Prior to the establishment of the Australian Museum in 1827, natural history specimens were collected and sent to England for scientific study. This practice was, in part, fuelled by a demand for antipodean curiosities.
The first scientific organisation in the Colony of NSW was the short-lived Philosophical Society of Australia, established in 1821. One of the main aims of the Society was to establish a natural history museum, which would display the wealth of mineralogical, zoological, geological and botanical specimens found Australia. But it was not until the arrival of Alexander Macleay to Sydney in 1826 that the foundations of the Australian Museum were laid.
Macleay, who had been appointed to the position of Colonial Secretary, had been a key member of the Linnaean Society of London. He brought with him to Australia an extensive private collection of insects, which was considered by many to be the best in Europe.
In March 1827, Earl Bathurst authorised the construction of a specially designed building to house ‘rare and curious specimens of natural history’ in Sydney. The first step was to collect and arrange items to put on display.
Although land on the corner of William and College Streets had been selected for the new museum in the early 1840s, and the Colonial Architect, Mortimer Lewis, had been commissioned to prepare designs in 1844, the collection was housed in temporary accommodation until the mid 1850s. Construction of the building was delayed due to a financial scandal that forced Lewis to resign his position.
Initially the museum only collected and displayed artefacts; there was no interpretation. As the 19th century progressed, there was greater emphasis on scientific study of specimens. Under Gerard Krefft, the Curator and Secretary of the Australian Museum from 1861 to 1874, this new focus was reflected by his appointment of trained scientific staff.
But Krefft’s appointment would soon raise the ire of the Museum’s Trustees who were busily building up their own natural history collections which was a ‘great impediment to the advance of the museum’. Krefft also courted controversy because, as he wrote to Charles Darwin, ‘I have tried to make people understand what the theory of evolution really is’.
On 23 December 1873, gold nuggets were stolen from one of the Museum’s display cases. Krefft was away from the museum at the time because he was preparing the skeleton of a whale for display. He had left two employees in charge: Thorpe, an attendant, and Michael O’Grady, a messenger. Although suspicion fell on O’Grady as the culprit for the robbery, no one was ever charged for it and the gold was never seen again.
The Trustees saw the theft as a means of ousting Krefft from his position. Their chief grievance about his dealings with the theft was that he had called the police first, before notifying them.
In February 1874, the Legislative Assembly held a Select Committee of Inquiry into the overall management of the museum. The findings of the Committee were inconclusive, so the Trustees held their own inquiry. Smelling a rat, Krefft refused to testify.
Evidence was not given under oath, and there were accusations that Krefft was drunk on the job and had smashed a valuable fossil. The Trustees asked him to resign, but he refused and locked himself into his quarters at the Museum in the hope that the Government would intervene and keep him on as Curator.
The Trustees took matters into their own hands, and in August 1874, Krefft was forcibly ejected from the museum by Edward Hill, one of the Trustees. Hill had procured the services of two prize-fighters from the Sydney Bazaar to forcibly remove him. They picked him up, still seated in his armchair, and unceremoniously dumped him out the front of the Museum in College Street.
Krefft would later testify that Hill had entered his ‘premises near College-street, Sydney, the making a disturbance therein, breaking open doors, removing goods, and expelling plaintiff and his family … in consequence of which he was unable to carry on his business as Curator of Sydney Museum, and was obliged to procure another residence for himself and family.’
Kreft brought a civil suit against Hill and was awarded damages, but he was never reinstated to his position at Curator at the Australian Museum. He was bankrupted in 1880 and died a broken man the following year.