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Australia’s learned societies

European science advanced its common cause by the formation of learned societies and institutions that coordinated the activities of their members who engaged in a vigorous correspondence by both mail and publication. Australia embraced this tradition by creating its own societies, public monuments, and institutions, and instigating scientific journals that was all considered a necessary part of the improvement and progress of a civilised society. Scientific research was associated with its products of trade, manufacture, and technology. London’s Great Exhibition of 1851 served as an international example emulated across the world in similar trade exhibitions. This was an opportunity to elevate colonial life beyond that of the penal colony, land-acquisition, gold, and wealth generation by promoting civic virtue and the civilizing principles of the Enlightenment.


State Library of Victoria

State Library of Victoria – opened 1856
Formerly a building complex that included the National Gallery of Victoria (moved to St Kilda Road in the 1960s) and the State Museum of Victoria (moved to Carlton Gardens in the 1990s)
The Neo-classical architecture echoes that of the British Museum
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons


Australian museums were administered by men mostly well-educated in the classics and tradition of science, no doubt keen to maintain contact with, and no doubt impress, their senior colleagues back home.

As a convict colony it would be a while for the civic trappings of civilization to arrive although the European desire for Australian natural history specimens and ethnographic artefacts would be evident from the earliest days of settlement and in Britain alone there would be demands from and deference to … Kew Gardens, the British Museum, Linnean Society, Royal College of Surgeons and various other museums. Even so, newly-established Museums in Australia were generally poorly supported, both locally and by the British Foreign or Colonial Offices, so they were more symbols of tradition than bastions of empire. Much depended on the interests and inclinations of local curators and their immediate audiences and very soon tensions arose between goals of research and public education – with entertainment always part of the mix.

Though the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had produced some private museums it was mostly the public museum that was built with appropriate civic neo-classical architectural grandeur of the classically civilised world now extending to the colonies of Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and South Asia. In keeping with the classical tradition the first human artefacts, purchased for £320 by the Australian Museum in Sydney were 27 casts of Greek and Roman statues.

Australian Museum

From the earliest days of settlement the enthusiasm for natural history displayed by Cook and Banks was maintained if only for the lucrative sale of specimens back to Europe. From 1803 to 1812 Adolarius Humphrey held the position of Government Mineralogist. Under Governor Macquarie a Surveyor General’s Department was established in 1812, land survey proving a ready a source of specimens while the Botanic Gardens was established in 1816.

Following European tradition formal society membership was at first restricted to those with wealth and education. An Agricultural Society formed in 1818 was soon disbanded after disagreement over who could join. Then a group of leading citizens decided in 1821 to form the Philosophical Society of Australasia for ‘collecting information with respect to the natural state, capabilities, productions and resources of Australasia and adjacent regions, and for the purpose of publishing from time to time, such information as may be likely to benefit the world at large’ planning field trips and the storage of specimens in the Colonial Secretary’s Office in what was referred to as the Natural History Museum, both the society and museum folding acrimoniously in 1822, the year that the Parramatta Observatory was established.[2]

Alexander Macleay was appointed Colonial Secretary in 1826 with a background as a Fellow of the British the Royal and Linnean Societies and a collector himself. Although he had published little he supported the idea of a museum and in 1827 Colonial Secretary Lord Bathurst in London authorised £200 p.a. for a Colonial Museum in Sydney the sum to include a zoologist and collector but Bathurst left office and the project was put on hold until 1829 when Governor Darling appointed William Holmes as zoologist and museum curator. But when Holmes died in a shooting accident in 1831 responsibility for the accumulating specimens was handed to parliamentary clerk Edward Thomson and the two convicts William Galvin and John Roach. With Thomson’s establishment of the name Australian Museum in 1834 a secretary and curator George Bennett was appointed who by 1837 had produced a catalogue. An overseeing Committee of Superintendence under chairman Alexander Macleay had been formed in 1836. However the Committee met infrequently as curators came and went. A Sydney Mechanics School of Art founded in the 1830s had proved popular as a centre for general education.

