This story of the historic Lord Howe Island diorama in Sydney’s Australian Museum highlights the importance of a back-story in engaging people like me. 😎 I love birds, but I live in the Blue Mountains, and seabirds are not on my radar….unless it’s seagulls harassing me for chips at the Opera House forecourt or on trips to Manly.
However, a biography of the life and work of Allan McCulloch (pictured below) changed my perspective.
In 1921 McCulloch, who had begun his career at the Museum aged just 13, led an expedition to Lord Howe Island to study the flora and fauna and to collect specimens.
‘One of the scans of labor of the party was the Admiralty Rocks. The objective, to gather at the Rocks, the material for a bird group for the benefit of Sydney residents, an exhibit which by means of photographs and water-colour sketches for a background, is to be absolutely true to life. “Among the birds which swarm onto these rocks are the gannets, wideawakes (so-called for the peculiar cry they utter when disturbed), the graceful nodders, and the mutton birds.” explained Mr McCulloch today, “Whenever one lands at these rocks the birds create an ear-splitting din, but in spite of the noise we managed to secure all the specimens we needed. “Our efforts when the casement at the Museum is ready should result in a scene true to nature herself that, when gazing into it, one who has been to the Rocks will easily be able to imagine himself there again.‘
Allan McCulloch was a highly respected naturalist. However, as with many others at the time, he had a difficult relationship with the Museum’s trustees. He also suffered from periods of severe depression. Four years after the bird specimens were collected he took his own life, aged just 40. His ashes were later interred on Lord Howe Island, a place he had always loved.
There were three large dioramas resulting from the 1921 trip. The first was known as the Boatswain bird group. McCulloch is pictured below painting the backdrop; such an important component of a successful diorama.
Sadly, this display was dismantled in 1987 to make way for a huge new exhibition of skeletons.
The second diorama was a scene from the coral lagoon; ‘The Coral Group depicts a pool on the edge of the Lord Howe Island coral reef, where all the rocks are covered with coral of many kinds.’ (From the Museum’s annual report, 1923), In 1960 this too had been demolished, leaving only the display known as Admiralty Islet Seabirds.
A rather chauvinistic and patronizing piece regarding this diorama had been published in The Sun newspaper in 1940; ‘I peeped behind the scenes one day and found, perched on a high scaffolding, a little woman doing a big job – wall-painting in the ‘Large Room‘.
The Museum itself was far more respectful, and wrote that it had been; ‘fortunate in obtaining the services of Miss Mary Soady, the well-known artist and sculptor’, to assist with re-painting the Admiralty Islets Bird Group. For this contract, Soady submitted coloured sketches and explained to a reporter, ‘They tell me I’ve given an exact impression of Lord Howe Island, although I’ve never been there.‘ Photographed perched on high scaffolding and working with only a few brushes (from fine camels’ hair to a heavy stippler) she painted in oil directly onto the expansive background.
FORESIGHT AND AN APPRECIATION FOR THE PAST
At one point it seemed that the Admiralty Islets diorama would also be lost to the public.
Brendan Atkins writes in his recent book The Naturalist;
In a compromise, the designers placed a screen in front of the diorama, leaving the public to view it through three slots, in a kind of heritage peep show. And that’s how it stayed until 2016 when the display was cleaned and restored by conservation staff, and the screen finally removed to reveal a true Australian Museum Treasure.
Former NSW Premier Neville Wran and his wife Jill were at the forefront of the 2016 push to restore and preserve the Admiralty Islets diorama. What we would do without such people?
Fast forward to 2020, when a 60 million dollar makeover of the Museum was completed
NONE SO BLIND……
I wondered whether this historic exhibit had escaped the revamp. My partner and I went along soon after the re-opening, but I didn’t remember seeing it. Before firing off a letter of protest I thought I’d better check. My email was responded to within about five minutes;
Well well, and I missed it. 😨
Brendan Atkins does not feel that McCulloch has been adequately acknowledged as the creative force behind the original exhibit. Certainly the current label reads only ‘In one of the first expeditions of its kind anywhere in the world, the Australian Museum Trustees dispatched a team to Lord Howe Island in 1921,’
It was a few months before I was able to make my next trip to Sydney…and the museum. There was one visitor ahead of me as we waited for the doors to open, but I didn’t dare try to push past. 😬 He said he was there to pay homage to his ancestors.
I walked into Long Gallery and there it was, a special legacy from a troubled, but talented man. That shining ‘star’ on the water was created by the reflection of light on the glass case, but nevertheless it is an appropriate symbol for McCulloch.
Technical and scientific advances have radically changed the way museum exhibits are collected and displayed. However, the preservation of the diorama provides a link to the past and to the passionate people who devoted their lives to collecting and studying our flora and fauna.
TO WATCH A VIDEO ON THE 2012 RESTORATION OF THE DIORAMA, CLICK HERE.
AND FOR THE FULL STORY OF ALLAN McCULLOCH, CLICK HERE.