The nation’s first museum gallery is a treasure in its own right. Newly restored, it showcases the most important items in the museum’s collection of more than 18 million scientific specimens and cultural objects.
Charles Wooley: Walking into the Australian Museum is an adventure, no matter your age. Around every corner lies a discovery that helps inform our past, understand our present and shape our thinking about the future.
Hello, I'm Charles Wooley.
Kim McKay: And I'm Kim McKay, director and CEO of the Australian Museum. We are the nation's first museum and we house the treasures of our nation and the region. We're going to discover some of those today in the newly restored Westpac Long Gallery.
Charles Wooley: So join us in exploring the iconic, astounding and curious objects that have helped shape Australia and the world as we uncover the hidden stories of 200 Treasures of the Australian Museum.
Kim, I get the sense that the museum itself is a historical treasure.
Kim McKay: Charlie, it is. It has really helped shape the identity of Australia. But of course we are in the Westpac Long Gallery, which is a treasure, housing the 200 treasures of the museum. And we've just restored it for our 190th anniversary. Imagine that. In a colony that had just started, the early founders of it decided to create a museum here. You'd think 'why?'
Charles Wooley: It's a beautiful building in I think what's called the Greek revival style. There are Doric and Ionic columns, it's a very pleasing place to be.
Kim McKay: It certainly is, it's neoclassical and it's got a sense of perspective about it. It's a very large room, so originally it was two floors, and the third floor was added in 1890. There's a lovely story of Mortimer Lewis who was the state government architect of the day commissioned to design and build that first museum gallery. And unfortunately for him he lost his job over it. He was given £3,000 by the colonial government to build the museum gallery and he spent that on the roof alone.
Charles Wooley: So this was reprised much later in the Opera House.
Kim McKay: Yes, in fact I think it's been a trend in New South Wales since the beginning of the colony, there's a lot of stories of state architects losing their job because of overspends, but…
Charles Wooley: If you don't get the sack, the building obviously was no good.
Kim McKay: That's right. Fortunately the Australian Museum has three very beautiful sandstone buildings which create a U-shape, and this is the first of them. So it started construction in 1845, and by 1850 it was pretty much completed as the two-level building, and it housed all wonder of exhibits. So when I say 'exhibits' I mean the actual taxidermied specimens of Australia. All sorts of things were crammed into the spaces here because this became the repository for everything perceived of value, from a museum collector's perspective, in this extraordinary continent.
Charles Wooley: And we got going early, didn't we. I mean, it's actually the fifth oldest natural history museum in the world, I understand.
Kim McKay: It is, which is again extraordinary. So 1827, they wrote to Lord Bathurst, the colonial secretary, who granted a few hundred pounds to start the museum, and that had real foresight because when you think about why museums exist, you know, they say the 59 largest natural history museums in the world, and this museum is one of those, we are the 34th largest because our collection numbers over 18 million specimens and objects, of those 59 museums it is said that we hold over 90% of everything ever found on the planet.
Charles Wooley: Wait a minute, you have sorted through how many million?
Kim McKay: Well, we have 18 million objects…
Charles Wooley: 18 million to find 200. Are you telling me you personally looked at 18 million, Kim McKay?
Kim McKay: I'm really busy. No Charlie, I was very fortunate to engage the services of a wonderful curator, Peter Emmett, who worked with our collections managers and different curators of the different collections here to identify 100 objects, but then about 700 other objects related to them that are entangled. So every case in this restored gallery tells a story.
Charles Wooley: How long has it taken to look at all that stuff?
Kim McKay: Well, Peter had worked with us previously at the museum, so he had a great depth of knowledge of the collection. And as he went through it, aided by our team, he was able to zero in and say 'this object is particularly important because…', and really that's what the Westpac Long Gallery reveals to a visitor. It's like layer by layer telling the story of how Australia developed and our contact with the region. You know, our collections are based around Australia and the Pacific principally, although we have some wonderful Egyptian objects in there, quite a lot from Southeast Asia, some from North America too. So it really is an extraordinary collection, almost in the sense of the old cabinet of curiosities concept, but much more curated than that in that you will really understand a little bit more about the country you're standing in and about the region we inhabit.