Finally in 1845 parliament voted £3000 for a new museum to be built close to Government House, the Domain and Botanic garden and in 1853 the Museums Act allocated £1000 p.a. to the museum and a further £30,000 in 1861 for an extension that was completed in 1867.[3] Curator and evolutionist Johann Krefft (1830-1881) a palaeontologist, zoologist and herpetologist was appointed in 1861, moving from the museum in Melbourne and remaining in the Sydney position until 1873.

London’s Great Exhibition of 1851 on display in the stunning Paxton -designed Crystal Palace placed Britain and its empire firmly at the hub of international activity that reached out to the opposite side of the world. Here was a statement about the known world, its bounty, scientific merchandise and imaginative commercial displays of product and manufacture to stimulate trade – London was the outward-looking hub and exemplar for its colonies and the world. For the traditionalists there was the British Museum and National Maritime Museum at Greenwich and Royal Observatory with the Greenwich Meridian of 1851 placing Britain on the prime meridian of navigation charts as the longitude where East and West unite.

Ethnological collections in the Australian Museum were poor, only seven had listed in Bennett’s 1837 catalogue and only improving in 1853 and as an anthropological exhibit for the 1879 International Exhibition held in Sydney but there were also large private collections.

Alexander Macleay had a private insect collection and this was also curated by his son William Sharp who arrived in Sydney in 183?? , the collection maintained in a special museum in the family’s 54 acre property at Elizabeth Bay and this was supplemented by specimens from William John Macleay, Alexander’s nephew as well as additional specimens demonstrating different aspects of natural history. Much later, divided in his loyalties Alexander Macleay finally resigned the Select Committee of the Australian Museum in 1877, his collection passing in the 1880s to the University of Sydney along with an endowment for a curator.[4]

Edward Ramsay was curator of the Australian Museum for twenty years from 1874 in a period that saw a fire destroy the ‘Garden Palace’. Though primarily an ornithologist he greatly extended the collection especially the ethnographic section for both Aboriginals and the Pacific Islands and saw the introduction of the Museum journal The Records of the Australian Museum in 1890. Ramsay’s replacement, Robert Petherage, though a palaeontologist, also extended the ethnographic and archaeological collections studying cave paintings and anthropology and grounding the museum in sound research.

Ever since London’s Great Exhibition museums have encompassed technology, cultural history, manufacturing, a tradition taken up in Australia with the founding of the Technological, Industrial and Sanitary Museum established at the time of the international exhibition in 1879. Becoming the Technological Museum in 1893 it specialised in decorative arts, cultural and natural history competing with the Australian Museum and becoming the Museum of Arts and Sciences in the 1950s, moving to the power station of the tramway system in 1988 to evolve into today’s successful Powerhouse Museum while the Australian Museum continues along more traditional lines.

Van Diemen’s Land

In the Colony of New South Wales support for science had fallen into the doldrums from the time of Governor Thomas Brisbane in about 1821 until William Denison took office in 1855. Meanwhile across Bass Strait the Van Diemen’s Land Scientific Society established in 1829 had set out to establish an ‘Economic or Experimental garden … for eliciting and discovering the properties and uses to which the vegetable productions of the island may be applied and to ascertain the improvement which may be adopted in their cultivation’.[5] Today’s Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens began in 1818 as a Government Garden, expanded by Governor Arthur in 1824, the first Superintendent being William Davidson in office from1828-1834 . Enthusiasm for science was continued through the energy of Lieutenant Governor John Franklin and consort Jane Franklin in the years 1837-1843 with botanist Ronald Gunn initiating the Hobart Town Horticultural Society in 1839 also hosting Joseph Hooker, son (and later Director) of London’s Kew Gardens Director William Hooker.

