From A-Z, the Chau Chak Wing Museum is full of fascinating objects and antiquities. Senior Curator of the Macleay Collections, Dr Jude Philp shares some of her favourites.
With a natural curiosity in arts and culture, Dr Jude Philp always wanted to be a curator. “When I studied art history and anthropology in the 80s, there wasn't a huge exploration of the material culture from non-European cultures,” she says.
With the Macleay Collections now housed in the Chau Chak Wing Museum, a space made possible by benefactors, including Dr Chau Chak Wing, Philp spends her days surrounded by incredible pieces of art, history and science.
Philp notes that to be a curator you need a good visual sense and to be a magpie for knowledge, which is why a favourite part of her job is the visitors. “They bring their own knowledge of butterflies or 19th century taxidermy,” she says. “It’s valuable information.”
The Macleay has everything from scientific instruments to fossils. But it was started as an insect collection by Alexander Macleay in 18th century London. It became one the most celebrated insect collections in Europe, and Macleay brought it with him to Australia in 1826. His descendants in NSW kept collecting before donating everything to the University in 1874. This is a Gryllus spinulosus, or whistle cricket and the oldest dated specimen in the collection. Its label says “A curious insect from Barbary, the only one known of its kind in England. Geo Edwards, 1756”.
Photography was volatile and complex technology in the early days and mostly carried out indoors by photographic businesses. It meant a lot of sitting still for a long time and sometimes babies were tied in place. The Macleay has a big photography collection representing the evolution of the technology. This glass plate positive image is incredible in its detail. Every bead on the magnificent gown is in sharp focus. In modern terms it’s about 110 megabytes of visual information, but it was taken in the 1890s.
If I had to choose a favourite this would be it (today anyway!). It looks like lace but it’s a meticulously presented alimentary canal of an echidna. In 1860s Germany, a zoologist, philosopher, physician, and artist called Ernst Haeckel (and others) changed how science was presented to the public. His work, (and specimens like this) was graphically powerful, and inspirational for the art nouveau movement. For me this is where science crosses over into art in the creation of intriguing aesthetic forms.
All we have in writing about this is a label from 1851 that says ‘N. S. Wales’, which is more than we know about some other Indigenous pieces we have. They were just taken with no record kept. It’s terrible that Indigenous people looking for their heritage objects can be disappointed, even angry, because we know so little about what we have. But today we’re working with Aboriginal peoples to know and understand more.
For eons, Aboriginal peoples have spoken of the bunyip, which lived in watery places bellowing out its call. In 1847, the press reported a strange one-eyed skull found in a river as evidence of the bunyip. William Sharp Macleay refuted this by using this very skull. He said both were European animals born with a skeletal variation, our skull being a one-eyed horse: in effect, a cyclopic horse. The river skull is now lost.