Whale of a Time

You enter the Melbourne Museum Archives at the end of a tapered corridor that gets smaller and smaller. You won’t come across the Chesire Cat or Queen of Hearts from Wonderland, but head through the archive door and you’ll find records of plenty of characters from the Museum’s history – its founders, employees, audience and a whale skeleton.


Melbourne Museum began in 1854 on La Trobe Street. Not long after the National Museum of Victoria was moved to the University of Melbourne and placed under the direction of Professor Frederick McCoy. Many museums at the time were ‘cabinets of curiosities’, eclectic mixes of anything and everything peculiar that could be gathered. McCoy’s intention was for the National Museum’s collection to be far more educational and accessible to students. It also served a purpose for miners on their way to the goldfields. Displays on minerals and mining techniques gave travellers a taste of what they were heading towards.


The collection was soon spilling out of its rooms in the Arts Wing and moved to its own building, designed by Reed and Barnes. This building has been reconstructed many times since, but fragments of the original are still visible on the outside of what is now Union House.


McCoy was a taxonomist (classified and gave names to plants and animals). Moving the collection to the University was part of his aim to give it a working purpose. He was met with criticism for this at the time. Melbourne’s Punch Magazine said:

There was a little man,
And he had a little plan,
The public of their specimens to rob, rob, rob,
So he got a horse and dray,
And he carted them away,
And chuckled with enjoyment of the job, job, job.

By 1860 the Museum had 35,000 visitors… by 1866, it had a whale.

Person on whale
Whale skeleton outside the Museum located at the University, 1867
Two taxidermists, William Kershaw and John Leadbeater, prepared this beached Blue Whale skeleton. It sat outside the National Museum for thirty years. The skeleton was damaged by the ‘open air-style’ display case … and, it would appear from the photo, being sat upon. When the Museum moved to the State Library in 1899, the same year McCoy died, the whale was dismantled (although another can be seen today…inside, that is).


Kershaw was a keen lepidopterist (collected butterflies). McCoy thought a lot of Kershaw and, as a taxonomist, decided to name a butterfly after his “excellent friend”.

Australian Painted Lady, Pyrameis Vanessa Kershawi

Australian Painted Lady, Pyrameis Vanessa Kershawi

It was a bit of a bromance. Kershaw helped McCoy enormously in developing the Museum’s collection. He was offered a permanent position as McCoy’s assistant in 1860. Even after his retirement, McCoy sent this (bizarrely or fabulously?) coloured photograph of himself to Kershaw with the inscription:

 “To my dear friend and former colleague at the National Museum Melbourne William Kershaw, with kindest and best wishes. Frederick McCoy, 28th July 1897”


William Kershaw’s son, James Andrew, eventually became director of the Museum in 1928, now housed at the State Library. He ran a staff of far fewer than that of the Museum today. This 1932 photograph shows the entire staff of the National Museum, the Industrial and Technological Museum (eventually the Science Museum of Victoria), the National Gallery of Victoria and the Public Library (now the State Library Victoria).1 By comparison, the Museum now has around 500-600 staff with 500 volunteers across its three main museums and offsite storage.

SLVStaff outside the Public Library, 1932

There is a notable smattering of female employees in the bottom left-hand corner of the photo. Fifth from the bottom left is Isabella Fraser. She was the first female librarian in Melbourne, although her official title was ‘assistant’ as discriminatory legislation in the Victorian Public Service prevented women from officially filling certain roles at the time.

There are lots of rare research resources available to the public in the Museum’s collections. Visiting the Discovery Centre is the best entry point to see what’s in the Museums Victoria Archives, the Museum Library and Collections (which you can also search online).



If you want more on the history of the Museum, check these out:

Frederick McCoy, On the Formation of Museums in Victoria (Melbourne: Goodhugh and Rough, 1857).

Carolyn Rasmussen, A Museum for the People: a history of Museum Victorian and its predecessors, 1854-2000 (Melbourne: Scribe Publishers, 2001).
Many thanks to Nik McGrath for sharing these stories and the Museum Archives with me.



1 The Industrial and Technological Museum opened in 1870. It was renamed the Museum of Applied Science in 1945, and then again as the Institute of Applied Science in 1961. It eventually became the Science Museum of Victoria in 1971 and was amalgamated with the National Museum of Victoria to become Museum of Victoria in 1983. This complicated 162-year organisational history means the Science and Humanities Departments at the Museum have collections from both the National Museum and Science Museum.


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