The Cabinet of Curiosities'Unpacking the Cabinet'
Speech by Tim Sherratt
Canberra, 26 February 1997

Welcome learned friends, and thank-you for your attention. My object this evening is to introduce this most remarkable artefact - this, as we have called it, Cabinet of Curiosities. Where did it come from? What is it for? I shall reveal tonight the progress of our investigations to date.

The Cabinet's origins are obscure. It is known that some two hundred years ago a young botanist by the name of Joseph Banks visited these shores and collected a great number of plant and animal specimens. These were transported to Britain aboard the Endeavour, contained within an assortment of wooden chests. While there may be some connection with these, this Cabinet is clearly a much more complex item.

Indeed, it is reminiscent of the collector's chests assembled by gentlefolk in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Such chests often displayed natural history specimens along with human artefacts. The memento hominem, on the other hand, was biographical in intent. Presenting items that together told the story of a life. What cannot be doubted is that this Cabinet also tells a story. It is in seeking to unravel this story we discover the Cabinet's true riches.

Please bear with me now as I begin the delicate task of unpacking the Cabinet of Curiosities. Do not be alarmed - it is perfectly safe - or, at least, the risks are… minimal. If you would be so kind as to avoid making any sudden, loud noises, I'm sure we will be able to proceed without any unfortunate… mishaps.

You will have noticed these impressive locks and brass fittings - clearly nautical references. The Cabinet, it would seem, is meant to travel, it has been designed for a journey - or, perhaps, to take us on a journey?

A clue to the purpose of the Cabinet is contained within an inscription foundon this top panel. If I might read it:

This Cabinet holds many treasures. Two hundred years of Australian science are arrayed for exploration and reflection. The curiosities contained are those of Australia's men and women of science, and your own. Open, examine and understand.

There follows a quotation, dated 1939, from Sir William Bragg:

'The spirit in which knowledge is sought, and the manner in which it is used, are more important, more real, than knowledge itself' - Sir William Bragg, 1939.

What are we to make of this? Two hundred years of Australian science… in a box. It seems preposterous! And yet… as I unpacked this cabinet for the first time… I thought I heard voices…many voices…

Ah yes… as I was saying - two hundred years of Australian science… Some may argue that there is no such thing as 'Australian' science. Yet clearly there are aspects of the way science has developed in Australia that are worthy of attention. I must admit I am befuddled by all this talk of becoming a clever country - what were we before? The intellectually adequate country? The merely competent country? Australia has a rich scientific heritage. My own organisation, the Australian Science Archives Project, has devoted over ten years to the preservation of this heritage. There are so many stories still to be told… but I digress.

If we are to explore 'Australian science' as the inscription on this Cabinet suggests, we might perhaps examine what we see… or see what we examine… Australia offered new horizons for scientific discovery and yet these were largely perceived through old eyes - European eyes. This changed of course, but how and when?

Then, of course, there is the matter of communication. Science cannot function without it, and yet Australian scientists were isolated - victims we presume, perhaps too hastily, of the 'tyranny of distance'. But what did isolation mean, and how was it overcome?

One might also examine, and I hope not too controversially, the role of empire - those political and economic forces that create the space within which science is able to flourish. Or is science more of a participant in this process than a product?

We have therefore identified three themes:

  • The way in which the Australian environment was perceived… 'all things queer and opposite', as was inscribed on the minute book of a scientific society in Tasmania;
  • The counterposed forces of isolation and independence;
  • And the role of science, as some commentators have described it, as the 'handmaiden of empire'.

Three themes… My colleagues and I believe that these themes correspond to the three sections of this Cabinet of Curiosities… Did I mention there were three sections?… I apologise… yes, there are three sections, divided thus, and held together by this arrangement of iron bars and locks.

For example, in this first section, corresponding we suppose to the first theme, there are four trays. The first contains a series of paintings which, to my eye, represent a verdant land despoiled, then restored. Remaking upon remaking. Re-vision upon revision. It is difficult to imagine that our colleagues of some 130 years prior regarded the bush as silent, and sought to introduce British songbirds to alleviate this auditory oppression. But they did. However, amongst these same scientists were the first to argue for protected areas to preserve the Australian environment. This Cabinet offers no glib slogans, no easy answers, suggesting, nonetheless, that in remaking we are…remade.

The second tray, appears to be a map. This land, of course, became known to science through exploration, through mapping - the creation of legends, both cartographic and otherwise. Many of our famous explorers were scientists - Leichardt, a naturalist; Wills (of Bourke and…) was lured away from the Magnetic Observatory on Flagstaff Hill in Melbourne. But what conventions were used in such mapping? What was sought, and what was found?

