The History of Museum Victoria

Many of the earliest European settlers of Melbourne were educated men, determined to create a grand city. Within the city’s first decade, these men had established circulating libraries and gentlemen’s clubs, and created the first collection in the Melbourne Mechanics Institution.

Melbourne’s first public museum, the National Museum of Victoria, was established in 1854. It focussed on natural history, economic botany and geology. Established at the Assay Office in La Trobe Street, scientific rivalries and funding problems saw its removal to the University in 1856. Under the direction of Frederick McCoy, who was to run the museum until his death in 1899, the National Museum’s collections encompassed industry, technology and natural history.

Interior of the National Museum of Victoria, 1957

A black & white engraving depicting the interior of the National Museum 1857, showing cases with specimens in and on them, and members of the public engaging with the displays.
Illustrator: Samuel Calvert, Source: La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria

By 1860 annual visitors to the National Museum exceeded 35,000 – almost 7% of the colony’s population. The museum’s aim was to educate. Its models of gold-mining techniques were so detailed and instructive that novice gold seekers were encouraged to study them en route to the diggings.

That educative goal was shared by the Industrial and Technological Museum founded in 1870. Under the direction of James Cosmo Newbery, the nucleus of the Industrial and Technological Museum’s collection was drawn from material exhibited at the Intercolonial Exhibition of 1866-67, and the mining and agricultural collections transferred from the National Museum.

Mineralogy Collection, Industrial and Technological Museum, 1872

Black and white photograph of the interior of the Industrial and Technological Museum, 1872, showing cases with rocks.
Photographer: Charles Nettleton, Source: La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria

The Industrial and Technological Museum (later known as the Science Museum) shared a site with the Public Library on Swanston Street. The National Museum joined them in 1899. The two museums were united to form Museum Victoria in 1983. Melbourne Museum opened on its present site in 2000.

McCoy Hall, National Museum, Swanston Street, c. 1911

McCoy Hall, National Museum, Swanston Street, c. 1911
Photographer: Unknown, Source: Museum Victoria

Frederick McCoy

1823?–1899

Frederick McCoy, c. 1870

Frederick McCoy, c. 1870
Photographer: Johnstone, O'Shannessy & Co., Source: La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria 

Dublin-born naturalist Frederick McCoy came to Melbourne in 1855 as professor of natural science at the new University of Melbourne. From this platform he cemented his reputation, becoming Director of the National Museum in 1858, State Palaeontologist and President of the Royal Society of Victoria, amongst a host of other responsibilities.

With the charm, tenacity and gall to get what he wanted, his capacity for conflict was legend, while his irrepressible self-confidence was both admired and parodied.

McCoy corresponded widely with his peers in Europe and America, exchanging ideas and specimens and laying the basis for the museum’s collections.

James Cosmo Newbery

1843 –1895

James Cosmo Newbery

James Cosmo Newbery
Photographer: Unknown, Source: La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria

James Cosmo Newbery was a Harvard trained chemist, who before taking up an appointment as analyst to the Victorian Geological Survey in 1865 worked briefly at the Royal School of Mines in London.

In 1870, Newbery was appointed Scientific Superintentdent of the Industrial and Technological Museum, a post he held until his death in 1895. He modelled the new Industiral and Technological museum on industrial museums in Dublin and Edinburgh, separating the collections into four main sections – geological, zoological, phytoloigcal and machinery and models of invention.  Newbery actively developed the museum trustees' policy for technical education; within the first year courses were offered in chemistry, metallurgy, geology, physiology, astronomy and telegraphy.

A respected scientist and administrator, Newbery was appointed honorary superintendent of juries and awards for the 1880 International Exhibition in Melbourne, and C.M.G. in 1881.

Visitor Information

Several objects from the National Museum and Industrial and Technological Museum can be seen in The Melbourne Story exhibition, now showing at Melbourne Museum

Further Reading

Rasmussen, C. 2001. A Museum for the People. Scribe Publications, Melbourne.

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