A short history of the mineralogy collection

Article | Updated 8 months ago

A rich hunting ground for prospectors and collectors, Western Australia has been a prolific source of new minerals and fine mineral specimens. Surprisingly, for one of Australia’s premier mining states, the mineral collection of the Western Australian Museum has had a chequered past. Placed in storage in the mid-1960s and inaccessible to the public for around twenty years, the collection was badly neglected. The history of the collection is a salutary lesson in what can happen to a public asset lacking curatorial responsibility. The mineral collection was eventually rescued by Ken McNamara, Curator of Palaeontology, from near-destruction in 1985, and today mineralogy flourishes at the Western Australian Museum.

Image of the main gallery at the Western Australian Museum circa 1890.

The main gallery at the Western Australian Museum circa 1890. The large specimen in the foreground is a mass of quartz with vein of gold from the Orient Mine; Murchison Goldfield, collected in 1892.
Reproduced with permission of the Battye Library, Library and Information Service of Western Australia 627P 

Early collectors

Observing the impact of the discovery of gold in New South Wales and Victoria in the late 1850s, and encouraged by a number of minor discoveries in Western Australia, in 1872 the Government of the then Swan River Colony offered a reward for the discovery of a payable goldfield within 300 miles of any of the Colony’s established ports. While this encouraged the search for gold by prospectors, surveys of the State remained preoccupied with the search for water and suitable pastoral land. Nevertheless, during the period 1842-1870, significant mineral discoveries were made by early pioneers. 

Image of the mineral Malachite with associated pyromorphite.

Malachite with associated pyromorphite from the Whim Creek Mine, Pilbara, Western Australia.
Image copyright Peter Downes 

Edward Townley Hardman, formerly of the Geological Survey of Ireland, was appointed as a geological consultant to the government from 1882-1885. Hardman undertook a major expedition to the Kimberley region in 1883 with the primary goal of assessing the region for gold and other minerals. To this end he made a representative collection of rocks and minerals. Following a second visit to the Kimberley, Hardman’s report on the geology of the region stimulated the search for gold in the area. This resulted in the discovery in 1885 of the first payable gold find in the Colony, on the Panton River, now near Hall’s Creek. 

The Geological Museum

In 1881, the Reverend Charles Grenfell Nicolay began a public collection of rocks, minerals and fossils housed in the Guard Room at the Fremantle convict establishment adjacent to Nicolay’s private residence. This pioneer mineral collection formed the basis of a ‘Geological Museum’ that rapidly underwent several name changes from the ‘Registry of Mines and Minerals’ to the ‘Registry of Minerals’ before settling on the ‘Geological Museum’.

The founding collection included gold specimens that were sent to the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London in 1886, unfortunately never to return.

Bringing the Geological Museum to greater public prominence, Nicolay’s collection was transferred from Fremantle to Perth in 1889 and housed in the room formerly used as High Court of Justice in the old Perth Gaol, today still a part of the Western Australian Museum.

Image of an opal

Opal, 3 cm across, from the Williams Opal Mine, Coolgardie, Western Australia.
Image copyright Alex Bevan 

Very shortly after the collection was relocated, the fabulous gold discoveries made first at Coolgardie (1892) and then at Kalgoorlie (1893) shot Western Australia to world prominence. Importantly, the government voted £50 per annum for the purchase of mineral specimens for the museum.

The boom years

The establishment of a permanent State Geological Survey in 1896 provided impetus for the collection of minerals. In addition, this was a very active time in Western Australian mining history and many specimens, notably of gold and tellurides, were added to the collection from mines in the Eastern Goldfields.

Image of Galena crystals

Galena crystals on quartz from Northampton, Western Australia. Specimen is 6.3 cm across.
Image copyright 
Peter Downes

Most of the specimens in the original ‘mineral’ collection were representative specimens of ores and rocks for research and comparison, rather than fine cabinet specimens. However, in the need to gain comparative material and fine specimens for exhibition, the Museum pursued a vigorous acquisition policy.

In the years leading up to the outbreak of the First World War (1911-1913) the Museum’s collection grew rapidly and nearly 2000 mineral specimens were accessioned, either by purchase or by exchanges. Despite the fact that no mineralogical research was being carried out at the Museum, throughout the 1920s and 30s the collection grew steadily. A notable donor was Edward Sydney Simpson, the Government Mineralogist and Asseyer (1897-1938) first at the Geological Survey of Western Australia and later at the Government Chemical Laboratories, who actively contributed to enhance the mineral collection. 

A collection in decline

The Museum’s ‘Mineral Gallery’ eventually housed more than 10,000 registered specimens and was a major public attraction. Although no mineralogy was practised by staff at the Museum, the geological displays were changed at various times and a proportion of the mineral collection remained on display until 1966. Later, while the Museum developed and maintained its excellence in palaeontology, greater emphasis was put on zoology and the humanities, and the mineral collection was largely ignored. 

Rejuvenation

A Museum redevelopment in the late 1960s saw the mineral galleries demolished and, lacking a mineral curator, the Museum’s collection of minerals was put in store. The Museum’s own smaller, but historically important, collection of minerals was not unpacked until 1985, when the Western Australian Museum appointed Alex Bevan, presently Head of Department Earth and Planetary Sciences, as its first-ever Curator of Mineralogy and Meteoritics.

Crudely stored in seventy-six ammunition boxes, the Museum’s mineral collection had suffered badly over the twenty years of storage. Several moves had damaged some specimens and others had become detached from their labels. However, painstaking curation over the next fifteen years restored the collection, and it is again actively managed. 

Image of Galena on marcasite.

Galena on marcasite from Cadjebut Mine, Kimberley, Western Australia. Largest crystals are 1 cm across.
Image copyright Peter Downes 

In 1995, the Simpson and Mineral Division collections of minerals were transferred from the then Government Chemical Laboratories to the Museum. Today, the Western Australian Museum mineral collections contain around 30,800 specimens of some 1,300 mineral species from more than 10,000 localities in Australia and the rest of the world.

Further Information

This article is based on a paper published by Dr Bevan and Dr Downes, curators of Minerals and Meteorites at the Western Australian Museum.

To find out more on the Western Australian Museum mineral collection, explore our photo gallery  or visit the collection highlights on the Museum website.

The interaction of the atmosphere and ground waters with mineral deposits over time has produced an exotic array of colourful minerals. Learn more about some hotspots for mineral diversity that have been revealed through mining in Western Australia in a talk presented by Dr Peter Downes.