Draft project summary
17 December 1996
By Tim Sherratt, Australian Science Archives Project


In June 1768, John Codd, a carpenter, was commissioned to build 20 strong wooden chests with hinged lids and locks. In these and many other containers were packed 'all sorts of machines for catching and preserving insects; all kinds of nets, trawls, drags and hooks for coral fishing; …many bottles with ground stoppers of several sizes to preserve animals in spirits', as well as preserving salts, artists materials and a natural history library. Overseeing the work was Joseph Banks, who was putting together the most well-equipped scientific expedition of its time - a voyage into the uncharted southern seas aboard the Endeavour. 'No people ever went to sea better fitted out for the purpose of Natural History, nor more elegantly', wrote one contemporary.

Over 200 years later, a replica Endeavour is returning to England. The first Endeavour returned with its wooden chests crammed with many thousands of plant and animal specimens, signalling Australia's incorporation into the process of Western science. In the intervening years Australia has established its own active and innovative scientific culture. In place of Banks's chests the replica Endeavour is carrying a representation of this change - a fulfilment of the enterprise undertaken by Banks. This is the Cabinet of Curiosities.

Collecting has a history of its own. The age of European discovery and exploration in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw the emergence of the private gentleman's 'cabinet of curiosities' as a showcase for the exotica of the New World. Francis Bacon wrote in 1594 of the essential apparatus required by a learned man. As well as a library, garden and laboratory, he needed
a goodly, huge cabinet, wherein whatsoever the hand of man by exquisite art or engine has made rare in stuff, form or motion; whatsoever singularity, chance and the shuffle of things has produced; whatsoever Nature has wrought in things that want life and may be kept; shall be sorted and included.
The artefacts of nature and of history were displayed together.

- Tom Griffiths, Hunters and Collectors,

The concept of the Cabinet of Curiosities was inspired by a number sources, including John Codd's invoice for Banks's many chests and Allen Kurzweil's novel A Case of Curiosities. The idea is to mount our own collection, not of specimens this time, but of stories drawn from Australia's rich scientific heritage - stories mediated not by objects, but by art. The Cabinet of Curiosities, then, is more of an art installation than a museum exhibition. Its aim is not to assemble a series of significant artefacts, but to represent important themes in Australia's scientific development.
'Have you ever heard of the memento hominem?', he asked. He dropped his aitches, so that it sounded like 'ava you ever eared of dee memento omeenem?'

'Memento hominem?' I said. I had a vague idea or thought I did. 'Skulls and watch faces with no hands.'

He corrected me. 'You are confusing it with the more common memento mori, those records of death uncovered in the painting and cemetery architecture of Europe.' He explained that a memento hominem, rather than proclaiming mortality, registers a life. Each object in the case indicates a decisive moment or relationship in the personal history of the compositor. The objects chosen are often commonplace; the reasons for their selection never are. He said that it was a conceit popular in parts of Switzerland and France during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Excited in the way that only Italians can be, he revealed that my case of curiosities told a tale, and an extraordinary one at that.

- Allen Kurzweil, A Case of Curiosities, Penguin Books, 1992, p. vii.

The Cabinet of Curiosities will also tell an extraordinary tale.


The cabinet will be a fine piece of furniture. Its finish will include a number of references to late 18th and early 19th century styles, with other elements indicating that this is also a functional piece, designed to travel. The overall dimensions of the cabinet will be: 872mm high x 565mm wide x 480mm deep.

There will be three sections which will be locked in place while travelling, but which will be able to be separated for display purposes. Each section will be related to one of the three main themes described below.

Section 1 - All things Queer and Opposite

Consisting of 4 shallow trays stacked, and held in place by folding wooden side pieces. Internal dimensions of each tray: 38mm high x 460mm wide x 455mm deep.

Section 2 - Isolation and Independence

Consisting of 6 half-width drawers (3 rows of 2). Internal dimensions of each drawer: 49mm high x 202mm wide x 400mm deep.

