The Nicholson Museum - its original location
The University of Sydney's Nicholson Museum houses the largest collection of ancient artefacts in Australia.
Established in 1860 when Sir Charles Nicholson presented his valuable collection of antiquities to the University, it has been expanded over the years through fund-raising, bequests, acquisitions and excavations, resulting in collections of artifacts from Greece, Italy, Cyprus, Egypt, the Near and Middle East.
In 1860 funds which were to be used to complete the battlements of the Tower were instead used to house Sir Charles Nicholson's collection which was moved from his house. The valuable collection formed the basis of a museum; and three rooms were prepared for its display at the southern end of the East range, to provide access for the public as well as to make it available for the illustration of the classical lectures.
The Museum of Antiquities vacated these roms when it moved to its current premises - below the original Fisher Library (now MacLaurin Hall) - in 1926.
- Sir Charles Nicholson and his collection of antiquities
- The original location of the Museum, 1860 - 1926
- The visitors' book
- The original location of the Museum - today
Images are courtesy of the University Secretariat unless otherwise indicated.
Sir Charles Nicholson (Fellow of Senate 1850-1883, Vice-Chancellor (Vice-Provost) 1851-1853 and Chancellor (Provost) 1854-1862) presented his valuable collection of antiquities to the University, which consisted of some 400 Egyptian antiquities, about 100 Greek vases and some prehistoric, Etruscan and Roman objects.
Read about Nicholson:
- Sir Charles Nicholson's profile
- Sir Charles Nicholson's ADB biography
- "Nicholson: The wholesale collector'' by Dr Elizabeth Bollen
- "A man of contradictions: Sir Charles Nicholson and Victorian Spiritualism" by Dr Craig Barker
- "Mystery on the Yorkshire Moors: The humble origins of a humble man" by Michael Turner
Read about the scrapbook of artworks belonging to Sir Charles’ wife, Sarah Elizabeth Nicholson, by Sarah McCarthy.
Two items from the original collection:
An Etruscan cinerary urn, 4th - 1st centuries BC,
A marble Roman Republican
Read about mummies and coffins in Nicholson's collection:
- The coffin of Padiashaikhet
- Death on the Nile
- Scanning Horus - an Egyptian child mummy, by Janet Davey
- John Le Gay Brereton and the mummified legs and feet of a baby, by Michael Turner
Read about other items from Nicholson's collection:
- Treasures of the Nicholson Museum, edited by D T Potts and K N Sowada
- Teaching with the Nicholson collection, by Dr Craig Barker
- Nicholson's collection of ancient Greek and Italian pots, by Michael Turner
- A black-figure amphora (vase) with satyrs and maenads
- A blackfigured oil vessel made in Athens at the beginning of the fifth century BC, by Michael Turner
- A fragment of mosaic glass inlay depicting a mask of an Old Man of Comedy
- The statue of an Egyptian Goddess
- An Egyptian plaque depicting a man with a dog
- The book of squeezes (copy of an inscription or scene in raised or sunk relief) made by Nicholson during his visit to ancient Thebes, by Karin Sowada.
The Museum of Antiquities was accommodated in three rooms at the southern end of the East range of the Quadrangle: the anteroom - the western half and the eastern half; and a larger inner room.
- Read an article on the Museum of Antiquities anteroom in the Sydney Morning Herald, 21 September 1860.
- Read a second article on the Museum of Antiquities anteroom in the SMH, 20 October 1860.
The anteroom - the western half and the eastern half:
The entrance door from the Southern vestibule led into an anteroom or outer chamber. Inside the doorway was the warning of "CAVE CANEM" - a Latin phrase meaning "Beware of the dog!"
The anteroom was paved with imitation mosaic of a pseudo-Egyptian design, manufactured at Rome, where it was purchased by Sir Charles. In addition to the basic pattern, the tiles contained representations of classical figures such as centaurs. The tile mural depicted a Roman interpretation of the mythical Greek centaur carrying a Maenad, with the tragedy mask set into each corner and a Greek key border design.
The anteroom was partially subdivided into two - the western half and the eastern half - by an archway.
The western half - into which one first entered from the hall - was for medieval remains. The coat of arms of Sir Charles Nicholson were depicted in the stained glass window. There were niches in the wall on which Etruscan cinerary urns were displayed.
The eastern half had a door leading into the inner room. It displayed antiquities of a far earlier date and its window contained small medallion portraits of the Twelve First Caesars. A large collection of monumental stones (chiefly from the catacombs of Rome) were inserted into the wall, which also had hollowed out niches holding Etruscan monuments, on which groups of figures were elaborately carved. A large stone sarcophagus lay before the window and on the floor was a mosaic from the South of Italy, representing the old symbolical emblem of the peacock.
The coat of arms of Sir Charles Nicholson
Imitation mosaic tiles on the floor -
The inner room:
The Museum's innermost and largest room measured about thirty-five feet by thirty and was lit by two large windows with an eastern aspect. The room contained two large cedar cabinets fitted with plate glass which exhibiting mummies and numerous other Egyptian antiquities. Etruscan vases stood in a large glass case which ran across the room.
Outside the entrance to the Museum:
Outside the entrance to the Museum, in the South vestibule, were six casts produced by the British Museum in the late 19th century, donated by William Long of Trinity College, Cambridge. They were replicas of the Elgin Marbles, the collection of marble sculptures, designed in the 5th century BC by Phidias and removed from the Parthenon in the early 19th century by Sir Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin.
Early visitors to the Nicholson Museum were able to sign their name and comments in a visitors’ book. Between 1863 and 1941, three different volumes were used, and are now kept in the Museum's archives.
The novelist Miles Franklin signed herself “St M S Miles Lampe Franklin, Goulburn” in the visitors’ book in 1902.
Opera singer Dame Nellie Melba’s signature in the Nicholson visitors’ book recorded her visit to the Museum on 7 June 1912.
- Read an article "Signed of the times" about the visitors’ book by Dr Craig Barker.
By 1926 all the Museum's treasures had been relocated to its new premises except for the 4-tonne, 4000-year-old granite column capital of the goddess Hathor from the Temple of Bastet in Bubastis, in Upper Egypt, which had been acquired by Sir Charles Nicholson in the 1890s.
The column had been too heavy to move to the new premises, but was finally moved there in in July 2009.
The Museum of Antiquities moved to its current premises in 1926. The rooms where the Museum had been housed are now the Oriental Studies Room (formerly the inner room), the lobby (formerly the western half of the anteroom) and an office (formerly the eastern half of the anteroom).
The former Museum still bears many traces of its original use, notably the stained glass window in the lobby which contains Nicholson's coat of arms, the decorated floor tiles (some now covered with carpet and others badly worn) and the pointed arch in the opening between the lobby and the office. In 1996 the tiles in the lobby were covered over to protect them from further deterioration. They lie intact under the carpet but a section in the hearth of the fireplace has been left exposed for viewing.
The plaster casts of the Elgin marbles, which are part of the Nicholson Museum’s cast collection, were recently restored and can be seen on the walls of the Southern Vestibule.
- View images of the six plaster casts.
- Read about these plaster casts of the Elgin marbles and their recent restoration.
- Read articles from Museum News on the growing demand for the return of the original sculptures to Athens.
The arch, which had divided the Ante Room
Exposed tiles around the hearth