State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 56 Spring 1995


The Palaeontologist and The Exhibitions

It is nearly 30 years since my association with the great nineteenth century Melbourne Exhibitions began. As a young curator at the National Museum of Victoria, I was asked by an interstate colleague to check the date of publication of an exhibition essay. The essay was written by Frederick McCoy (1823–99), Director of the National Museum, and published with the catalogue of the 1866–67 Melbourne exhibition. McCoy had named a new species of fossil wombat in the essay and the date of publication of the name was taken from that of the essay in which it appeared. A simple matter one would think, but there were two versions of the essay; one in French, bearing the date 1866, the other in English, dated 1867. The earlier date seemed unlikely and my colleague asked me to see if I could establish the date of publication independantly of the publications themselves. Despite a search through the records of the exhibition, I never found a reference to the French version which would have solved the problem, but the research exposed me to the historical riches of the exhibition catalogues and their associated essays.
The National Museum had a close association with various exhibitions during the nineteenth century. The Museum was founded in 1854 and its infant collection of geological and zoological specimens, catalogued by the first Curator, William Blandowski (1822–78), was displayed at the Melbourne Exhibition of the same year. The collection made such an impression on the jury that it was awarded one of the two silver medals to be given for exhibits. The medal is now held in the numismatic collection of the Museum of Victoria.
Frederick McCoy, who became director of the National Museum in 1858, served several times as an Exhibition Commissioner and was a member of various jury panels for nearly all the exhibitions held in Melbourne during the nineteenth century. He contributed two exhibition essays as well as specimens exhibited on behalf of the Museum. Other specimens displayed at exhibitions were also donated to the Museum or in some cases were purchased by McCoy.
The first exhibition catalogue to include essays was the one issued for the 1861 Victorian Exhibition. Two essays have always been of particular interest to me: one by Alfred Selwyn (1824–1902), Government Geologist, the other by Frederick McCoy. Together with essays by Ferdinand Mueller and George Neumayer, they constitute the first comprehensive accounts of the natural environment of Victoria. As such they are of considerable interest to historians of science.
Selwyn's essay on the geology of Victoria does not appear in the first edition of the catalogue, which was published in an edition of 5000 on 6 October, but appears in the second edition published on 27 October. As well as providing a summary of the geology of Victoria, based on nearly nine years work of the Geological Survey, it also included the first list of the minerals and rocks of Victoria.
Selwyn made reference in his essay to photographs of geological sites and specimens which were displayed in the exhibition. These had been taken some time earlier by one of his staff, Richard Daintree (1831–1878), a well known photographer, who applied his photographic skills to assist in illustrating Victorian geology and palaeontology. Perhaps prompted by the potential such images would have for conveying an idea of Victoria to those who had never been there, the Exhibition Commissioners convinced the Victorian Government to fund Selwyn and Daintree to travel through the goldfields of Central Victoria taking photographs of the scenery, particularly geological and mining subjects. Daintree's new photographs were added to the exhibition shortly before its close in 1861 and subsequently

Title page of Frederick M'Coy's Notes sur la zoologie et la paleontologie de Victoria

transmitted by the Exhibition Commissioners to the London Exhibition of 1862.
The State Library possesses several of the negatives of these photographs and also various photographic prints. Many are not labelled and I have been called upon at various times by staff of the Picture Collection to try to identify the scenes. In a number of cases I have been successful in doing so, but there are still some outstanding. Because the original prints in the exhibition were labelled, it seemed logical to attempt to trace them and obtain the information on the labels if they survived.
The original set of prints was sent to London by the Exhibition Commissioners to be exhibited as number 268 in the Victorian Court along with 541 other exhibits. Daintree's exhibit was one of 111 which received a medal. After the exhibition concluded, his photographs were presented, along

Entrance to Victorian Court showing Golden Arch representing £216,000,000 of gold mined in Victoria to 1886, from Report of… Colonial and Indian Exhibition 1885–86, opp. p. 28

