Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 3, No. 1, 1990
Space * Meaning * Politics
Edited by the Institute for Cultural Policy Studies, Griffith University

Fear of circuses: founding the National Museum of Victoria

David Goodman

What would a 'cultural' approach to the history of the National Museum of Victoria in Melbourne be like? The stance to take at the beginning is that of David Schneider, when he writes that 'Culture is man's adaption to nature ... but it is more. Nature, as a wholly independent "thing" does not exist, except as man formulates it'.1 Or of Claude Levi-Strauss, telling an interviewer in 1967 that the nature-culture opposition is 'not an objective one; men need to invent it. Perhaps it is a precondition for the birth of culture'.2 The neat distinction has to be blurred for the culturalist, not because of the discovery that chimps can talk, but because of the realisation that 'nature' is just as cultural as anything else - defined, even constructed, socially. The cultural construction of the 'natural' has been a recurrent concern of contemporary cultural analysis. Roland Barthes summarised, in one of his last books, a constant theme of his work: 'The natural is never an attribute of physical Nature; it is the alibi paraded by a social majority: the natural is a legality'.3

The natural science museum, in this context, is of interest in that it is, and was even more especially in the nineteenth century, a privileged, legitimated constructor of the natural world. Those within the museum were licensed to speak of the nature - to name it, classify it, construct it - they produced as valorised discourse. In Melbourne in the 1850s, this effect was heightened by two factors - the scientific community was isolated and very small, and the Australian environment - animal, vegetable and mineral - was incompletely known and much speculated upon. Both accentuated the role of the museum as, not just a storehouse of objects, but a privileged maker and disseminator of knowledge.

But there is another aspect to adopting a cultural approach to the history of the National Museum. The history of our museum has a place in the history of museums in general. And the historiography of museums is beset with a prevailing Whig/progressivist interpretation of the rise of the scientific museum, based on sound classificatory principles, out of the mire of the confused collections of curiosities that passed for museums in earlier times. The modern historiography of museums begins with David Murray's seminal 1904 work, Museums - Their History and Their Use. In a chapter entitled 'The Non-Scientific Character of Early Museums' Murray argued that early museums had 'a tendency to represent the abnormal rather than the normal, what was rare rather than what was common,' to display 'curiosities'. 'The object in view,' he explained censoriously, 'was to create surprise rather than to afford instruction,'4 In the sixteenth century, museums were devoted to magic objects - unicorn's horns, giant's bones, elk's antlers, and Egyptian mummies. By the seventeenth century, there was classification of a sort. But Murray's judgement on the arrangement of these, exemplified by Ole Worm's Danish museum, is stern: 'It is obvious that to lump all archaeological objects in one division under the general title "artificial curiosities", could convey no real idea of their nature, nor was the arrangement helped by subdividing them into articles of wood, of metal, of glass, and so on'.5

For Murray, the modernity of a museum was expressed in its specialisation, and in its careful and accurate classification.6 The museum's presentation, he argued, should reflect its serious function - the promiscuous decorations and catholic accession policies of the old museums were but signs of their pre-scientific status. That, then, is the conventional story of the history of the museum - the banishment of unicorns. As Sir John Forsdyke, then Director of the British Museum, confidently told the London Royal Society of Arts in 1949, 'the first duty of the museum is to preserve realities, that is to say, to demonstrate the truth of things'.7 Without labouring the point further, one of the duties of a cultural approach to the history of the museum is to question this triumphalist view of a rise from magic to science and 'the truth of things'. As Mary Douglas has argued, 'it is part of our culture to recognise at last our cognitive precariousness. It is part of our culture to be sophisticated about fundamentalist claims to secure knowledge'.8 But if we are no longer to view the history of the museum as the tale of closer and closer approximations of displays to natural reality, what are we to do?

Michel Foucault, in his The Order of Things , offers a typically suggestive yet cryptic account of the archaeology of natural history. Typically again, his account revolves around a sharply drawn distinction between the Renaissance and the Classical Age. 'To the Renaissance', he writes,

The strangeness of animals was a spectacle: it was featured in fairs, in tournaments, in fictitious or real combats, in reconstitutions of legends in which the bestiary displayed its ageless fables. The natural history room and the garden, as created in the Classical period, replace the circular procession of the 'show' with the arrangement of things in a 'table'. What came surreptitiously into being between the age of the theatre and that of the catalogue was not the desire for knowledge, but a new way of connecting things both to the eye and to discourse. A new way of making history.9

