What's got four wheels, is stuffed with life and provides an important service to the community?

Today that question could have many answers but in 1978 the response was unequivocal – ‘It’s the Australian Museum’s Wandervan, of course.’

During early 1978 then NSW Premier Neville Wran had been kept busy on Museum matters, opening two significant new outreach programmes. In March the Australian Museum Train was launched, followed closely the next month by the Wales Wandervan.

The Australian Museum Wandervan
The Australian Museum Wandervan launched in 1978 and sponsored by the Bank of NSW (Westpac) Image: Heather McLennan
© Australian Museum

When Des Griffin took over as Director in 1976, he was already convinced of the Museum’s significant contribution to the scientific, educational and cultural life of the Australian community. But what he also saw and stated clearly, was the need for a more active approach to catering to the educational needs of different and diverse sections of the population.

For young locals, the ‘drop in after school programme’ became a hit. Many children living near the inner-city, saw the Museum as the place to go on Tuesdays or Thursdays after school, where they could get involved in craft, music, cooking, dance, animation or simply looking at bugs through microscopes.

But for those further afield, many years of planning now led to the delivery of a different kind of drop-in centre. The Museum started a service carrying some of its own exhibits out to rural people all around New South Wales.
When the Museum train, a bright railway red with a large yellow dinosaur running the length of its two carriages, pulled up at a country station – it was definitely a drawcard. In some of the smaller towns it was excitedly estimated ‘over 100%’ of the local population visited the train.

The museum train
The museum train Image: Australian Museum
© Australian Museum

The first carriage housed exhibition material and the second a classroom/theatrette, specimen display area, small bookshop and accommodation for two Education officers. As the train travelled for 12 weeks of each school term, spending from days to weeks at one station, a few domestic conveniences for the dedicated staff on board were a necessity.

Sponsored originally by the Bank of NSW (now Westpac), the next outreach initiative to get underway was the ‘Wales Wandervan’. With a collection of live and stuffed animals, rocks and fossils, and ethnographic artefacts, the brightly painted vehicle plied the highways.

The ‘Special Service for Special People’ as it was dubbed, visited nursing homes, hospitals, jails and schools for children with a range of physical and mental disabilities. Along with the more static collections, Wilton the carpet snake, Bluey the blue-tongue and Banya the baby possum, helped bring a museum experience to people who might never walk through the doors at College Street.

In the decade of the Museum’s Sesquicentenary, outreach was definitely on the increase and the success of one of its earliest programmes was also highlighted in 1978. On October 14, Murray Fletcher was awarded a PhD by Sydney University for his work on leaf-hoppers. He’d been one of the foundation members of the Museum’s popular Discoverers Club and Society and spurred on by his childhood introduction – the first Club member to go on and receive a doctorate in science.