A Birth Of A Museum

In another part of the world, Sydney Australia, discussion about the idea of the establishment of a museum in the growing colony had been floated publicly through an editorial that appeared in a Sydney newspaper during the month of June in 1827. In this newspaper, the following statement was offered:

Quote ”Amongst other improvements, in these times, would there be any harm in suggesting the idea of founding an Australian Museum? The earlier that an institution is formed, the better it will be for posterity.”

Specifically ”who” it may have been that first planted the idea is unrecorded, however it would not be unreasonable to presume that the arrival of Alexander Macleay as the new Colonial Secretary to the coloy in January 1826, may have had something to do with the stimulus of such a noble idea. Macleay was a fellow of the Linnean Society of London and had been honorary secretary of that prestigious institution from 1798 until 1825. Resigning this position at the express request of Earl Bathurst, Secretary of State for the Colonies so as to become head of the public service of New South Wales. Macleay brought with him from London his own collection of insects and continued to add to it during his time in Australia. He eventually created a valuable private collection of considerable scientific value, one that was in later years to become the basis of the Macleay Museum of the University of Sydney.

In March of 1827, a dispatch from Bathurst to the Lt General Darling in Sydney is noted in which favour is expressed at the formation of a Public Museum at New South Wales, coupled with provisions by the Colonial Office in London to allocate 200 pounds per annum and a ‘‘suitable young man to the appointment as zoologist’’ of the proposed project. The departure of Bathurst from the position of Secretary of State to the Colonies soon after penning this response to Darling saw a lapse in the momentum behind the establishment of a museum in Australia and it was not until 16 June 1829, that the original gesture by Bathurst to provide a suitable man for the museum was delivered in the appointment of William Holmes, a newly settled Carpenter and Joiner as Keeper of the New South Wales Museum.

The reason behind his selection remains somewhat of a mystery, though it is not improbable to speculate that some of Holmes first duties would have involved the construction of display cabinets to house the prepared specimens. Just exactly where the museum was housed is not known, however by 1830, it was a shed attached to a building located in Bent Street, Sydney at the rear of the Judge Advocate’s residence in quarters that had previously housed the Post Office. The appointment of William Holmes was to end suddenly with his tragic death at Morton Bay on August 24, 1831 where he was shot by accidental discharge of his gun whilst collecting birds and other curiosities for the collection.

The museum remained at Bent Street for about one year before being transferred after Holmes death in November 1831, to the old Legislative Council Building in nearby Macquarie Street, Sydney. An account of its presence by the distinguished naturalist Dr George Bennett around the year 1832 interestingly describes some of the material contained therein and is some of the earliest evidence available of conventional taxidermy practices employed in colonial Australia.

For the present the ornithological collection is by far the best both for the number, and being beautifully stuffed and set up in attitudes from which it is evident that nature has been closely studied.

The position of Colonial Zoologist, left vacant by Holmes death, remained as such for a period of over two years. Meanwhile, the collection, as Bennet’s account testifies, was operating quite well in the absence of its nominal head. Probably because it was housed in the same building as the Legislative Council, the clerk to the Council, Edward Thomson, assumed responsibility for its general administration appointing pardoned convict and former police officer William Galvin with the responsibility of care of the collection.

In 1834, Galvin was further assisted by John William Roach, a London taxidermist who at the age of 20 had been convicted of stealing, and as a first offence sentenced to transportation for seven years in Australia. He arrived in 1883 and two months later was assigned to the museum where he set about mounting the skins of birds left by Holmes. Thomson regarded him an expert craftsman and hence arranged for his employment to the museum. Despite his convict status, Roach traveled freely on his collecting trips and was assigned to Bennett to accompany Surveyor General Mitchell on his expedition of exploration in 1835-36.On his return, Roach was given a ticket of leave and formally employed by the museum as Collector and Preserver of specimens for the sum of 60 pounds per annum.

Roach left the services of the museum in 1840 and set up shop at 32 Hunter Street, Sydney.

Roach’s successor in August of 1840 was a 25-year-old Irishman by the name of William Sheridan Wall. Little is known of his early life in Dublin though reference is cited in the minutes to the Royal Dublin Society minutes in 1832 of his involvement as a cataloguer with his father Thomas Wall, a Museum porter for that society’s museum.

William Wall began his duties at the Museum as a collector and preserver, later he would become the third curator of the Museum’s collection.

ln 1853, Wall was joined by George French Angus as Secretary and accountant to the museum, a position that was to create uncertainty of administrative duties between Wall and Angus until finally, at the end of 1858 through ill health, the trustees retired Wall from the museum. Not long after, Angus soon found his own position under review as the Board of Trustees, led by the Governor of NSW and board member Sir William Thomas Denison, sought funding from the NSW Legislative council for expansion of the museum and employment of a new curator. Denison empowered George Macleay to consult with Professor Richard Owen on his return trip to England with the task of locating such a person to fulfil this position.

In a letter to Macleay, Denison made it apparent that any appointment would involve more than just curator duties and as such, hinted upon the fact that they may be able to do away with the position of Museum Secretary by someone who could satisfy both curator and ordinary clerical assistance duties, concurrently. This grossly tactless comment upon the value of Angus as Museum Secretary by none other than the most senior of public servants within the colony led Angus to respond by resigning on three months’ notice.

In due course, Macleay and Owen made recommendations for the appointment of Simon Rood Pittard, a former medical assistant of Owen who came with high regard. Pittard was appointed in London as curator of the museum, but at his first meeting attended by him in Sydney in 1860, was given the extra duties of secretary, but without increase in salary. In compensation, however, it was agreed that he should have a scientific assistant accustomed to clerical duties, a position that was taken up by an individual by the name of Gerard Krefft.

Pittard however, was not a healthy man, he was sick when he arrived at the colony, and by June 1861 was so stricken with tuberculosis that the trustees recommended he be granted paid leave to recuperate in the country. Unfortunately, Pittard died before he was able to vacate Sydney.

Johann Ludwig Gerard Krefft was born and educated in Germany. At the age of 21 he went to New York where he employed himself by copying the works of Audubon. From the library and from the proceeds he was able to finance his passage to Melbourne, Australia. He arrived in 1852 at the height of the gold rush where he worked for seven years in the fields as a miner before being employed by Professor Fredrick McCoy of the National Museum Melbourne as a collector on an expedition to the lower Murray River region led by William Blandowski.

When Krefft took over from where Pittard had left off, he was left with the unenviable task of ensuring that the designs for the extension to the museum along its present location on College Street were completed. Despite all its design faults, the extension tripled the exhibition space of the museum.