Section 3 - The Handmaiden of Empire

Consisting of 2 full-width drawers. Internal dimensions of each drawer: 90mm high x 455mm wide x 400mm deep.

The half-width drawers in Section 2 will be used in pairs (ie. each pair will tell one story). This means there are 9 exhibition spaces (4 trays + 3 pairs of half drawers + 2 full drawers). However, one tray will remain empty.

The cabinet is being constructed by Greg St John at the Canberra School of Art.


Australian science?

The Cabinet of Curiosities is intended to provide a representation of the development of science in Australia. Or is that the development of Australian science? Is there a difference? What does it mean to say that Australia has developed its own scientific culture?
…though scientific discourse is international, its practice is at the same time socially bound. Individual scientists inevitably work within the confines of the societies in which they live as well as of the scientific disciplines to which they contribute. The most challenging task facing the historian of science today is to delineate, in any particular case, the interlocking intellectual, social and economic strands that shaped the work of individuals and groups and thus determined events, and very often social strands will be best defined within a particular linguistic or geographical or national context. Hence, even if 'Australian science' is, strictly speaking, a phrase that lacks content, to study the history of science as it has been practised in Australia remains an intellectually coherent thing to do.

Indeed, it is imperative that such studies be undertaken. Science has in modern times become a powerful social and economic force, the effects of which are apparent in every facet of daily life. To study the place of science in social and economic life and the way in which this has changed as science itself has changed in the course of the past 200 years is thus to focus on one of the central historical questions of our time. From this point of view, the history of Australian science is a vital part of the general history of the nation.

- R.W. Home, 'Introduction', Australian Science in the Making, Cambridge University Press, 1988, p.viii.

Questions about the development of science in Australia cannot be easily divorced from questions about science itself. Science is international, but it is also local, it permeates our lives and our histories. By exploring the experience of Australian scientists we learn more about the way science is disseminated, encouraged and, indeed, retarded. But by reflecting on the processes and structures of science we gain new perspectives on the Australian experience. The Cabinet of Curiosities is neither about science, nor Australia, but about the sites at which these two meet - within the experience, achievements, hardships and glories of Australia's men and women of science.
This reluctance to fully commit the work to the cultural analysis of science, is demonstrated by the editor's attempt to justify the use of the term 'Australian science'. Such a justification is undertaken in deference to the perceived 'international' nature of science. Science can, of course, be readily seen as international at certain levels of its social structure - scientists interact with scientists from other countries - though there are very definite limits on such interactions. But the claim would seem to be stronger, that the content of science, by its nature, is international. If this is perceived to be so, then it is only because of our historical situation, which locates us within a particularly invasive scientific tradition. This tradition was created within certain expansionist cultures, and has, through transmission and colonisation, been able to establish an 'international' network. It is cultural arrogance, rather than epistemological certainty, which encourages our tendency to equate 'science' with 'modern science' or 'western science'. What is 'international' is hence taken to be universal.

- Tim Sherratt, 'Making science for whom - Review of Australian Science in the Making', Antithesis, vol. 2, no. 2, 1988/9.

This theme will be explored through a number of sub-themes and stories, detailed below.

Unpacking, exploration and understanding

The Cabinet of Curiosities is intended to evoke a sense of mystery. What is in the cabinet? What is its message? The construction of the cabinet itself, with its many drawers and trays, will invite exploration, taking advantage of people's natural fascination with opening, unpacking and unfolding. This 'unpacking' metaphor will be carried on through the display of the cabinet, which will be presented in the process of being unpacked. It is also hoped that a video will be displayed alongside the static exhibition, showing the cabinet being taken apart, its drawers opened and removed, and its contents gradually revealed.

It is hoped that some of the artworks will carry on this metaphor - perhaps involving books, boxes or other containers. This may mean that the entire contents cannot be displayed at once - a book for example would have to be displayed open at a particular page. However, this in turn will add to the sense of mystery, to the sense that there is much more to the Cabinet of Curiosities than first meets the eye.

