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1850s: The Australian Museum opens its doors on William Street

By: Rose Docker, Category: Museullaneous, Date: 21 Apr 2017

With a handsome new sandstone building on William Street next to Hyde Park, the Australian Museum was the place to be seen in 1850s Sydney.

The oldest known photograph of the Australian Museum, about 1855.

The oldest known photograph of the Australian Museum, about 1855.
Photographer: Uknown © Expired. Courtesy of Mitchell Library.

It was a great time for the fledgling institution to be drumming up business for its new premises. People were flooding into the colony. Some were in search of financial wealth – following the discovery of payable gold near Bathurst in 1851 and others headed to Sydney for the academic riches on offer with the opening of Sydney University.

In 1852, with building works still underway, the Museum offered itself as the venue for the town’s next big social event. The Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, the Attorney General and even the Colonial Treasurer were drafted in to help organise the glamorous Chusan Ball.

The political and social elite gathered, celebrating the docking of the Peninsular and Oriental’s (P&Os) vessel Chusan, the first Royal Mail Steamer to arrive from Great Britain. The journey had taken only 84 days and this new high speed communication route was certainly worth toasting.

Two years later and with the building still not officially open to the public, the Museum’s busy Curator William Sheridan Wall staged another landmark event. The first public exhibition at Australia’s first museum.

On 14 November 1854, the Governor-General Sir Charles Fitzroy opened an exhibition of ‘natural and industrial products’ from all over New South Wales. Displayed in the Museum’s ‘Great Hall’ (todays Long Gallery) it was an exclusive preview of prized items destined for the 1855 Paris International Exhibition – and it caused a bit of a sensation.

The arrival of the Governor-General Sir Charles Fitzroy to open the first exhibition at the Australian Museum in November 1854.
 

The official catalogue, still held in the Museum’s Research Library, records the eclectic array of weird and wonderful offerings that had people streaming in. There were stuffed animals, botanical specimens, paintings, wood carvings, classical statues, mineral and gold specimens, textiles, preserved meats, colonial wines, kangaroo boots, dog carts and artificial teeth. There was a working model of an apparatus for ‘extracting Tallow from Sheep and Horned Cattle by Steam’, gold from ‘a Duck’s Gizzard’ and much more. There was literally something for everyone.

Artist’s impression of the interior of the ‘Great Hall’ during the first exhibition held in the new Museum building 1854/55.
 

When the finishing touches to the new building were finally completed, it then opened to the public on a permanent basis in May 1857. About 10,000 Sydneysiders and visitors poured in during the first week – that’s not bad for a town of just over 40,000!