As Foucault describes this new way, natural history from the Classical age on seeks to reduce the gap between things and language, to bring 'the things observed as close as possible to words'. This results in a privileging of the observing gaze as the instrument of classification - 'hearsay is excluded, that goes without saying,' Foucault writes, 'but so are taste and smell, because their lack of certainty and their variability render impossible any analysis into distinct elements that could be universally acceptable'.10 For Foucault, then, the scientific natural history museum is marked, not by its close approach to truth, but by its subordination of other senses to sight, by its attachment to the classificatory table, and by its rejection of theatre and 'show'. In looking at the beginnings of the Melbourne museum we can see an institution struggling to define itself in just these terms. The establishment of a museum in a very new, unformed colonial society provides a special chance to see articulated this conception of what a museum was, and to see the museum's interpretation and display of the natural differentiating itself from other modes of display and interpretation - for a useful self-consciousness pervades the beginnings of institutions.

To begin, then, we should look diachronically at the sequence of events which led to the formation of a museum in the fledgling scientific community in Melbourne in the mid-1850s. It was on 23 September 1853 that Mr Mark Nicholson, a lawyer by training, rose in the Victorian Legislative Council to move that funds be set aside from the colony's new found wealth (the riches accruing from the gold fields having been for two years now accumulating in the treasury) for the establishment of a Museum of Natural History. Nicholson (later honoured by having a very rare species of almond breasted pelican named after him, Pelicanus Nicholsonus) told the House that 'the object he had in view was to increase the public knowledge on a question in which the whole civilised world was interested, by collecting together facts and illustrations connected with the natural history of this colony'. There had already been a small museum set up inside the Mechanics' Institute, but Nicholson argued that this was hardly adequate, and pointed out that it had anyway been boxed up to make way for a Fine Arts Exhibition. 'The fine arts are well enough in their way', he argued, 'but they should not be put before nature.' His motion was carried with only two dissenting votes, and in the government estimates for 1854 there appeared a sum of £2000 for a Museum of Natural History.11

It had been felt by some of those who took part in the debate in parliament that a society needed to be set up to take on the management of the museum. The Argus , the city's leading newspaper, editorially set the need for such a society firmly in the context of public improvement. 'One of the most effectual ways of counteracting habits of dissipation,' it argued:

is to provide inducements and facilities for the formation of higher tastes, and the promotion of more rational enjoyments. Intemperance is to be combated not only by the Press, the Pulpit, the Police, or the Legislature, but also by the genius of institutional organisation.

The paper felt that much was at stake:

unless the educated classes are content to fall behind in the march of civilisation, and forego the advantages which organisation would confer upon scientific pursuits, they should now be turning their attention to the establishment of a Victorian Institute, devoted to Art, Literature, and Philosophy.12

Within a month, at the instigation of a Melbourne pharmacist, such a society had been brought into formal existence.

The room, the Argus reported, was 'tastefully decorated' for the occasion with the flags of the various nations. Messrs. Tuck and Co., the confectioners of Elizabeth St., provided refreshments for the two hundred ladies and gentlemen present, which the Argus' correspondent considered 'worthy of the occasion'. An excellent German band, known as the 'Lady Jocelyn Band', was reported to have contributed greatly to the pleasures of the evening. After the refreshments had been consumed, Redmond Barry, judge and patriarch of the cultural institutions of the city, took the podium and announced to the gathering: 'We assemble in the vestibule of the temple of science.'13 This was the inaugural conversazione of the Victorian Institute for the Advancement of Science.

Surrounding the guests in the hall of the Collins St. Mechanics' Institute, that Friday evening in the spring of 1854, 'were ranged contributions illustrative of the objects of the Institute'.14 Michel Foucault, again, has directed attention to the importance of understanding how a culture 'experiences the propinquity of things'.15 What important principles, then, what determining modes of perception or classification lent an order and a similitude to the objects arranged here for their exemplary and illustrative effects, beneath the flags of all nations, and between the tables of refreshments? Listed on a page, the catholicity of the endorsement seems bizarre - here there were gold ingots, fire-arms, a microscope, some curiosities from the Cape of Good Hope, a stuffed kangaroo, a metronome, a map of the goldfields, the skull of an Australian half-caste, a model of a steam ferry, Aboriginal implements and drawings, views of New Zealand, plans of a proposed Government House, some limestone from Mt. Eliza, surgical implements, a model locomotive, fossils, skulls, plans for a ships' canal, a statuette 'Dorothea', views of the Holy Land, a galvanic battery, parakeet skins, pathological specimens of comparative anatomy, Chinese coins and medicines, a stuffed platypus, a collection of gilt picture frames covered with glass (a 'new and very useful discovery'), some arrowroot grown at Prahran, a map of the world, plants and flowers from the goldfields, and some engravings by Albrecht DŸrer.16 It was in this confusion of the exotic and the useful, the curious and the improving, that the first Victorian scientific society opened for business.