The links between this 'unpacking' theme and the historical content of the cabinet is straightforward. In one sense the cabinet is simply delivering narratives about men and women involved in Australian science, but looking again at these stories we can discern further questions, anomalies, and mysteries. By 'unpacking' these stories we can understand much more about the development of science in this country, we see deeper patterns, and yet more questions. We are creating space around the objects and the stories for the audience to weave their own curiosities.

Other General Themes

The very enterprise of assembling the cabinet and its contents must necessarily comment on a number of more general themes, in particular:
  • The significance of collecting
  • The relationship between Britain and Australia
  • The relationship between art and science


Why do we collect? As a hobby, or as a business? For scientific or aesthetic purposes? To record, explain and understand? Collecting has had many meanings over the centuries, and Banks's journey was positioned at an important point in this history. Collecting was being transformed from a gentleman's diversion to a scientist's practice. Systems of classification, such as the Linnaean system, were being used to impose order and meaning on collections of natural curiosities. Curiosities were becoming specimens.

When the British hunter of natural curiosities, Alfred Russell Wallace, was collecting in the Malay Archipelago in the 1850s, he found he could not give a convincing explanation to the Aru Islanders of why he collected shells, insects, birds and animals. He was 'set down as a conjurer and was unable to repel the charge'. The transformation from conjurer to scientist is one possible version of the modern history of collecting, one further tale of western triumph. It is an account of science prevailing over magic, of the emergence of sophisticated systems of classification and specialisation from the undiscriminating jumble of collectors' cabinets. The collector's object ceases to be just another curio and becomes, instead, a piece of evidence fully integrated in a western vision of natural and cultural development.

- Tom Griffiths, Hunters and Collectors, CUP

With the rise of experimental science in the late 19th century, collecting received less emphasis and was often left to enthusiastic amateurs, such as the field naturalists. But in more recent times, the importance of cataloguing and monitoring the planet's biodiversity has become increasingly evident. Such 'collections' enable us to understand the breadth and complexity of our enviroment and to assess the consequences of our actions. They enable us to chart the limits, possibilities and dangers of humankind's interaction with nature.

Every collection tells a story. Even as we construct the Cabinet of Curiosities we must be aware that we are creating classifications, drawing patterns out of the chaos of the past, constructing narratives where none exist. We are inventing a taxonomy, a convenient fiction to aid analysis and encourage reflection. This is what history is - collections of 'facts' arranged in a cabinet called 'the past'.

Collections suppress their own historical, economic and political processes of production. Their sleight of hand is to allude to a relation between things that in social practice often have no relation. Anthropologist James Clifford has wondered about the social and psychological strategies of collection in the west, and urges a critical history of collecting. 'A history of anthropology and modern art', he writes, 'needs to see in collecting both a form of Western subjectivity and a changing set of powerful institutional practices.' Collecting is a 'crucial process of Western identity formation', 'an exercise in how to make the world one's own, to gather things around oneself tastefully, appropriately'. Collecting also assumes a certain notion of time; collectors are driven by urgency, by the need to collect 'before it is too late' - and we need to ask 'too late for what?' Their work is suffused with a sense of salvage, objects are rescued from out of time itself. Therefore, argues Clifford, 'collecting presupposes a story'. And the stories not only give meaning to the objects; they also ensnare the collectors.

- Tom Griffiths, Hunters and Collectors, Cambridge university Press, 1996, p. 25

Britain and Australia

The Cabinet of Curiosities is part of New Images, 'a year-long programme of events throughout 1997 to highlight the modern, evolving relationship between Britain and Australia', marking the fiftieth anniversary of the British Council in Australia.

The cabinet is to be presented to the Royal Society of London as a gift from the people of Australia, so clearly its focus must be on the scientific links between Britain and Australia. Indeed, it would be impossible to tell the story of Australia's scientific development without such a focus - such links are the story to a large extent.

