CBD032-03.jpg (71241 bytes) Sydney Architecture Images- Central Business District

Australian Museum


1846-54 Mortimer Lewis (CA)
James Barnet (CA)
Walter Liberty Vernon (NSWGA)
1959-63 Joseph van der Steen (Design Architect NSWGA)
1987-88 Colin Still (Design Architect NSWPWD)


Cnr 6-8 College and William Streets, Sydney




Old Colonial Grecian




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  Image from the book "Sydney in 1848"
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The present complex comprises two visually contrasting architectures - that of James Barnet (his first major work after appointment as Government Architect) and Joseph van der Steen (b.1913), designer of the major modernist addition to William Street. The original, and perhaps unfairly criticised, Mortimer Lewis building (which faced William Street) is discreetly cocooned by the later Barnet-designed wing near the corner of William and College Streets. Although Barnet, at an early stage, planned that the main entrance should be on William Street, the building, as built, faces College Street. The grandly scaled 1864 temple porch was a major public building statement, incorporating an imposing stylobate, 14-metre high Corinthian columns, and column capitals, all carved by the artist Walter McGill.

In absolute contrast, the powerful, yet totally unrelieved William Street extension (1959-1963), by English migrant architect Joseph van der Steen (working in the Government Architect special projects design team under Harry Rembert), was, for its day, an unusual and ground breaking modernist statement. By employing a palette of materials which matched the existing building, an entirely contrasting style was able to sit comfortably side by side with the existing work. The projecting roof-top awning covered a cafe with extensive views to the harbour. A general upgrading of the museum was later undertaken (1989) by the Government Architect (designer Colin Still), providing environmentally controlled collection storage, travelling exhibition space, curatorial workspace, education centre and staff facilities.

Information appearing in this section is reproduced from Sydney Architecture, with the kind permission of the author, Graham Jahn, a well-known Sydney architect and former City of Sydney Councillor. Sydney Architecture, rrp $35.00, is available from all good book stores or from the publisher, Watermark Press, Telephone: 02 9818 5677.

When less obviously allied to commercial shipping interests or to London's gentlemenly obsessions, scientific building was less dominant in both form and location. The Australian Museum building is a case in point. Although the natural history of Australia was also of vital interest to gentlemen scientists in Britain and New South Wales, the commercial possibilities of flora and fauna were more limited. Collections had been formed ever since Sir Joseph Banks arrived in 1770, but the possibility of a public museum to house them locally did not develop beyond an odd room in somebody's house or government building until 1846. Passionate advocacy by people such as Alexander Macleay had resulted in a paid Government Zoologist for the colony (paid from England of course); but voices, such as Governor Bourkels in 1835 raised in favour of putting the natural sciences into an independent building were countered by equally persuasive tongues against such extravagance. William Charles Wentworth was one opponent; another was the editor of the Sydney Monitor who wrote:

Zoology and Mineralogy, and Astronomy, and Botany, and the other sciences, are all very good things, but we have no great opinion of an infantile people being taxed to promote them .... We might as well give salaries to painters, sculptors, and chemists, as to botanists, astronomers, and Museum collectors[6] – an opinion apparently still current in Canberra.

Nevertheless, powerful advocacy from above won out. In 1845 the Colonial Architect, Mortimer Lewis, was asked to design a museum building to cost no more than 3,000 pounds.[7] Construction began in January 1846 on the corner of William and College Streets, facing William Street. Lewis' building was modestly domestic in appearance and Greek in style. As well as the exhibits (to be housed in the large hall under a dome and behind a portico in antis), the building also had to house the museum staff and their families and provide a proper board-room for the committee of management.

From the end of the first year of building – when only the foundations had been put in for a third of the voted money it was clear that Lewis had greatly underestimated both the time and cost involved in realizing his design. In August 1849 Lewis resigned, to avoid being dismissed. He left an unroofed shell; 7,416 pounds had been spent and there was evidence of considerable fraud in the costs of materials and labour. The chaste Colonial Greek building was investigated by an independent firm of architects (Robertson and Duer), who discovered that materials had cost more than their contracted prices and then had not been incorporated into the building but directed off site after delivery dockets had been signed. Wages were paid to non-existent workmen and Lewis' accounts about these transactions were suspiciously confused. The dome – as well as Lewis – was removed from the incomplete building. A plain hipped roof went on by 1850 and the building was ready for occupancy by the museum staff and committee of management by March 1852. The exhibition hall for the specimens and the public, however, remained useless, since it still had no gallery or showcases. Enough extra money was granted from the public purse in 1853 and 1854 to construct these, but no access staircase to the gallery was built. The gallery remained a storage space, reached only from the private quarters of the Museum until 1857. Then it was completed, only to prove quite inadequate in size for the increased demands that had arisen during the twelve years it had been building, despite by then having cost some 16,000 pounds. Four months after completion, Alexander Dawson produced plans for a major extension of more monumental Palladian form. Hardly surprisingly, the government refused to fund this.