Charles Wooley: Well, I'm about to immerse myself, in these podcasts, in this fabulous collection. What do you hope visitors like me will get out of it at the end?
Kim McKay: Well, firstly, I think as a visitor here I hope that this gallery will help you understand the past, interpret the present, and then look to the future to why specimens, for example, are so important to conserve. You're going to see a lot of extinct species in this gallery, and that's a sad tale for Australia. So hopefully we can create the awareness of why an understanding of our natural environment and also the nexus between nature and culture is so important. And there's a distinct link there because the original inhabitants of Australia or Pacific Islands were very in tune with nature, and that's a message we try and bring across through each of the cases.
Charles Wooley: What I'm already understanding in the time I'm spending with you is that museums are as important today and in the future as they ever were. You might have thought that technology would have changed that, but it hasn't.
Kim McKay: Well, technology is certainly having a major influence. It is the great challenge of every museum in the world to digitise our collections and make them more accessible…
Charles Wooley: But it hasn't put you out of business in the mainstream of the museum?
Kim McKay: No, in fact quite the opposite is happening. Attendances at museums around the world and certainly here at the Australian Museum are increasing. I think it's because young people particularly want to see more of the real thing.
Charles Wooley: Is it true that more people go to a museum than go to the footy?
Kim McKay: More people attend cultural events in Sydney than attend the football, that's exactly correct.
Charles Wooley: Let's go back to the opening day in 1857. What was it like then? How many people turned up?
Kim McKay: Well, this is extraordinary, Charlie. So in 1857, Sydney's population was only 45,000 people. Of course now we are well over 4.5 million people. But you can imagine the excitement of a museum opening. And it was the first place of considered learning to open in the new colony. Some 10,000 people lined up to come into the Australian Museum. Just extraordinary.
Charles Wooley: So that's, what, about a quarter of the population.
Kim McKay: Exactly. Imagine if I had that today, I'd have a riot on my hands. But it was so intriguing to people to be able to visit a museum. Of course a lot of people had come from England or other parts of Europe and they would have been familiar with museums. Well, finally they had one of their own.
Charles Wooley: We might know that museums have been around for thousands of years in the ancient world, the great Museum of Alexandria which was maybe destroyed in an earthquake or maybe destroyed by an invading army, but it's not a new idea, is it.
Kim McKay: It's not a new idea to study history and to study the past. What was new and what was coming through this museum was the formal study of science.
Charles Wooley: 'Museum' comes from a Greek word and I understand it means a place to muse, a place to think about things.
Kim McKay: And I hope that we create for the visitor today that opportunity to take a little time out to reflect on what has been and what could be. Museums sometimes are described as slower environments, but it's the same impact you get if you go on a bushwalk to me or if you walk and look at great architecture in the street, or come into a museum or an art gallery, it's that space of…it's almost a private space, in a way, where you can enjoy something and study it up close.
Charles Wooley: Down there in the gallery we saw a little kid, he'd have been about five, he came rushing in the big doors at the front there and he stopped, his eyes were wide open, as was his mouth, and he said, 'Oh wow!' Now, you can't get a better achievement than that, can you, as a gallery director.
Kim McKay: No, and I love that, and that's what really thrills me every day working here, is seeing the reaction of kids, because I remember feeling that myself, that moment when you discover something new, when you get to study it up close at your height, and suddenly the world comes alive for you in a way that I don't think it can digitally.
Charles Wooley: From 18 million treasures in the Australian Museum we've selected just 200 for you to consider. But even exploring this distillation is going to take us on a long and exciting adventure. I hope you will join Australian Museum director Kim McKay and myself as we continue our extraordinary odyssey through the collections of the Australian Museum. And of course you can see it for yourself in the Westpac Long Gallery at the Australian Museum in Sydney. I'm Charles Wooley.
Kim McKay: And I'm Kim McKay.
Charles Wooley: We'll see you next time.
Join journalist Charles Wooley and Australian Museum Director Kim McKay as they explore the astounding objects and specimens of the 200 Treasures of the Australian Museum exhibition, housed in the nation’s oldest museum gallery.