British Admiralty interest in the earth’s magnetism in the southern hemisphere led to the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror expedition that prompted the construction of a Magnetical and Meteorological Observatory in the grounds of Government House and there were also visits from HMS Beagle collecting hydrographic information.

John Eardley-Wilmot was appointed Governor of Tasmania in 1843, the year that the Botanical and Horticultural Society of Van Diemen’s Land was formed to become, in the following year, the Royal Society of Van Diemen’s Land for Botany, Horticulture sand the Advancement of Science, the first Royal Society outside Britain and its charter ’the advance of science and progress in the colony’ was reinforced with a grant from London of £400 p.a.[6]

With the arrival of William Denison as Governor in 1847 Hobart and Launceston societies were united as the Royal Society of van Diemen’s Land which for a brief period until the early 1850s was the most active scientific body in Australia, until the discovery of gold in Victoria gave money and impetus to science on the mainland.

National Museum of Victoria

After settlement by pastoralists in the 1830s Charles La Trobe was appointed administrator in 1839. A well-travelled man of diverse scientific and other interests he arrived in the Port Phillip District to find a Mechanics Institute already in operation: this he encouraged so that by 1844 it included departments dedicated to birds, shells, plants, rocks, animals, anatomy Aborigines and more.

Melbourne had established a Botanic Garden in 1846 (Muller became Director in 1857), a free Public Library in 1854, a National Gallery in 1859 and an Observatory 1863. McCoy was been accused of being elitist but annual attendance increased from 53,000 in the 1860s to 130,000 in 1888 and from about 1870, when Melbourne had a population of about 150,000, was one of the colony’s greatest public attractions.[1]

Proclamation of the new Colony of Victoria came in 1851 as gold transformed the economic landscape and the white population of Port Phillip increased from 77,000 in 1851 to 540,000 in 1861. Rich pastoralists competed with newly affluent miners and businessmen.[7]

Though La Trobe advanced civic and scientific program by initiating a botanic garden in 1846 the Mechanics Institute did not quite meet scientific expectations. Wilhelm Blandowski a mining engineer from Silesia who had made a small fortune from gold in Castlemaine which allowed him to indulge an interest in natural history, became Government Zoologist in 1854, effectively the first curator after the museum’s establishment in the same year. From 1855-57 he went on collecting trips and was accompanied in 1857 by Gerard Krefft (later of the Sydney Museum) on an excursion to the Murray-Darling in which Aboriginals did most of the actual collecting, his results published in seven papers to the Transactions of the Philosophical Institute of Victoria. But he was a difficult character and clashed with the equally difficult second curator McCoy, finally returning, disillusioned, to Europe in 1859.[8]

Civic pride demanded a full-blown museum. The second curator and first Director of the National Museum of Victoria was Belfast’s Queen’s College Geology Professor Frederick McCoy (1817-1899) who arrived in 1854 when Melbourne was a thriving gold-rich colonial outpost. McCoy was Director from 1858 to 1899 while also holding the chair in Geology at Melbourne University from 1854 to 1899 and he inherited over 14,000 specimens from Blandowski. McCoy was Chairman of the Trustees of the Museum as well as the museum director and very influential within the colony as was the first president of the Victoria Institute Redmond Barry. rarely worked in the field, relying on collectors and exchange but rather haphazardly and distantly thus reflecting money, state patronage, and perhaps closed gentlemanly science rather than taking advantage of the enthusiasm of amateur naturalists as did Mueller from the Botanic Gardens with his botanical collecting network. A prolific publisher he produced seven decades of the Prodromus for zoology and palaeontology. Like other colonial scientists he relied on and deferred to the more established scientists like Richard Owen back in London but preferred a geographic theme of display to the evolutionary ones that were proving popular in England.

