Curators and Directors of the Australian Museum
Since 1829, sixteen men have been curator or director of the Australian Museum overseeing its evolution from a one-man operation to an internationally recognized scientific institution.
A Note on Terminology:
The title 'Curator' was used until 1917, when the position was retitled as 'Director and Curator', then 'Director' only from 1918. The scientific staff, appointed from the later 1870s, were 'scientific assistants', known by their discipline eg Ornithologist, Conchologist, Zoologist. In 1948, they became known as 'Curators', a term used until 1984 when the positions of 'Collection Manager' were created and scientific staff used titles appropriate to their classification eg 'Research Scientist' (Ichthyologist).
William Holmes (-1831) Zoologist 1829-1831
William Holmes was a carpenter and joiner: the reasons for his appointment as collector for the new museum are obscure. Appointed on 16 June 1829, his tenure was brief as he was shot by accidental discharge of his gun on 24 August 1831 while collecting at Moreton Bay.
William Galvin "In Charge" 1831-1835
William Galvin, transported to NSW in 1826 and conditionally pardoned in 1832, worked from 1829 as a parliamentary messenger in the office of Edward Deas Thomson, who was appointed Colonial Secretary in 1837. After Holmes' death, care of the Museum's collections was added to Galvin's duties until the appointment of George Bennett.
Galvin was assisted by the convict John Roach, a trained taxidermist, employed as 'Collector and Preserver' of specimens or 'Collector and bird-stuffer' from 1836 to 1840.
Dr George Bennett (1804-1893) Secretary and Curator 1835-1841
George Bennett, a distinguished naturalist and medical practitioner, travelled extensively, visiting Sydney in 1829 and 1832, before settling there in 1835. Bennett had a close connection with Sir Richard Owen, regularly corresponding and sending specimens over 50 years.
Bennett lobbied for the position of Curator at the fledgling Museum, and was appointed in 1835. His major achievement was the publication in 1837 of the first published 'Catalogue of Specimens of Natural History and Miscellaneous Curiosities deposited in the Australian Museum', which then comprised 36 mammal species, 317 Australian birds and 25 exotic birds, 15 reptiles, 6 fishes, 211 insects, 25 shells, 57 foreign fossils and 25 'native ornaments, weapons, utensils'. The Museum's governing body, the Committee of Superintendence, established in 1836, rarely met during Bennett's tenure.
After his resignation in July 1841, Bennett resumed his medical practice and travels, publishing his 'Gatherings of a Naturalist in Australasia' in 1860. He was a Trustee of the Museum 1853-74.
Rev. William Branwhite Clarke (1798-1878) Secretary and Curator 1841-1843
William Clarke, clergyman and geologist, emigrated to Australia in 1839 for his health. He was on the Museum's Committee of Superintendence in 1840, when he succeeded Bennett as Secretary and Curator in August 1841. Clarke resided at Parramatta while he was Curator.
In 1843, during a time of economic depression, the Legislative Council abolished the position of Secretary and Curator. Clarke remained on the Committee of Superintendence and the succeeding Board of Trustees until 1874, a connection with the Museum of nearly 40 years.
The Clarke Memorial Medal of the Royal Society of NSW is named after him, and Clarke is remembered as 'the Father of Australian Geology'.
William Sheridan Wall (1815-1876) Curator c1844-1858
William Sheridan Wall succeeded John Roach in 1840 as collector and preserver, and moved the collections to the Court House in Darlinghurst. With Clarke living at Parramatta, Wall managed the Museum on a daily basis, and following Clarke's departure in 1843, acted as Curator, although when he was officially appointed is unclear. There are no records of the Museum's governing Committee of Superintendence from December 1843 to September 1845.
In 1849, Wall was living in the new but unfinished Museum at College Street. Wall is the author of the first 'Memoir' published by the Museum in 1851, the 'History and Description of the Skeleton of a New Sperm Whale, lately set up in the Australian Museum.' In 1858 Wall retired because of ill health
Simon Rood Pittard (1821-1861) Curator and Secretary 1860-1861
Simon Pittard studied at the Royal College of Surgeons, London, then worked at the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons as assistant to Sir Richard Owen. He was later medical practitioner, lecturer in comparative anatomy and director of Kentish Mutual Assurance. His friendship with Owen was instrumental in his appointment as Curator.
