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.
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, 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
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 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:
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:
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:
|The Museum in its new premises in 1930,
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:
|A view of the statue in the Museum,
photo, The Sydney Morning Herald,
2 November 1935,
National Library of Australia.
In the 1950s
Sketch of the Museum in 1954,
|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 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:
The Nicholson Museum today:
|The Nicholson Museum entrance today,
photo, Nicholson Museum.
| The Museum's Egyptian Room,
photo, Museums newsletter February 2004
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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.