Both were Irishmen, urbane Redmond Barry had interests in fine arts, a public library and gallery and the museum: credited with founding the university he was its first Chancellor while McCoy was more brash and abrasive. Three of the first four professorships (commanding a salary of £1000 p.a.) were appointments from Trinity College Dublin. McCoy had catalogued museum collections in Dublin, Cambridge and Belfast (where he became professor of Geology and Mineralogy and museum curator) making his mark in palaeontology. As a generalist this seemed to also be his role in Melbourne where, for example, he also supervised the ‘systems garden’ at the university botany department.[15]

In 1856 he transferred collections from the Government Assay Office to the university, an unpopular move. However, with Blandowski’s fall from grace McCoy became museum Director in 1857 (he was also Government Palaeontologist) the same year of Mueller’s appointment as Director at the Botanic Gardens. McCoy remained a staunch anti-evolutionist claiming to have found geological evidence for biblical creationism. Though he published much he was accused of being an armchair natural scientist, upsetting both the university and the Chief Secretary’s department and taking little interest in the continent’s indigenous people. With the wisdom of hindsight he can also be viewed as an unwitting channel for the introduction of exotic fish, plants, birds, rabbits and sparrows. However he was acclaimed with medals and awards, and staged several successful exhibitions. True to his age he was also a prodigious worker and correspondent, personally classifying and recording all the new museum accessions.

In1863 he managed to instigate the construction of a Gothic-style dedicated museum at the university where academic research was its primary goal although it was only closed to the public on Sundays and attracted healthy numbers of visitors.

As a member of the technological commission he encouraged technical education and encouraged the establishment of the Industry and Technology Museum (ITM) which opened in 1870 as a utilitarian version of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. Public lectures were organised and among these was a series on economic botany by Thomas Macmillan, his daughter cataloguing the phytological section in 1882 and probably the first female museum employee in Victoria. Staff numbers were 7 in 1863 and 12 in 1868.[9]

A civic building program along Swanston Street had, by 1870, created the imperial neoclassical façades to the Library, Art Gallery and Technology Museum complex.(M p. 143) After the 1880s boom McCoy and his museum faded with the declining economy of the 1890s, the last years marred by fire and theft, until he died in office in 1899. The ITM was closed and reopened in 1915 as Queens Hall as a former part of the library amalgamating with the NMV in 1983 but all remained at Swanston Street until 2000 when all was transferred to the site of the Great Exhibition Building that was built in 1880.[10]

McCoy’s passing opened the possibility of renewal and this was introduced by Walter Baldwin Spencer (1860-1929) educated at Manchester and Oxford he was an ardent evolutionary biologist and became Professor of Biology at Melbourne University in 1887 introducing new laboratories, field trips and a museum, reinvigorated the Royal Society and Field Naturalists Club, and in 1894 joined a major scientific expedition into the Centre which stimulated his interest in ethnography and Aboriginal anthropology.[11] As trustee and Chairman of the museum committee Spencer slipped quickly into the museum directorship, an honorary post while he retained his academic salary. Memoirs of the National Museum, Melbourne was introduced in 1906. The museum was now concentrating research on physical anthropology and archaeology and Spencer, with others, was now becoming engaged with conservation issues and the possible gazetting of national parks, matters of public education, and an impressive personal collection of Australian art.

After Spencer’s enthusiasm the museum would not regain its drive until after the Second World War.

South Australian Museum

Even before the colonisation of South Australia by free settlers uncontaminated by a convict tradition respectable potential immigrants bent on the civilising influence of ‘literature, arts, history and natural science’, had gathered in London to form the South Australian Literary Association in 1834 intent on creating a society that was free from privilege and social status. (M, p. 156) Arriving in 1836 and surveyor William Light drew up the plan for a town called Adelaide surrounded by parkland. On the plan was North Terrace overlooking the Torrens, the town focus replete with Parliament, Government House, a museum, library, hospital, university, botanic garden, zoological garden, and railway station.

