A History of Museum Victoria


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The National Museum of Victoria Mining Collection


An early hurdle was the extreme shortage of space in the Museum during 1856-64, a time when the potential of the collection was at its zenith. The lack of space and therefore McCoy's inability to display more than a handful of the models meant that as years passed the collection became rooted in the mid 1850s and increasingly irrelevant to practical miners: Dicker's Mining Record caustically referred to the Museum as a 'bonded warehouse'. Significantly, just as McCoy had the luxury of almost limitless space after 1864, he virtually stopped collecting in the field of mining, perhaps because he felt the collection was complete. The removal of the collection to the Industrial and Technological Museum in 1871 denied him any opportunity to acquire examples of the improved machinery of the 1880s to 1890s.

The rapid pace of change in the quartz mining industry also left McCoy floundering. He wanted the best (and worst) machinery as exemplars but was in a quandary over those yet to be successfully trialled under local conditions. Most existing overseas technology was represented in the collection by 1860, yet development during 1857-60 was so rapid that McCoy could generally only chronicle in retrospect rather than provide an objective expert analysis as new developments took place. With hindsight, McCoy's preference for proven appliances may have been sound, as many locally patented machines had little lasting impact on colonial mining, yet the vagaries of McCoy's judgment saw most debate confined to specialist journals rather than within the Museum.

McCoy's vision included a mining school as part of the University of Melbourne where many of the required lectures were already given. Some thought the proposal too sophisticated for colonial conditions and amongst Cornish managers there was resistance born of their traditional reliance on empirical training. McCoy also lacked sufficient influence within the University - which in any case regarded anything suggestive of manual work with distaste - and it was left to the smaller Schools of Mines at Ballarat and later Bendigo to establish such courses, by which date McCoy had reluctantly ceded the mining collection to the Industrial and Technological Museum. McCoy was permitted to retain his favourite topographic Nordstrom models, poignant yet powerful evidence of the increasing irrelevance of his collection.

A major obstacle was the mining community's lack of confidence in McCoy. They recalled his (erroneous) belief that the value of gold in quartz reefs would decrease with depth and this cast a long shadow over his influence in mining matters. That miners visited the mining collection is not in question: that they did not flock to the Museum in great numbers is perhaps more pertinent. To gauge opinion from newspapers and mining journals, the majority of visitors were curious Melburnians. Perhaps McCoy's expectations were too great: the industry was generally traditional in its views regarding machinery and possibly his low standing within the industry only exacerbated an entrenched stumbling block. The location at the University, perceived as physically and socially remote as much from the goldfields as from Melbourne, was certainly a contributing factor.

Today, the collection has the potential to tell us as much about Melbourne and its Museum as it does about mining. The success of McCoy in assembling a world-class collection, best displayed in his Descriptive Catalogue (1868), reveals that his painstaking, even pedantic, collecting has bequeathed a rich legacy to future generations. Despite neglect and dispersal the collection still numbers over 100 items, including both individual pieces and suites of related items, perhaps a third of the original collection at its greatest extent. Its current significance ranks with those of the Science Museum, London, and perhaps only a handful of European museums. The trials of establishing such a collection in the colonies invoke many universal principles of museology, and the lessons of the mining collection - heeded and unheeded - resonate in museums today.

Further reading: R. Aitken, 'The Mining Collections of the National Museum of Victoria: 1856-1871 (MA, History and Philosophy of Science, University of Melbourne, 1990). F. McCoy, Descriptive Catalogue of the Mining, Metallurgical, Geological and Agricultural Models in the National Museum Melbourne (Melbourne: Government Printer, c1868).

Richard Aitken is a Melbourne-based architect and historian. As the Thomas Ramsay Science and Humanities Scholar during 1988-89 he studied the mining collection of the National Museum of Victoria. He has published widely in the fields of garden history, heritage conservation, public history and material culture and is currently co-editing the Oxford Companion to Australian Gardens.

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