Gibbons, the pharmacist, had seen the objects of the Institute as:

the establishment of a means of communication between persons engaged in the pursuit of science, and of cultivating a refined taste among the people of Victoria; a centre for the collection of observations and specimens from all sources, and the gradual formation of a museum; a source to which the community generally may look for information on scientific subjects; and an agency for the development of the resources of the colony.

The Institute thus encouraged its members to present their papers 'in a popular style', to extend their utility and enhance the communicative role.17

Barry's conception of the Institute's role was vaguer, as befitted one of his belief that high culture could be recognised by its detachment from the sphere of the practical and the useful. Barry saw the Institute as a machine for validating knowledge - 'it affords', he said:

an opportunity to those who become members, of collecting materials and interesting facts respecting the multitudinous subjects which form topics for the rational enquirer, and to which careful and well regulated observation will attach an accredited worth; of arranging and collating them so as to facilitate investigation and attract the attention of those competent to exercise thereon an enlightened judgement...

As Barry warmed to his subject, his eye wandering over the assembled objects which, in their contiguity, spoke of the aims of the new Institute, he articulated his fondest wish - that such knowledge should belong to all men, that science itself should no longer be reserved for an elite. Such, he argued, was the spirit of the age, for:

this is not an era which will tolerate the acroatic or exoteric learning, or recognise barriers within which the initiated are not permitted to encroach; men are no longer content that the search for knowledge should be delegated to the exclusive charge of any particular body, involved in the frivolous niceties of alchemical empiricism; clouding in allegory or shrouding in mystic symbols the steps by which they, as they supposed, approached the secret of the philosopher's stone, the elixir of life, or the universal solvent - no longer amused with the accuminated subtleties of metaphysical disquisitions, dogmatic theology, or philological dissertations.18

The irony of this, of course, as of most of Barry's equalitarian sentiments, is that of form belying content, the contorted, display-of-learning style, confuting the populist message. Yet Barry's hope seemed sincere, that some village Newton might arise from this yet unformed society:

is it presumptuous to imagine that this genial southern sun may hasten into birth some unrevealed combination of forces, the rudiment of which as yet lies in the brain of one amongst us hitherto unsmiled on by the favour of his own compatriots, ungladdened by the approving voice of his own countrymen?19

As a popularising scientific body, the Victorian Institute encouraged useful science. In its year of existence, it heard papers on sanitary conditions in the working class suburb of Collingwood, on Victorian botany, Melbourne's water supply, possible sources of brick and building stone near the city, the need for an observatory, a scheme to check the rolling of ships, and the virtues of phonetic spelling. In line with its principles, the members of the Institute were encouraged to discuss the papers presented at the meetings.

No such equality prevailed at the Philosophical Society of Victoria, founded shortly after the Institute. Modelled on the London Royal Society, the Philosophical Society forbade the discussion of papers at its meetings. Its President, Captain Clarke, the Surveyor General, stressed in his inaugural address, a less utilitarian and popular science - 'correct and minute observation' was to be the basis of research; it was 'vain to attempt to measure' the advantages which arose from the pursuit of knowledge and the study of the natural sciences.20

When in March 1855 it was beginning to be said that two such institutions were unnecessary and inefficient for a young colony, it was the more austere Society that was wary of compromise. The Secretary of the Institute reported to his General Meeting on 8 March that 'the project for amalgamation has been received somewhat coldly by our sister society'.21 When the union came in July 1855, the objectives of the Society were adopted as those of the new body, the Philosophical Institute.22 The Philosophical Institute was, in name as in program, a compromise, a blend of the professional and the gentlemanly, the useful and the abstract. The dialogue it tried to set up between the handful of professional men of science in the colony, and the educated classes of civil servants, clergymen, doctors, lawyers, architects, engineers, bankers and merchants, could not last, and each, by the end of the century, had gone its separate way. But it was this compromised group that provided a focus for the early research into the Australian environment, and the beginnings of the National Museum of Victoria.