Banks himself continued to direct research in Australia as President of the Royal Society and head of the Kew Gardens. Major British scientists such as Richard Owen, Roderick Murchison, the Hookers, and even Charles Darwin, had their networks of Australian collectors and correspondents. Australian scientific institutions looked to Britain for advice and direction. Australia's first crop of Professors were largely British, and when the locally-grown variety appeared, they had usually been trained in Britain. Collaboration has continued throughout the 20th century on a more equal footing, leading to such important developments as the establishment of the Anglo-Australian Telescope.

The relationship has not always worked in favour of Australia's scientific development. There have been conflicts and disputes, as well as success and co-operation. But in examining the 'modern, evolving relationship' between Britain and Australia, the Cabinet of Curiosities will remind us of the shared institutions, practices, and attitudes that provide a solid foundation for future growth and understanding.

Science and art

Art and science were closely linked in Banks's time. Scientists 'deeply respected the artist's capacity to record the truth more fully and completely than words'. (Bernard Smith, Imagining the Pacific: In the Wake of the Cook Voyages, p. 28). In both disciplines there was a movement towards the 'accurate' representation of nature - the emphasis was on empirical study, eschewing fancies and interpretation. Was this achievable?
Naturalism, like idealism, is a conceptualising enterprise. In moving from the ideal theories of the academies towards the empirical standpoint of science, artists did not thereby achieve an unvarnished truthfulness of the eye; they exchanged one conceptual master for another.

- Bernard Smith, Imagining the Pacific, p. 39.

Although botanical artists still make an important contribution to science, other imaging techniques have taken their role. Truth now lies not in the artist's drawing, but in the inscriptions and outputs of all manner of scientific apparatus. Moreover, it is often claimed that a gulf has opened up between the arts and the sciences, that practitioners effectively inhabit 'two cultures'. Is this division merely rhetorical? Or does it represent fundamentally different ways of viewing and representing the world? If the latter, what sort of communication is possible across the divide? How can art represent the practice of science?


Section 1 - All things Queer and Opposite

How have scientists perceived Australia? Culture shapes our ways of seeing and understanding, thus science in Australia was long bound by Eurocentric expectations. But interaction with this new environment helped reshape these expectations, science itself grew and changed. What has been achieved by this process, and what remains undone?

1. Remaking the land

Australia was often presented as a cornucopia of scientific delights and novelties. But such novelty also made the environment seem alien and forbidding, unsuited to European settlement. Scientists have been integrally involved in attempts to remake the land to suit the needs of European settlers - whether it be by introducing songbirds to soothe their spirits, or diverting rivers to power their homes and irrigate their farms. But while scientists attitudes towards the land have been shaped by their European preconceptions, they have also transcended them, drawing attention to the limits of the remaking process. What are the consequences for the environment? How can a balance be achieved? By remaking, science has also been remade.

2. Charting success

Australia's history is the history of maps, of attempts to claim the continent by surveys and soundings. Maps impose order and give control, but maps also provide a framework for further discovery and achievement. By careful observation, by adventure and reflection, Australian scientists have filled in the blanks, dispelling such speculations as the inland sea, establishing both country's hazards and possibilities. In doing so, geologists found that their European models and concepts were inadequate - an even more fundamental remapping was required.

3. New horizons

A new land and a new sky - as well as specimens to collect, Australia offered a new platform for observing, a new perspective on the heavens. Australian scientists took advantage of this opportunity - observatories were among the first scientific institutions to be established, and skilled observers like John Tebbutt developed international reputations. Astronomy could thereby serve as a symbol of cultural achievement and maturity, as demonstrated by the construction of the Great Melbourne Telescope. Australia has remained a major contributor to astronomical research. The Great Melbourne Telescope itself is still in service - now over 100 years old it scans the skies for evidence of dark matter.