The next tray offers a rather different perspective - it looks up, to the heavens. As well as a new land, Australia offered a new sky for exploration. On being appointed Governor, amateur astronomer, Sir Thomas Brisbane, exclaimed 'With a virgin sky, what might not be achieved?' Indeed, astronomers like John Tebbutt followed in Brisbane's wake, carving out an international reputation. Oddly enough, I am sure that at certain times, from certain angles, Tebbutt's visage has looked out at me, imprisoned within this tray, like a star fixed in the firmament… But astronomical achievement is surely more than just a matter of geographic positioning. The means and the will are also required - there are many views to be figured.

The last tray in this section is, curiously, empty. Have its contents been lost, or was it left deliberately blank. It may be that its silence speaks more eloquently than any installation. Asking us whose voices are heard and whose are not. Even as we begin to perceive the contours of western science in Australia, we become aware of its meeting with alternative ways of knowing - those of the country's original inhabitants. This emptiness perhaps represents opportunities missed, paths not taken, messages not heard - or… yet to be heard? It may lay empty… waiting.

Now let us direct our attention to the second section - this bank of six drawers. As I have mentioned, our hypothesis is that this section relates to issues of isolation and independence, and indeed the complex interrelationship of the two. Interestingly, the drawers seem to be grouped in pairs.

From the first pair peers the puzzling platypus, a reference perhaps to the perceived oddness of the land examined in the first section, but a symbol, too, of new knowledge. How is knowledge created? Its claims authenticated? I'm sure you will recall the esteemed naturalist George Bennett, who laboured over so many years to unravel the mysteries of the platypus's reproductive system. Bennett procured and pickled a plenitude of platypi. He observed them in the field, and gathered many reports, nonetheless, it was his correspondent in Britain, Sir Richard Owen, who drew the conclusions. Owen firmly believed that the platypus gave birth to live young, and Bennett deferred to his well-positioned colleague, despite evidence he had collected that suggested they lay eggs. But was this the only option for colonial scientists? Were they of necessity confined to roles as mere collectors servicing the British men of science?

The second pair of drawers appears to elaborate upon this theme, moving the focus to botany and taxonomic determinations. Our mind's eye is immediately filled, naturally enough, by images of Australia's premier nineteenth century botanist, Ferdinand von Mueller. Mueller travelled widely throughout the country, collected and described thousands of specimens and yet was allocated a subsidiary role in the production of the Flora Australensis. Authority was reserved to a British expert with ready access to the botanical type-specimens stored at Kew Gardens. Sensible enough. Like Bennett, the Baron found himself on the outskirts of a scientific network centred on Europe. But wait… the picture is more complex, for Mueller himself was the centre of a network of collectors throughout Australia - people of varying background and experience, whose loyalty and diligence Mueller deliberately cultivated. There are networks within networks, worlds within worlds. Each drawer we unlock opens more paths for exploration.

It is communication that knits together these networks and sustains these relationships. In the third pair of drawers we find hints of correspondence, the remnants of a science practised over time and distance. By careful analysis, we have identified William Henry Bragg as the author of a number of these fragments. Other images seem to refer to Frank Macfarlane Burnet. Significantly, both were Nobel prize-winners, Bragg for physics and Burnet for medicine, though half a century separated their awards. Perhaps more important, however, is the contrast in their career paths. Although Bragg began his research in Australia, isolation from the leading practitioners forced him to move to Britain. Burnet, on the other hand, rebuilt the field of immunology from within Australia. Apparently he felt no such isolation. Why this difference? The Cabinet asks us.

From the personal to the political - the final section encourages us to investigate the political and economic context of science in Australia. Curiosity is not the only factor that shapes research. Indeed, the first drawer reminds us of the many, potentially devastating problems that faced the agricultural industries in the early decades of this century. Introduced pests and weeds, animal diseases and soil quality included in the challenging check-list presented to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research when it was established in 1926. Australia's research agenda thus reflected its economic position - though this arrangement was not without its tensions.

Fragments of scientific formulae discovered within the final drawer have been found to relate to radio astronomy. You will recall that this exciting field of endeavour arose out of radar research during the Second World War. Australian scientists led the way. Indeed, the war reshaped Australia's scientific community, and science itself emerged from the war with a new, should I say awesome, reputation. The consequences of this are only hinted at. There is so much to consider. Layer and layers of meaning. Questions… many questions…

With this rather disappointing lack of certitude I must draw my dissertation to a close. But let me first introduce and thank my colleagues in this investigation:

So here it is, this Cabinet of Curiosities. We have, I'm afraid come to no definite conclusions, only hypotheses. It is now for you to explore. As the inscription suggests, the curiosities it contains are your own.

- Tim Sherratt
Concept developer & project manager
26 February 1997

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