By 1855, then, the Philosophical Institute had a small museum. It also had its eye upon, and some hopes of acquiring, the small government museum kept in two rooms above some government offices by the Colonial Zoologist, Blandowski. But the opening that year of the Melbourne University had brought three feted new men of learning into the colony: most significantly for this story, the Professor of Natural Science, Frederick McCoy. McCoy, a bearded Irishman, was one of the foremost palaeontologists of his day, and every bit as covetous of the government collection as the gentlemen of the Philosophical Institute. He carried with him, moreover, all the professional authority and prestige associated with a university chair. Thus when the colonial economy faltered in 1855, and the government withdrew all financial support from its museum, the 5600 specimens of the government collection (760 birds, 2180 mineralogical specimens, 1000 insects, 274 reptiles and fishes) found their way to a large room at the new university.23 The Philosophical Institute led the attack on McCoy (Dr. Eades told one meeting that 'his own experience in the mother country taught him that such collections were not easily got back once any University had its paw on them'), but large public meetings and letters to the paper failed to alter the situation of fait accompli.24 A great deal of anti-university feeling was expressed, especially by the scientific gentlemen of the Institute. The local version of Punch complained that:

... it don't become professors,

When they become possessors,

Of property by methods contraband, band, band.25

But McCoy was officially appointed Director of the Museum, displacing the unaffiliated men of science who had preceded him in the colony. For 42 years, the museum would be subject to his close personal direction. During all this time, McCoy was professor of science at the University as well as Museum director, both full time jobs. He explained his situation in a letter to Redmond Barry, who by this time was also the Chancellor of the University - 'as my business is my pleasure also, I devote much time to the arrangement of the Museum and to the naming and classification of the specimens, but this I have always explained I do because I liked ... my successor might wish to take exercise in the open air, or practice music, or please himself otherwise in the disposal of his time after lectures, as is the case with the other professors'.26

One of the basic assumptions of structuralist analyses is that the units in any cultural system gain meaning only from their relation to the other units, just as the words in a language only gain meaning from their opposition to other words. In our case, then, the museum as an institution is to be defined by its differences from other institutions in the same cultural system. We have already seen, in the brief history of the founding of the museum, that its birth was marked by attempts to articulate the differences between a museum and a university, and between amateur and professional science. We need now to abandon the sequence of events, in order to examine synchronically how it was that the museum thus established set about differentiating itself from the other institutions in Melbourne in the 1850s concerned with the presentation of the natural.

How did McCoy see the museum? Something of his aims can be understood from two documents - the paper 'Museums in Victoria' which he delivered to the Philosophical Institute in 1856, and an undated memorandum in his handwriting, 'On the Organisation of the National Museum of Melbourne'. The original conception of the museum, McCoy wrote, was to exhibit well classified collections in zoology and palaeontology, which would exhibit the relations of all the members of the animal kingdom.27 McCoy subscribed to the idea of the museum as an improving force, and as an instrument for communicating knowledge of natural resources to those that needed it. Museums, he wrote, have within the last few years been discovered to be 'the most ready and effectual means of communicating the knowledge and practical experience of the experienced few to the many'.28 The communication would be inherent in the whole display of the museum - 'the eye of the unlearned could be familiarised with natural objects, with the principles of classification applied to them by scientific men, to place their peculiar characters and mutual relations in a striking light'.29 McCoy's plan for the botanical garden at the University was even more subliminal. There he imagined:

Each Class having a large bed to itself, with a label bearing its name in the centre, of such a size, that it can be read from any part of the margin: this bed is divided by small fences into smaller divisions, containing each one of thee subordinate Orders of the Class, these again being subdivided into Families, and these into compartments for the Genera; each subordinate division in the classification being marked by a conspicuous, but progressively smaller, label, until finally the Species placed in each generic compartment have ordinary sized labels, setting forth the Genus, Species, Locality, and common name of each. A garden well labelled in this manner will teach the principles of botanical classification, even if but poorly furnished with plants, and the eye of the visitor will familiarise him insensibly with the natural alliances and affinities of the various groups of plants, and suggest the relations which the scientific botanists have detected and used for their classification...30

In the museum itself, the zoological specimens were also to be 'labelled with the family, genus, species, locality and popular name, and a Roman numeral indicating the order by reference to lists painted on the walls giving the orders of all the classes of animals in full'. Each mineralogical specimen was labelled, 'not only with its name and locality, but with the chrystalline system and the chemical formula of its partial composition set forth in symbols explained by adjoining painted tables and lists'. In the Palaeontology section, the specimens were:

first divided into geological groups or periods according to the distribution in time and analogous to the distribution in space indicated by the arrangement of the collections of specimens of the living species. The fossils of each formation are then arranged in zoological systematic order, and fully named with genus, species, locality and formation.31

McCoy's museum was a house of classification, and the whole intent of its display was to elucidate and communicate classification and its rationale. It was, as we have seen, this systematic attempt at naming and classifying that defined the scientific museum - the museum that eschewed the interest of its predecessors in the merely unusual or exotic. McCoy, speaking of the role of zoological museums, argued that:

in this, as in other departments of science, the showy and the useless has received more attention than the apparently insignificant creatures that for good or evil most concern mankind. The natural history of birds has usurped a most undue share of attention.

