Foundations and early days

We date our foundation from a letter sent to Sydney in 1827.

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.


Vanessa Finney , Manager, Archives and Records
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