The Quadrangle

The Nicholson Museum of Antiquities

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.

On this webpage:

Images are courtesy of the University Secretariat unless otherwise indicated. Click on images for enlargement.


Sir Charles Nicholson

Sir Charles Nicholson was one of the original 16 Fellows of Senate, appointed in 1850 by the Governor, and serving until 1883. He was elected Vice-Chancellor (Vice-Provost) by Senate from 1851 to 1853 and Chancellor (Provost) from 1854 to 1862.

Sir Charles Nicholson

Portrait of Sir Charles Nicholson by artist H W Phillips, oil on canvas, purchased by Subscribers 1850, (University Art Collection, reproduced with the permission of the University of Sydney).

His antiquities collection

Sir Charles presented his valuable collection of antiquities to the University, consisting of some 400 Egyptian antiquities, about 100 Greek vases and some prehistoric, Etruscan and Roman objects.


From the 1860s

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 home in Darling Point. 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.

Two items from the initial collection:

An Etruscan cinerary urn Statue of a Roman Republican
An Etruscan cinerary urn, 4th - 1st centuries BC,
now located in the foyer close to the
Museum's conservation laboratory.
A marble Roman Republican
statue, 1st century BC,
now located outside the
Museum's entrance.

The collection was initially installed in three rooms adjacent to the Southern Vestibule, underneath the clock tower. 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 divided into two rooms on either side of a central archway:

  • The western half of the anteroom (in the forefront of the photo below) - 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 entrance to the Nicholson Museum - now the Oriental Studies Room View from the western half of the anteroom into the eastern half
The entrance to the former Nicholson Museum
(now the Oriental Studies Room).
On the Vestibule walls are the plaster casts
of the Elgin marbles from the walls of
the Parthenon in Athens, donated
to the University in 1859. The 1850s
staircase bannister pictured here
was replaced in 2011. 
The anteroom divided into two rooms,
photo G3_224_MF374_0228,
University of Sydney Archives.
Nicholson arms Tiles
Sir Charles Nicholson's coat of arms
on the stained glass window
in the western half of the anteroom. 
The anteroom was paved with imitation
mosaic of a pseudo-Egyptian design,
manufactured at Rome, where it was
purchased by Sir Charles.

  • The third room - the inner room - was the largest. It measured about thirty-five feet by thirty and was lit by two large windows with an eastern aspect. It contained two large cedar cabinets fitted with plate glass which exhibited mummies and numerous other Egyptian antiquities. Etruscan vases stood in a large glass case which ran across the room:
The inner room and, through the doorway,  the eastern half of the anteroom
The inner room and, through the doorway, 
the eastern half of the anteroom,
photo, courtesy of the Macleay Museum,
University of Sydney.
 One side of the Museum's inner room The opposite side of the Museum's inner room 
One side of the Museum's inner room,
photo, courtesy of the Macleay Museum,
University of Sydney.
The opposite side of the Museum's inner room,
photo, courtesy of the Macleay Museum,
University of Sydney.

In the 1900s

By 1900 the Museum's two anterooms were so full of cases it was almost impossible to see the exhibits.

The south-west corner of the Quadrangle Building was built between 1900 and 1909, and included provision for the Nicholson Museum on the ground floor. However, while Fisher Library and the Nicholson Museum were officially opened on 20 September 1909, the collection of antiquities remained in the Museum's original premises in the Main Building.

Early visitors to the Nicholson Museum were able to sign their name and comments in a visitors’ book:

From the visitors

Extract from the visitors’ book showing the signature of Miles Franklin in 1902, photo, Museum News, February 2010.

In the 1910s


Part of the Museum in 1919, photo, The Australasian, 9 August 1919, National Library of Australia.

In the 1920s

The Nicholson Museum in the Fisher Library building, with its antiquities collection in place, was formally opened by the Governor-General Lord Stonehaven on 5 October 1926, following the University's Commemoration ceremony.

In the 1930s

In 1930, the Museum in its new premises:

In 1930 
 In 1930
The Museum in its new premises in 1930,
photos above,
The Sydney Morning Herald, 18 and 25 January 1930,
National Library of Australia.

In 1934 the marble statue of the god Hermes was donated to the Museum by the sons of Sir Charles Nicholson. Made in the late Hellenistic or early Roman period – second half of the 2nd century BC to 1st century AD – the statue is a copy of an earlier ancient work:

Hermes  Hermes 

Sydney University Museums’ collection.

A view of the statue in the Museum,
photo, The Sydney Morning Herald,
2 November 1935,
National Library of Australia.

In the 1950s


In 1954


Sketch of the Museum in 1954,
The Sydney Morning Herald, 21 August 1954,
National Library of Australia.

The Museum c1953, with Hermes on display,
photo, courtesy of the Macleay Museum,
University of Sydney.

In the 1960s

With the appointment of Alexander Cambitoglou to the Honorary Curatorship in 1963, a four-year long re-installation of the displays, a complete renovation and refit of the lighting and ceiling, and a new colour scheme for the walls were undertaken, culminating in a festive opening on 23 September 1966.

In the early 2000s

On 16 July 2009, in an operation taking three days, the 4-tonne 4000-year-old granite column capital of the goddess Hathor, from the Temple of Bastet in Bubastis, in Upper Egypt, was finally moved into the Nicholson Museum. It had been acquired by Sir Charles Nicholson in the 1890s but had been too heavy to move to the new Museum premises in 1926:

Hathor on the move Hathor in the Nicholson Museum
Hathor on the move from its origrinal location,
photo, SAM Summer 09/10.
Hathor in its new location,
photo, Nicholson Museum 

In the 2010s

2010 marked the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Nicholson Museum to the public and the birth of Sydney University Museums:

150th anniversary banners 

 One of the 150th anniversary banners
at the University.

The Nicholson Museum today:

The Nicholson Museum today The Egyptian Room 
The Nicholson Museum entrance today,
photo, Nicholson Museum.
 The Museum's Egyptian Room,
photo, Museums newsletter February 2004

More reading about Nicholson and items in his collection