A museum, he sternly warned, would need to be concerned as much with the 'small and ugly creatures' as with the 'showy' ones.32 This was a concern that even the amateur and utilitarian Captain Clarke, President of the Philosophical Institute, could endorse. He wrote in 1857 that the museum should not be 'a mere collection of curiosities, serving rather to bewilder than to instruct. It is not to contain specimens that are interesting only because they are beautiful. I hope to see in that museum a complete collection of all the ores that are useful, of all the woods that are suitable for shipbuilding, for roads, and for tramways ... I desire to see the museum filled with all those objects that are peculiarly valuable in a new country, to the exclusion of merely ornamental specimens'.33

What was it that caused this anxiety about avoiding the merely decorative and showy, when surely the precedence given to classification would ensure that every type was equal on the great classificatory grids of science? It was, I am arguing, partly a knowledge of the history of the museum, a knowledge that in Europe a sign of that institution's coming of age was seen to be its abandonment of the presentation of curiosities for the scientific classification of the natural world. But it was also the need to define, right there in Melbourne, what it was that set the museum's presentation of the natural apart from other, more theatrical, presentations.

Melbourne in the 1850s was regularly visited by circuses, which usually contained a menagerie of sorts. There was still enough vacant land in the centre of the city for lions and tigers to be set up in the main thoroughfares, Bourke and Collins Streets.34 The problem was that such animals usually suffered on the long ship voyage to Australia, and public disappointment arose if they looked too mangy. Caged lions were still meant to appear proud and ferocious - that was their theatre.

When in 1853 Melbourne acquired its first permanent menagerie, the animals took their place in a context of spectacular entertainment. James Ellis' Cremorne Gardens, on the northern bank of the river Yarra in the suburb of Richmond, displayed foreign and native animals in an amusement park filled with wonders of all sorts, thrown indiscriminately together. The garden's heyday was between 1856 and 1863, when it was owned and run by the great actor and entrepreneur, George Coppin. Ten acres of land were laid out in the manner of a botanical garden, dotted with attractions - the large 'Parisian' dancing platform on which, in 1853, instruction was being given nightly 'on that last new and very exciting dance "Pop Goes the Weasel"'; the walks 'brilliantly illuminated' by gaslight; the landing stage conveying guests to and from Princes Bridge in gondolas; two hotels and a bar; a maze; a theatre for presenting concerts from the resident orchestra and vaudeville; an open air theatre for summer entertainment, including trapeze artists, foreign gymnasts and performing animals; a collection of side shows, Juan Fernandez, who nightly put his head into a lion's mouth, a Fat Boy, a Bearded Woman, some Ethiopians, Wizards, as well as Billiards, Shooting Galleries, Punch and Judy shows and Bowling Saloons; a lake with hire boats; a kiosk selling refreshments; a fine collection of statues; a 25,000 sq. foot panorama of Naples, the work of four artists, later replaced by scenes of Canton and Sebastopol; nightly displays of fireworks, which re-enacted such spectacular events as the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius; provision for the holding of 'monster' lotteries; a balloon platform from which the first ascent in Australia was made by two especially imported English aeronauts, Captain Deane and Professor Brown; Mr Higgins' pantechnicon, and the menagerie containing emus, wallabies, kangaroos and possums, as well as lions, elephants, monkeys and parrots.35 The Argus described the atmosphere as 'Ellisian'.36 The gardens were said to be patronised by all classes, and admittance was free; though occasionally a night was set aside for the 'fashionable and wealthy' to experience the pleasures on their own.37 On New Years Day 1854, 5236 people were at Cremorne. The gardens were both popular and respectable - but they were clearly entertainment. What gave a unity to the assortment of objects and activities within their walls was a shared novel, curious, or spectacular quality. 'I like to see things because they are novel, or because they are unusual, as well as on the ground of their being attractive or important,' wrote the approving reporter for My Note Book.38 Coppin promised 'rare and astonishing novelties'. His menagerie was subsumed into the theatre of the place - his animals were not there to be labelled, but to excite. It was in part the aesthetic of the circus, then, the presentation of the novel and curious parts of the natural world in a theatrical mode, that gave definition to the museum. McCoy's museum was not to be a circus, but a classifying house; its displays aimed not to impress or excite, but to teach. It was not merely that his animals were dead and could not roar - the whole arrangement of the museum, as we have seen, stressed system rather than event. The tables and names painted on the museum walls were McCoy's attempt to dictate unequivocally the context in which his display of the natural would be seen, to provide a frame within which the reading of the museum objects could be controlled.39

