Collection staff
Australian Museum groups and staff at work; sand crab burrow Image: Anthony Musgrave
© Australian Museum

"Museum's are not morgues and should expand along modern lines." So commented J.R Kinghorn in the Women’s Weekly when he was appointed Assistant to the Director of the Australian Museum in 1941. A man for the times, this set the tone for the development of the Museum during the challenging war-time conditions of the 1940s and into the next decade.

When war broke-out schemes were devised for the safe-keeping of the Museum collections and staff in case of a national emergency. Material was packed and distributed to various country towns and large exhibition cases were dismantled and removed from the galleries. Staff were given air-raid drills, shown how to deal with incendiary bombs and how to descend from roofs and windows in case of building collapse. With numbers reduced, remaining staff had to be adaptable and the new Directors Assistant led the way.

James Roy Kinghorn had worked at the Museum since 1907 when he’d joined as a ‘Scientific Cadet’ at the age of 16 and multi-skilling had become his speciality. By 1941, already a World War 1 veteran, he was an experienced museum administrator and a published authority on birds, reptiles and amphibians. He was also a passionate science communicator – keen to take the natural history message beyond the Museum’s own walls.

As part of his war-time role, he co-wrote a booklet called ‘The Dangerous Snakes of the South-West Pacific Area’ which was distributed to Australian troops stationed in those areas. He’d never liked the living creatures, ‘pickled snakes are best’ was his motto – but he was an authority and he also saw the public relations value in producing natural history products of contemporary relevance.

A radio performer since the 1920s, in the 1940s his ABC radio broadcasts to primary schools were so popular that he initiated the formation of Young Naturalists’ Clubs in schools throughout NSW. With a high public profile he would receive and diligently respond to hundreds of urgent questions from young naturalists like, ‘Has a centipede one hundred legs? or ‘Can a death adder sting with its tail?

By the time of Kinghorn’s retirement in 1956 and partly as a result of his pioneering work with schools in the 1940s, the Museum had a fully-fledged Education section and a more determinedly public focus.

Roy Kinghorn didn’t slow down though. He made his television debut with ATN 7 in its earliest days of transmission, conducting natural science programmes as part of the children’s sessions and then later joining the inspirational team of presenters on ABC radio’s ‘The Argonauts Club’.

Having spent much of his working life inspiring others to scientific achievement, at the age of 84 he was presented with a doctorate of science from America – a well-earned reward for a lifetime of science education.