Australian Museum

Australian Museum

Australian Museum
Established 1827
Location College Street, Sydney, New South Wales
Director Kim McKay

The Australian Museum is the oldest museum in Australia,[1] 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.[2]


  • History 1
    • Establishment 1.1
    • Growth 1.2
    • Expansion 1.3
  • The building 2
  • Exhibitions and programs 3
  • Gallery 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6


Hyde Park with the Museum under construction in the distance, 1842
The completed Barnet wing of the museum circa 1870


The museum was founded in 1827, by Earl Bathurst, then the Secretary of State for the Colonies, who wrote to the Governor of New South Wales of his intention to found a public museum and who provided £200 yearly towards its upkeep.[3][4]

The establishment of a museum had first been planned in 1821[5] 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 in 1827 was probably a room in the offices of the Colonial Secretary, although over the following thirty years it had several other locations in Sydney, until it moved into its current home in 1849. This is a handsome sandstone building on the corner of College and Park Streets, opposite Hyde Park, designed by the New South Wales Colonial Architect James Barnet, and it was first opened to the public in May 1857.[6]

The first Custodian of the museum was William Holmes, who was appointed on 16 June 1829. He accidentally shot himself while collecting specimens at Moreton Bay 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 leading members of the political and scientific classes of Sydney; and scions of the Macleay served until 1853, at which point the Committee was abolished. In that year, the government enacted 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.[8]

The first curator of the Australian Museum was a well-known Gerard Krefft, who served until 1874, himself a published scientist. Krefft's 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.[9]

After a run of field collecting activities by the scientific staff in the 1880s and 1890s, field work ceased until after the First World War. In the 1920s, new expeditions were launched to New Guinea, the Kermadec Islands, and Santa Cruz in the Solomon Islands, as well as to many parts of Australia, including the Capricorn Islands off the coast of Queensland.[10]

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 renamed as Collection Manager.

During the 19th century, galleries had mainly included large display cases overly filled with specimens and artifacts. During the 1920s museum displays grew to include dioramas showing habitat groups, but otherwise the Museum was largely unchanged during the period 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.[11] The museum support society TAMS (The Australian Museum Society, now known as Museum Members) 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 Train which was an early outreach project. 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.[12] The Train ceased operations in December 1988 but the Museum\s outreach work in regional communities continues.

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

In 1991, the museum established Australian Museum Business Services (AMBS now known as Australian Museum Consulting), a commercial consulting and project management 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. These research centres have now been incorporated into the Museum's ongoing Natural Science collection programs.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.


In 2001 two rural associate museums were established, 'The Age of Fishes Museum' in Canowindra and the Australian Fossil and Mineral Museum in Bathurst, which includes the mineral and dinosaur Somerville Collection donated by Warren Somerville.

In 2008 a significant expansion took place on the College street site with the addition of the new Collection and Research building which added 5000 square metres of office, laboratory and storage areas for scientists. In the same year two new permanent galleries were opened Dinosaurs[13] and Surviving Australia.[14]

In 2011 the Museum launched its first App – ‘DangerOZ’[15] – about Australia’s most dangerous animals.

Under the oversight of the Museum’s previous director Frank Howarth (2004-2014)[16] there has been a number of temporary exhibitions. In 2012/13 the Museum hosted the largest collection of treasures ever to come to Australia from the State Heritage museum in St Petersburg, Russia with the staging of the major exhibition ‘Alexander the Great’.

On 19 February 2014, the NSW Minister for the Arts, The Hon. George Souris MP and the president of the Australian Museum Board of Trustees, Catherine Livingstone announced that the Australian environmentalist, author, entrepreneur and international marketing and communications consultant, Kim McKay, was appointed the 17th director/curator of the Australian Museum, to succeed Mr Frank Howarth.[17] at Australian Museum.