Pittard arrived in Sydney in February 1860 and died of consumption in August 1861. His short term of office was notable for the public lectures he presented on the classification of the animal kingdom.
Johann Ludwig (Louis) Gerard Krefft (1830-1881) Assistant Curator 1860-1861; Curator and Secretary 1861-1874
Gerard Krefft came to the Victorian goldfields in 1852. In 1857-58, he went as a collector on William Blandowski's expedition to the lower Murray and Darling Rivers, and was then employed at the Melbourne Museum to catalogue the expedition's collection. In June 1860 he was appointed Assistant Curator of the Australian Museum, then acting Curator and Secretary after Pittard's death.
Krefft built up the Museum's collections and won international repute as a scientist, corresponding with Charles Darwin, Sir Richard Owen and Albert Gunther of the British Museum. He was an early supporter of Darwin's theory of evolution. Krefft's discovery of the Queensland lungfish and its description in 1870, and his exploration of Wellington Caves in 1866, and writings of its fossils, are two of his significant achievements. During Krefft's time, Barnet's College Street extension to the building was erected (1861-1867).
He wrote over 150 papers and was an able artist. His major publications include 'The Snakes of Australia' (1869); 'A Short Guide to the Australian Fossil Remains in the Australian Museum' (1870), 'The Mammals of Australia' (1871) and 'A Catalogue of the Minerals and Rocks in the Australian Museum (1873).
In dispute with the Trust, Krefft was dismissed and forcefully and dramatically removed from the premises on 21 September 1874.
Edward Pierson Ramsay (1842-1916) Curator 1874-1894
Edward Ramsay, the first Australian born Curator, had an early interest in natural history, especially in ornithology. In 1867 he established a nursery on his share of the family Dobroyde Estate. He had no formal training in science but wrote many papers. With the patronage of WJ Macleay, he was appointed after Krefft's removal.
Under Ramsay's curatorship, the museum collections expanded considerably; he added 17,600 bird skins, including the Dobroyde Collection made by the Ramsay brothers. His 'Catalogue of the Australian Birds in the Australian Museum' appeared in 4 parts between 1876 and 1894. Ramsay started 'Records of the Ausralian Museum' in 1890. Between 1878 and 1888 scientific staff at the Museum increased from one to eight. In 1883 Ramsay visited London as official representative for NSW and Tasmania at the Great international Fisheries Exhibition and negotiated the purchase of Dr Francis Day's collection of Indian fishes for the Museum.
The Museum's ethnological and technological collections were lost in the Garden Palace fire on 22 September 1882: the Garden Palace had housed the Sydney International Exhibition of 1879. Ramsay actively worked to build up the collections again. During Ramsay's time, the 3rd floor was added to the original museum building and a new hall for ethnology built. In 1893, Ramsay took extended sick leave and resigned on 31 December 1894.
Robert Etheridge Jnr (1846-1920) Curator 1895-1917; Director and Curator 1917-18; Director 1918-19
Robert Etheridge Jnr trained as a palaeontologist. In 1866 he travelled to Australia to be assistant field geologist to the Geological Survey of Victoria. Returning to England in 1871, he became assistant in the geology department of the British Museum. In April 1887, Etheridge became palaeontologist to the Geological Survey of NSW and also to the Australian Museum. In 1887 he led a collecting trip to Lord Howe Island.
Etheridge was appointed Curator in 1895 (having acted in 1893). During his time, the museum building was enlarged with the erection of the south wing (the first part 1899-1901 and the upper level opened in 1910); public lectures resumed and cadetships were introduced. Etheridge's first years were through the depression of the 1890s, which brought funding and staffing cuts to the Museum.
