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About the exhibition

The Royal Society is the world's oldest scientific academy in continuous existence. It has been at the forefront of scientific enquiry and discovery since its foundation in 1660. Throughout its history the Royal Society has promoted excellence in science through its Fellowship — Isaac Newton, Joseph Banks, James Cook, Charles Darwin, Ernest Rutherford, Albert Einstein, Dorothy Hodgkin, Francis Crick, James Watson and Stephen Hawking have all been Fellows — and through its scientific initiatives, such as the 1768–71 expedition in HMB Endeavour to observe the transit of Venus in the South Seas.

A View at Anamooka (Tonga) 1784 by William Byrne, after John Webber.
A View at Anamooka (Tonga) 1784, by William Byrne, after John Webber.
National Library of Australia.

In the Royal Society's 350th anniversary year, the National Museum of Australia is pleased to present this exhibition, in celebration of the Society's significant role in our region.

Exploration and Endeavour has three main sections:

  • an introduction that outlines the early history of the Royal Society and indicates the revolutionary nature and significance of its work;
  • the main core or body of the exhibition, which examines the role of the Royal Society in discoveries in the Pacific and the documentation of the Australian continent;
  • a concluding section, which brings the exhibition's focus on scientific endeavour in the South Seas up to the present day and looks at the role of the Australian Academy of Science — Australia's own counterpart to the Royal Society, founded in 1954 by the Society's Australian Fellows under the leadership of the distinguished physicist Sir Mark Oliphant.
Discovery and Resolution at an Island in the Pacific, 1777, by John Cleveley.
Discovery and Resolution at an Island in the Pacific, 1777, by John Cleveley. National Library of Australia.

At the heart of the exhibition is a stunning array of artefacts from the Royal Society, many of which have never before been seen in Australia.

These are supplemented with additional objects from the National Museum of Australia's own collections to create an exhibition that commemorates the 350th anniversary of the birth of the Royal Society, and the role it played in the exploration of the Pacific and the scientific study of the Australian continent in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Specifically, these rare objects relate to aspects of journeys and sojourns undertaken by the Society's Fellows in the Southern Hemisphere over several decades. But they are also evidence of the close ties between scientific endeavour and imperial ambition during the European Enlightenment. This was a time when Britain and France struggled for ascendancy, both in scientific exploration and discovery, and in the extension of their territorial ambitions around the world.

The exhibition is a collaboration between the National Museum of Australia and the Royal Society. The exhibition is also supported by the Australian Academy of Science and the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

Exhibition launch

The exhibition was officially launched at the National Museum of Australia on 14 September 2010 by Professor Penny Sackett, Chief Scientist, and Andrew Sayers, National Museum of Australia.

audio_w15Listen to the audio of the exhibition launch

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