Working in a museum in the 19th century was a hazardous occupation. In 1831, the Australian Museum’s inaugural custodian William Holmes accidentally shot himself in the chest with his own double-barrelled shotgun while collecting a cockatoo. “Oh my God, I’m dead,” he said, before becoming so. But the demise of museum curator Gerard Krefft, some 40 years later, was more curious still.
Join journalist Charles Wooley and Australian Museum Director Kim McKay as they explore the astounding objects and specimens of the 200 Treasures of the Australian Museum exhibition, housed in the nation’s oldest museum gallery.
Charles Wooley: Working in a museum in the 19th century was a hazardous occupation. In 1831, the Australian Museum's inaugural custodian William Holmes, accidentally shot himself in chest with his own double-barrelled shotgun while collecting a cockatoo. 'Oh my God, I'm dead,' he said, before becoming so. But the demise of the museum curator Gerard Krefft some 40 years later was more curious still.
Hello, I'm Charles Wooley.
Kim McKay: And I'm Kim McKay, director and CEO of the Australian Museum. We are the nation's first museum and we house the treasures of our nation and the region. We're going to discover some of those today in the newly restored Westpac Long Gallery.
Charles Wooley: So join us in exploring the iconic, astounding and curious objects that have helped shape Australia and the world as we uncover the hidden stories of 200 Treasures of the Australian Museum.
Amidst the joyous squawking of little children, it's raining outside and everyone has come in, the patter of tiny feet in the museum. We have come, Kim, to a quiet corner and I'm confronted by a beautiful looking…I would think it's a mahogany wooden chair, plushly upholstered in burgundy leather. It's a lovely thing, and it's Krefft's chair. Tell me about Krefft.
Kim McKay: Well, Gerard Krefft was the curator director of the museum in the mid-1800s. He actually served in that role for about a 10-year period, 1864 to 1874. But Gerard Krefft came to Australia because of the gold rush. So he originally set out from his native Germany via the United States, looking for gold there, heard about the discoveries in Victoria, came here. But he was a very good amateur zoologist.
Charles Wooley: But he was a scientist?
Kim McKay: He was a scientist, that's right. So he got a job at the Melbourne Museum.
Charles Wooley: So he's interested in everything, obviously geology as a gold miner, but zoology too.
Kim McKay: Complete interest. And he bought that formal study of science to Australia into museums. So he worked at the Melbourne Museum, and then he later saw the light and moved north and got a job here at the Australian Museum as assistant curator. And as often happened in those days, the curator soon died after, and Krefft was appointed and took over.
Charles Wooley: Why do I tend to think of him as the father of the museum? Because he wasn't the first.
Kim McKay: He wasn't the first to but he really introduced the formal study of science to the Australian Museum. He was the one who said stop, you've got to stop sending all of our treasures back to Europe and the UK. We've got to keep them here for study locally. And so Krefft changed the way in which this museum then operated. And the study of science was formalised, and of course this got Krefft in all sorts of problems. So he was the seventh curated director of the museum, I'm the 17th, but I see him as a bit of a guardian angel.
Charles Wooley: He was a Darwinian, wasn't he.
Kim McKay: He was.
Charles Wooley: And in that time in the establishment of New South Wales, as the whole of the Western world, Darwinism threatened to overturn the proper order of things, didn't it. It was revolutionary and dangerous.
Kim McKay: Revolutionary and dangerous and…
Charles Wooley: Because it suggested there was no God.
Kim McKay: Extremely disliked, in fact disliked by this museum. So the 11 trustees of the museum back then, and there still are only 11, they were all creationists. And of course here is the director curator out there espousing Darwin's new theory of evolution, and they didn't like it.
Charles Wooley: 'Mr Krefft, don't be ridiculous, everybody knows that the world was created just 3,000 years ago at 2 o'clock on a Saturday afternoon! You sir are a disgrace!'
Kim McKay: Well, you can imagine, Charlie, the trustees sitting around the table. And here we are located just a directly opposite St Mary's Cathedral as well in the City of Sydney. So a very interesting juxtaposition between the two buildings. And here was Gerard Krefft pursuing Darwinian theory and it created all sorts of hell to pay.
Charles Wooley: And did he ever meet Darwin? Darwin had been here.
Kim McKay: Darwin had been here but they didn't meet at that time, but what they did do is they became friendly through correspondence, and we have those letters between them, where Krefft would write to Darwin about his new discoveries because the interesting thing about Krefft, he wasn't a scientist who stayed in here in our labs, he was out in the field collecting, and he discovered and named at least 30 Australian species, species like the saltwater crocodile, the cassowary. And in this cabinet here if you look up, you can see that extraordinary lungfish which is of course that link between fossils.
Charles Wooley: And, interestingly enough, the lungfish was called the pink Burnett salmon, Burnett being the river in Queensland from which it came. It was likened to a salmon. I suppose it has a kind of salmon shape, doesn't it.
Kim McKay: It does, but it tells us that link between fossilised prehistoric creatures and land creatures today, that's why the lungfish is so important.
Charles Wooley: It's possible to make the evolutionary assumption that when life came out of the water it had that lung capacity. Because this animal has gills as well as one lung.
