Photography: Under this general name is distinguished one of the most beautiful discoveries of the present century... Sydney Morning Herald. 10 May 1855.

The advent of photography in Australia

The invention of photography in 1839 had a profound impact on Australia. As European explorers ventured into the Australian continent, photographers accompanied them, capturing landscapes, Indigenous peoples and territories. These images played a crucial role in shaping perceptions of the "new world".

Photography coincided with colonial expansion, major social transformations, and discoveries and advancements in science and engineering. From the early exploration and documentation of the newly occupied continent through federation in 1901 and beyond, photography played a crucial role in visually defining the history of the colonial nation, while technological advancements made the medium more accessible.

The history of photography in post invasion Australia stands as a visual chronicle, portraying the nation's journey through exploration, colonisation, social upheavals, and the quest for nationhood.

One example of this chronicling, particularly in the fields of the natural sciences, can be seen in the history of photography at the Australian Museum.

Photography at the Australian Museum

A mass digitisation project of the negatives and slide collections of the Australian Museum Photographic Archives throws a light on the Museum’s evolving interests over time. The Archives hold images dating from the 1860s to the early 2000s, forming a continuous photographic record of the Australian Museum’s people, sites, major exhibitions, collections, scientific research, fieldwork, and education for over 100 years.

The oldest surviving image at the Australian Museum is likely to date back to 1860. Up until that time, hand drawings were the only way to visually document and record the details of the ever-increasing specimen collections.

The first iteration of a photography department at the Museum began when exhibition preparators began taking photographs of specimens and artefacts for recording purposes and publication. Photographers were taxidermists and preparators who could lend a hand to anything needed to help document, promote, trade or exhibit specimens. This arrangement continued at the museum for nearly 100 years.

In May 1959 the newly formed Exhibitions Department included a position called Photographic and Visual Aids Officer and by the 1960s the Museum had its own dedicated photographic studio . This included both the servicing (studio and darkroom) and archival storage, which was not air-conditioned. This meant photographic negatives were subject to great fluctuations in temperature and humidity and sadly over time many negatives deteriorated due to mould and other forms of degradation.

The photography department ran under the management of Howard Hughes from 1959 to 1986, Ric Bolzan from 1988 to 1996 and Carl Bento from 1990 to 2013.

The department provided a wide range of photographic services to the Museum and outside researchers, while overseeing management of the historic and modern photography collections. In 2015 the photography department was disbanded and the care of the photographic assets was entrusted to the Archives department.

It was recognised that to preserve the collection and to be able to provide digital access to the historic images a large scale digitisation program was needed. This program occurred in 2022/2023 with a total of 328,000 photographic negatives and slides digitised.

See more photographic collections

Dive into the Australian Museum photographic collections and learn about the Museum's rich history through rarely seen photos.

Discover more