The first photograph taken in Australia was a daguerreotype of Bridge Street, Sydney, in the 1840s, approximately 1.5 kilometres from the Australian Museum.

While many are aware that the Australian Museum is the oldest museum in Australia with a collection that spans more than 22 million natural specimens and cultural objects, one aspect of the Museum that some may not know about are the Australian Museum Photographic Archives, which host a vast collection championing biological, ecological, and ethnographic research, education and discovery.

Oliver Chalmers, former Curator of Minerals, in protective headwear while studying Australites in central South Australia
Oliver Chalmers, former Curator of Minerals, in protective headwear while studying Australites in central South Australia. This image was captured when Chalmers took part in the Australian-American Meteorite Expedition of 1962. This field trip was coordinated by meteorite specialists Dr Brian Mason of the American Museum of Natural History, and Dr Ed Henderson of the Smithsonian Institute in the USA. (Description added with assistance from AM Volunteer Prue Walker.) ams701_41874 Image: Unknown Photographer
© Australian Museum

The Photographic Archives hold images dating from the 1860s to the early 2000s, forming a continuous photographic record of the Australian Museum’s people, sites, major exhibitions, collections, scientific research, fieldwork, and education for over 100 years. The collection consists of images in several formats such as large format black and white negatives, roll film, colour negatives, lantern slides, 35mm and 120 slides, medium and large format transparencies, and glass plate negatives.

The first iteration of a photography department at the Australian Museum began in the early years, circa 1800s, of photography, when preparators began taking photographs of specimens and artefacts for recording purposes and publication. The photographic section was later located above the Old Spirit House, operating through servicing (studio and darkroom) and archive storage. The conditions were subject to great fluctuations in temperature and humidity and were not air-conditioned and many negatives deteriorated due to mould. Under the management of Howard Hughes and then Ric Bolzan, later in the 1990s, the department continue to provide a wide range of photographic services to the Museum and outside researchers, while overseeing management of the historic and modern photography collections.

In early 2022, the Photographic Archives Digitisation (PAD) Project commenced focusing on the digitisation, documentation, preservation, and future storage of this historic photographic collection. In February 2023, the team achieved a huge milestone in the digitisation of over 305,000 analogue film photographs. This large-scale digitisation project is run by Giorgia Gakas (Project Manager) with Olivia Roosen and Nadiye Cicek (Digitisation Officers), working in the Archives team.

The PAD Project has two phases to both digitise and enhance the documentation of photographic collections. Historically, many photographic collections were catalogued at series level. The Photographic Archives Digitisation team have itemised each frame to an individual level.

The digitisation phase of the PAD project has been undertaken by DatacomIT, external commercial digitisation vendors located at Pemulwuy, NSW. The collection was predominately digitised offsite; however, an onsite digitisation stream was created to capture fragile material including magic lantern slides, cold storage acetate negatives and glass plate negatives.

Staff of Lizard Island Research Station in 1977
Staff of Lizard Island Research Station in 1977. Dr Barry Goldman, pictured far right, took on the role of Director in 1976 with research interests that year centred on the effects of fishing intensity on the fecundity of protogynous reef fishes. Established in 1973, the Research Station provides support for scientific research into all aspects of biology, geology, oceanography, hydrology and ecology on the northern Great Barrier Reef, QLD. In 1989 accommodation, boats, diving equipment, a running sea water aquarium system and air-conditioned laboratory facilities for up to 16 scientists were available right on the reef. [ams391_m01116_02] Image: Howard Hughes
© Australian Museum

As there is a preservation imperative to digitise the Photographic Archives, the estimated three year digitisation process will create a new digital archival set of master images to be managed as digital archives into the future.

The team will now start the second phase of the project commencing quality control, research and enriching the documentation of the Australian Museum Photographic Archives.