MV Blog

DISPLAYING POSTS TAGGED: museum history (4)


by Kate C
Publish date
9 March 2014
Comments (1)

Harry Telford bought Phar Lap at auction for 160 guineas, back when Big Red was known only as "Good Walker, Great Shoulder, Very Strong Made Colt".

horse auction catalogue The page from the Annual New Zealand Thoroughbred Yearling Sales on 24 Jan 1928, with hand-written notes about Harry Telford's purchase. (HT 8465)
Source: Museum Victoria

There were 160 tradesmen working in the Engineering Workshops of the Kodak factory complex in Coburg.

Photo of Kodak workshop Men operating machinery in the Kodak Engineering Workshop, Coburg, circa 1963. (MM 95964)
Source: Museum Victoria

Harry Johns drove his famous boxing troupe around in a bright red, customised International AR 160 Series truck.

Harry Johns' boxing truck Harry Johns' boxing troupe truck. (SH 961969)
Source: Museum Victoria

This centuries-old English penny in our Numismatics Collection was given the registration number NU 160.

Edward 1 penny Penny, Edward I, England, 1280-1281 (NU 160)
Source: Museum Victoria

And today, Museum Victoria is 160 years old! On 9 March 1854, the Assay Office in La Trobe Street opened to the public. Surveyor-General Andrew Clarke arranged for two rooms on the first floor of the Assay Office to be aside for the new Museum of Natural History and its collections.

This letter from the Public Records Office of Victoria records the formal permission granted the newborn museum by Assay Master Dr Edward Davy. (We assume Clarke had taken the liberty of moving a few specimens in before the official word arrived.)

Letter from Assay Master Dr Edward Davy Copy of letter to Surveyor-General Andrew Clark from Assay Master Dr Edward Davy, 1854.
Source: PROV

Government Assay Office
Melbourne 28th Apr 1854
In reply to your letter of 22nd inst enquiring what accommodation can be given at the Assay Office for receiving Specimens which may, from time to time, be forwarded to the intended Museum of Natural History, I have the honor to state that there are at present, two rooms on the first floor of the building disposable for the purpose referred to.
I have the honor to be, Sir, Your most Obdt Servant,
E. Davy
Assay Master


Now we just need to figure out how to fit 160 candles on a birthday cake... I think we're going to need two cakes.

Boy with two cakes Boy with two cakes on his third birthday, Prahran, 1942. (MM 110629)
Source: Museum Victoria

The McCoy Project

by Robin Hirst
Publish date
1 October 2013
Comments (0)

Dr Robin Hirst is the Director of Collections, Research and Exhibitions at Museum Victoria.

On Wednesday 18 September, Museum Victoria and the University of Melbourne launched the McCoy Project. This initiative will foster collaborative research between our two institutions, formalising a tradition that stretches back almost 160 years.

Event Organisers of the McCoy Project Launch At the McCoy Project launch: (L-R) Dr Robin Hirst, Director, Collections, Research and Exhibitions, Museum Victoria; Susannah Morley, Research Collaboration Manager, University of Melbourne; Ms Christine Tipton, Business and Grants Manager, Collections, Research and Exhibitions, Museum Victoria; Professor Mark Hargreaves, Professor, Department of Physiology, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research Partnerships), University of Melbourne.
Image: Les O'Rourke Photography
Source: University of Melbourne

The McCoy Project is named after Irishman Fredrick McCoy, one of four inaugural professors appointed by the University of Melbourne in 1854. When he arrived, the newly-established National Museum of Victoria occupied a couple of rooms in the Old Assay Office in La Trobe Street.

McCoy was desperate to have the museum and its collections at the university in Carlton, despite fierce public opposition. McCoy had a victory when the University Council provided funds to build a museum wing on the north side of the Quadrangle. Now he just needed the collections.

In July 1856, McCoy took direct action and transported the contents of the museum from the city to the university. Melbourne society was outraged. The Melbourne Punch had a field day, and published a highly critical poem. It talks of McCoy, William Blandowski the museum’s first curator, and Ferdinand von Mueller, the colony’s botanist.

There was a little man,
And he had a little plan,
The public of their specimens to rob, rob, rob,
So he got a horse and dray,
And he carted them away,
And chuckled with enjoyment of the job, job, job.

