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Weird and wonderful: the first objects of the National Historical Collection

Paper presented by Dr Libby Robin, Environmental Historian, Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies
Collecting for a Nation symposium, National Museum of Australia, 21 March 2006

DR LIBBY ROBIN: I have been given the task today to speak about the National Historical Collection’s first objects, and I realise this is a strong claim. As soon as the title of this talk as circulated, I heard from several people with counter claims for older, more national or more significant collections. One correspondent suggested that, since John Treloar had been collecting historical material on behalf of the Australian nation through the Australian War Records Section established in London in May 1917, he should be designated the first national collector. But there were, of course, collectors building national museums in Sydney and Melbourne long before the colonies federated and before Canberra’s other national history museum, the Australian War Memorial, was founded.

The Australian Museum in Sydney was established as the Colonial Museum in the 1820s but was called ‘Australian’ for most of its time. Melbourne’s Museum of Natural and Economic Geology was founded in 1854 but has been known for most of its life as the National Museum of Victoria. Even the Royal Society of Tasmania made an effort to build the National Museum of Natural History and the Arts to house its society’s collections and library, an effort that culminated in the sandstone Museum of Natural History and the Arts being established - without the national tag - in Hobart in 1862. So I need to be very clear about both ‘national’ and ‘first’ in the company of contested claims.

Colin MacKenzie’s national anatomical collection, most famous for its wet specimens of marsupials and monotremes, and other things, was the cause for the first Commonwealth legislation for a national collection in 1924. It’s on this legal basis that I claim his collection as the first element of this particular National Historical Collection. As curator Guy Hansen mentioned, Sir Colin MacKenzie was an eminent orthopaedic surgeon of the Melbourne establishment and was one of the best connected and scientifically respected of the new post-Federation generation of collectors that included (John) Treloar, (Walter W) Froggatt and many others.

MacKenzie was collecting long before 1924. When he returned from the South African War in 1902 he began collecting marsupials and also other anatomical anomalies in earnest, and by 1905 he was employing Victor Cobb, a distinguished artist, whom he’d met in South Africa, to draw his dissections.

While this Collecting for a Nation conference celebrates the quarter century since the Museum of Australia Act 1980 created the National Historical Collection, the objects that came together in this national collection already had a history as their collectors and their motivations predated the legislation. What is interesting is how these collections came together in the National Historical Collection and what stories they can collectively tell about Australia in different eras. While Colin MacKenzie was a vocal early advocate of ‘national’ vision, he would have been very surprised to discover that his anatomical specimens had ended up in a history collection. He may too have been surprised to read that I entitled this talk ‘Weird and wonderful’. As a scientist on a mission, MacKenzie probably did not pause to consider the weird reaction that his specimens arouse in many twenty-first century viewers; they were simply wonderful for science in his day.

How can bottles of body parts tell the history of a nation? This is the challenge offered to curators of the National Historical Collection’s oldest collection. To understand how the objects frame national histories requires an understanding of how they came to the collection, why they were collected, and what earlier historical uses were made of the collection - in both science and society. I will include some remarks on what these objects can tell us about museum practice and on the changes and constancies in national imaginings since the early twentieth century.

One motivation for this collection was Sir Colin MacKenzie’s personal concern that Australian marsupials and monotremes were disappearing fast. His idea was to collect as many whole and partial specimens as possible, in order to preserve them for their anatomical and physiological significance. These series of wet specimens would be preserved for science even after the animals themselves were extinct. Whole specimens were important, such as the thylacine, but since MacKenzie expected such ‘primitive’ animals would not survive the onslaught of settler Australian society, he was also keen to make close studies of functional units, such as the reproductive system of an echidna or the digestive system of a koala. These dissections, stored in signature tall glass jars, make up the bulk of the wet specimens. They are backed up with the artist Cobb’s drawings of the same dissections and with comparative materials from other animals and non-wet items such as nests, skins and bones.

Most of the jars contain marsupials, monotremes and anatomical anomalies of all sorts of animals, including humans. Some are not suitable for display any more and have been on long-term loan to university anatomy departments. Aborted foetuses can provide evidence of abnormalities such as hydrocephaly. MacKenzie gathered bodies and body parts of animals of all sorts with additional organs or other anatomical curiosities. He also collected and received skulls, human as well as other animals. He was interested in the exceptional and what it could tell an anatomist or surgeon about the ‘normal’ and the evolution of ‘advanced’ forms. Although most of his surgery concerned bones, as orthopaedics was his specialty, most of his anatomical specimens were chosen for what they might reveal about ‘primitive’ forms and body systems, and what they could tell about an evolutionary story.

