Australian Museum

This article is about the museum in Sydney. For the museum in Canberra opened in 2001, see National Museum of Australia.
Australian Museum

The museum façade facing College Street
Location within Sydney
Former name
  • Colonial Museum;
  • Sydney Museum
Established 1827 (1827)
Location College Street, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Coordinates 33°52′39″S 151°12′46″E / 33.8774321°S 151.212732°E / -33.8774321; 151.212732Coordinates: 33°52′39″S 151°12′46″E / 33.8774321°S 151.212732°E / -33.8774321; 151.212732
Type Natural history and anthropology
Director Kim McKay
Public transit access

The Australian Museum is the oldest museum in Australia,[1] with an international reputation in the fields of natural history and anthropology. It was first conceived and developed along the contemporary European model of an encyclopaedic warehouse of cultural and natural history and 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. In the museum's early years, collecting was its main priority, and specimens were commonly traded with British and other European institutions. The scientific stature of the museum was established under the curatorship of Gerard Krefft, himself a published scientist.

The museum is located at the corner of William Street and College Strt 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]

Its current CEO and Executive Director is Kim McKay AO.


Hyde Park with the Museum under construction in the distance by John Rae (1842)
The completed Barnet wing of the museum c. 1870

The establishment of a museum had first been planned in 1821[3] by the Philosophical Society of Australasia, and although specimens were collected, the Society folded in 1822. An entomologist and fellow of the Linnean Society of London, Alexander Macleay, arrived in 1826. After being appointed New South Wales Colonial Secretary, he began lobbying for a museum.

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.[4][5]


The building has evolved to encompass a range of different architectural styles[6][7] and when its building expanded, it was often in conjunction with an expansion of the collections.

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 building of Sydney sandstone 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.[8]

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.[9]

In 1963, the floor space of the museum almost doubled when Joseph van der Steen under the 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".

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"[10] and "Surviving Australia".[11]

In 2015, the museum's carbon-neutral glass box entryway known as the "Crystal Hall" was opened. Designed by Neeson-Murcutt, it returned the entry to William Street and provided access via a suspended walkway.[12][13]


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.[14]

Curators and directors

The position of "curator" was renamed "director and curator" in 1918 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".

Order Officeholder Position title Start date End date Term in office Notes
1 William Holmes Custodian 16 June 1829 1835 5–6 years Holmes accidentally shot himself while collecting specimens at Moreton Bay in August 1831.[15]
2 George Bennett Curator 1835 1841 5–6 years Bennett was the first to catalogue the museum's collections.
3 The Revd W. B. Clarke 1841 1843 1–2 years
4 William Sheridan Wall A long-serving collector.
7 Gerard Krefft 1861 1874 12–13 years
8 Edward Pierson Ramsay 1874 1894 19–20 years Ramsay greatly increased the recruitment of scientific staff within the institution. The museum's 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 the present.[16]
9 Robert Etheridge Jr 1895 1918 23–24 years
Director and Curator 1918 1919
10 Charles Anderson Director 1921 1940 18–19 years
11 Dr Arthur Bache Walkom 1941 1954 12–13 years
12 Dr John William Evans 1954 1966 11–12 years
13 Frank Talbot 1966 1975 8–9 years
14 Dr Desmond Griffin 1976 1998 21–22 years
15 Dr Michael Archer 1999 2004 4–5 years
16 Frank Howarth 2004 2014 9–10 years
17 Kim McKay 2014 present 1–2 years McKay is the first woman to hold the position.[17][18]

Collections and programs

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.[19]

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 a new department of environmental studies, created in 1968.[20] The museum support society, The Australian Museum Society (TAMS), now known as Museum Members) was formed in 1972, and in 1973 the Lizard Island Research Station (LIRS), was established near Cairns.

The Australian Museum Train, an early outreach project, was officially launched on 8 March 1978. 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 two-carriage 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.[21] The train ceased operations in December 1988 but the museum's outreach work in regional communities continues.

