies, to the Governor of NSW Ralph Darling, supporting the formation of a ‘Publick Museum at New South Wales’.
Bathurst committed 200 pounds per annum for what was initially called the Sydney Museum or Colonial Museum.
An English carpenter, William Holmes, was appointed as the Museum’s first custodian in 1829. Holmes was killed two years later when a firearm discharged as he was collecting specimens at Moreton Bay.
Two former convicts then managed the Museum until the appointment of Dr George Bennett as Curator in 1835. A distinguished naturalist and medical practitioner, Bennett later published the first catalogue of the Museum’s collections. Not until 1874 was an Australian, Edward Ramsay, appointed to lead the Museum.
The Museum was first administered directly by the colonial government. In 1836 a Committee of Superintendence was appointed to jointly manage the Museum and the Botanic Gardens, and the institution was formally named the Australian Museum. The first Chairman was Colonial Secretary Alexander McLeay and the other committee members were eminent men of the colony nominated by the Governor.
The Museum Act of 1853 established a more suitable system of administration, with the forming of Board of Trustees. The 24 Trustees (twelve elected and twelve appointed) were granted an annual budget of 1000 pounds to manage the museum, and the power to appoint and dismiss all Museum staff and to make by-laws governing staff and visitors. Alexander McLeay’s son, naturalist William Sharp Macleay, who had been largely responsible for framing the Act, was the first Chairman of the Board of Trustees and served as a Trustee until 1862.
Building and collections
In the early years the ‘beautiful Collection of Australian curiosities’ was housed in various government buildings around the city. Amalgamation of the Museum with the Subscription Library (now the State Library of NSW) was seriously considered for some years.
The Museum’s last temporary home was in the Court House at Darlinghurst. Soon after the Colonial Architect Mortimer Lewis was directed to design a dedicated Museum building, which was completed in 1849.
The building finally opened to the public in 1857 on its present site at the corner of College and William Streets.
Initially ‘collectors’ (who were often taxidermists) gathered collection items solely for display purposes, since the colony lacked trained naturalists to describe and study natural history specimens. Not until specimens began to be studied locally did the work of collecting become the responsibility of scientists.
From the 1860s under the dedicated curatorship of Gerard Krefft, the Museum became recognised as an internationally significant scientific institution.
The Garden Palace displays
Our first catalogues reveal the extent of the lost collections exhibited at the Garden Palace Ethnological Court, 1879-1883.
The Australian Museum section of the Court had 2000 items in total, mostly from the Pacific. Of the Pacific items, many came from New Guinea and are probably the collection purchased from Andrew Goldie in 1878, as well as collections from Morton, Broadbent and Smithurst.
Catalogued for the first time for loan to the Exhibition, 359 of the Australian Museum objects were Australian. These objects had been collected during early contact periods, from areas such as the Clarence River in NSW and the Torres Strait. After the fire of 1882, the catalogue record is all that remains of this irreplaceable early contact material.
First Degree of Merit
Opened on November 11, 1879, the Australian Museum section of the Ethnology Court was awarded the ‘First Degree of Merit’ for the ‘finest collection (ethnological)’ in the Sydney International Exhibition.
After the Exhibition
After the Exhibition, the Museum continued to acquire ethnology and in 1882 it sent the whole collection to the Garden Palace for its new branch museum, The Technological, Industrial and Sanitary Museum (now called the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (Powerhouse) Museum). Only two months before the Museum was due to open it was destroyed in the Garden Place fire on September 22, 1882.
The collection records bear this out. The items registered between 1880 and the fire are for the most part missing, except for skeletal material from these collections which remained at the main Museum.
Other ethnographic collections at the Garden Palace Exhibition
The catalogue also lists other exhibitors of Ethnological material in the Garden Palace. Mostly these are individuals, with a few institutions such as the governments of Tasmania, Queensland, South Australia, West Australia as well as large displays from the New Zealand Museum, Wellington and Canterbury Museum, Auckland.
Over 40 individuals were also exhibitors, ranging from single items to small collections.
Celebrating our 190th
Stories celebrating 19 decades of Museum memories and milestones.