4. Silences

Banks's voyage marked the incorporation of Australia into the processes, practices and concepts of Western science. In the years that followed, Australia's flora and fauna were catalogued, its geology studied, its scientists admitted to the international community. Science has provided a means of understanding the country, and forms and important part of our culture. But what opportunities have been lost? What perspectives have not been viewed? The Cabinet of Curiosities allows many voices from Australia's past to speak, but many more are silent. What are the difficulties of communicating across seas compared to communicating across cultures? What might have been learnt if science had been more ready to interact with other knowledge systems, such as those of Australia's original inhabitants? The opportunities remain.

Section 2 - Isolation and Independence

The development of Australian science is often portrayed as a march to independence - a triumphant victory over colonial mentalities, isolation and distance. But history is never quite that simple…

5. Networks within Networks

Science is dependent on communication - networks of patronage, training, exchange and information. These networks often took on an imperial form, centred on the scientific institutions of Britain - Australian scientists were consigned to the periphery. Thus even an extremely well-credentialled scientist like Ferdinand von Mueller found himself at the wrong end of the exchange system - unable to prepare the Flora Australis from Australia! But Mueller himself was a centre for patronage and exchange, maintaining an active and diverse network of collectors around the country. When we examine the centre/periphery model closely we find a more complex picture - networks within networks. Who gains access to these various centres of authority and why? What about women scientists? What about amateurs? What roles do they find within these networks?

6. Room to move

Isolation is often taken to be one of the major factors that inhibited the development of Australian science. Talented naturalists like George Bennett were forced into dependent relationships with British scientists because of their isolation from the scientific community - they could only participate by proxy. But isolation need not be dependent on geography or distance. Bennett's relationship with Richard Owen, exploitative though it was, did put him in close touch with the upper echelons of British science. Other scientists, working in closer, but less 'interesting' locations, may well have envied Bennett's access. Who was the more isolated?

And what of a scientist like Gerald Krefft, who challenged Owen and championed Darwinism in Australia? His 'isolation' from his Australian colleagues led to him being ousted from his post at the Australian Museum, yet his contacts with a number of eminent British scientists, including Darwin himself, remained intact. Isolation is something to be explored and understood in context, not merely assumed.

7. Two-way traffic

Early professorships at Australian universities tended to be taken by British scientists. Some, like physicist William Henry Bragg, were barely graduates themselves. Australia offered good salaries, but few obvious opportunities for advancement. However, it was no dead-end! Despite his complaints of isolation, Bragg developed his own network of scientific contacts and began a program of research that was to lead to a chair in England and a Nobel Prize in physics. Through Bragg and others, Australian physics maintained a close connection with some of the world's leading practitioners - there was a strong two-way flow of people and ideas.

But was it possible to develop an international career while remaining in Australia? Another Nobel prize-winner, Macfarlane Burnet, remade the field of immunology from his post as Director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne. Burnet actively sought to promote Australian science and published many of his findings in Australian journals, ensuring that the journals would receive increased international exposure. A scientist's ability to contribute is not determined by their location - what about their contacts, their discipline, their resources?

Section 3 - The Handmaiden of Empire

There were strong links between science and imperial expansion in the 18th and 19th centuries. For a scientist like Joseph Banks the close association of science and commerce would have seemed completely natural. Science in Australia has always been dependent upon social, economic and political developments, including war.

8. Exports for Empire

With an economy dependent upon agricultural exports, it seemed appropriate that most of Australia's scientific research should be concentrated in areas related to primary industry, though government support was sometimes slow in coming. William Farrer's rescue of the wheat industry has entered our national mythology. CSIR, Australia's national research organisation, was established within this framework - mirroring the economic relationship with Britain. Just as Australia would concentrate on the production of raw materials, importing manufactured goods from Britain, so Australian science would focus on primary industry related research, importing theoretical developments. However, David Rivett, CSIR's visionary leader, always sought to balance such utilitarian work with fundamental research. In areas like wool research, Australia gradually moved beyond work focussed on the health of sheep, to sheep genetics and wool products - making international contributions in both areas.

