THE TRIBULATIONS OF A MUSEUM CURATOR

The Australian Museum in Sydney

The Australian Museum

William Sheridan Wall, Museum Curator

William Sheridan Wall

To be honest, Mr Wall, one of the Australian Museum’s pioneer curators, does not look well or particularly happy  in the above photo. Let’s hope he had been more cheerful on his wedding day. On Friday, April 30 1941 The  Sydney Advertiser announced;

On Thursday, the 29th instant, at St Mary’s Church, by the Reverend Mr Hogan, Mr William Sheridan Wall, Curator of the Australian Museum, to Miss Nappy Ward, of Cumberland Street, Sydney, late of the City of Dublin.

St Mary's Church Sydney

St. Mary’s Church.

The fledgling Australian Museum was then housed in the Supreme Court building at  Darlinghurst.   Irish born William Wall was serving as acting curator, his predecessor George Bennett  having resigned earlier that year.  Wood  had  originally been appointed in  August 1840, as a preserver and collector of specimens.

At the time, the Museum was not highly regarded. Two weeks before Mr Wall’s marriage The Sydney Gazette had published a letter of complaint from a visitor;

When in town some months ago, I entered for the first time the portals of the Australian Museum, and was much disappointed when I saw the miserable state of preservation in which specimens of Natural History are kept…..The keepers of museums, Mr. Editor, are in general a lazy and indolent race, and more particularly so when paid out of the public funds.

Darlinghurst Supreme Court

Darlinghurst Supreme Court, an early home for the Museum

During the summer of 1844 Mr Wood was part of a collecting expedition to the Murrambidgee. He hated everything about travelling, especially the food, which he complained consisted  for the most part of half cooked damper. As an Irishman, he longed for a potato, and was reduced to begging  a few from occasional passers by.  At one point their rations were so low that they went to bed on a dinner of sugar and water.   Inadequate equipment, suffocating heat,  bushrangers and the expedition’s bullock drivers  were other  sources of  angst.   The people of Gundagai praised his ‘untiring exertion’  rather than his enthusiasm, and he did manage to collect 138 birds and 16 mammals on the trip. When he came home he was officially appointed to the position of Curator, so he may have felt the hardship  was worthwhile after all.

A year later, funds were allocated by government to provide for a purpose built museum in College Street.   However, the colony was slowly emerging from a period of economic depression and there were those who thought the money could be better spent. An editorial in The Morning Chronicle read;

We therefore object to £3,000, or any other sum, to be voted for science or art, except the science or art of mending tumble-down bridges, and break neck roads; whereby not only the Squatter is damnified, but every poor settler and market gardener; while the latter, on his arrival in Sydney, is taxed with market dues etc etc, even though he or his horse shall have broken his or its neck on the way to the market buildings.

Museums are good things; but passable roads and bridges, without holes in them, are better. The two latter named are necessities. The former, comparative luxuries.

These sentiments must have been a bit disheartening for the Curator, but the naysayers were over-ruled and work eventually got underway.

ADVICE FROM MR WALL

The Sydney Morning Herald later published a 4,000 word article by Mr Wall. He urged  the public to collect and donate specimens to the museum.  Explicit, rather gory details  were provided on how to preserve everything from  a kangaroo to a crocodile. Wall had studied anatomy at Trinity College in Dublin, which must have proved very useful.

On the subject of snakes he warned; ‘Snakes must be handled with great caution; care should be used to ascertain in every instance, whether they are of a poisonous or harmless species, which may be done by opening the mouth and inspecting the teeth. if they have, like the carpet and diamond snakes, a regular row of teeth on the outer portion of the upper jaw, they are harmless; if, on the other hand, you observe, as in the death-adder, an absence of those teeth, and in their stead two fangs, one on each side of the upper jaw, the snake is a poisonous one. In all instances teeth occur in the lower jaw.’

Thanks William, I’ll remember that next time I encounter a snake.

Arsenic was used in preserving museum specimens until relatively recently, and still presents a health hazard to staff needing to handle them.  Discussing quadrupeds  Mr Wall noted;

‘Annoint the skin inside with arsenical soap, or some other preserving unguent……’ At the conclusion of the piece he included his own recipe for the soap;

This solution had been the cause of a domestic tragedy for William, when his young wife died very suddenly in 1847.

Oh dear, delirium tremens is usually associated with prolonged alcohol abuse.  The inquest was held at Mr Murphy’s public house, The Travellers’ Rest.

Travellers Rest

The Travellers’ Rest, where the inquest was held.

Acting while temporarily insane was often a euphemism for suicide, which was illegal. Poor Nappy left behind five children.

The following year, William’s brother  and fellow naturalist Thomas died  while on an ill-fated expedition to  Cape York.  His object had been to capture a cassowary for the Museum, and he just that. However, by the time he did so the men  were starving. They dined on the bird and Thomas preserved the skin as best he could, but almost the entire party perished from fever and lack of food. William did at least obtain a drawing  his brother had completed of the cassowary.

Cassowary captured by Thomas Wall in 1848

The Cassowary captured by Thomas Wall in 1848

Mr Wall remarried, and early in 1849  he and his wife Frances moved with the children to the Curator’s  accommodation in the still incomplete museum building. At the beginning of March all the exhibits  were moved across from Darlinghurst.

In May 1850 a row broke out via the letters pages of The Sydney Morning Herald regarding the restricted opening hours of the institution.  I can understand the complaints. The public were only admitted one day a week, between the hours of 10am and 4.00pm This virtually ruled out all but  the leisured gentry;

There is certainly not much to be seen in the Museum, but what is there ought surely to be made reasonably accessible to the inhabitants of the colony, so that they may have the opportunity of obtaining whatever information, improvement, or gratification may be derivable from the inspection of this infant collection. I submit that this public institution ought to be open to the public every day of the week until six pm. (Signed M.  Sydney May 17 1850)

Of course the letter conveyed veiled criticism of Mr Wall.  In his defense, another correspondent argued that if the curator had  had to be on hand every day to protect the exhibits from the  great unwashed he would never had found  time to procure the Museum’s greatest treasure. To find out what this was, click HERE.

N.B.  I don’t know  whether William’s macabre  work preserving his exhibits was to blame, but the poor fellow didn’t have much luck with his wives;

 

My thanks to Vicki Smith for suggesting this story, and for providing  much of the information on Frances and Nappy.

PART TWO OF THIS STORY IS FAR MORE POSITIVE (HONESTLY).  CLICK HERE.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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