The Australian Museum Magazine turns 100
After a controversial beginning, the Australian Museum Magazine has reached 100 years of continuous publication, with the historic latest issue a timely fit for the milestone.
"Since the Museum is supported by public funds for the instruction and enjoyment of the whole people, the Trustees have decided to make an increased effort to reach a wider public", writes Museum Director Charles Anderson in the very first edition of the Australian Museum Magazine.
First published on 29 April 1921, the magazine was a pet project of Trustee Ernest Wunderlich, a businessman and industrialist who even paid for a full-page advertisement in the first edition to promote his company's products.
Charles Anderson had been appointed Director of the Australian Museum just three months earlier following the death of long-serving director Robert Etheridge in 1920. He was keen to nail his museum credentials to the mast, writing an editorial and five articles for the first edition.
Behind Anderson's appointment as director lies a tale of political intrigue, with the selection process mired in controversy.
With Etheridge's death, veteran scientist Charles Hedley – assistant director for 12 years – was the logical choice to lead the Museum: urbane, popular with staff, and a world leader in his field of conchology.
But Hedley had recently fallen foul of Trustees and his boss. His misdemeanour? To arrange a petition requesting permission for Museum staff to join the state public service superannuation scheme.
Perhaps to Hedley's surprise, Etheridge took this seemingly innocuous act as insurrection. "Unconstitutional conduct", he fumed. "Grossly irregular action", raged Trustee Frederick Coghlan, who as Auditor General – the state's most powerful public servant – held a statutory seat on the Museum's board.
Under the 1853 Australian Museum Trust Act, the Trustees were vested with complete control of the Museum and its assets. With Hedley's staff petition, they seemed determined to resist the growing wave of workplace democracy now sweeping the world in the wake of the war.
Hedley's claim on the top job was fought repeatedly by Coghlan, who won the battle and had the board appoint Anderson in his place. Instead Hedley was made Keeper of the Collections – an empty job title with no specified duties – before the board forced him to resign in 1924.
Ironically, Hedley's first article for the magazine is not about the collections he was supposedly keeping, but an introduction to Aboriginal rock art around Sydney.
The magazine, wrote Anderson, would appeal to the average citizen, by describing "the haunts, habits and life-histories of the common animals of our bush, ponds, and seashore."
Articles were written by the Museum's science staff, who were "paid a penny per line and three shillings per photograph".
The quarterly magazine quickly became a success, its print run of 1000 copies selling out within a month.
Over the last 100 years, the magazine's title has changed several times – to Australian Natural History in 1962, then ANH in 1989, and Nature Australia in 1995.
The current masthead, Explore, was launched in 2006 to provide Museum Members and supporters with the latest news on Museum research, acquisitions and events.
Befitting the significance of the publication's centenary is the historic Winter 2021 issue – the first-ever single-topic issue of the magazine, dedicated to First Nations news and issues and guest edited by the respected journalist and Wiradjuri man Stan Grant. The issue takes a deep dive into the significant work of the AM’s First Nations team, including a closer look at the revolutionary new exhibition, Unsettled.
Readers can find digitised copies of nearly all Museum publications here, dating back to 1836.
Brendan Atkins is a former editor of Muse and Explore, successor magazines to Australian Museum Magazine. He is currently writing a biography of Australian Museum scientist Allan McCulloch.
Ronald Strahan (ed), 1979, Rare and Curious Specimens, Australian Museum, Sydney.