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Understanding Museums - Australian Museums and Museology: Edited by Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien

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Des Griffin is is currently Gerard Krefft Memorial Fellow, Australian Museum, an honorary position commemorating one of the early directors of the Museum. More about Des Griffin

Science museums: introduction
by Des Griffin

Natural history museums, science museums and science centres

From the arrival of Europeans a fascination with the animals of the Australian continent and adjacent islands has generated scientific research. Since the nineteenth century Australia’s natural history museums have been a principal site for the study of the diversity of animals, their relationships, and their distribution through the landscape and through time. Taxonomy, a major function of natural history museums, requires substantial collections in order to understand the natural variation within species. Universities and government agencies such as CSIRO have pursued other aspects including physiology and ecology and, more recently, genetics.

Natural history museums have also accumulated large collections of fossils, minerals and rocks. State departments responsible for mines, being more active than museums in geological exploration, have accumulated large collections of minerals. These have seldom found their way into museum collections. A notable exception was Sydney’s Geological and Mining Museum. Founded in the nineteenth century, the NSW government semi-privatised the museum in the 1980s — a failed experiment that led to its closure in 1996 and the dispersal of the collection (part of which went to the Australian Museum). The Australian government’s Geoscience Australia holds significant collections of minerals and fossils accumulated originally by the Bureau of Mineral Resources. There are similar situations with collections of fish being retained by fisheries departments. Unlike many natural history museums in other countries, plants are held by state herbaria and by the CSIRO National Herbarium rather than by museums.

Museums’ fossil collections — mainly of invertebrates — are substantial. Most research and exhibition interest in these has centred on bony fishes, reptiles, dinosaurs and mammals. Many museums have made displays of dinosaurs a centrepiece of their presentations, and recent discoveries of interesting reptiles and mammals in various parts of Australia have also been featured.

In spite of the increasing importance given to taxonomic information in environmental management, agriculture and business, support for research on taxonomy continues to decline, although the Australian Biological Resources Study — an Australian government initiative — has supported important research and publications since the 1980s. Doug Hoese reviews the major role that natural history museums may play in managing biodiversity by assisting government, industry and the wider community in their appreciation of the issues, and in shaping their contribution to securing the health of the natural environment.

Although the rapid decline of biodiversity is widely understood, state government funding for relevant research has been modest, and the little funding provided has been applied mainly to collection storage and maintenance. Research other than salary costs is funded by the Australian government that in 2010 — the International Year of Biodiversity — substantially reduced funding for biodiversity studies.

In the 1970s and 1980s there was a burgeoning of science centres in many countries. Acknowledging the importance of science to society and keen to adopt new forms of communication, these institutions provided ‘hands-on’ learning experiences. The growth of such centres peaked in Australia in the late 1990s, whilst other museums emulated this approach to exhibiting and interaction. However a number of science centres have since closed. Michael Gore and Sue Stocklmayer trace the history of the science centre museum movement in Australia.

Museums offer vital links to the community’s understanding of science, scientific research, the nature of theory, and the role of experimentation. Some of the most exciting and important science in the world is being pursued in Australia. However, the potential of science museums and science centres to contribute to the community’s understanding of scientific developments in Australia and abroad remains to be fully realised.

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Cite as: Des Griffin, 2011, 'Museums and science: Introduction', in Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien (eds), Understanding Museums: Australian Museums and Museology, National Museum of Australia, published online at
ISBN 978-1-876944-92-6