History of the collections
The rocks and minerals housed in the Australian Museum’s extraordinary collection, curated over almost 200 years, tell a truly amazing story our history.
The oldest mineral collection in Australia
The Australian Museum’s Mineralogy and Petrology collection is the oldest and one of the largest in Australia.
About 35 per cent of the collection is from New South Wales, 25 per cent from other Australian states and Antarctica, and 40 per cent from overseas.
Although geological specimens were acquired very early in the Australian Museum’s history, the first reliable record was in the original Museum catalogue written by Curator Dr George Bennett in 1837. Listed were copper and lead minerals from Peru, a zeolite from Menaroo Plains, New South Wales, and British minerals. From 1859, specimens were acquired under the guidance of Mr R Gygax, who had some mineral knowledge.
The collection currently contains about 80,000 registered specimens, including about 19,300 rocks, 60,700 minerals and 1,525 individual species.
First major acquisitions
The first major mineral acquisitions were made under the guidance of prominent geologists and mineralogists as Trustees or advisors to the Museum such as Rev. W B Clarke, known as the ‘father of Australian geology’, and Professors A Thomson and Archibald Liversidge of Sydney University. Clarke himself had donated mineral specimens from the early 1840s onwards. It wasn’t until 1881 that the first curatorial Mineralogist, Felix Ratte, was appointed.
The Museum Trustees showed great foresight and were keen to assemble a comprehensive mineral collection.
The Trustees approved purchases of high quality European and American specimens from classic locations in 1860, 1877 and, in the 1880s, from American, English, French and German dealers such as Ward and Howell, Foote, Gregory, Sturtz, Krantz, Bertrand, Seamann, Schuchardt and Stadtmuller.
In 1877, Archibald Liversidge was appointed a Commissioner for the Colony for the 1878 Paris Universal Exhibition and the NSW Parliament allocated £1000 to the Trustees to purchase mineral specimens and display cases. Liversidge bought 1700 minerals of good quality from well-known European dealers.
These early purchases included lead and zinc minerals from the classic Scottish locations Leadhills and Wanlockhead; fluorite from Cumberland and Derbyshire in England; diamonds from South Africa; as well as gold and tellurides of gold and silver from Transylvania, Romania. Many of these specimens were of such high quality that they have been on continuous display since 1878.
Felix Ratte commenced the first separate mineral collection register in 1887. Previously, all natural history specimens were entered in the Palmer and General Registers. Felix Ratte and his successor Dr Thomas Cooksey catalogued 15,000 minerals, rocks and meteorites between 1887 and 1901.
With increasing 19th and early 20th century mining activity, magnificent collections were assembled by private individuals and companies, and some of these were later donated to the Museum or were purchased.
Growing our collections
Magnificent Broken Hill collections of mainly oxidised zone minerals were donated by the Broken Hill Proprietary Company in 1895 and 1933. These collections contained some of the best cerussite, pyromorphite, smithsonite, stolzite and silver halides ever put together from this orebody.
Superb Australian collections were purchased in 1907 (1500 specimens) and 1927 (1700 specimens) from George Smith and from D A Porter in 1901 (1200 specimens) and 1929 (500 specimens). These were rich with Broken Hill, Cobar and New England (New South Wales) specimens, as well as those from Queensland, Tasmanian and South Australian copper and lead mines.
Other important Australian collections were acquired from Eustice, Coombe, Engelhardt, Sweetapple and Yates, and contained many fine South Australian, Broken Hill and New England (New South Wales) minerals as well as overseas specimens.
Historical meteorite and gold nugget casts were acquired from the late 19th century and onwards.
The Australian Museum Mineral Collections include a substantial Antarctic component, with about 2000 rock and mineral specimens donated in 1939 by the Australasian Antarctic Expedition under Sir Douglas Mawson, and 160 rock specimens collected during 1947–48 from Heard Island donated by James Lambeth from the Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition (ANARE).
A very fine meteorite collection, the oldest in Australia, was assembled from the late 19th century, augmented with transfers from the Geological and Mining Museum and Sydney Observatory. New specimens are still being acquired, especially from new finds or witnessed meteorite falls.
From the 1920s, many mineral specimens were acquired during field trips, such as those to Garrawilla, Broken Hill, Girilambone, Mineral Hill and Jenolan Caves in New South Wales; Harts Range, Rum Jungle and South Alligator River in the Northern Territory; the Pilbara and Kalgoorlie regions of Western Australia; the Flinders Ranges and Olary area in South Australia; and zeolite- rich areas of Tasmania, Queensland and New South Wales. Extensive collections of volcanic rocks and upper mantle and crustal xenoliths in eastern Australia were acquired for volcanic history and Earth evolution studies.
A comprehensive tektite collection has also been assembled. Oliver Chalmers made Australian tektites (Australites) his special study with expeditions to South Australian collecting sites. He also acquired overseas examples for comparison purposes. There are currently about 780 meteorites and over 2500 tektites in these collections.
The mineral, gemstone, meteorite, tektite and rock collections were built up under the guidance of successive Australian Museum Curators - Dr Charles Anderson from 1901, Thomas Hodge-Smith from 1921, Robert Oliver Chalmers from 1945 to 1971 and Dr Frederick Lin Sutherland, from 1973 to 2001. Sutherland was assisted by Technical Officers Joan Hingley from 1972, and Ross Pogson from 1979.
Research and collection curation were later restructured, with Collection Managers Joan Henley (nee Hingley) from 1983 to 1989 and Ross Pogson from 1989, assisted by Technical Officers Gayle Sutherland from 1985 to 2014 and Dayna McGeeney from 2016. Dr Ian Graham served as Scientific Research Officer from 2003 to 2005 and Research Scientist from 2005 to 2007. Acquisition priorities then focused on fine Australian and overseas display and study specimens, gold and gemstones.
The gemstone collection is especially fine and has been built up with the expertise of Oliver Chalmers, Lin and Gayle Sutherland and Joan Henley, with many notable purchases and donations. A carved and ornamental mineral collection also started from 1878 and has many beautiful examples of the lapidary art.
The magnificent Albert Chapman Collection of 820 mineral specimens was purchased by the NSW Government in 1988 and was initially housed at the Geological and Mining Museum (later called The Earth Exchange) until it was transferred to the Australian Museum in 1995. This collection is renowned for its mineral diversity, crystal perfection, aesthetic appeal and high Australian content.
The superb Warren Somerville Collection of 3350 mineral specimens was acquired in the year 2000 and housed in the Australian Fossil and Mineral Museum at Bathurst.
Recent important acquisitions include the J E Johnson, G Dreyer (Broken Hill minerals), Allison Family and Jack Taylor Collections (gemstones and gem crystals) and the Ian Hall Mineral Collection.
The collection today
Today, the Mineralogy and Petrology Collection at the Australian Museum is still growing and changing. In recent years, many mineral specimens have been purchased at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show and from Australian dealers. Specimens are also acquired through trading with Australian and overseas collectors. Many overseas specimens have been collected on conference field trips to France, Bulgaria, America, England, Brazil, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Canada, India and Russia.
Approximately 46 per cent of the collection records have now been digitised and images captured of the specimens. This process enhances the collection by providing access to data on fragile specimens or those that are normally held in storage or other locations. The collection is currently stored in sites across New South Wales, including the Australian Museum site in Sydney, Castle Hill Discovery Centre and the Australian Fossil and Mineral Museum in Bathurst.