Early collections were sent mainly overseas although the Natural History Society of South Australia had launched in 1838. A Mechanics Institute and Library began a halting career. Following traditions elsewhere the first major scientific developments began with the formation of the Philosophical Society in 1853 initiating expeditions in 1854, 1857 and 1858, promoting the construction of a museum that was opened in 1861 with its first curator Frederick Waterhouse (1815-1898) who made insect and plant collections on Kangaroo Island before joining John McDouall Stuart on his transcontinental expedition contributing to exhibitions, accumulating specimens from the exploration that was occurring during his directorship, and sending perhaps too many precious specimens back to Europe. It was a thankless job that he finally left in 1882.

In 1874 the University of Adelaide was formed bringing botanist and geologist Professor Ralph Tate occupied the chair of Natural Science immediately reviving the Philosophical Society renaming it the Royal Society of South Australia in 1880. A Royal Commission had been appointed at th same time, meeting during 1873-1874 to plan a Gothic building comprising museum, library and art gallery the first part completed in 1882, the year Waterhouse retired.New curators included George Beazley, Wilhelm Haacke, as Director, also F. Andres and J. Tepper as collectors and A. Zietz as preparator. Unfortunately many specimens were lost to the museum, being sent to Europe.

A Public Museum, Library and Art Gallery Act of 1884 prompted the appointment of Edward Stirling to the museum subcommittee. A native South Australia educated in natural science at England’s Cambridge University and medicine in London he returned to the university in 1881 founding a medical school eventually becoming honorary Director of the museum in 1889 then with full salary in 1895 being involved with the museum until his death in 1919.[12] This was a period of museum reflection as the display of exhibits was made more appealing with dioramas and more engaging displays and information, Stirling learning from his visits to Europe and the United States. The second phase of the building was completed in 1895 when the museum became a distinct department and Stirling set about improving the ethnographic collection including anthropological specimens which, as elsewhere, had been noticeably neglected. Collection in the Northern Territory coming largely as a result of land appropriation.[13]

A new Director, Edgar Waite (1866-1928) was appointed in in 1914 who had ben educated in Manchester becoming a curator at Leeds Museum before taking charge of Canterbury Museum in Christchurch New Zealand. He oversaw further expansion of both the Gothic-style museum precinct and additional staff and founded the Records of the South Australian Museum in 1918. Further developments have include the addition of a Museum of Economic Botany at the Adelaide Botanic Gardens, and at the university museums of mining, geology and anatomy while the main museum provides an international class service to its patrons.[14]


