An Australian Museum and a few Lost Heads

The Australian Museum has been around for a while. Founded in 1827, it opened to the public in 1857 and it has the distinction of being Australia’s first museum. Since 1829 seventeen male personages, some scientists, others not, headed this iconic Australian institution until, in 2014, the trustees finally appointed a woman as Director and CEO, Kim Coral McKay AO.

During the time when the museum was established, the academic study of the natural sciences was heavily weighed in favor of botany and thus usually linked to medical schools and their medicinal gardens. The foremost example of such a botanist-physician is Carolus Linnæus himself, the father of the binomial nomenclature. Closely followed by his 17 apostles, as he called those of his most excellent students whom he sent across the seven seas to roam the world for him, observing, collecting, recording, describing, and cataloging.

Yet, in conjunction with academia, much of the exploration of the natural world depended on wealthy dilettantes. Often highly educated members of the upper classes, who had the means, the understanding, and the desire to advance knowledge for the greater good. These men and women would install and maintain botanical and medicinal gardens, they would give stipends to young doctors and pay the salaries of professionals to maintain and catalog collections, they would build observatories and libraries, and delight in the sponsorship of exploration. Additionally, there were learned societies and academies for the advancement of the natural sciences. During the time of Enlightenment, much scientific knowledge was contributed by dedicated amateurs without specific degrees. Equally importantly, these godfathers of the natural sciences formed a support network for the advancement of up-and-coming young scientists, providing references, referrals, and posts. Royal sponsorship was the best, most prestigious of support, of course, which could keep an entire university department running ad infinitum. In our day and age, do we not still grapple with the implications of corporate sponsorship? Well, children, it’s always been the same – he who has the money owns the last word.

We’ve previously encountered a member of each group discussed above, right here in Sydney, in 1770. When Captain James Cook, then still Lieutenant Cook, sailed into “Sting Ray Harbour” he granted shore leave to two passengers of the HM Bark Endeavour. One was an academic, a scientist, a botanist, in fact, one of Professor Linnæus’ apostles, Dr. Daniel Solander. The other was landed gentry, a man who would become hugely important in the world of science, Sir Joseph Banks. He went on several expeditions in his youth and was definitely a naturalist through and through, but his immeasurable value was as a mentor. His scientists-without-borders attitude, quite unique for his time, allowed Banks to become instrumental in promoting global travel for research purposes. For example, he strongly advocated British support for Alexander von Humboldt [Prussian] and Aimé Bonpland [French] during their five-year voyage through [Spanish] Mexico & Colombia and [Portuguese] Brasil.

The original funding and maintenance of the Australian Museum happened along similar lines. Sponsors had to be found, even the allocation of space for the growing collection was a hit or miss proposition till the 1850ies, when the government took over with a yearly stipend and a permanent location was secured. During the early years, it was prudent to have a carpenter as the museum’s superintendent who could build sturdy display cases, while another one who was simply called the “bird stuffer” was put in charge of the zoological specimens. Eventually, the museum evolved into an outstanding research facility with ties to universities across the globe. They do have to work on their display system, though. I found the large diorama-style cases rather confusing. There was no rhyme nor reason discernable as to the grouping of animals. I actually asked one of the young docents loitering among the tourists what system they might be using. Low and behold, he had no idea either. He agreed that they have to work on that asap.

The Australian Museum has made a concerted effort in recent years to incorporate both the historical indigenous presence in Australia and contemporary Aboriginal issues in the museum’s collections as well as its educational programs.



[A humpy is a hut made of bark or grasses, often a lean-to onto a large tree]




kmer kmer mai pearl shell breast ornament, Torres Strait, late 19th century (?)
kmer kmer mai pearl shell breast ornament with coconut fiber, Torres Strait, acquired in 1892


I don’t remember the details about many of these ornaments used by Torres Strait Islanders, other than the gorgeous pearl breast plates I highlighted above, which men used in war dances. The carved turtle-shell fishhook-shaped sabagorar ornaments were women’s wedding ornaments and the bamboo clapper on the lower edge has a design painted in black and red ochre, it was used in rainmaking ceremonies. Most of these ceremonial items were purchased or bartered during museum expeditions to the Torres Strait Islands, roughly between 1884 and 1907. Some artifacts may go as far back as 1836 when a rescue mission was launched into the Strait to search for survivors of the Barque Charles Eaton that had become shipwrecked in the great barrier reef two years earlier. The nineteen-week voyage among the Torres Strait Islands established that the majority of crew and passengers, twenty-four in total, fell victim to island headhunters within days of making landfall in rickety rafts. Only two surviving boys could be safely ransomed. After an extensive search of the archipelago, seventeen European skulls were retrieved from an island shrine and interred with Christian rites in Botany Bay. But now, let’s admire this modern shell.



Traditional ochre body paint plays an important part in indigenous ceremonial life and art. Learning about ochre and its use in Tiwi Pukumani concluded our Australian Museum experience. I better explain, though, before we leave.

The people of the Tiwi Islands to the North of the Northern Territories conduct funeral rites called Pukumani, meaning Taboo and Danger, for their deceased relatives. After a death occurs, a brief interment ceremony is held. Afterward, the mourning family hires non-related ‘mourners’ who prepare for the Pukumani by carving Tutini or grave posts from Ironwood [Eucalyptus, of course]. The carvings tell the life story of the deceased and praise their achievements. The more highly regarded a person was in life the higher the number of Tutini for their Pukumani. It takes months to prepare for a proper ceremony in which all the mourners cover themselves with a white ochre paste and decorate their bodies in tribal, family and personal designs. The ochre is important to disguise the relatives from the dangerous wrath of the deceased’s spirit. The Pukumani ceremony includes ritual dances and singing and storytelling to celebrate the loved one’s life and spiritual journey into the next life. Some of their former possessions are put on the grave and the Tutini are placed around it. The elaborately carved and decorated posts plus some bark ‘gift baskets’ placed on top of the Tutini are presents to appease the departing spirit. The posts remain in place, encircling the grave until they have decayed.





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