The building

The Australian Museum building was first conceived and developed along the contemporary European model of an encyclopaedic warehouse of cultural and natural history. It has evolved to encompass a range of different architectural styles.[18]

For 30 years the Museum was located in various government buildings until 1844 when the Colonial Architect, Mortimer Lewis, oversaw the construction of the sandstone building in the Greek Revival Style. It was opened to the public in May, 1857 where it currently stands on the corner of College and Park Streets, opposite Hyde Park.

In order to accommodate the expanding collections of the Museum, architect James Barnet was responsible for the construction of the neoclassical west wing along William Street in 1868. A third storey was added to the north Lewis wing in 1890, bringing cohesion to the building design.[19]

In 1963, the floor space of the Museum almost doubled when Joseph van der Steen under Government Architect, Edward Farmer, designed a six story extension linked to the Lewis building for the scientific and research collections, the reference library and a public restaurant. There were also two basement floors providing workspace for scientific staff. This International-style extension became known as the Parkes/Farmer eastern wing. In 1977, to mark the Museum's 150th anniversary, bronze lower case letters were added to the façade identifying the building as 'the Australian museum'.

The Collections and Research section was expanded in 2008, at a cost of $40.9 million with a new building adjacent to the Parkes Farmer wing facing William Street.

Exhibitions and programs

The Museum has hosted exhibitions since 1854 to the present day, including permanent, temporary and touring exhibitions, including Dinosaurs from China, Festival of the Dreaming, Beauty from Nature: Art of the Scott Sisters, Alexander and the Wildlife Photographer of the Year.[20]

Other audience engagement programmes include live displays to help demonstrate the behaviours and adaptations of animals, video conferencing and Museum in a Box for schoolchildren, as well as cultural heritage initiatives for Pacific youth and aborigines.[21]



  1. ^ Australian Museum, A Short History of the Australian Museum,
  2. ^
  3. ^ Watson, F. (15 May 2012). "Bathurst's Letter". Historical Records of Australia, Series 1, Vol.13. Australian Museum. p. 210. Retrieved 27 October 2012. 
  4. ^ Finney, Vanessa (30 May 2012). "A short history of the Australian Museum". Australian Museum. Retrieved 27 October 2012. 
  5. ^ Thomsett, Susan (January 1993). "A History of the Pacific Collections in the Australian Museum, Sydney". Pacific Arts 7: 12–19. Retrieved 13 August 2014. 
  6. ^ Finney, Vanessa. "A Short History of the Australian Museum". Retrieved 13 August 2014. 
  7. ^
  8. ^ Docker, Rose (15 May 2012). "The Museum's Early Days". Australian Museum. Retrieved 27 October 2012. 
  9. ^ "Records of the Australian Museum". Australian Museum. Retrieved 27 October 2012. 
  10. ^ Strahan, Ronald (1979). Rare and Curious Specimens: An Illustrated History of the Australian Museum 1827-1979. The Australian Museum. p. 137.  
  11. ^ "Curators and Directors of the Australian Museum". Australian Museum. 16 November 2009. Retrieved 27 October 2012. 
  12. ^ Network Published by the Railways of Australia Committee May 1978 p31
  13. ^ "Dinosaur Gallery". Australian Museum. 
  14. ^ "Surviving Australia Exhibition". Australian Museum. 
  15. ^ "DangerOz App". Australian Museum. 
  16. ^ "Frank Howarth". Australian Museum. Retrieved 27 October 2012. 
  17. ^ New Director
  18. ^ Proudfoot, Helen; Otto Cserhalmi & Partners (1984), The Australian Museum : a conservation analysis of the complex and its site with a statement of its significance, s.n.], retrieved 22 August 2013 
  19. ^ Jahn, Graham (2006). Guide to Sydney Architecture (Architecture Guides). Watermark Press.  
  20. ^ "Exhibitions Timeline". Australian Museum. Retrieved 22 August 2013. 
  21. ^ "Australian Museum Annual Report 2011-12". Australian Museum. Retrieved 22 August 2013. 

External links

  • Official website
  • Australian Museum -