9. Winning weapons and beyond

In World War I, Australian geologists led tunnelling teams in the trenches, while Australian chemists worked in British munitions factories. By World War II, the picture was radically different. The need for defence self-reliance had prompted the expansion of Australia's manufacturing capacity in the 1930s, a process radically accelerated by the war. After a slow start, scientists found their skills in demand - Australia's physicists, for example, helped develop an optical munitions industry from scratch.

This reorientation in research reshaped Australian science and opened opportunities. CSIR's first secondary industry related research division was established - the Division of Industrial Chemistry - establishing itself as an internationally recognised centre in the postwar era. Most dramatically, radar researchers turned their aerials to the sun and stars, playing a leading role in the creation of the new field of radioastronomy.

WWII also brought the atomic bomb. The lingering strength of imperial presumptions was displayed when Australia agreed to host Britain's bomb tests without bargaining for any formal scientific involvement. Australia once again was just a provider of raw materials.


This project comprises five major phases:
  1. Concept development and research
  2. Construction of the cabinet
  3. Development of the artworks
  4. Assembly of cabinet and artworks
  5. Development of interpretative text and WWW site

Phase 1 is near completion. Phase 2 has begun, with construction of the cabinet aimed to be completed by the end of January.


As described above, there are 9 exhibition spaces within the cabinet, however, one of the trays will remain empty (corresponding to story no. 4 - Silences). 8 artists will be selected to fill each of the remaining spaces. Each space will be associated with a particular story. Each artist will be given the dimensions of the space, a 500-1000 word treatment of the selected story, some additional references and, where appropriate, some related images. How they use the material, and represent the story within the space is totally up to them!

The concept developer, Tim Sherratt will be available to the artists throughout, to answer any questions, to provide further information, or to help locate images or materials.

Interpretative text

Interpretative text will be developed for exhibition purposes. This will outline the themes and stories, and identify the artists. The text will be based on the story treatments distributed to the artists. Comments by the artists on their works can also be included.

WWW site

A WWW site will be developed that includes images of the cabinet and its contents, detailed descriptions of the themes and stories, and notes on everyone involved in the project.


The cabinet will be loaded onto the Endeavour in Madeira, the last port-of-call before the ship's arrival in Britain. Upon its arrival, the cabinet will be unloaded and presented to the Royal Society of London. The handover will hopefully receive substantial media coverage, both in the UK and Australia. After being displayed for the media, the cabinet will be packed up and freighted back to Australia to form part of the Kaleidoscope of Life exhibition.

The Kaleidoscope of Life exhibition is being developed by the Natural History Museum, London, and the Australian Museum. It seeks to explain and demonstrate biodiversity. The planned exhibition already has a significant historical component. 'Discovering variety', one of the three main sections, aims to introduce biodiversity "by looking back at important naturalists in history who have contributed to recording the diversity of plant and animal species in the UK and Australia". Specific mention is made of Banks and the Endeavour voyage. The way in which the Cabinet of Curiosities will be incorporated into the exhibition is still being examined.

The Cabinet of Curiosities will tour around Australia with the Kaleidoscope of Life exhibition, after opening at the Australian Museum in June 1997. Dates and venues for the other capital cities are still being confirmed. The entire exhibition, including the cabinet, will then travel to the Natural History Museum, London.


  • 4 February 1997 - Completion of cabinet
  • 18 February 1997 - Completion of artworks
  • 4 March 1997 - Shipping of cabinet to Madeira
  • 10 March 1997 - Cabinet loaded onto Endeavour
  • 25 March 1997 - Cabinet presented to the Royal Society of London
  • June 1997 - Opening of Kaleidoscope of Life exhibition in Sydney

[ The Cabinet | Bright Sparcs | ASAPWeb ]

Prepared by Tim Sherratt (Tim.Sherratt@asap.unimelb.edu.au)
for publication on ASAPWeb. Last modified 22 June 1997.