Following the paper trail

When it comes to growing the State Collection, objects find their path to the Queensland Museum Network in a variety of ways. Objects are often acquired, such as the purchasing of art works or other items of significance. Other times, we receive an object through a donation or cultural gift. But in some cases, an object is so old and so rare that we aren’t even sure exactly how we received it to begin with – perhaps even through chance.

One such object held by the Queensland Museum Network is the “Ornithological Notes”, in two volumes, written by John Gilbert, a zoological collector who was an assistant to zoologist John Gould. The volumes were pieced together using sections of text and detailed hand-coloured illustrations from Gould’s A Synopsis of the Birds of Australia and the Adjacent Islands, along with several illustrations from a book by Sir William Jardine and Prideaux John Selby, and Gilbert’s own handwritten notes and corrections. This extraordinary object is truly one-of-a-kind and a testament to the remarkable knowledge Gilbert gained during his field work in Australia.

It is possible that the two volume set was intended to be sent home to Gould in England, who could then use the information in his own work. Unfortunately, Gould would never receive Gilbert’s extensive collection of notes; the result of the time Gilbert spent amongst the many different natural environments and species of wildlife in Australia.

Gould’s A Synopsis of the Birds of Australia and the Adjacent Islands was published in 1837 to 1838, just slightly before his party, including Gilbert, made their first expedition to Australia. They began their field work in Tasmania (then Van Diemen’s Land) and, in the following months, Gilbert operated from Western Australia whilst Gould visited New South Wales and also spent several weeks exploring the Murray scrubs in South Australia, and visited Kangaroo Island.

The Gould party – minus Gilbert, who was still in Western Australia – left Sydney for their return to England in April 1840, with Gilbert following in 1841. However, Gould was so impressed with Gilbert’s work in Australia that he persuaded Gilbert to once again leave for Australia, just four months after his return. Gilbert, who had felt a strong attachment to life in the Australian wilds, needed little convincing and was even willing to forgo any salary until Gould’s work was completed.

In the 17 months Gilbert spent in Western Australia he collected 432 specimens of birds and 318 specimens of mammals, as well as great numbers of reptiles and plants, many of which were new to science. Gilbert used this zoological material to write his volumes of informative field notes. In addition, he provided comment on Gould’s work where needed, such as correcting locations where certain species of bird were found. One element that particularly stands out within Gilbert’s writing was his unique relationship with Aboriginal communities – he would often include information learnt from the Aboriginal community, making note not only the scientific name of the bird but also what the community knew it as.

By the end of January 1844, Gilbert was back in Sydney and went overland to Darling Downs. It was here that by sheer chance he met the party led by Ludwig Leichardt and it was eventually decided that Gilbert would join the group, in the interests of natural history. Gilbert quickly became recognised as second-in-command due to his competency in the environment, and his knowledge and better understanding of Aboriginal communities. Unfortunately, in June 1845, Gilbert was killed during a night attack on the expedition’s camp.

From this point on, it becomes harder to track the whereabouts of Gilbert’s extensive volumes of notes, resulting from the valuable work he accomplished whilst in Australia. However, it is thought that they may have been left with the Coxen family in Darling Downs. Charles Coxen, the brother-in-law of John Gould, also had a keen interest in natural science and had assisted Gould with specimens and information whilst he was in England, quite possibly leading to his original expedition.

It is perhaps by these fortunate means – a series of links between the naturalists and explorers involved – that led to the Queensland Museum Network being in possession of this rare and fascinating object. Coxen would later go on to become one of the founders of the Queensland Museum, with the museum’s library founded in 1876 with the purchase of Coxen’s private book collection.

Since its beginnings, the Queensland Museum Network’s Library and Archives has exchanged the museum’s publications with other institutions, as well as receiving gifts and making purchases. It has grown into a labyrinth of rare and fascinating items; it’s large and comprehensive collection representing the broad subject interests of the Queensland Museum Network. The collection items are stored in a variety of ways: from the rows of archives and journals that resemble the kind of library most of us are familiar with, to the secure rare books room, the environment of which is carefully temperature and humidity controlled. The precious items within this room are often one-of-a-kind, and their age and fragile condition mean that they must be handled with care.

Objects within the rare book room, including the work of Gilbert and Gould, are still used and referred to often by researchers from all over the world – their value and relevance evident even so many years later. Queensland Museum Network Library and Archives is available to researchers by appointment. For more information, including access to our online collection, visit our website.