Kim McKay: That's right.
Charles Wooley: Not as good as the South American lungfish which has two.
Kim McKay: That's what makes our Australian lungfish so different. In fact there was a story, and it is just a bit of a myth, that Krefft discovered the lungfish by eating it at a dinner party one night, and I like to tell that story, but we think we've got to debunk that myth now.
Charles Wooley: No, I think that is quite likely because the fish being called the Burnett salmon, I assume it has pink flesh.
Kim McKay: Indeed…
Charles Wooley: And it would have been a surprise to anyone who knew anything of the anatomy of a fish when they gutted it and cleaned it that it had a lung in there. It's a Eureka moment.
Kim McKay: Well, we've got lots of Eureka moments in this cabinet, I can tell you. Now, why is there a pig there, do you think?
Charles Wooley: And a lovely looking little pig about the size of a spaniel, he's in good condition, he's got quite long hair and he has a rather charming face.
Kim McKay: He does…
Charles Wooley: And little sitting-up ears.
Kim McKay: That's right, and he's a piglet, and of course…
Charles Wooley: And I can't see a tail.
Kim McKay: He's the educated pet pig from New Guinea. Krefft went on an expedition to Papua New Guinea and he bought back a very similar pig to this and it became his pet. And as we know, pigs are very intelligent creatures, said to be more intelligent than dogs even. Now, I've got to point something else out to you that's at the back here. Two women worked here, botanists and artists, science illustrators, the Scott sisters, Harriet and Helena Scott, and they worked here at the time of Gerard Krefft, and we believe they were the first paid women artists in the colony. And these women were exquisite scientifically accurate drawers of moths and butterflies.
Charles Wooley: They had an interesting life, didn't they. Their father conscripted them to do his work.
Kim McKay: That's right, their father was very famous, AW Scott, he was an entomologist, and so the girls grew up drawing moths and butterflies in the garden.
Charles Wooley: But they were the unsung heroes, the illustrators. You have singled them out and rescued them from oblivion and put them where they belong.
Kim McKay: Well, we were very fortunate at the Australian Museum that we were left the Scott sisters' collection, and we have been celebrating it as part of our 190th anniversary because these women, not only do we think they were the first paid artists in the colony, but they both wrote that they wanted to go to university and study science, but of course they weren't allowed to.
Charles Wooley: No, that's right, and anyway they were cheap labour for the scientists who took all the credit. They illustrated Krefft's book of snakes.
Kim McKay: They did in fact, Harriet did, and we think Harriet had a bit of a thing for Gerard Krefft but it was not realised. He ended up marrying the milkmaid on Ash Island where the Scott sisters lived and she became Mrs Krefft, and they had a couple of sons here at the museum and their descendants still live in Sydney to this day.
Charles Wooley: So it was unrequited love?
Kim McKay: I don't know if it was unrequited…
Charles Wooley: Oh you think there might have been something happening…
Kim McKay: I think maybe there was just an accident.
Charles Wooley: I had been thinking before you told me that what a marvellous movie, what a wonderful Australian movie the Scott sisters would make.
Kim McKay: The Scott sisters, with Gerard Krefft making guest appearances maybe. You know, the other thing I've got to tell you, you commented about Krefft's chair, well, of course this is the chair he was sitting on the night he was evicted from the museum. Because of the conflict between Krefft and the trustees of the museum, there was this ongoing battle, they wanted him out of the museum, so they had a government enquiry into him, so nothing much has changed in New South Wales in that time, and they accused him of theft. Well, there was an enquiry and they found him not guilty of stealing anything, but what they did find him guilty of was wilfully smashing a fossil jawbone (I hope it wasn't one of those Diprotodon jawbones), and occasional drunkenness. And I can tell you, after a few years I've been here at the museum I get the occasional drunkenness.
But anyway, poor old Krefft didn't win. The trustees hired two prize fighters from a local bazar and…where we are situated here is across the road from Hyde Park in Sydney, and there was a racetrack there, and in those days wherever there was a racetrack there were lots of nefarious characters, and there was a boxing ring. So two prize fighters were hired, came over to the museum, broke down the door of the museum. And Krefft lived here on site, the curators directors lived at the museum. He was sitting in that very chair and they picked up the chair with him in it, carried him out and put him on William Street and he was never allowed back in the museum.
Charles Wooley: Is that the way they will get you out of the place?
Kim McKay: Well, believe it or not Charlie, it has sort of become a tradition now that when a director leaves they are carried out on a chair, and I say it'll take a couple of hefty blokes to do that for me.
Charles Wooley: Where will we find those prize fighters?
From 18 million treasures in the Australian Museum we've selected just 200 for you to consider. But even exploring this distillation is going to take us on a long and exciting adventure. I hope you will join Australian Museum director Kim McKay and myself as we continue our extraordinary odyssey through the collections of the Australian Museum. And of course you can see it for yourself in the Westpac Long Gallery at the Australian Museum in Sydney. I'm Charles Wooley.
Kim McKay: And I'm Kim McKay.
Charles Wooley: We'll see you next time.