So perhaps, like his contemporary, Mr Gradgrind (Dickens' Hard Times was published in 1854), McCoy feared the circus. Perhaps he was aware that one of the largest and best arranged natural history museums of the time was the American Museum on Broadway in New York, run by circus entrepreneur P.T. Barnum.40 Travelling circuses and menageries had played an important part in popularising natural history in the United States in the 1840s and 50s, and it was only after the Civil War that permanent natural history museums were established in the major cities. Dead circus animals remained an important source of supply for the museums. When Barnum's museum burned down, he took his animals on the road again - his 'Great Museum, Menagerie, Circus and Travelling World's Fair' illustrated the confusion of categories that was still possible. Barnum also described his show variously as a 'Zoological Garden', a 'Polytechnic Institute', and a 'Colloseum of Natural History and Art'. His animals were set alongside human exhibits - Fijian cannibals, Indians, Chinese, Japanese, Aztecs and Eskimos. The confusion of categories could only promote anxiety among those concerned to assert and maintain professional and disciplinary boundaries.

Two other societies in Melbourne in the 1850s and early 1860s were concerned with presenting the natural. In October 1857 a Zoological Society was founded, with the aims of collecting and exhibiting zoological species, and domesticating the indigenous animals and birds of the colony. By May 1858 the Society had 24 native animals and 2 monkeys, and had been granted by the government three thousand pounds and a thirty acre paddock at Richmond, opposite the Botanical Gardens. When the Richmond Paddock turned out to be too small and swampy for the animals, they were moved over the river into von Mueller's Botanical Gardens. In 1860 the Society was given land for a depot in Royal Park, where it kept larger animals, such as camels. In 1862 the Zoological Gardens were officially opened at Royal Park, some of the animals, including two lions, were from an insolvent circus in Bourke Street.41 Thus commerce existed between the different animal presenters. In February 1858 a gazelle imported for the zoo at the Botanical Gardens died shortly after arrival, and was promptly sent by von Mueller to his friend McCoy for stuffing and inclusion in the museum - a relationship that was to continue.42 The zoo lay uneasily between the circus and the museum: the principles of zoology were evidenced in its displays, but elephant rides were offered to get the public through the gates.

In 1861 there began a society that would soon merge with the Zoological Society - the Acclimatisation Society of Victoria.43 It too kept its stock at Royal Park. By the end of 1862 most of the birds and nearly all the quadrupeds of the two societies had been moved from the Botanic Gardens. The societies' largest early venture was a government sponsored importation of llamas and alpacas. But the plans were broader. The 1862 Annual Report recorded that 'measures are now underway for the speedy introduction and acclimatisation of Roedeer, Partridges, Rooks, Hares, Sparrows, and Songbirds from England; Deer, Cashmere Goats, and Black Partridge from India; Ostriches, Pheasants and Partridges and Antelopes from the Cape of Good Hope'. Actually on hand at Royal Park were porcupines, turtles, tortoises, goats, deer, ducks, pigeons, albatrosses, owls, pelicans, monkeys, sheep, and skylarks.44 The acclimatisers had pre-ecological sense that nature's designs needed completing and perfecting. The silence troubled them in Australia, and they liberated thrushes, blackbirds, larks, starlings, and canaries in large numbers, hoping to fill the skies with melodious reminders of home. They saw few indigenous animal sources of food in the new continent (though some speculated about the tastiness of the wombat), and wanted to stock the bush with their favourite foods. Colonial gentry wanted hunting and fishing like that to which they had become used at home - the introduction of salmon into colonial streams was a high priority. The Society looked forward to enriching Victoria by 'stocking its broad territory with the choicest products of the animal kingdom borrowed from every temperate region on the face of the earth' to achieving the 'aggrandisement of the colony'.45 McCoy, an early friend of acclimatisation, felt it a good thing that this finishing of nature's work had fallen to Englishmen.46 He told the Society, in an Anniversary Address, that:

while Nature has so abundantly furnished forth the natural larder of every other similarly situated country on the face of the earth with a great variety, and a profusion of individuals of ruminants good for food, not one single creature of the kind inhabits Australia! If Australia had been colonised by any of the lazy nations of the earth, this nakedness of the land would have been indeed an oppressive misfortune, but Englishmen love a good piece of voluntary hard work, and you will all. I am sure, rejoice with me that this great piece of nature's work has been left to us to do.47