So the Australian Museum remained a modest Regency building, domestic in its exterior appearance and major use, and limited in its interior public space. This single exhibition room was, nevertheless, the grandest public hall the city could boast. In 1854 it housed an 'Exhibition of the Natural and Industrial Products of New South Wales' prior to selected exhibits being sent to the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1855 – the first major representation of colonial products to be seen overseas. (A few exhibits from the colony had been sent to the 1851 London International Exhibition, the first of these gigantic collections of objects from all parts of the world, but these had not been officially organised through a local £ommittee and were not on the scale of the 1854 effort for Paris.)

Colonial rivalry may have had something to do with N.S.W.'s brave display, since Victoria was also sending a major contribution to Paris for 1855. Sydney's exhibition was opened by the Governor General, Sir Charles Fitzroy, who arrived in suitable splendour to dwarf the building. Fitzroy read his opening speech in the exhibition hall in front of William Nicholas' gigantic plaster statue of Captain Cook – a statue that was never cast in bronze and subsequently disappeared.[8] The classical statues adorning the exhibition when Fitzroy opened it were plaster casts owned by Sir Charles Nicholson. They had been included only for local artistic ambiance, casts of antique statuary (probably imported) being quite unsuitable for export to Paris, of course. What did go to France were lumps of gold, samples of wood, models of buildings and photographs of Sydney's progress – the whole vastly more 'natural' than 'industrial'.

The same sort of colonial rivalry that helped inspire Sydney's 1854 eyhibition also seems to account for the fact that extensions to the museum were provided a mere four years after completion. By 1856 Melbourne had a grand Italianate building (by Reed and Barnes) to house its 'national' museum, art gallery and library. Sydney then had only the private Australian Subscription Library erected in the 1840s at the corner of Bridge and Macquarie Streets (by Henry Ginn), Lewis's simple Greek museum, and no sign or hope of a public art gallery. (Nicholson's statues continued to be displayed at the museum as a slight sop to the arts, and occasional art exhibitions continued to be held there with borrowed works from private collections.) Dawson's successor, the Scottish architect James Barnet[9], designed an immense Renaissance- style, domed and porticoed combined Museum, Library and Art Gallery that would utterly annihilate Melbourne's; it was never built, although it remained a fixed ideal until well into the twentieth century. A somewhat grander version of Dawson's more modest 1857 proposal to extend the Museum was, however, preferred.

By 1866 one of Barnet's wings following this modified design – the facade to College Street – was finished. As a contemporary newspaper noted: 'Sydney was greatly impressed by its large sandstone bulk resting on a stylobate twenty feet high and with its Corinthian piers forty feet high bearing flowery capitals caved by Walter McGill.' The interior was, however, less overwhelming, as a Legislative Assembly Select Committee noted in 1872:

The edifice is too high and too narrow; the approaches from the street are incommodious; the windows are wrongly placed and faulty in design; the interior is crowded with heavy pillars which waste the space and obstruct the light; the internal walls are broken by angles and recesses; there is a useless gallery above the second floor; and there is in every part of the building abundant evidence of the architect's desire to subordinate utility to ornament.[10] 

Most of the faults seem to have been due to this continuing desire to outdo Melbourne without sufficient revenue to complete anything but the facade of one wing. Yet, despite this report, which also stated that 'The fittest kind of ornamentation is that which is accomplished by the judicious arrangement of the exhibits themselves' and proclaimed that 'The interior of a Museum should be as nearly as possible rectangular', the public purse only opened for competitive facadism, not functional display. A building that looked impressive when visitors drove past it, or reproduced well in engravings and photographs, was more important evidence of local support for the natural sciences than one that actually housed collections and specimens adequately.

In 1890 funds were voted to add a third floor over the original building and bury Lewis' design under Roman splendour matching Barnet's. But the only real exhibition space then added was an extra gallery above the old one. External homogeneity was all that really mattered. The newly-appointed Colonial Architect, Walter Liberty Vernon, provided an accurate and careful continuation of Barnet's design and, although Lewis' core is still buried in the building, this is now very difficult to discover from the outside.

from The Architecture of Scientific Sydney Joan Kerr

[Paper given at the "Scientific Sydney" Seminar on 18 May, 1985, at History House, Macquarie St., Sydney.]

