Chapter 1: 1862 – 1918 (56 Years) A Fledgling Natural History Museum | QMN History

This blog has been updated in January 2022 to celebrate 160 years of Queensland Museum.

160 years ago in a little windmill on the hill is where Queensland Museum had its beginnings.

Our story begins with the Queensland Philosophical Society (QPS), who was granted temporary use of rooms in the Windmill in Wickham Terrace, along with a grant of 100 pounds which equates to roughly $15,500 today from the Government.

The Windmill at Wickham Terrace.

In the early days the focus of the QPS was as a repository for natural history specimens with displays consisting of shells, birds, insects and fossils. Due to poor maintenance of the windmill, cases became damaged and derelict and it wasn’t long before the museum moved to the Parliamentary Building in Queen Street in 1868.  The museum consisted of two small rooms, one contained the Government’s mineral collection, the other was the specimens owned by QPS.

In 1871, Charles Coxon, Vice President of QPS, was appointed Honorary Curator, he persistently urged the Government to provide better facilities. He worked on his own until 1873 when Karl Staiger was appointed as the Governments Analytical Chemist and Custodian of the Museum – he was officially the museum’s first employee. In that same year QPS moved to the Old General Post Office in Queen Street which had an office, lab and a larger space for the mineral display.

1876 was a major year for the museum, the Board of Trustees was formed and in March of that year, it was decided to change the name to Queensland Museum. The museum continued to expand and occupy more spaces in the Old Post Office and was now a museum of general sciences, history, anthropology and natural sciences. The Queensland Herbarium had also been established in the museum and subsequently left in 1883.

In 1879, William Haswell was appointed as Curator on a salary of 200 pounds and he established the museum in a new purpose built building in William Street, which cost 10,706 pounds.

With a new home, the museum needed more staff and in 1880 it grew to five with Edward Spalding appointed as the first staff taxidermist, in his first year he mounted 44 mammals, 81 birds, nine reptiles and 11 fish. Haswell left later that year due to inadequate salary and moved to Sydney to become Curator of the Australian Museum.

In 1882, Charles de Vis was appointed Curator on a salary double of Haswell and under de Vis more staff were appointed, including an entomologist who also looked after invertebrates, a zoological collector and a geological collector. It was a time of rapid growth and the museum required a new premises and despite several promises from the government for a new building, nothing eventuated.

In the height of the 1890s depression, the museum was not immune and in 1893, the Minister asked the Board to reduce its estimates and consider retrenchments. Only five staff were retained with the expectation that everyone undertook several jobs, the curator took a pay cut of 100 pounds. This difficult economic period continued to the early 1900s and in 1902, the decision was made not to insure the collection.

It was in 1885, that the Government took ownership of the Exhibition Building and started to convert the North Wing of the building for the museum. The mezzanine and ground floors were to house displays and the basement was to be used for offices. And in 1899, the museum officially relocated to the Exhibition Building and reopened to the public in 1901 – there were four staff.

Despite opening at what is now known as the ‘Old Museum’, due to the poor economic environment, in 1904, de Vis was ordered to retire, but stayed on as a consulting scientist.

In 1907 the media were highly critical of the museum’s displays and standards in taxidermy, in addition to issues with the Board with the Premier at the time describing them a “lack of foresight and political neglect”. As such the Premier asked Robert Ethridge, the Curator of Australian Museum, to undertake a review of Queensland Museum who criticised everything, with the exception of some parts of the collection. He described it as ‘Queensland Museum leaves on my mind a feeling of gloom, absence of taste and disjointed elements’.  He emphasised the need for a qualified Museum Director to be appointed. As a result, the Board was disbanded and the Curator reported directly to the Premier.

In 1910, Ronald Hamlyn-Harris was appointed as Curator and he set about expanding the museum, extending scientific strength by appointing honorary scientists, instituted an education program, revitalising displays and establishing a library.

The following year, Eileen Murphy was appointed at age 20, was first woman to be appointed to permanent staff, firstly as a stenographer but later registered specimens, wrote labels and compiled catalogues. She occupied her position for 42 years and served under 3 Directors.

Hamlyn Harris retired in 1917 and during his tenure achieved a staffing level of 15, however his term ended with 12 as during the First World War several staff left the museum and were not replaced. Key staff at this time included Curator, Assistant Curator, Ichthyologist, Entomologist, Taxidermist, Collector, Librarian, Preparator cadet, and Attendants.

Museum staff in the 1920’s. Standing L to R: A. Fenwick, Librarian; William Baillie, attendant; Thomas C. Marshall, assistant preparator; A. Gorman, attendant; R. V. Smith, attendant. Seated: Eileen Murphy, stenographer; Heber A. Longman, director; Henry Hacker, entomologist. Absent: E.Varey, attendant.
The staff of the museum, 1912. Standing L to R: ‘Chips’ Greensill, attendant/ carpenter; William Baillie, attendant; Henry Hacker, entomologist; Eileen Murphy, stenographer; Clarice Sinnamon, librarian; Anthony Alder, taxidermist; Benjamin Harrison, chief attendant; E. Varey, attendant. Seated L to R: Heber A. Longman, assistant scientist; Ronald Hamlyn-Harris, director; James Douglas Ogilby, ichthyologist. Reclining: Tom Marshall, cadet.
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