The Acclimatisation Society, then, had a distinctive attitude to the natural order, which distinguished its depot at Royal Park from the zoo, the museum, and the circus menageries. The differences were spelled out by the Victorian Governor, Sir Henry Barkly, in his inaugural address to the Society. 'I don't think it is generally borne in mind by the public', he said, 'or even by the press, that the design of this Society is to stock the country with useful animals, rather than to form a Zoological Garden.' The wrong expectations led people to be disappointed when they visited Royal Park, 'forgetful all the while that we do not aim at setting up a wild beast show, or even at elucidating the natural history of the Australian continent.'48 So, in a country originally settled by convicted poachers, victims of the English game laws, efforts were made to acclimatise English game, and the animals connected with the most delicious, luxurious and elite aspects of English consumption - partridge, quail and grouse, ostriches for feathers, bees for honey, cochineal insects for colouring, silk worms for silk, trout, salmon, lobster and crab for the table. Such a selective and indulgent treatment of nature was far indeed from the typologising interest of the museum.

In the 1850s, then, the museum had to be set apart by its classification and its austere presentation, its rejection of the theatre and the circus.49 The boundaries that were being set up at that time were those of professional science and its methods - epitomised in the Museum, and symbolised by the victory of McCoy over the gentlemen of the Institute.

By the 1970s and 80s, the distinct relationship of science to the natural world no longer needed to be forcefully articulated - the boundaries of professional science were institutionalised, the products of that science were all around. The value of the typical museum's exhibits as curiosities - the theatre of the stuffed gorilla - had been considerably eroded by television, the cinema and the picture book. The rhetoric of the contemporary museum director now came to be based on a rejection of exactly the visual, classificatory emphasis Foucault spoke of - the gaze is out of date.

'Interpretation relies heavily on sensory perception,' writes Edward P. Alexander in Museums in Motion, 'sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch and the kinetic muscle sense to enable the museum-goer emotionally to experience objects.'50 Since the discovery of 'museum fatigue', and Marshall McLuhan's 1969 attack on the linear, sequential, logical, book-like presentation of most museums, the emphasis has been on the museum as a total experience.51 McLuhan wanted to bombard the viewer's senses - he advocated a museum communication that would be 'random, shared, instantaneous'.52 A 1969 exhibition at the American, Museum of Natural History featured narrow, claustrophobic passages and floors that tilted slightly to induce a feeling of physical unrest and unease.53 Dillon Ripley, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, wrote in 1970 that 'I am constantly surprised ... by the difficulty of obtaining truth from the printed word, or the television screen ... an object to be touched, seen, felt, smelled, is true'.54

Today's experiential museum embraces the theatre its 19th century predecessor felt obliged to renounce. Where the 19th century museum defined itself against the circus and the zoo, today's museum is defined by its difference from the book, the cinema and television. It is thus now emphasising, not classification, but the experience of the real object. On International Museum Day in Melbourne recently, the National Museum brought out old exhibits on carts, that visitors could touch them. What would Frederick McCoy have thought of these busloads of school children in his museum, being encouraged to find out what a stuffed kangaroo really feels like? The tactile museum is seeking its own kind of authenticity.


1 David Schneider, 'Notes Towards a Theory of Culture', in K.Basso and H.Selby (eds.), Meaning in Anthropology (Albuquerque, 1976), p.203.

2 Quoted in Miriam Glucksmann, Structural Analysis in Contemporary Social Thought (London, 1974), p.69.

3 Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes (New York, 1977), p.130.

4 David Murray, Museums - Their History and Their Use (Glasgow, 1904), p.208.

5 Ibid. p.211.

6 Ibid. p.231.

7 Sir John Forsdyke, 'The Functions of a National Museum', in Museums in Modern Life , Royal Society of Arts, (London, 1949), p.2.

8 Mary Douglas, Implicit Meanings - Essays in Anthropology (London, 1975), p.xvii.

9 Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (New York, 1973), p.131.

10 Ibid. p.132.

11 Argus 24 September 1853. Report on pelican, Argus 24 April 1855.

12 Argus 31 May 1854.

13 Argus 25 September 1854.

14 Transactions and Proceedings of the Victorian Institute for the Advancement of Science for the Sessions 1854-1855 (Melbourne, 1855),p.ix.