The view that the marsupial and monotreme fauna of Australia were ‘primitive’ or evolutionarily more poorly adapted than the placental mammals of the northern hemisphere was widespread at the time. MacKenzie’s views were not unusual. Because these animals were ‘primitive’ they were expected to fade away, to be displaced by the fitter and more adapted species introduced by European Australians. Extinction was ‘inevitable’ under this world view. The primitive fauna and flora was something colonial Australians were often uncomfortable about, perhaps fearing that they too might degenerate to a less civilised state in such a land. There was very little celebration of the adaptability of the biota to Australian conditions, partly because the conditions themselves were regarded as anomalous and challenging.

It was often visitors, rather than locals, who articulated theories of Australia’s primitive. For example, in the Lone Hand of 1910, Joseph McCabe contributed an article ‘Australia - a museum of living antiquities’, which was billed as ‘a scientific article by the celebrated English author and lecturer showing how primitive animals and plants of the past found refuge in this isolated island-continent’. McCabe saw Australia as one of nature’s museums, a place ‘where primitive types of life may retain their old-world ways, sheltered from the bustling competition of a younger and more forward generation’.

The idea of a fauna in need of protection from extinction permeated even children’s books. Ethel Pedley’s Dot and the Kangaroo, first published in 1899, was written ‘in the hope of enlisting [children’s] sympathies for the many beautiful, amiable and frolicsome creatures of their fair land, whose extinction, through ruthless destruction, is being surely accomplished’. Pedley’s kangaroo is motherly, kind: a ‘heroine’ in this story as she rescues Dot, the little girl lost in the bush. She is also deeply ‘primitive’ in the sense that she is not keen on thinking. The antediluvian and paradoxical are played out best, however, in the pompous platypus who, on meeting Dot, declares (with all the snobberies of Australia’s squattocracy):

Humans are so ignorant! That is because they are so new. When they have existed a few more million years, they will be more like us old families ... Humans and Wagtails fraternise together. They’re both post-glacial.

MacKenzie, like Ethel Pedley and Joseph McCabe, saw the primitive everywhere in Australia, and the land itself as a continental museum. McCabe described it as ‘a place of refuge for medieval types from the pressure of a turbulent rising generation’. MacKenzie was more inclined than the others to sell its exceptionalism as an advantage, both at home and abroad.

In the first decade of the twentieth century, infantile paralysis - that’s polio - was a major problem in Australia. Children were receiving treatment to help them recover at least partial use of their legs, but it was MacKenzie who turned attention to withered upper arms and shoulders. Amongst the many dissections MacKenzie had made, he paid close attention to the working of the koala’s shoulder, because he was intrigued by its exceptional ability to grasp gum leaves overhead. Using the implications of his dissections, he designed splints for the human shoulder for use in his orthopaedic surgery and worked to re-educate muscle groups damaged by the disease. When he later served in London from 1915 to 1917 at the Military Orthopaedic Hospital in Shepherd’s Bush, he treated British soldiers with shrapnel injuries to shoulders. He reconstructed their upper arms using the koala shoulder technique developed for polio victims. The story of taking the koala shoulder to London has had great appeal for museum displays. It appeared at various times in displays of the Australian Institute of Anatomy, probably most recently at the time the Australian Institute of Anatomy was closed in the early 1980s.

I have drawn on the early context for the collection because it is rich with possibilities for stories about the history of ideas of Australia. But the other great story of this collection is its own odyssey and its role in creating a national museum in Canberra. When MacKenzie offered his whole collection as a gift to the Commonwealth in 1923, he was being strategic. He entrenched his status as a scientist by arguing for the ‘national’ significance of the collections he curated. He convinced Senator GF Pearce, Minister for Home and Territories, of the historical significance of the collection, if not the science underpinning it. Pearce expressed his thanks to MacKenzie, on behalf of the nation, in these terms:

The collection, which will form the nucleus of an Institute of Zoology to be established later at Canberra, is one of the finest in the world. … As the value of the collection lies more in its historical interest - which is undoubtedly great - than its importance as an aid to medical science ... [A]t a time when our fauna is rapidly becoming extinct, and the collection of representative specimens is becoming increasingly difficult, [this donation] constitutes an act of practical patriotism the merit of which would be hard to overestimate.

