Enabling scientific information to be presented in an interesting way

“When it comes to learning about animals a visit to a zoo or library has as much, or more, to commend it than a visit to [this] Museum…”

AMS351/V10979 Vertebrate Tree View with Boy and Girl
Vertebrate Tree View with Boy and Girl Image: N/A
© Reproduction Rights Australian Museum

These harsh words written by John William Evans soon after he became director in 1954, formed part of a report to the Trustees of the Museum.

As you might expect, the criticism was not appreciated by the Trustees. They became extremely hostile to Evans, who then patiently and persistently stove to win the confidence of Wallace Wurth, a particularly influential Trustee. When these efforts eventually succeeded, Wurth’s support for Evans enabled him to modernise the Museum during his term as director.

One of his main criticisms was that some of the galleries still clung to the earliest methods of design, where “…not only were the floors very largely occupied by exhibition cases, but every case was crammed to capacity.” Other galleries housed dioramas, which were both expensive and time-consuming to prepare, and therefore tended “…to achieve a permanence that [was] undesirable”.

One of his inspired ideas was the creation of the Department of Art and Design, which came into being on 13th April, 1956. This handed control of galleries over to designers, thereby removing control from the scientific staff, who tended to display as many species as they possibly could, in systematic order.

The brief of the new department was the provision of displays that relied on “… colour, good design and simplicity and [enabled] scientific information to be presented in an interesting way”.

The person who took on this challenge was John Beeman. In the first few months he and his staff launched themselves into plans for redesigning the Bird Gallery, the Mammal Gallery, the new Fish Gallery and the Invertebrate Gallery, as well as new cases in the Australian Aboriginal Gallery. During the following year, they also turned their sights on the Insect Gallery, Mineral Gallery, Fossil Gallery and the Skeleton Gallery. In addition, the Department produced drawings to illustrate scientific papers.

Once they completed “The Vertebrate Tree” at the top of the stairs facing the entrance, there was not a lot of the Museum that did not show some of their influence.

This ambitious project showed the main groups of vertebrates and traced their evolutionary developments. It was produced to mark the centenary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s ‘The Origin of the Species’ and had an equally ambitious companion piece in the Invertebrates Gallery: “These are Invertebrates”, more commonly known as “The Invertebrate Tree”.

In a very few years, the Department of Art and Design expanded and became the Exhibition Department, which combined Art and Design with Preparation, and included the newly created Photography section as well.

With time, the name has changed, and the functions been tweaked, but it’s fair to say that John Evans’ inspired idea has met the challenge of new and evolving galleries such as the perennially popular “Search and Discover”, and resulted in blockbuster exhibitions such as “Alexander the Great” in 2012, and the gorgeous Scott Sisters exhibition displayed in 2017.