The Changing Shape of the Macleay Building
This building has not always looked like this!
Built during 1886 and 1887, the Macleay Museum was designed specifically to house William John Macleay's vast Natural History collections. Spacious, fireproof, airy and naturally lit, the Macleay building was a showpiece of nineteenth century museum architecture.
Change was swift. Within three years pressure began mounting from other University departments clamouring for teaching space. At various times the building played host to Botany, Geology, Engineering, Pathology and the University's Volunteer Rifle Corps! By 1925 the building bore little resemblance to its original character.
Today, the Macleay Museum shares the Macleay Building with the School of Biological Sciences (formerly Botany).
"...a suitable building"
"A letter from the Hon. William Macleay was read in which he...promised to hand over the Museum to the Senate as soon as a building of sufficient size was ready to receive it."
University of Sydney Senate Minutes, 2nd April 1884.
The design of the Macleay Museum building represented a triumph of economy and function over form. It also made it susceptible to change.
A Parliamentary vote in 1884 of only £10,000 which would lapse at the end of the following year, meant the Macleay Building had to be designed quickly and cheaply. The University Senate appointed a private architect, G.A. Mansfield and called for tenders immediately. The cheapest tenders, from Alexander Dean for the building and Atlas Engineering for the ironwork, totalled £15774. The Senate was able to persuade the government to meet the balance.
The construction was completed to William Macleay's satisfaction, and the empty shell of the building was handed over to the Senate in June 1887.
A mixture of styles for a common purpose
"...the building should be about 200 feet long by 65 feet width - and a gallery."
Macleay Museum Committee, 1st meeting, 18th December 1884
The building was designed to suit the massive Macleay collection. A large central court running the entire length of the building flanked by a series of bays fifteen feet wide, allowed ample space for storage, display and research. A gallery also ran around the museum at first floor level. This style of design was also used for the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, built at the same time.
The spacious interior created a stable environment for the collection. Ventilation came mainly through the windows in the roof section which allowed any air entering to dissipate slightly before reaching the lower part of the museum. This was essential for the safeguarding of the specimens, some of which were already over a hundred years old.
Its main court, gabled roof and pointed arch windows gave the interior the appearance of a Gothic cathedral, a place of reverence for the subject of science. The crenellated turrets on the four corner towers suggested the collection was safe in its medieval castle.
The iron pillars and arches, however, were similar to those used in Victorian railway stations and shopping arcades. This and the lack of ornamentation (particularly in relation to the main university buildings) marked the building firmly as post-Industrial Revolution.
Built to last
"...no inflammable material should be used in its construction."
Macleay Museum Committee, 1st meeting, 18th December 1884
Macleay's main concern with the fabric of the building was that it should be fireproof. The destruction of much of the library and records of the Linnean Society of NSW in the fire at the Garden Palace (home of the Sydney International Exhibition in 1879) in September 1882 was fresh in his memory.
The building was thus paved with terra cotta tiles throughout. At each end of the building there was a prefabricated cast-iron staircase bolted together on site. The balcony rail at gallery level was also made of iron. Huge wrought-iron beams supported on four cast-iron columns carried much of the weight of the building. Similarly, the roof formed a series of semi-circular arches, joined to the rafters by iron hoops.
Having wooden artifacts and furniture, as well as specimens preserved in alcohol in the Museum, meant a fire risk could never be entirely eliminated. Even so, the University decided against insuring the building and its contents.
Macleay Museum Bricks
The Macleay Museum is an early example of a cavity-wall construction, a practice pioneered in Australia in the late nineteenth century to prevent the onslaught of damp.
The bricks of the outer wall were laid in a Flemish bond pattern, while the inner wall was built in English bond. The unusual colour of the bricks was probably chosen to complement the sandstone of the University's Great Hall.
The Macleay Museum proved to be a suitable home for more than just the Macleay collection. Almost as soon as the building was handed over to the Senate, it was put to uses other than those for which it was intende
The Civil Service and Articled Clerks Examinations were held here in the winter of 1887, and the Geology Department stored specimens from its teaching collection in the Museum before the Macleay collections were transferred from Elizabeth Bay House.
For the next thirty years pressure increased from the Departments of Botany, Geology and Engineering all in need of better teaching space. By 1925 the building had three floors, a large lecture theatre, several laboratories, a bridge attached to its western end, and the mock Gothic Botany extension attached to the east front.
The last major alteration occurred in 1991 when the 1915 lecture theatre was demolished and new laboratories were built at the eastern end of the building.