MacKenzie used the collection’s ‘national interest’ to broaden his own scientific base. He did not want to be limited to ‘medicine’, but sought to contribute more broadly to zoology, at a time when science was very much on the national agenda. Yet Pearce, the politician, missed this dimension entirely and instead chose to focus on the MacKenzie collection’s national ‘historical’ interest. Extinction was forever - and it was this that captured political attention. Under the terms of the Zoological Museum Agreement Act 1924, the MacKenzie collection was earmarked for the national capital, and its collection of specimens ‘of a value without price ... when live specimens are not obtainable’ shaped discussions about a possible national museum of zoology.

MacKenzie used his strength in medical research to distance himself from the systematists of the state museums and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, which was by then established in Canberra, and to argue that this research was in the vanguard of new zoological work. Zoology was ‘essential to medical science’, he declared in his 1928 presidential address to Section D of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science. He had no doubt that zoology was both a national and a nationalist enterprise. Comparative anatomy was essential to its theorising, as his 1928 speech on the human erect posture revealed. Having established the ‘superior humanity’ inherent in an erect posture, MacKenzie then nationalised it:

Probably no game in the world exercises the erect posture functions more than the Australian game of football. It is founded on sound physiological lines and has been no small factor in the physical development of our nation.

MacKenzie invoked a progressive philosophy that intertwined claims for intelligence, utilitarianism and the popular national sport. He was also interested in improving the design of the human body itself.

MacKenzie had the conviction, and the means, to build an institution that would be a monument to his life’s work. He was aware that his museum was not ‘a museum in the ordinary sense of the word, as all specimens exhibited there would really have some connection with human health and disease, and have been assembled from the viewpoint of medical practice’. Sometimes he was helping zoology and sometimes he was helping medicine, it depended on who his masters were. At that stage he’s talking to John Howard L Cumpston at the Department of Health.

MacKenzie was well aware of the inertia with respect to promises for the other Canberra museum, the Australian War Memorial, which by then had a director, John Treloar, but no prospect of a permanent building. He brought discussions to a head and ensured the safety of his collection for the nation by contributing generously to its housing. In an era when Canberra itself was barely established, MacKenzie and his new wife moved to Canberra in 1928 to supervise the creation of a beautiful and scientifically functional building featuring marsupial gargoyles, stone facing, and other expensive artistic details, possible in those Depression years only because of MacKenzie’s personal generosity.

The earliest exhibits in the first national museum, the Australian Institute of Anatomy, were regarded as models of best practice by independent museum professionals. They featured prominently in Markham and Richards’s 1933 Report on the Museums and Art Galleries of Australia, commissioned by the Museums Association of London. In a document critical of most Australian museological practice at the time, the Australian Institute of Anatomy was an exception. It ‘bids fair to rank with the best’ in the world, Markham and Richards wrote: ‘A delightful building in every way has been erected at the cost of £100,000 and contains two excellent museum halls.’

The early displays were attractive and accessible to the general public. Norman Wettenhall recalled visiting there as a teenager within a year or two of opening and being deeply impressed. There was a platypus island in the middle of the gallery in 1932-33 which contained some 400 specimens, including comparative material. Norman’s father, also a medical doctor, probably used these rich displays to encourage his son towards medical studies. There was little accommodation for visitors in Canberra at the time and Norman remembered camping with his father and brother in Acton. More than six decades later he could describe in detail the tall glass jars at the Australian Institute of Anatomy and their amazing contents.

The volume of the collections on display impressed Markhum and Richards as well. They praised the fact that the collections were connected to a strong research agenda, contrasting this with the Australian state museums in this era, which were overshadowed by the fiscal restraints of a major depression. In their 1934 directory they went further, noting that the Australian Institute of Anatomy ‘constitutes the first unit of the intended National University of Australia’ for Canberra.

The Australian Institute of Anatomy changed greatly after MacKenzie’s death in 1938. Its basements, carefully built by MacKenzie for future anatomical collections, were filled with the displaced national ethnological collections of Sydney University anthropologist Alfred R Radcliffe-Brown, who had worked as an advisor to the Commonwealth on Aboriginal people in far north Queensland, and in Papua New Guinea. MacKenzie had taken up the cause of ‘ethnological work’ himself in the 1930s, albeit with an anatomical bias. So we had bodies and tools lying side by side, unsorted, in the basement of the Australian Institute of Anatomy. Although many of the materials from other states were returned to state museums over the years, collections regarded as ‘national’ remained in the Australian Institute of Anatomy building, losing their labels to silverfish and neglect over time. The state of these collections was one of the reasons for the new review of national collections, instigated in 1974.

