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1930 –

Marine biologist Frank Talbot came to the Australian Museum in 1964 as curator of fishes. Talbot’s life-long fascination with the sea stemmed from his boyhood in South Africa. After achieving a Masters degree in science, Talbot spent five years working on coral reef ecology in Zanzibar, then six years as curator and assistant director at the South African Museum before accepting the position at the Australian Museum.

Frank Talbot
Dr. Frank Talbot increased the quality of the Museum's research and participated in a NASA program. Image: Stuart Humphreys
© Australian Museum

Environmental conservation

After becoming director in 1965, Talbot instigated several significant projects. In 1968 he created a new Department of Environmental Studies, with the aim of applying ecological studies to broader issues of environmental conservation. An important environmental survey of Lord Howe Island in 1970 involved scientists from the Museum, the Royal Botanic Gardens, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, and the CSIRO, and reported on environmental degradation there.

Field studies on One Tree Island in the southern Great Barrier Reef began in 1966, with a permanent field station established there soon after. In 1973, a donation from American Henry Loomis allowed for the establishment of a research base on Lizard Island in the tropical north of the Reef. The National Photographic Index of Birds project began in 1968 with Talbot’s support, and a series of ethnographic films, directed by Howard Hughes, was funded under an agreement with Broken Hill Proprietary Ltd (BHP).

Increase in scientific research

Talbot enhanced the Museum’s scientific standing by recruiting top scientists, upgrading the minimum qualifications for new curatorial staff, and placing more emphasis on research. An upsurge in the awarding of Commonwealth competitive research grants resulted in increased scientific research output. Over Talbot’s decade other areas of the Museum also expanded, and the total staff doubled to 150. The frequency of quality temporary exhibitions increased.

Museum administration was decentralised and the roles and responsibilities of the deputy director and secretary more clearly defined. Talbot built good community relationships and enjoyed public appearances. In 1971 he was one of NASA’s ‘Aquanauts’ in the Tektile II program, which involved living for over two weeks in an underwater capsule on the seafloor of the Caribbean Virgin Islands, researching fish activity and monitoring the effects of confinement.

In 1972 Talbot set up the Australian Museum Society (TAMS) as a bridge between the Museum and the general public. Talbot resigned in June 1975 to take up the foundation chair of Environmental Studies at Macquarie University.