with a collection of rocks from the Mining Department, to the Geological Museum in Jermyn Street in London. Some years ago I wrote to the Geological Museum to enquire whether the photographs were still there and received a reply that they could not be found. According to the Commissioners' report the general collection of photographs of Victoria (presumably taken by other photographers) was presented to the Liverpool Free Library. This collection was returned to Victoria under circumstances mentioned in Mary Lewis's article, but the whereabouts of Daintree's remains a mystery.
I discovered the above when attempting to find out what had happened to a collection of fossils that were important to a research project I was undertaking. McCoy had put together this exhibit of fossils illustrating the order of the sedimentary rocks (no. 486), along with six cases of insects (no. 507). He received medals for both exhibits. I never managed to find out what happened to this material. It may have been returned, but more likely was given to a British institution as was the custom with much of the material exhibited. Whatever the case, the specimens exhibited were to cause both him, and eventually me, some trouble. McCoy had labelled his fossils with names that he had not formally published. A few years after the Exhibition one of these names was quoted in an article by H. M. Jenkins in the Quarterly review of science and inadvertantly validated, so McCoy lost priority in the naming. A minor matter, but the consequences of this were annoying to me when I came to revise this group of fossils over 120 years later. I needed to establish what had happened to the particular fossil specimen because it was the name bearer, and therefore the specimen that should be referred to when doubt existed regarding the name of the species and its identification. I could not ascertain the where abouts of the specimens sent to London and neither could I rule out the possibility that they had been returned to Melbourne. In the end I had to designate a new name bearer in order to provide stability in the use of the name.
McCoy must have learned something from this episode, because there is no evidence to
suggest that he ever again sent undescribed specimens to an overseas exhibition.
McCoy's exhibition essay was the first attempt at a general description of the fossil and living fauna of Victoria. It also included the first checklist of Victorian birds. It was of sufficient interest to scientists overseas for it to be reprinted in England in the Annals and magazine of natural history, thereby making it widely available to those anxious to obtain information about Victoria from the pen of one of the first scientists to undertake locally based research.
The exhibition commissioners also published all the essays in French and German, thus ensuring a wide circulation of the contents on the continent.
The 1866–67 Melbourne Intercolonial Exhibition also generated a set of essays. McCoy's essay, alluded to above, was an elaboration of that written in 1861, but Selwyn's essay was a major work, reflecting the increase in knowledge of Victoria's geology from the work of the Geological Survey. Selwyn had suffered some criticism in the press for failing to supply the public with an account of the geology of Victoria and his essay fulfilled that need. It was in fact not an essay but a small book and became the standard account of the geology of Victoria until it was superceded by R.A.F. Murray's book twenty years later. Selwyn's co-author was George Ulrich (1830–1900), one of his staff, who also contributed a large systematic account of the minerals of Victoria, illustrated with line drawings. This and a later paper by Ulrich constitute the only work on Victorian mineralogy undertaken in Victoria in the nineteenth century.
All the later exhibitions had catalogues of Victorian rocks and minerals associated with them but only the Illustrated handbook of Victoria, Australia (Melbourne, Government Printer, 1886), issued for the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886, had a short essay on Victorian geology by R.A.F. Murray. The collections that were put together for these exhibitions generally consisted of common rocks and minerals that could be replaced easily, but there was one important exception to this: the collections of quartz specimens from Victorian mines. These samples were obtained from a large number of mines and were labelled with their exact location within each mine. Nearly all these quartz collections were sent to exhibitions overseas and, because they were considered unimportant, were never returned. This is a major loss to Victorian science and not just for academic reasons. These specimens would be of economic significance for their research value into the nature and origin of quartz veins and the minerals, particularly gold, found in them. With the analytical techniques available to us today, precisely located quartz specimens take on increased importance, as it is no longer possible to re-collect such specimens from mines long closed. Very few such specimens have survived in museum collections.
Exhibitions therefore were not only a means of promoting Victoria and both educating and entertaining its populace, they were equally a major cause of loss of Victorian heritage by their export of many exhibits. It is true that some of these exhibits either stayed in Victoria or were returned from overseas, and are housed in the State Library and the Museum of Victoria, but many natural history specimens, which were not valued last century because they were considered so common, are now lost to us.
This sense of loss was first recognized as early as 1890, when A. W. Howitt, newly appointed Secretary of Mines, wrote in the Annual report of the Department of Mines for 1889:
For many years there has been in the possession of the Mining Department a large and comprehensive collection of specimens of rocks and minerals occuring in Victoria … This accumulation has, however, been counterbalanced by successive drains on the stock for various exhibitions and for gift collections to foreign and local institutions. Large and excellent collections, including many valuable specimens practically irreplaceable were thus parted with. The Philadelphia Exhibition alone absorbed a great number, … and none were ever returned.
Thomas A. Darragh
Head of Geology, Museum of Victoria

‘The Melbourne Internation Exhibition — underneath the dome’ from The Australian town and country journal 14 August 1880, p. 312


‘Receiving exhibits’ from The Australasian sketcher 14 August 1880, p. 196

‘The Melbourne Internation Exhibition: arranging pictures in the Fine Arts Gallery' from The Austratasian sketcher September 1880, p. 233

‘The main avenue looking north’ from The illustrated Australian news 6 November 1880, p. 216