Historical Collections in Australian Museums, 1800-1975

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Museums in Australia have existed since the early nineteenth century yet their focus for much of that time has been largely natural history, science and technology, and to a certain extent, indigenous populations. This article traces the history and changing role of museums in Australia from their foundation until the Pigott report in 1975, focusing on the motives behind what was and was not collected. Highlighting the general, though not total, absence of historical collections in Australian museums, it provides insight into how and why museums developed in the way they did, and why attitudes began to change by the 1970s. (1)

Museums in the Nineteenth Century

The majority of large museums and libraries in Europe began as private collections of royalty, nobility, and the very wealthy. In 1759 for instance, the British Museum was made possible by a bequest by Sir Han Sloane. Collecting was a privilege of the wealthy and collectors would often collect anything `old, unfamiliar or marginal'. (2)

This remained the case for much of the nineteenth century, though the motives behind the establishment of museums did shift. The enlightenment created a society curious about the world, at a time when nation was becoming increasingly important. Western societies became fascinated with collecting evidence of natural progress. Museums were conceived of as institutions of the nation. Chris Healy has argued:

   In the historiography of museums, the paradigmatic moment is the French
   Revolution after which the museums of the new Republic were transformed
   into representational spaces that refused the inevitability of dynastic
   order and installed the nation-state as the object of collective
   identification. (3)

`Discovered' and first settled by Europeans at a time when this age of scientific enquiry and interest in the unknown, it seemed only natural that Australians would begin to collect the wonders of the new world. Collectors began to amass examples of anything unusual or novel, from flora and fauna to Aboriginal skulls. Consequently, within fifty years of the first European settlement, museums began to be formed. (4)

The first museum in Australia was actually founded in 1821, as part of the Philosophical Society of Australasia. (5) Initially containing just seven members, the society aimed to collect `information with respect to the natural state, capabilities, productions, and resources of Australasia'. (6) The museum however was short-lived and closed a year later. In 1826 Alexander Macleay arrived in Sydney to take up the position of Colonial Secretary (7) and in 1827 a `Colonial Museum' in Sydney was first mentioned in despatches. (8) The Colonial Museum became the Australian Museum that exists today, consisting mainly of natural history and ethnological specimens, though the museum did not have a permanent site until 1849. (9)

Museums soon proliferated throughout the colonies, often originating from the private collections of similar Philosophical Societies, beginning with the establishment of a small zoological museum in Melbourne in 1854, followed by the Ballarat School of Mines Museum in 1856, the Museum of the Swan River Mechanics' Institute in Perth in 1860, the Adelaide Museum in 1861 and the Queensland Museum in Brisbane in 1862. (10) By 1870, the number of museums in Australia had increased to over a dozen, (11) Melbourne well illustrates the rapid rate at which these museums were founded in Australia. Within twenty years of the city being founded in 1835 it had a public library, university and museum. Redmond Barry pointed out in his address at the university's foundation in 1854: `Probably in the world's history no country had attempted to found both a University and Public Library within a score of years of its first settlement'. (12)

Early Australian museums tended to collect and display natural history and `curiosities', such as Aboriginal skulls. …