Etheridge published over 355 papers, largely palaeontological but on ethnography as well. He established the separate Museum department of ethnography in 1906. Etheridge published important papers on the early history of the Museum in 1916 and 1919.
Charles Anderson (1876-1944) Director 1921-1940
Charles Anderson was appointed Mineralogist to the Australian Museum in July 1901. His research work was in morphological crystallography and the chemistry of minerals in Australia: he published the crystal measurements and drawings of 45 mineral species in Australia. He later moved to the study of vertebrate palaeontology.
Anderson was appointed Director on 14 February 1921. The 'Australian Museum Magazine' was started; and the display of animals in habitat groups instituted. Anderson wrote 'A Guide to the Australian Museum and its contents' in 1938. He retired in December 1940.
Dr Arthur Bache Walkom (1889-1976) Director 1941-1954
Arthur Walkom, a palaeobotanist, was Secretary of the NSW Linnean Society from 1919 until his appointment as Director of the Museum in November 1940. He had been appointed an Elective Trustee in April 1939, resigning on his appointment. A capable administrator, his time as Director was a period of little change or innovation.
Dr John William Evans (1906- ) Director 1954-1966
John Evans was appointed Director in 1954. An entomologist, he had worked at CSIR 1926-34, the Tasmanian Department of Agriculture 1934-43 and, in London, for the Commonwealth Institute of Entomology 1944-1948 and Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries 1948-1954.
Under Evans, major changes occurred. The William Street wing was built: the basement completed in 1960 and the upper floors in 1963. Major new exhibitions were started: there had been no major new gallery displays since Etheridge's time; only the group or habitat exhibits of the 1930s and 1940s. The number of scientific staff increased: the total museum staff increased from 45 to 75. Evans retired in January 1966.
Dr Frank Hamilton Talbot (1930-) Director 1966-1975
Frank Talbot, a marine biologist, was Deputy Director of the South African Museum in Capetown before his appointment as Curator of Fishes in 1964. In 1966 he was appointed Director.
During Talbot's directorship, a number of developments occurred including the establishment of a museum department of environmental studies in 1968, a field research station at One Tree Island on the Great Barrier Reef in 1966, and then at Lizard Island in 1973, an increase in scientific research grants, and increased temporary exhibitions. The Museum staff increased to 150 by 1976. The new Australian Museum Trust Act was enacted in 1975, changing the composition of the governing Trust.
After leaving in 1975, Frank Talbot has been professor at Macquarie University, Director of the California Academy of Sciences and Director of the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution.
Dr Desmond John G. Griffin (1938-) Director 1976-1998
Des Griffin studied as a marine biologist, particularly in the area of crustacea. He was appointed Assistant Curator of Marine Invertebrates in 1966, Curator in 1969 before becoming Deputy Director in 1975, then Director in 1976.
Griffin wrote many papers on museum management and policy. The return of cultural property was a major initiative of his directorship, and he was instrumental in the development of Museums Australia's policy 'Previous Possessions, New Obligations' in 1993.
Des Griffin was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 1990 in recognition of his services to museums.
Dr Michael Archer (1945-) Director 1999-2004
Mike Archer was appointed Director in 1999 while maintaining a formal appointment as Professor at the University of NSW. As an undergraduate he trained in geology and biology at Princeton University and gained consecutive Fulbright Scholarships for palaeontological research at the Western Australian Museum, Perth (1967-69) and a PhD in Zoology at the University of Western Australia (1976).
A vertebrate palaeontologist and mammalogist, he was Curator of Mammals at the Queensland Museum 1972-1978 and then moved to the University of NSW, where he was appointed Professor of Biological Science in 1989.
Throughout his career he has encouraged public education and involvement highlighted by his establishment of the Riversleigh Project. Exploration of the World Heritage fossil deposits of Riversleigh Queensland began in the 1970s and the Riversleigh Society was formed in 1986. In 1990 Mike won the inaugural Eureka Prize for the Promotion of Science.
Mike Archer left the Australian Museum in 2004 and took up a position as Dean of the Faculty of Science at the University of NSW.
Frank Howarth, Director 2004- present