Museums


Samuel Clifford's photograph of what was to become the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, 1862 (W.L. Crowther Library)

The collecting and study of Australia's unique flora and fauna began with the first explorers, and this quest for knowledge gained even more momentum after settlement. The temperate island of Tasmania provided a microcosm of the plants and animals of the Australian mainland and yielded many intriguing indigenous species of its own. This provided an exciting collecting climate for both professional and amateur naturalists. Early scientific societies evolved, and exchanges took place with various overseas institutions keen to acquire hitherto unknown specimens. Local collections of both local and exotic specimens followed.

The roots of Australia's second-oldest museum, the Tasmanian Museum, stem from this source although there is nothing identifiable in its collections from this period. Lady Franklin's replica of a classical temple at Kangaroo Valley, established in 1842, housed the library and collections of the Tasmanian Society, but this museum survived for only ten years.

The Royal Society of Tasmania, founded in 1843, established its own museum and library in 1848, and a building to house the collection was opened in 1862. Known as the Royal Society's Museum, this became the Tasmanian Museum in 1885 and four years later, when an art gallery extension was built, it was called the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.

In 1891 the Victoria Museum, later Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, in Launceston, was established in a dedicated building from a nucleus of collections already gathered and housed in the Launceston Mechanics' Institute. The development of this museum has created a unique situation, for Launceston is the only provincial city in Australia to boast an independent major museum. Although small by world standards, the Tasmanian Museum and the Queen Victoria Museum have important holdings covering all disciplines of museum collecting. The advantages of this diversity can be found in the variety of changing exhibitions involving heritage, the arts and the natural sciences.

With limited funds for purchasing, museums in Tasmania mainly rely on donations to improve their collections. Many of the notable specialist collections held in public museums have come from private collections, which often find their way into the public arena as gifts or as bequests from deceased estates. Among the notable private collectors of the late nineteenth century were photographer JW Beattie, who mainly collected Port Arthur material, and Hobart city librarian AJ Taylor, whose large private collection of ethnographic and natural science material ended up in the Tasmanian Museum. With the exception of W Radcliffe's museum at Port Arthur, the collection of which is now owned by the Port Arthur Historic Site Authority, most of the other early twentieth-century private museum collections have disappeared. Museums also rely on the interest of individuals who donate significant items regardless of their monetary value.

Many of the earlier private museums were lacking in focus, being largely curio displays of souvenirs and oddments of nature, their owners collecting everything and anything they could. Although the earliest of the local history and folk museums evolved in the 1950s the late 1960s saw their proliferation. There are now many such museums and collections developed by historical societies and committees, usually with the leadership of one or two individuals who had the vision to preserve relics and ephemera of the past. Notable examples are Narryna Heritage Museum, Hobart; the Grubb Shaft Museum, Beaconsfield; the Channel Historical and Folk Museum, Snug; St Helens History Room; the Galley Museum, Queenstown; and the Ulverstone History Museum.

Besides the two major museums, other professionally managed museums with a remunerated staff are the Allport and Crowther Collections in the State Library, Hobart; the Pioneer Village Museum at Burnie (Burnie City Council); and the West Coast Pioneers' Memorial Museum at Zeehan (West Coast Heritage Authority). There are many specialist collections, notable among them Maritime Museums in Hobart, Devonport and Low Head, and transport museums including the Tasmanian Transport Museum, Glenorchy; the Don River Railway Museum, Devonport; and the National Automobile Museum of Tasmania, Launceston. Other notable specialist museums are the Mercury Print Museum, Hobart; the Military Museum, Hobart; the Australasian Golf Museum, Bothwell; the Moorilla Museum of Antiquities, Glenorchy; and the Huon Valley Apple and Heritage Museum, Grove. In total there are over sixty museums in Tasmania, covering a wide range of collections in many areas of the state.

Further reading: E Piesse, The foundation and early work of the Society, Hobart, 1913; J Somerville, The Royal Society of Tasmania, 18431943, Hobart, 1944; P Mercer, A short history of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, manuscript, 1998; W Bryden, 'Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery', PPRST 100, 1966.

Peter Mercer