Blandowski’s pickled possums,
And Mueller’s leaves and blossoms,
Bugs, butterflies, and beetles stuck on pins, pins, pins,
Light and heavy, great and small,
He abstracted one and all –
May we never have to answer for such sins, sins, sins.

There were six foot kangaroos,
Native bears and cockatoos,
That would make a taxidermist jump for joy, joy, joy,
And if you want to know,
Who took them you should go,
And seek information from McCoy, Coy, Coy.

When one’s living far away,
Up the country dare I say,
It’s very nice to have such things at hand, hand, hand,
Yet it don’t become professors,
When they become possessors,
Of property by methods contraband, band, band.

cartoon in Punch, 1856 Caroon titled 'The successful foray: or the professor's return'
Source: Melbourne Punch, 14 August 1856

McCoy’s museum outgrew the space in the Quadrangle, and he had a new National Museum building erected on adjacent land (where Union House now stands). The public were gradually persuaded to make the trip to the ‘country’ to visit the thriving new museum and its big new exhibitions. And so the progenitor of Museum Victoria remained on University of Melbourne turf until McCoy died in 1899, when the authorities moved everything back to a city site - the State Library building.

With this shared history in mind, the university and the museum held a workshop in September 2012 to explore how we might work more closely together for our mutual benefit. From that sprang the Research Discovery Day in May 2013, where 100 researchers gathered to look at our collections and discuss research projects. Their enthusiasm was palpable and the McCoy Project was born. Its first initiative, the McCoy Seed Fund, will help get new collaborative projects off the ground.


The McCoy Project

The art of the diorama

by Alice Gibbons
Publish date
7 September 2012
Comments (3)

Alice interned with MV for her Master of Art Curatorship at University of Melbourne. She researched science and medical themes for the upcoming Think Ahead exhibition at Scienceworks.

kangaroo diorama Eastern Grey Kangaroo diorama. Scenery painted by George Browning.
Source: Museum Victoria

At the height of their popularity in the 20th century, museum dioramas could be found in almost every natural history museum, both locally and internationally, and in a variety of shapes, forms and genres. In Australia, the former National Museum of Victoria, the Australian Museum in Sydney, the Australian War Memorial and the South Australian Museum were all eager to adopt this method of display from the 1920s onwards and allocated significant funds and energy into producing many fine examples of this art form.

Museum dioramas are three-dimensional life sized or scaled down models usually depicting a natural scene or historical event for the purpose of education and entertainment. In most cases they employ a painted backdrop combined with realistic foreground to create a trompe l'oeil effect, evoking the illusion of a real scene.

three women working Young volunteers preparing leaves for a diorama, circa 1940s.
Source: Museum Victoria

At its former location in Swanston St, Museum Victoria had an impressive array of dioramas. The earliest in the collection, initially built for the 1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London, illustrated scenes of Australian Aboriginal life. Another display, The Victorian Fauna Series, was first prepared in the 1940s and was housed in the alcoves of McCoy Hall. It remained on display until the closing of the Swanston Street museum in 1998. Other examples, such as the Lion diorama built in 1928, and the Polar Bear diorama built in 1930 were dismantled in 1973 and 1984 respectively.

Polar bear diorama Polar Bear diorama built in 1930 at the National Museum.
Source: Museum Victoria

Lion specimens in diorama African Lion diorama built in 1928. Preparation by Charles Brazenor and scene painting by Louis McCubbin.The lion on the left is now on display in the Wild exhibition.
Source: Museum Victoria

Today some of the remnants of these displays persist, but are relegated to the collection stores of the museum, where intact scenes are shelved amid an array of taxidermied animal specimens. Hidden in their custom-built boxes, these smaller examples of habitat dioramas were at one stage earmarked for display but were replaced with more contemporary purpose-built exhibits, such as those found within the Wild: Amazing Animals in a Changing World and 600 Million Years: Victoria evolves exhibitions. Unlike their static historical counterparts, these new examples such as the Mallee Fowl diorama and Qantassaurus diorama employ interactive components, ranging from peep-holes to animatronics, to bring this historical method of display into the 21st century.

