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articulated whale skeleton
Articulated whale skeleton on display at the rear of the museum building at Melbourne University, 1868.
Photographer: Donald McDonald.
Image source: Museum Victoria

Portrait of Professor, Frederick McCoy
Portrait of Professor, (later Sir), Frederick McCoy, the first director of the National Museum of Victoria.
Photographer: Johnstone O'Shannassy & Co.
Image source: State Library of Victoria, La Trobe Picture Collection

Government Assay Office
The Government Assay Office, La Trobe Street, Melbourne, from the Illustrated Melbourne News, 1858.
Image source: Museum Victoria

Early Days of the Museum

Museum Victoria has its origins in the Museum of Natural History, which opened on 9 March 1854 in the Government Assay Office in La Trobe Street, Melbourne. An independent colony since 1851, Victoria was experiencing a boom brought about by the gold rushes. The local regions of Melbourne and Geelong were occupied by a population of more than 80 000 people and nearly 6 million sheep. As the surrounding countryside was explored, the first collections of new and unusual geological and biological specimens began to take shape.

The museum was transferred to more distinguished surroundings at the University of Melbourne in Parkville in 1856 and became formally known as the National Museum of Victoria. In 1858, Professor Frederick McCoy was appointed its director and the collections quickly burgeoned.

McCoy sourced material both locally and overseas to help establish the priceless natural history collection at the museum. This led to his encyclopaedic works Prodromus of the Zoology of Victoria and Prodromus of the Palaeontology of Victoria, which were attempts to describe the animal species found in the state. McCoy achieved remarkable coverage of Victoria's living and extinct fauna, and his systematic collection still forms an important basis for the museum’s natural history holdings.

The National Museum of Victoria continued to benefit from a wealth of local as well as international acquisitions. New items made their way into the collection with the rapid growth of mining and agricultural industries in Victoria during the later half of the 19th century. Another beneficiary of this period was the Industrial and Technological Museum, which had opened in 1870 in the Public Library building in Swanston Street.

The collections of the both museums continued to develop in parallel until 1899, when it was decided to relocate the National Museum to the Public Library building also. Melbourne's citizens were presented with the spectacle of wagons loaded with glass cases, stuffed animals and other curiosities as over 510 000 items were carted across town.

© Museum Victoria Australia