1803-1812 Adolarius Humphrey Government Mineralogist
1816 Sydney Botanic Gardens established
1818 Agricultural Society, Sydney (soon disbanded)
1821 Philosophical Society of Australasia (1821-1822) becoming Australian Philosophical Society in 1850; Museum of Natural History (1821-1822)
1822 Parramatta Observatory (1822-1848, re-instituted in 1856); Agricultural Society of New South Wales
1818 Government Garden – to become the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens
1827 Colonial Museum, becoming the Australian Museum in 1834
1829 Van Diemen’s Land Scientific Society (1829-1831)
1830 Sydney Mechanics School of Art
1834 South Australian Literary Association (based in London) later South Australian Literary and Scientific Association
1838 Natural History Society of South Australia; Tasmanian Society (becoming in 1840 the Tasmanian Natural History Society)
1839 Hobart Town Horticultural Society
1840 Port Phillip Agricultural Society
1843 Botanical and Horticultural Society of Van Diemen’s Land (became in 1844 the Royal Society of Van Diemen’s Land for Botany, Horticulture sand the Advancement of Science); The Tasmanian Journal
1846 Melbourne Botanic Garden
1850 Australian Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Science, Commerce and agriculture (lasted 1 year)
1851 London’s Great Exhibition held in the Paxton-designed Crystal Palace
1853 Australian Museum, Sydney
1853 Adelaide Philosophical Society (later Royal Society of SA)
1854 Melbourne Museum with Wilhelm Blandowski Government Zoologist; Melbourne Public Library; Victorian Institute for the Advancement of Science (based on the BAAS) and Philosophical Society of Victoria, amalgamating to form the Philosophical Institute of Victoria in 1855
1855 Philosophical Institute of Victoria & first issue of its Transactions; Melbourne University
1856 Philosophical Society of New South Wales (1856-1865) becoming in 1866 Royal Society of New South Wales (1866-present)
1856 Victorian Public Library
1857 Transactions of the Philosophical Institute of Victoria (later Transactions of the Royal Society of Victoria (1860)
1859 National Gallery of Victoria; Uniting of former societies into the Royal Society of Victoria inaugurated by Ferdinand Mueller in 1860
1861 Victorian Acclimatisation Society; 1861 Victorian Colonial Exhibition
1862 Entomological Society of New South Wales
1863 Melbourne Observatory
1866 Royal Society of New South Wales (1866-present)
1866 Inter-colonial Exhibition in Melbourne
1870 Industrial and Technological Museum (opened in September)
1874 University of South Australia; Linnean Society of New South Wales
1875 Victorian Intercolonial Exhibition
1877 Transactions & Proceedings of the Philosophical Society of South Australia
1879 Sydney International Exhibition
1879 Technological, Industrial and Sanitary Museum to Technological Museum in 1893, Museum of Arts and Sciences in the 1950s and Powerhouse Museum in 1988
1880 International Exhibition (Great Exhibition Building (Royal Exhibition Building) completed and opened in October); Victorian Field Naturalists Club; Royal Society of South Australia (formerly the Philosophical Society); Museum of Economic Botany
1887 Adelaide Jubilee International Exhibition
1888 Centennial International Exhibition Melbourne
1890 Periodical The Records of the Australian Museum
1906 Memoirs of the National Museum, Melbourne
1918 Records of the South Australian Museum
1955 Muelleria Journal of the National Herbarium of Victoria
1970 Nuytsia Journal of the National Herbarium of Western Australia
1970 Telopea Journal of the Herbarium of New South Wales
1978 Journal of the Adelaide Botanic Gardens


Senior British administrators and academics at the time of Australian settlement would have received a classical education based on the assumption that the civilised man was well- versed in philosophy and the arts, skills that required an infrastructure of libraries, learning academies, galleries (classical temples) to display art and perhaps even sports stadiums. The word museum is derived from the Ancient Greek Μουσεῖον (Mouseion), a temple dedicated to the Muses, mythological Greek divinities devoted to the arts. These were buildings set aside for study and the improvement of the mind with important precedents in Plato’s Academy in Athens (considered the first museum) and the Musaeum and library of Ptolemy I at Alexandria a Greek colonial outpost in Egypt in about 280 BCE. No doubt similar institutions had existed previously in the ancient world, associated with royalty, the priesthood and other wealthy and influential citizens. Such institutions were the hallmark of breeding, learning and sophistication and were therefore a way of establishing civic gravitas and social status. While undoubtedly expanding the human mind such institutions could also create division between the elite ruling class and those whose lives were engaged in more mundane activities.

Undoubtedly cultural institutions like those described here served the Enlightenment model of advance in science, the arts, and commerce within the skilled government necessary for empire.

With that background the prosaic business of museum and institutional day-to-day survival would have turned on the vision of leaders and directors, the scramble for funding, mixed in with personality clashes and periods of neglect and disinterest. Australia was quickly versed in the new theory of evolution but mostly slow to take it up and through institutional recognition. In England biologist and palaeontologist Richard Owen had taken a special interest in Australia and the Pacific while bitterly attacking the new Darwinian ideas and he had considerable support from creationists in Australia including people like McCoy, Macleay and Mueller who always rejected evolution. Change came only with a new breed like Baldwin Spencer and Edward Stirling.

Much museum largesse was lost overseas, probably due to the constant pressure for novelty artefacts from new quarters of the globe, but also through the desire to impress and deference to European expertise and authority.
Although international exchange has always been part of museum culture Australia has now for many years followed its own interests and agenda within the broad Western tradition.

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