children in museum Visiting children enthralled by the animatronic Qantassaurus diorama in Melbourne Museum's 600 Million Years: Victoria evolves exhibition.
Image: Dianna Snape
Source: Museum Victoria

To my knowledge, there are only a few examples of intact historical habitat dioramas currently on display in Australia. The oldest example is found within the skeleton gallery of the Australian Museum in Sydney; almost completely obscured, the Lord Howe Island diorama from 1921 can only be seen through several narrow peep-holes. The South Australian Museum has also retained one of its historical bird dioramas. Built in 1939, the Cormorant Rookery remains in its site-specific location to be included within the museum's recent South Australian Biodiversity Gallery redevelopment.


'The McCoy Hall Victorian Fauna Dioramas: at least some things stay the same' by John Kean. From A Museum for the People by Carolyn Rasmussen.

Farewell to John Kendall (1926-2011)

by Richard Gillespie
Publish date
30 June 2011
Comments (2)

Dr Richard Gillespie is a historian and the head of the History and Technology Department at Museum Victoria. He wrote this guest post in tribute to F. John Kendall, former Director of the Science Museum of Victoria, who died on 20 June 2011.

I never worked with John Kendall. He had retired six years before I joined the museum in 1990. But I met him at the opening of Scienceworks in 1992 and at later special events.

John Kendall John Kendall, newly appointed as Director of the Science Museum of Victoria, 1975.
Source: Museum Victoria

At John’s encouragement I would call him at home whenever I was puzzled by something in a museum file, or the file didn’t seem to tell the whole story about how we acquired an object. John could always be relied on to give me a full account of the events that might have happened 30 or more years previously with astonishing recall and accuracy. Having neatly summarised an event, John would finish off with ‘You’ll be able to find all the details in File 64F’.

John trained as an agricultural scientist at the University of Melbourne in the late 1940s, and after graduating worked at the government fruit cool stores at Melbourne’s Victoria Docks. A chance encounter led to him discovering that there was a job as an agricultural scientist vacant at the Museum of Applied Science. He knocked on the director’s door and landed the job. He would later recall: ‘I adapted instantly to the Museum environment. I was paid for doing what I loved doing’.

In what was a small institution running on a tiny budget, John’s curatorial work included designing and even building new displays. He measured and cut the backing boards for the existing showcases, and breaking with tradition, he rejected the traditional white gloss paint in favour of pink, blue and green paint. Then he sat down to cut out the letters with stencils for the headings, and type the labels.

John Kendall and Ruth Leveson John Kendall and Ruth Leveson, early 1980s.
Source: Museum Victoria

John made a huge impact on the museum’s collections, particularly by documenting and collecting significant Victorian and Australian inventions. The museum had acquired the first Australian-built aircraft, John Duigan’s 1910 biplane, back in 1920. But it was John Kendall that conducted the research that documented this landmark in Australian aviation. Happily John was able to attend the Duigan centenary celebrations held by the museum last year.

He believed passionately that as well as understanding contemporary scientific and technical principles, students and scientists alike needed to appreciate the history of scientific and technical development.

Intrigued by the fact that the museum held one of the suits of the Kelly Gang armour, John became historical detective and tracked down the other three sets of armour; one set was cast aside in the police horse stables in South Melbourne, a kind of government dumping ground for old things from which John rescued other historic artefacts.

In 1975 John became director of the Science Museum of Victoria. He was to be its last, as in 1983 the National Museum and Science Museum were merged into Museum Victoria. The consummate administrator, John wrote much of the Museums Act of 1983, and was acting director of the merged institution until a director was appointed. On his retirement he continued as a museum consultant, notably providing advice on the development of science museums in India for the Indian Government and International Council of Museums. A Rotarian for over 30 years, John chaired the local committee that organised the World Congress of Rotarians in Melbourne in 1993.

I will miss those phone conversations, but I know I will constantly encounter John’s precise and instructive notes in our museum archives, whenever I am searching for additional information about an object.

John Kendall on bike John Kendall riding his bicycle.
Source: Museum Victoria

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Updates on what's happening at Melbourne Museum, the Immigration Museum, Scienceworks, the Royal Exhibition Building, and beyond.