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The National Museum of Victoria Mining Collection

Richard Aitken

During 1856-71 Professor Frederick McCoy, Director of the National Museum of Victoria, assembled a mining collection of international significance, comparable to collections of leading English, French and German state-run mining schools and technological museums. His stated aim was to form a didactic collection in anticipation of unskilled yet eager alluvial gold seekers visiting the Museum en route to the diggings, as well as a curious public. McCoy demonstrated basic techniques, tools and machinery - windlasses, puddling machines, pumps, crushers, stamping batteries and amalgamators - by commissioning both drawings and models. He also collected samples of rope and chain: the Victorian mid-century equivalent of a curator for a fledgling Information Technology collection assembling computer disks, printer cartridges or photocopy toner as the consumables of a contemporary workforce. A sectional model of a puddling machine, clearly showing its construction, demonstrated McCoy's desire for education and emulation: visitors could on request take measurements from the model.

mining model mm008108
The Clunes and Port Phillip Mining Company. A contemporary model by Carl Nordstrom of works at Clunes in 1858.
Source: Museum Victoria History & Technology Collection.

Likewise an extraordinary series of models, many with topographic detail - and now regarded amongst Museum Victoria's undoubted jewels - made by a Swedish miner, Carl Nordstrom, during 1857-9, had an appealing and accessible quality. They utilised materials found on site, such as coloured gravels and earths, with twigs for trees, and with their hand-painted lettering and intricately modelled figures had the fond charm a model railway village might conjure to later generations. Yet other exhibits depicting locally patented devices were constructed by Melbourne model makers. Integral to all the displays were descriptive labels, often intricately illustrated, and an inclusive thematic display in glazed timber cases backed by framed prints and drawings.

By this time earlier and simpler alluvial techniques, which required only the separation of gold from dirt, were challenged by quartz reef (or rock) mining. In the new technique, ore trapped in rocks was released by crushing then amalgamating, which necessitated increased sophistication in machinery, capital and labour. This shift was the first major challenge to McCoy's plans and he responded by broadening the collection, mindful of German state-run mines supported by impressive mining academies, and also of Cornish capitalists, employing trained mining managers to coordinate a corporate workforce. McCoy acquired exhibits from German mining academies, including tools, suites of metallurgical specimens and models of quite advanced machinery used in the Hartz Mountains, at Freiberg, and even from the Ural Mountains (much to the astonishment of a Russian admiral visiting Melbourne in 1863). Many of these, however, demonstrated processes suited to lead, silver, zinc and copper, metals not common in Victoria and certainly not likely to have a major economic benefit compared with goldmining. Others depicted machinery relying on water-power, ill-suited to the local geography and climate.

Despite their sophisticated purpose, the models, mostly of painted timber and often cut away to reveal mechanical details, still retained an accessible quality. Plates comprising Edward Heuchler's Scenes from a German Miner's Life (1857) were displayed alongside the models and these carefully drawn images of state-run enterprises bristled with didactic purpose, completely at odds with colonial illustrations which were prepared mainly to glorify shareholders. Nordstrom sailed for London in 1859 armed with letters of introduction and McCoy was thus able to obtain copies of English models to complement the German ones. By the early 1860s the ratio of colonial to German models was equal but the new English models soon tipped the scales towards the northern hemisphere.

The culmination of McCoy's mining collection is best illustrated in mid 1860s photographs of the Museum. These show that he eventually succeeded with some of his aims for the mining collection - notably comprehensiveness, general popularity, adequate space and interpretative displays - but history shows that he largely failed to educate or influence his intended audience of miners, surely a major yardstick for such an assessment.

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