Australian Museum

Australian Museum
Australian Museum
Established 1845
Location College Street, Sydney, New South Wales Coordinates: 33°52′28″S 151°12′46″E / 33.874321°S 151.212732°E / -33.874321; 151.212732
Director Frank Howarth

The Australian Museum is the oldest museum in Australia, with an international reputation in the fields of natural history and anthropology. It features collections of vertebrate and invertebrate zoology, as well as mineralogy, palaeontology, and anthropology. Apart from exhibitions, the museum is also involved in indigenous studies research and community programs.

It is located in College Street, Sydney and was originally known as the Colonial Museum or Sydney Museum. The museum was renamed in June 1836 by a Sub-Committee meeting, when it was resolved during an argument that it should be renamed the Australian Museum.



Hyde Park with the Museum under construction in the distance, 1842
The completed museum circa 1900

The museum was founded on 30 March 1845, by Earl Bathurst, then the Secretary of State for the Colonies, who wrote to the Governor of New South Wales of his intent to found a public museum, and provisions to provide £200 yearly towards its upkeep.

The establishment of a museum had been planned in 1821 by the Philosophical Society of Australasia, and although specimens were collected, the Society folded in 1822. The year 1826 saw the arrival of entomologist and Fellow of the Linnean Society of London Alexander Macleay, who, after being appointed New South Wales Colonial Secretary, began lobbying for a museum.

The first location of the museum was likely a room in the offices of the Colonial Secretary, although for the next 30 years it moved to several other locations in Sydney, until moving into its current location in 1849. This handsome sandstone building on the corner of College and Park Streets, opposite Hyde Park, was first opened to the public in May 1857. It was designed by the New South Wales Colonial Architect James Barnet. The first chairman of the museum was William Holmes, who was appointed on 16 June 1829. He was accidentally shot while at Moreton Bay on assignment, in August 1831.

The Australian Museum, College Street, Sydney.

The Museum was administered directly by the colonial government until June 1836, until the establishment of a Committee of Superintendence of the Australian Museum and Botanical Garden. Sub-committees were established for each institution. Members of these committees were generally the ruling members of the political and scientific elite of Sydney; and scions of the Macleay served until 1853, at which point the Committee was abolished. In that year, the government drafted the Australian Museum Act, thereby incorporating it and establishing a Board of Trustees consisting of 24 members. William Sharp Macleay, the former Committee chairman, continued to serve as the Chairman of this committee.

The first curator of the Australian Museum was well-known naturalist George Bennett, appointed in 1835, who was the first to catalogue the Museum's collections. After his 1841 resignation, he was succeeded by Rev. W.B. Clarke until 1843, and then by William Sheridan Wall, a longtime collector with the Museum.In these early years, collecting was the main priority of the Museum. Specimens were commonly traded with English and European institutions.

The scientific stature of the Museum was established under the curatorship of Gerard Krefft, who served until 1874, himself a well-published scientist. His successor, Edward Pierson Ramsay, who served until 1894, greatly increased the recruitment of scientific staff within the institution. The museum catalogues, first documented by Bennett, were the first scientific publications by the Museum, but with the addition of science staff, and thereby, research output, in 1890 Ramsay started the Records of the Australian Museum a publication which continues to this day.

In 1918, the position of Curator was renamed Director and Curator, and from 1921, Director. In 1948, the Scientific Assistants (the scientific staff) were redesignated Curators and Assistant Curators. In 1983, during a period of reorganisation, the position of Curator was changed, becoming Collection Manager.

During the 19th century, galleries mainly included large display cases overly filled with specimens and artifacts. Displays grew to include dioramas showing habitat groups beginning in the 1920s, but otherwise, the Museum was largely unchanged during the timespan beginning with the curatorship of Robert Etheridge Jr (1895–1919), until 1954, with the appointment of John Evans. Under his direction, additional buildings were built, several galleries were entirely overhauled, and a new Exhibitions department was created. The size of the education staff was also radically increased. By the end of the 1950s, all of the galleries had been completely overhauled.

The Museum's growth in the field of scientific research continued with Frank Talbot, who succeeded Evans in 1966, and a new department of Environmental Studies was created in 1968. The museum support society TAMS (The Australian Museum Society) was formed in 1972, and in 1973 the Lizard Island Research Station (LIMS), was established near Cairns.

Officially launched on 8 March 1978 was the Australian Museum Exhibition Train. The train was described as 'a wonderful new concept of the travelling circus! The only difference is that the travelling Museum Train will bring school children and the people of NSW into contact with the wonders of nature, evolution and Wildlife.' The 2-carriage Museum Train was renovated and refurbished at Eveleigh Carriage Works, and fitted out with exhibits by the Australian Museum at a cost of about $100,000. One carriage displayed the evolution of the earth, animals and man. The second carriage was a lecture and visual display area. It was expected to take 2 years to visit all NSW centres connected by rail.[1]

Director Des Griffin, the successor to Talbot, oversaw extensions to the original Museum building, which were completed in 1988. His direction saw increased cooperation with Aborigines, leading to new exhibitions and policies, as well as repatriations of artefacts.

In 1991, the museum established Australian Museum Business Services (AMBS), a commercial consulting and project management consulting group. AMBS initially undertook ecological, Australian Aboriginal archaeological and exhibitions management consulting projects for a range of clients, and since 2007 has included historic heritage and archaeology in its range of expertise.

In 1995, the museum established new research centres in Conservation, Biodiversity, Evolutionary Research, Geodiversity, and People and Places. In 1998, the djamu gallery opened at Customs House, Circular Quay, the first major new venue for the Museum beyond College Street site. A series of exhibitions on Indigenous culture were displayed until the gallery closed at the end of 2000.

The current director is Frank Howarth.



  1. ^ Network Published by the Railways of Australia Committee May 1978 p31

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