Guy Hansen has mentioned the Pigott review, but I will briefly talk about it because it’s important to the actual odyssey of the MacKenzie collection. On 10 April 1974 the Whitlam government appointed a committee to review Australian museums and national collections, chaired by businessman Peter Pigott. Its primary task was:

… to advise on the scope, objectives and functions of an Australia Institute to develop, co-ordinate and foster collections, research and displays of historical, cultural and scientific material of national significance, giving particular attention to its relationship with the Government and other institutions.

The scope of this far-reaching inquiry was shaped by other reformist ventures, government and otherwise, that were happening in parallel in history, heritage and Aboriginal studies. History was becoming more concerned with its material aspects, and with what should constitute the national ‘estate’.

The Pigott Committee ‘experts’ included two historians, Geoffrey Blainey and John Mulvaney, who is here today, alongside scientists Douglas Waterhouse, Bill Boswell and Frank Talbot. Just 15 years earlier an inquiry into national collections instigated by the Royal Society of Canberra had been entirely about scientific collections and their research and management; this inquiry had included neither humanities experts nor business leaders.

Mulvaney was at the forefront of developments in Aboriginal studies. He was an archaeologist and a council member of the Australian Institute for Aboriginal Studies, who had advocated a Project Coordination Committee on Historical Archaeology to advise on new national collecting ventures. Indigenous studies had moved from studying Aboriginal people as ‘scientific subjects’ to ‘subjective voices’. Stone tool collections, gathered in very different eras, were no longer understood as taxonomic assemblages, but rather as cultural artefacts. Aborigines were no longer ‘science’ but ‘humanities’.

The Pigott Committee used its broad terms of reference to review the conservation and storage of collections, finding them generally very poor. It explored the possibilities for better conservation of existing and new national collections and established the framework for what became the National Historical Collection. But the committee was not entirely unanimous. At the eleventh hour Douglas Waterhouse, entomologist and chief of the Division of Entomology at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, submitted a minority report. In it he recommended that ‘Collections in Natural Science’ should be outside the remit of the proposed new Museum of Australia and made the responsibility of ‘the Interim Council of the Australian Biological resources study’. The MacKenzie collection remained with the Australian Institute of Anatomy; therefore, effectively defining them as ‘not natural science’ under Waterhouse’s proposal.

The National Museum of Australia Act that we celebrate today enabled the Museum to ‘develop and maintain a national collection of historical material’ and to research ‘matters pertaining to Australian history’. Yet the Pigott Committee had actually recommended that:

… the theme of the Museum be the history of man and nature in this continent, their linked roles and their interactions.

But apart from the Australian Institute of Anatomy collections, the Museum had to do this without ‘natural science’, which had been extracted from the national collections by Waterhouse’s deft manoeuvre. The committee wrote that ‘to divorce man from nature in the new museum would be to perpetuate a schism which the nineteenth century, in the interests of science, did much to foster’. It was one of the great ironies that in the interest of twentieth-century science Waterhouse did it again, single-handedly, right under the noses of the committee. Only the MacKenzie collection and associated material remained for the National Historical Collection, an accidental oversight - or perhaps by then Waterhouse thought these collections to be ‘unnatural science’.

When the curators and designers of the new museum were charged with finding national stories about people and the environment prior to its opening in 2001, the general lack of scientific collections was a serious problem. The MacKenzie collection was suddenly deemed to be important and relevant again. One of the international designers, Matt Kirchman from Boston, wanted to open the gallery with an ‘exploding wall’ of strange animals, even more strangely preserved in glass bottles. This proved too difficult in terms of logistics and conservation. However, momentum gathered for the idea of a ‘strange nature’ module to open the people and environment gallery, later called Tangled Destinies (now Old New Land). What we have now would not have been possible without the platypuses and nests collected, not by MacKenzie himself but by Harry Burrell, the self-confessed ‘platypoditudarian’, which is what he called himself, and presented to MacKenzie for the Australian Institute of Anatomy museum.

In the final years of the twentieth century, the international designers of the National Museum of Australia seized on Burrell’s platypus nests - some with eggs and others with model young - as the key ‘first object’ for visitors to the new museum in 2001. Such was the ‘pulling power’ of this material that on opening day a platypus nest and eggs were the centrepiece of an ‘island’ display about the strange and contrary platypus in the Tangled Destinies gallery. Completely unconsciously, the Boston designers had echoed the platypus island display in the first Australian Institute of Anatomy Gallery in 1931.

Date published: 13 September 2007