Grey Falcon

Video Transcript

This case is positioned in the 1850s to 1880s period of the exhibition, which deals with the idea of gold building the growth of Melbourne. At the beginning of this period, Melbourne's population was only 23,000 and yet, by the end - 1880 - it had exploded to over 850,000 people. Within the passage of only a few months in 1854, Melbournians saw the foundation of their public library, The University of Melbourne, The Age newspaper, and the National Museum of Victoria, and that's where this case comes in to the Melbourne story.

Histories of the museum from this period invariably centre around the director at the time - Sir Frederick McCoy. McCoy had the charm, tenacity and gall to generally get what he wanted, but his reputation for conflict was legendary.

So, whilst I love those stories about the scientific stoushes and McCoy's run-ins with the government over money, what I wanted to portray here in the case was the sense of wonder for natural history that people in the colony had at the time. Many of the scientific specimens in this case also reveal fascinating stories about colonial life.

A perfect example of this is the grey falcon. This specimen came into the collection in 1857 from the surveyor-general Andrew Clarke. Clarke was an active member of the scientific community and rightly saw that this was a valuable scientific specimen for the collection. But when we checked the acquisition notes from the time, it's revealed that Clarke captured the falcon in his home on the Merri Creek, and more interestingly, that he found it in his kitchen trying to make off with the chicken dinner.

Perhaps my favourite suite of objects from this case are the scientific illustrations that you can see at the back here. These illustrations form part of a much larger collection called the Prodromus Collection of some 1000 illustrations. They were commissioned from 1857 to 1897 by Frederick McCoy for the museum's first publication - the Prodromus. The Prodromus was a vast undertaking which drew on the work of various artists, lithographers, and invariably a lot of the government's money. The most prolific of these artists was Arthur Bartholomew, who was also Frederick McCoy's attendant. Bartholomew's illustrations reveal his fastidious nature in the lab and his working conditions. In the laboratory he would tend all the live specimens and illustrate them in the different stages of their life, and this methodology changed little over 40 years.

In 1859, to complete his study of seals, Frederick McCoy purchased a seal skull from Ludwig Becker, a naturalist and illustrator in Melbourne at the time. But again in the archive, we find an intriguing story behind this relatively simple transaction in the form of the letter from Ludwig Becker offering it to Frederick McCoy for sale. The letter reveals Becker's excitement at coming across this seal on Punt Road in the summer heat of 1859. "Young female seal, caught alive vis-a-vis Wilhelmi's residence, Punt Road not far from Gardiners Creek Road South. Sitting under a tree in the morning sun yesterday week. It was lively and galloped alongside Willhelmi, who was leading it home with a rope. It lived three hours after we caught it. But if you will buy it, I think it will be the means of completing your observations on seals."

This section of the case relates to the foundation of the Industrial and Technological Museum in 1870, and the wax fruit and vegetables that you can see formed part of the much larger economic botany collection. We have literally thousands of these wax models in the collection, and of the few that are here on display my favourite is the Bismarck, which is the enormous apple that you can see on the right. The specimen that came to the museum in 1875 came from a farmer by the name of Frick in Carriesbrook, near Maryborough in Victoria. The model itself was made by one of the museum's most prolific model makers at the time, Thomas McMillan. The album you can see behind the wax models was used by the model makers to record details about each of the specimens. In the album the model makers would render a watercolour. They would also record details of the grower, the district the fruit was from and any awards the specimen may have won at horticultural shows. Much later in the century with the development of colour photography wax modelling was no longer necessary. However, the collection of thousands of wax models remains an invaluable reference of heirloom fruit and vegetables.

About this Video

Bec Carland talks about several favourite objects in The Melbourne Story exhibition, including Grey Falcon
Length: 5:44