In 1991, the museum established a commercial consulting and project management group, the Australian Museum Business Services (AMBS), now known as Australian Museum Consulting. 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 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 2011 the museum launched its first Mobile App – "DangerOZ"[22] – about Australia’s most dangerous animals.

In September 2013, the Australian Museum Research Institute (AMRI) was launched. AMRI's purposes are:


The museum has hosted exhibitions since 1854 to the present day, including permanent, temporary and touring exhibitions, such as "Dinosaurs from China", "Festival of the Dreaming", "Beauty from Nature: Art of the Scott Sisters" and "Wildlife Photographer of the Year".[24] In 2012-13 the museum hosted "Alexander the Great" which exhibited the largest collection of treasures ever to come to Australia from the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia.[25]

When the Crystal Hall was launched as the museum's new entrance in August 2015, the former foyer, the Barnet Wing, became the permanent gallery housing "Wild Planet" – a display of over 400 animals that explores and explains evolution and the tree of life.[26]

In 2015, "Trailblazers: Australia's 50 greatest explorers" opened, honouring the work of Bourke and Wills, Nancy Bird Walton, Dick Smith, Jessica Watson and Tim Jarvis, among others.

Other audience engagement programs 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 Indigenous Australians.[27]



  1. Australian Museum, A Short History of the Australian Museum,
  2. "Colonial Museum (1827-1834) / Australian Museum (1834- )", NSW Government State Records
  3. Thomsett, Susan (January 1993). "A History of the Pacific Collections in the Australian Museum, Sydney". Pacific Arts. 7: 12–19. JSTOR 23409019.
  4. Watson, F. (15 May 2012). "Bathurst's Letter". Historical Records of Australia, Series 1, Vol.13. Australian Museum. p. 210. Retrieved 27 October 2012.
  5. Finney, Vanessa (30 May 2012). "A short history of the Australian Museum". Australian Museum. Retrieved 27 October 2012.
  6. Museum website "Our buildings through time"
  7. 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
  8. Finney, Vanessa. "A Short History of the Australian Museum". Retrieved 13 August 2014.
  9. Jahn, Graham (2006). Guide to Sydney Architecture (Architecture Guides). Watermark Press. ISBN 978-0949284327.
  10. "Dinosaur Gallery". Australian Museum.
  11. "Surviving Australia Exhibition". Australian Museum.
  12. Croaker, Trisha (10 September 2015). "Ancient footprints lead way into new era at the Australian Museum". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 10 September 2015.
  13. Meacham, Steve (29 May 2015). "The Australian Museum's radical transformation". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 17 September 2015.
  14. Docker, Rose (15 May 2012). "The Museum's Early Days". Australian Museum. Retrieved 27 October 2012.
  15. "A Birth of a Museum
  16. "Records of the Australian Museum". Australian Museum. Retrieved 27 October 2012.
  17. "New Director". Australian Museum. 2014.
  18. Meacham, Steve (29 May 2015). "The Australian Museum's radical transformation". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 31 May 2015.
  19. Strahan, Ronald (1979). Rare and Curious Specimens: An Illustrated History of the Australian Museum 1827-1979. The Australian Museum. p. 137. ISBN 0724015248.
  20. "Curators and Directors of the Australian Museum". Australian Museum. 16 November 2009. Retrieved 27 October 2012.
  21. Network, published by the Railways of Australia Committee, May 1978, p.31.
  22. "DangerOz App". Australian Museum.
  23. Crossley, Merlin. "Right at the museum: collections give clues on climate change". The Conversation. Retrieved 2016-04-04.
  24. "Exhibitions Timeline". Australian Museum. Retrieved 22 August 2013.
  25. "Alexander the Great"
  26. "Australian Museum's Wild Planet exhibition brings dead beasts to life". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 2016-04-04.
  27. "Australian Museum Annual Report 2011-12" (PDF). Australian Museum. Retrieved 22 August 2013.

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