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The natural history collections of the Perth Museum at the Swan River Mechanics’ Institute: Origins, Role and Legacies

journal contribution
posted on 2020-01-01, 00:00 authored by Denise Cook, Andrea WitcombAndrea Witcomb
In 1857, when Perth’s first museum was established by the Swan River Mechanics’ Institute, the museum world was shaped by two different, but coexisting ideas about the purposes of collecting and displaying natural history collections. The first was that collecting was a scientific endeavour whose aim was the production of new knowledge about the world. This was a legacy of the Enlightenment, which had generated an intense interest in the diversity of the natural and cultural world as a result of scientific expeditions to collect material from around the world, including Australia. Such an interest also fed an impulse to display the exotic and the curious, an impulse that, in the British world, was propelled by Cook’s voyages around the Pacific, bringing into the purview of natural history an interest in non-western peoples and their material culture. In the Australian colonies however, there was also a pragmatic and instrumentalist rationale for collecting and displaying natural history. This was the need for colonists to familiarise themselves with the land and its resources to facilitate economic development. It was for this reason that some of the largest collections at the time were those of geology and economic botany. Perth’s first museum was no different. This paper will situate the origins of the Swan River Mechanics’ Institute museum, known as the Perth Museum, within the wider colonial museum world, extend our knowledge of its contents, situating these within the push for utilitarian knowledge as well as the desire to represent that which was simply curious or which represented new knowledge. A further aim is to trace the current whereabouts of its collections. Our focus will be on its natural history collections, including ethnographica which, at the time, was included in natural history, while also pointing to the existence of a smaller collection of cultural artefacts.



Studies in Western Australian History



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Crawley, W. A.





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Publication classification

C1 Refereed article in a scholarly journal


U W A Publishing