The building is both a symbol and a victim of financial change. Its interior was altered during the First World War when there were no funds for new buildings elsewhere. Its exterior, particularly its front, was changed during a time of financial largesse.
Macleay Museum interior, John Shewan, 1918
In 1915 the first floor gallery was filled in to provide office space for the Department of Botany, and a lecture theatre and laboratory were built at the eastern end of the Museum.
It is not difficult to see why other departments were so attracted to the Macleay Museum's spacious interior, and why they were so successful in acquiring space. The University saw the needs of staff and students as entirely separate from those of the collection.
Soon after Shewan took this photograph Professor Lawson, Head of the Department of Botany, successfully applied for the gallery level to be filled in so the Department of Botany could have use of an entire floor. Rows of stone columns supported the new first floor and extra windows were inserted either side of the pointed arch windows.
Professor Edgeworth David, Head of Geology, also required space on the ground floor and had a permanent bridge built from the first floor to what is now the "Old Geology" Building.
The Macleay collections were consigned to a makeshift attic.
The Botany Extension
A major building project between 1920 and 1925 saw the University Architect, Professor Leslie Wilkinson, remove the front of the Macleay Museum and add the Botany School extension, to be more in keeping with the University's late medieval/early Tudor style quadrangle.
The Macleay Building became known as the Botany Building.
William John Macleay (1820-1891)
William John Macleay took possession of the Macleay Natural History Collections in 1865, soon after the death of his cousin William Sharp Macleay. He enlarged the collections considerably.
Macleay was a member of the Legislative Assembly of NSW, a founding member of the Entomological Society of NSW and the inaugural president of the Linnean Society of NSW. His association with the University began in 1857, when he married the daughter of Edward Deas Thomson, a future Chancellor of the University. His decision to leave his valuable collection in the safekeeping of the University may have been influenced by this association.
George Allen Mansfield (1834-1908)
"Few men have had more to do with the beautifying of the chief city of Australia by the designing of some of its most prominent and commercial buildings".
-Sydney Morning Herald, 21st January 1908
Mansfield was one of the most notable architects of his day. He specialised in producing robust, well ventilated buildings with considerable regard to economy. His most famous achievements included the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and the Australia Hotel. Schools he designed as architect for the Council of Education included Cleveland Street and Crown St, Surry Hills. In his obituary of 1908, the Macleay Building did not rate a mention!
George Masters (1836-1912)
George Masters was the first curator of the Macleay Museum. He came to the University as part of the terms of Macleay's donation, which included £6000 to pay his salary for the rest of his life. He had been Macleay's private curator since 1874 and before that was Assistant Curator at the Australian Museum.
When Macleay died in 1891, soon after the museum had opened to the public, Masters was left to fight for the Museum on his own.
Masters died in a carriage accident in 1912, three years before the first series of alterations to the Museum building.
A Tale of Two Departments
The Macleay Museum and the School of Biological Sciences (formerly Botany) are the two departments with the longest occupation of the Macleay Building. The Museum is notable for the relatively small number of people who have been employed with its care. Until the 1960s no more than two paid employees worked on the collections at once.
The Department of Botany took up temporary accommodation in the building in 1914, and became firmly established in 1918 after the first floor was inserted. The Botany Scrapbook shows that a large number of people have contributed to the life of the Department, both as staff and students.
All these occupants are now part of the history of this building.
John Shewan (Acting Curator 1912 -1934)
John Shewan occupies a pivotal position in the history of the Macleay Museum.
He was the first person to be in charge of the collection after the death of Macleay's original private curator, George Masters. As Acting Curator however, he was never in a powerful enough position to resist the proposed changes to the Macleay Building. His feelings of responsibility for both must have been overwhelming.
The alterations to the museum building prompted Shewan to make extensive records of the museum's collections. These, coupled with Shewan's interest in photography, provide valuable insights into his work in the Museum.
A selection of cards written by John Shewan, possibly in preparation for his memoirs (which were apparantly never written), records titles of episodes during his working life. Some cards reveal a measure of bitterness in his dealings with the University, particularly regarding the treatment of the Macleay Museum and his own remuneration. Other cards hint of humorous episodes but do not elaborate.
Flies, Onions and Miss English
Not all museum work is paid! Kathleen English was associated with the University for over sixty years, and was a keen amateur entomologist. She specialised in the study of Tabanidae (flies), was a founding member of the Entomological Society of Australia and published widely. She worked as a volunteer initially in the Zoology Department, and then during Elizabeth Hahn's curatorship, in the Macleay Museum. She was a conscientious worker, an avid bushwalker, and a big fan of cheese and raw onion sandwiches!