With special thanks to The Royal Society of NSW http://nsw.royalsoc.org.au/index.html 

The Australian Museum is the oldest museum in Australia, centering on natural history and anthropology, with collections centering on vertebrate and invertebrate zoology, as well as minerology, palaeontology, and anthropology.

Originally known as the Colonial Museum or Sydney Museum, the Museum was renamed in June 1836 by a Sub-Committee meeting, when it was resolved during an argument that it should be renamed the Australian Museum.

The museum was founded on March 30, 1827, by Earl Bathurst, then the Secretary of State for the Colonies, who wrote to the Governor of New South Wales of his intent to found a public museum, and provisions to provide £200 yearly towards its upkeep.

The establishment of a museum had been planned in 1821 by the Philosophical Society of Australasia, and, although specimens were collected, the Society folded in 1822. In 1826, however, upon the arrival of entomologist and Fellow of the Linnean Society of London Alexander Macleay, who, after being appointed New South Wales Colonial Secretary, began lobbying for a museum.

The first location of the museum was likely a room in the offices of the Colonial Secretary, although for the next 30 years it moved to several other locations in Sydney, until moving into its current location in 1849. This handsome sandstone building on the corner of College and Park Streets, opposite Hyde Park, was first opened to the public in May 1857.

The first chairman of the museum was William Holmes, who was appointed on June 16, 1829. He was accidentally shot while at Moreton Bay on assignment, in August 1831.

The Museum was administered directly by the colonial government until June 1836, until the establishment of a Committee of Superintendence of the Australian Museum and Botanical Garden. Sub-committees were established for each institution. Members of these committees were generally the ruling members of the political and scientific elite of Sydney; and scions of the Macleay served until 1853, at which point the Committee was abolished.

In that year, the government drafted the Australian Museum Act, thereby incorporating it and establishing a Board of Trustees consisting of 24 members. William Sharp Macleay, the former Committee chairman, continued to serve as the Chairman of this committee.

The first curator of the Australian Museum was well-known naturalist George Bennett, appointed in 1835, who was the first to catalogue the Museum's collections. After his 1841 resignation, he was succeeded by Rev. W.B. Clarke until 1843, and then by William Sheridan Wall, a longtime collector with the Museum.

In these early years, collecting was the main priority of the Museum. Specimens were commonly traded with English and European institutions. The scientific stature of the Museum was established under the curatorship of Gerard Krefft, who served until 1874, himself a well-published scientist. His successor, Edward Pierson Ramsay, who served until 1894, greatly increased the recruitment of scientific staff within the institution.

The museum catalogues, first documented by Bennett, were the first scientific publications by the Museum, but with the addition of science staff, and thereby, research output, in 1890 Ramsay started the Records of the Australian Museum a publication which continues to this day.

In 1918, the position of Curator was renamed Director and Curator, and from 1921, Director. In 1948, the Scientific Assistants (the scientific staff) were redesignated Curators and Assistant Curators. In 1983, during a period of reorganisation, the position of Curator was changed, becoming Collection Manager.

During the 19th century, galleries mainly included large display cases overly filled with specimins and artifacts. Displays grew to include dioramas showing habitat groups beginning in the 1920s, but otherwise, the Museum was largely unchanged during the timespan beginning with the curatorship of Robert Etheridge Jr (1895-1919), until 1954, with the appointment of John Evans. Under his direction, additional buildings were built, several galleries were entirely overhauled, and a new Exhibitions department was created. The size of the education staff was also radically increased. By the end of the 1950s, all of the galleries had been completely overhauled.

The Museum's growth in the field of scientific research continued with Frank Talbot, who succeeded Evans in 1966, and a new department of Environmental Studies was created in 1968. The museum support society TAMS (The Australian Museum Society) was formed in 1972, and in 1973 the Lizard Island Research Station (LIMS), was established near Cairns.

Director Des Griffin, the successor to Talbot, oversaw extensions to the original Musum building, which were completed in 1988. His direction saw increased cooperation with Aborigines, leading to new exhibitions and policies, as well as repatriations of artefacts.

In 1995, the museum established new research centres in Conservation, Biodiversity, Evolutionary Research, Geodiversity, and People and Places. In 1998, the djamu gallery opened at Customs House, Circular Quay, the first major new venue for the Museum beyond College Street site. A series of exhibitions on Indigenous culture were displayed until the gallery closed at the end of 2000.