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The first complete listing of the Cultures collection was created when it was loaned to the Sydney International Exhibition in November 1879. The Museum displayed 2000 items in the Ethnological Gallery of the Garden Palace, alongside smaller collections loaned from other Australian colonies and private individuals. Before that, entries for cultural items can be found scattered through the pages of the Museum’s earliest register, but they are usually listed as part of a Natural History collection.
The Exhibition Commissioners provided funds for a catalogue of the whole gallery, which was published as part of the official Exhibition record. Cataloguer Edward Palmer summarized his work in a letter to the Museum Trustees in December 1879:
Gentlemen, I have the honor to report that the work of Cataloguing the Ethnological Specimens and arranging them in the Garden Palace is concluded and that the list of Exhibits has been handed to the Ethnological committee in accordance with their request. The number of specimens the property of the Trustees is nearly 2000, and those from other Colonies and private owners is about 1800 – or a total of say 3800.” [letter A18/79/2]
In addition to Palmer’s total the catalogue contains 1,050 entries of items brought to the exhibition by New Zealand museums.
The task had to be completed quickly, and sadly the information recorded for each item is brief, but in many cases there is a physical description, more detail than the Museum’s single line register entries of the time. A fully illustrated catalogue was proposed but unfortunately never eventuated.
Before the Exhibition closed in April 1880, Palmer and Curator Edward Ramsay recommended that the Museum purchase or acquire by exchange the collections of the other exhibitors, but only a few entries in our registers correspond to the catalogue listing. The Ethnology collection remained in the Garden Palace building to become part of the Museum’s new branch venture – The Technological, Industrial and Sanitary Museum of New South Wales, but in September 1882, just weeks before it was due to open, a catastrophic fire destroyed everything.
So, tragically, this first Catalogue, along with a few photographs and drawings and eyewitness accounts, became one of the few surviving witnesses of what had been Sydney’s greatest display of the material culture of Australian and Pacific peoples.