Elizabeth Hahn's curatorship changed the fortunes of the Macleay Museum, and gave it a much higher profile.
Appointed Curator at the age of 18, Hahn recognised that the Museum's most pressing need was for greater research use of the collection. She set about listing the insect type specimens, and relocating the fish specimens for easier access. She recalled outstanding loans from other museums and research organisations, and promoted the museum with published articles.
She left the museum in much better shape than she found it.
School of Biological Sciences
The School of Biological Sciences evolved from the former departments of Botany and Zoology. Botany has occupied part of this building since 1915. In Professor A.A. Lawson and Eric Ashby the department has been led by two prominent figures in Australian Natural History.
A strong sense of camaraderie and inventiveness are the hallmarks of the growth of the department
Collections and Collectors
A Diverse Museum
The Macleay Museum today has a dual significance. It is both a museum of Natural History, and a museum of late nineteenth century colonial thought.
Its collections, as William John Macleay wanted, are still actively researched, yet they also have an historic importance of their own. Specimens and objects reveal as much about their collectors as about the localities from which they came.
At the time of its donation to the University in 1888, the Macleay collection covered Invertebrates, Vertebrates and Ethnography. Over the last three decades it has broadened to include Historic Scientific Instruments and Historic Photographs. The Macleay Museum is gradually becoming the University's Museum of the History of Science.
"..the improvement of my museum."
William John Macleay, 1874.
William John Macleay expanded the Macleay Natural History Collection considerably prior to its arrival at the University. He added vertebrates to his already massive invertebrates collection. He was keen to create a museum of excellence in all aspects of Natural History. His driving force was completeness in the collection, to assist in classification.
Today the Museum contains over half a million insects and approximately 16,000 birds, mammals, fish and reptiles. Moreover, the specimens have added meaning as historical records particularly with regard to preservation and classification methods in the late nineteenth century.
The Macleay Museum contains approximately 6000 artifacts from Australia, Melanesia and Micronesia. William John Macleay employed many collectors who, by purchase, exchange, donation and sometimes plunder, acquired masks, pots, ornaments and weapons.
William John Macleay and his collectors were typical of the late nineteenth century European mindset, in which indigenous peoples of Australia and the South Pacific were studied under the "Natural Sciences": all forms of life could be categorised in a hierarchy with white European men at the top. Artifacts from indigenous cultures were gathered along with mammals, birds, reptiles and fish.
A Museum of the University
The Macleay Museum's Historic Scientific Instruments represent the Museum's commitment to recording the history of science at the University. These objects were acquired by the Museum from other University departments when they were no longer required for teaching and research, and complement the Museum's collection of historic specimens. Not part of the original Macleay collecting sphere, they show how the Museum has broadened its scope to partly become a museum of Sydney University as well as a university museum.
The Macleay Museum holds approximately 50,000 Historic Photographs focussing particularly on south-east Australia and the history of the University of Sydney. The collection is both a valuable pictorial record and a useful research tool for students, academics, architects, town planners and historians. The collection also has many lantern slides formerly used in the Departments of Botany, Geology and Chemistry.
The Macleay Museum was founded on its insects. When Alexander Macleay arrived in Australia in 1826, he had the largest privately owned insect collection in the world. The Museum holds over half a million specimens from Australia, Africa, South America and Asia, dating from 1756 to the present. Many of the insects are still stored in their original Chippendale cabinets.
The collection contains many valuable type specimens - insects described for the first time, with which all subsequent insects are compared. Thousands of these were transferred to the Australian National Insect Collection in Canberra in 1969, but remain the property of the Macleay Museum.
Entomologists throughout Australia regularly conduct research in the collection.
By authorising the changes to the Macleay Building, was the University guilty of a betrayal of trust?
The case for the defence...
Macleay initially offerred the collections to the University in 1873 as an intended bequest. By 1884 he had decided to donate the collections during his lifetime. This may have legally weakened the duty owed the collection by the University.
Moreover, as it was the NSW House of Assembly, not Macleay, which supplied the £15774 required to build the museum, was the University thus not entitled to use the building as it saw fit? The departments occupying the infilled building, Botany and Geology, continued its original purpose of housing teaching and research into the Natural Sciences.
The case for the prosecution...
Macleay's offer was conditional: "a suitable building" must be erected to house the collection. As a former member of the NSW Legislative Assembly, Macleay exercised considerable influence in securing government funding for the construction of the Museum building.
Research was to be focussed on the collection, around which the building was designed. Confining the collection to the uninsulated attic resulted in damage to specimens through extreme fluctuations in temperature and humidity, cramped storage space and a less visible presence in the University.