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Capturing Nature: Early Scientific Photography at the Australian Museum 1857–1893

Photography was the science that took the world by storm in the mid-18th century, with the endless scope of possibilities yet unexplored; Its early use as a recording tool in the scientific area, especially in Australia, was quick to be utilised by Australian Museum curator Gerald Kreft and taxidermist Henry Barnes, to record a vast array of specimens between the years of 1850 to 1890’s.

Their work was ground-breaking, with the first recorded image undertaken when a Mr Glen Wilson was requested to photograph some fossils and ‘some other objects’. Kreft was an assistance curator at the Australian Museum at the time, an experienced field collector and had already discovered a fascination and love of photography. He could also see the future potential for this medium being used in museums.

Henry Barnes was a very experienced taxidermist and between them they discovered and trialled the best way of staging and recording large and small specimens with their massive cameras and layers of glass plates.

Kreft had a major impact on the Australian Museum collection with his forward-thinking ideas and drive, going on to build one of the most extensive collections of Australian specimens held by a Museum in the late 1800’s. During the heady years of the 1860’s and with the aid of some government funding he was able to send out his own small team of collectors across Australia to collect thousands of specimens.

He was just one of many who actively documented contextual data and description throughout what is considered as the golden age of collecting. Others operating in this field were George Masters who was considered responsible for helping to build one of the largest private collections, owned by William John Macleay. Alexander Morton went to New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Lord Howe Island also on a Museum funded collecting expedition.

These men, amongst so many others built a massive collection that has been archived in the Australian Museum for generations, providing a massive resource of wildlife in the earlier times of Australia and the driving desire to become far more scientific in their practices of recording and displaying specimens.

While photography became the medium of choice for recording specimen, the black and white toning’s of glass plate photography was limiting and so artists such as Harriett and Helena Scott still played a massive part in recording the fine details, the vivid and subtle hues of the specimens.

In Capturing Nature, Vanessa Finney presents a fascinating collection of glass plate images seldom viewed, a raft of information which is utterly engrossing and intriguing as history often is, as well as a wonderful peek into an aspect of Australian history often ignored.


AuthorVanessa Finney
PublisherNew South Pulishers
DistributorNew South Books
ReleasedFebruary 2019