15 Michel Foucault, op.cit. p.xxiv.

16 Transactions and Proceedings, op.cit.,p.ix.

17 Ibid, p.iii. Gibbons was speaking at the public meeting on 15 June 1854 which endorsed the plan to found an institute. The meeting was presided over by the Mayor of Melbourne who 'declared that he felt it a privilege to have assisted at the inauguration of an Institute of so noble a character'.

18 Ibid, p 2.

19 Ibid, p.5.

20 Philosophical Society of Victoria, Transactions , v.1, 1854-1855 (Melbourne, 1855) pp.3-4.

21 Transactions and Proceedings of the Victorian Institute, op.cit. , p.xv.

22 Philosophical Society of Victoria, Transactions, op.cit. p.xvii. Discussion of papers, however, was to be allowed at the meetings of the Philosophical Institute.

23 Argus 29 June 1855.

24 Argus 20 June 1856; 29 July 1856.

25 Melbourne Punch ,14 August 1856, p.12.

26 F.McCoy to R.Barry, 25 October 1856. McCoy Letter Book v.1, Museum of Victoria.

27 F.McCoy, 'Memorandum by Prof. McCoy on the Organisation of the National Museum of Melbourne', n.d., Museum of Victoria archive.

28 F.McCoy, 'Museums in Victoria', Transactions of the Philosophical Institute of Victoria (Melbourne, 1857), v.1, p.127.

29 Ibid., p.128.

30 Ibid., pp.131-132.

31 F.McCoy, 'Memorandum', op.cit.

32 F.McCoy, 'Museums in Victoria', op.cit., p.133.

33 Captain A.Clarke, 'Anniversary Address', Transactions of the Philosophical Institute of Victoria , (Melbourne, 1857), v.1, p.9.

34 Garryowen, The Chronicles of Early Melbourne (Melbourne, 1888), p.849, records the brief existence of a 'wild beast exhibition' in Bourke Street opposite the Post Office in 1847.

35 J.Alexander Allan, 'Coppin's Cremorne', Argus 8 April 1933; Alec Bagot, Coppin the Great - Father of the Australian Theatre (Melbourne, 1965) pp.212-213.

36 Argus 12 December 1853.

37 On the first such night, in 1858, My Note Book recorded the presence of 'a thousand to twelve hundred ladies and gentlemen enjoying the entertainments'. My Note Book 30 Jan. 1858, p.463.

38 My Note Book, 6 Feb. 1858, p.471.

39 Disciplined knowledge (the science of zoology) required disciplined comprehension.

40 On Barnum, see John Rickards Betts, 'P.T.Barnum and the Popularization of Natural History', Journal of the History of Ideas v.XX, no.3, (June-Sept. 1959), pp.353-368, and Neil Harris, Humbug - The Art of P.T.Barnum (Chicago, 1973).

41 J.Cecil Le Souef, 'The Development of a Zoological Garden at Royal Park', Victorian Historical Magazine v.36, no.1, pp.8-29.

42 I have been instructed by the office of public work, to send the Gazelle which died last night, to the Museum for preservation, with which request I immediately comply.' von Mueller to McCoy, 5 February 1858 - Inward Correspondence, Museum of Victoria archive.

43 See J.Cecil Le Souef, 'Acclimatization in Victoria', Victorian Historical Magazine ,v.XXXVI, no.1, (Feb.,1965), pp.8-29.

44 First Annual Report of the Acclimatisation Society of Victoria (Melbourne, 1862), p.8, p.14.

45 Ibid., p.9.

46 Awkward beliefs, surely, for an Irish creationist.

47 Ibid., p.39.

48 Ibid., p.26.

49 Compare Neil Harris' argument for a later period, about museums, World's Fairs, and department stores: 'Before World War I, then, if one examines institutional influences on what Americans knew about art and style in objects, one has a giant triptych: museums in the centre, flanked by fairs on one side and great retail establishments on the other.' Neil Harris, 'Museums, Merchandising, and Popular Taste: The Struggle for Influence', in Ian M.G.Quimby (ed.), Material Culture and the Study of American Life (New York, 1978), p.154.

50 Edward P.Alexander, Museums in Motion - An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums (Nashville, 1979), p.12.

51 'The viewer who must stand while reading quickly experiences museum fatigue and will skip long labels entirely' (ibid., p.183.). The context is no longer defined by a discipline, but by patterns of consumer behaviour - Harris' argument about the behavioural relevance of the department store seems even more applicable as we approach the present.

52 Ibid., pp.186-187.

53 Ibid., p.188.

54 Dillon Ripley, 'Foreword', to Alma S.Wittlin, Museums: In Search of a Useable Future (Cambridge Mass., 1970).

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