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MUSEUM CURATOR, SYDNEY, EDWARD P. RAMSAY, 1ST AUSTRALIAN BORN

The postcard had a pink ‘One Penny’ printed QV stamp of New South Wales postmark of the ‘Rays’ 30 of Camden and it was addressed to The Curator, Museum, Sydney. In addition there were 2 additional postmarks, an originating CAMDEN/ DE 15/ 1877/ N.S.W of Type 1 C, the earliest recorded date, as well as a reception postmark of SYDNEY/ (-)/ DE 15/ 77/ 8 (Figure 1).

The reverse was dated Camden, 15 Dec. 1877, and the message read: Dr Sir, I advised you on Friday by P. Card that I had not sent the Bird, as he had been shot too long & was quite putrid. – The Post Card was posted same post as letter ( ? ) therefore must have been mislaid. It was signed T. Barrett Jr. (Figure 2).

Since 1829, sixteen men have been curator or director of the Australian Museum, Sydney overseeing its evolution from a one-man operation to an internationally recognized scientific institution. The title 'Curator' was used until 1917, when the position was retitled as 'Director and Curator', then 'Director' only from 1918. The scientific staff, appointed from the later 1870s, were 'scientific assistants', known by their discipline eg Ornithologist, Conchologist, Zoologist. In 1948, they became known as 'Curators', a term used until 1984 when the positions of 'Collection Manager' were created and scientific staff used titles appropriate to their classification eg 'Research Scientist' (Ichthyologist).

The first man appointed, William Holmes was a carpenter and joiner, and the reasons for his appointment as collector for the new museum are obscure. Appointed on 16 June 1829, his tenure was brief as he was shot by accidental discharge of his gun on 24 August 1831 while collecting at Moreton Bay. William Galvin, transported to NSW in 1826 and conditionally pardoned in 1832, worked from 1829 as a parliamentary messenger in the office of Edward Deas Thomson, who was appointed Colonial Secretary in 1837. After Holmes' death, care of the Museum's collections was added to Galvin's duties until the appointment of George Bennett. Galvin was assisted by the convict John Roach, a trained taxidermist, employed as 'Collector and Preserver' of specimens or 'Collector and bird-stuffer' from 1836 to 1840.

Dr. George Bennett, a distinguished naturalist and medical practitioner, travelled extensively, visiting Sydney in 1829 and 1832, before settling there in 1835. Bennett had a close connection with Sir Richard Owen, regularly corresponding and sending specimens over 50 years. Bennett lobbied for the position of Curator at the fledgling Museum, and was appointed in 1835. His major achievement was the publication in 1837 of the first published 'Catalogue of Specimens of Natural History and Miscellaneous Curiosities deposited in the Australian Museum', which then comprised 36 mammal species, 317 Australian birds and 25 exotic birds, 15 reptiles, 6 fishes, 211 insects, 25 shells, 57 foreign fossils and 25 'native ornaments, weapons, utensils'. The Museum's governing body, the Committee of Superintendence, established in 1836, rarely met during Bennett's tenure. After his resignation in July 1841, Bennett resumed his medical practice and travels, publishing his 'Gatherings of a Naturalist in Australasia' in 1860. He was a Trustee of the Museum 1853-74.

William Branwhite Clarke, clergyman and geologist, emigrated to Australia in 1839 for his health. He was on the Museum's Committee of Superintendence in 1840, when he succeeded Bennett as Secretary and Curator in August 1841. Clarke resided at Parramatta while he was Curator. In 1843, during a time of economic depression, the Legislative Council abolished the position of Secretary and Curator. Clarke remained on the Committee of Superintendence and the succeeding Board of Trustees until 1874, a connection with the Museum of nearly 40 years.

The Clarke Memorial Medal of the Royal Society of NSW is named after him, and Clarke is remembered as 'the Father of Australian Geology'. A paper on William Branwhite Clarke can be found at my website at http://www.auspostalhistory.com/articles/191.shtml.

I now fast forward to the period when the above postcard was sent to ‘The Curator’. Edward Ramsay, the first Australian born Curator, had an early interest in natural history, especially in ornithology. In 1867 he established a nursery on his share of the family Dobroyde Estate. He had no formal training in science but wrote many papers. With the patronage of WJ Macleay, he was appointed after Krefft's removal.

Under Ramsay's curatorship, the museum collections expanded considerably; he added 17,600 bird skins, including the Dobroyde Collection made by the Ramsay brothers. His 'Catalogue of the Australian Birds in the Australian Museum' appeared in 4 parts between 1876 and 1894. Ramsay started 'Records of the Australian Museum' in 1890. Between 1878 and 1888 scientific staff at the Museum increased from one to eight. In 1883 Ramsay visited London as official representative for NSW and Tasmania at the Great International Fisheries Exhibition and negotiated the purchase of Dr Francis Day's collection of Indian fishes for the Museum.

The Museum's ethnological and technological collections were lost in the Garden Palace fire on 22 September 1882: the Garden Palace had housed the Sydney International Exhibition of 1879. Ramsay actively worked to build up the collections again. During Ramsay's time, the 3rd floor was added to the original museum building and a new hall for ethnology built. In 1893, Ramsay took extended sick leave and resigned on 31 December 1894.

I acknowledge that this paper is an abridged version of the Museum’s website which can be found at http://australianmuseum.net.au/Curators-and-Directors-of-the-Australian-Museum.

 

 

 

 

 

 
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