South Australian Museum

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South Australian Museum
Sa museum.jpg
The South Australian Museum, viewed from Adelaide's cultural boulevard, North Terrace.
Former name
South Australian Institute
LocationAdelaide, South Australia
TypeNatural history
Collection size4.84 million objects[1]
Visitors1.1 million[1]
DirectorBrian Oldman[1]
OwnerGovernment of South Australia
Employees<90 fte, >200 volunteers, students and Honoraries[2]
The Mortlock Library, part of the State Library of South Australia, forms the west side of the courtyard at the front of the South Australian Museum
South Australian Museum

The South Australian Museum is a natural history museum and research institution in Adelaide, South Australia, founded in 1856 and owned by the Government of South Australia. It occupies a complex of buildings on North Terrace in the cultural precinct of the Adelaide Parklands. Plans are under way to move much of its Australian Aboriginal cultural collection (the largest in the world), into a new National Gallery for Aboriginal Art and Cultures.


19th century[edit]

There had been earlier attempts at setting up mechanics' institutes in the colony, but they struggled to find buildings which could hold their library collections and provide spaces for lectures and entertainments. In 1856, the colonial government promised support for all institutes, in the form of provision the first government-funded purpose-built cultural institution building.[3][4] The South Australian Institute, incorporating a public library and a museum, was established in 1861[5] in the rented premises of the Library and Mechanics' Institute in King William Street while awaiting construction of the Institute building on the corner of North Terrace and Kintore Avenue.[6]

In June 1856 the South Australian Legislative Council passed Act No. 16 of 1855–6, the South Australian Institute Act (An Act to establish and incorporate an Institution to be called the South Australian Institute),[7][8] which incorporated the South Australian Institute under the control of a Board of Governors,[9] to whose ownership all materials belonging to the old Library and Mechanics' Institute was immediately transferred. The Act provided for a library and a museum as part of the new organisation.[9][10]

Frederick George Waterhouse offered his services as curator of the South Australian Institute Museum in June 1859 in an honorary capacity. When the Institute building was completed, the Board appointed him as the first curator, a position he held until his retirement in February 1882. He was succeeded by Wilhelm Haacke, who in January 1883 recommended the South Australian Institute Museum be renamed the South Australian Museum (which did not happen then), and the position of Curator be changed to Director. Haacke was appointed the first Director,[10] but only held the position until he resigned in October 1884 after a series of disputes with the Museum's management[11]

20th century[edit]

The Museum Act (1939) gave the South Australian Museum autonomy from the Art Gallery and Library, and the South Australian Institute Museum was officially renamed the South Australian Museum.[10][12] This legislation was superseded by the South Australian Museum Act (1976).[13][14] At some point between 1996 and 2002, the Museum became part of Arts SA.[15]

In 1997, championed by state Arts Minister Diana Laidlaw, the SA Museum was funded to develop its ground floor Australian Aboriginal Cultures Gallery.[16]

21st century[edit]

14 Pieces, based on the forms of ichthyosaur vertebrae.

The following decade, Mike Rann, Premier and Arts Minister from 2002 to 2011, funded the redevelopment of the Pacific Cultures Gallery and the development of the South Australian Biodiversity Gallery.[17] In October 2005, a piece of public art incorporating water, 14 Pieces, situated on the forecourt of the museum, was officially unveiled by the Premier. Created by artists Angela and Hossein Valamanesh and commissioned by the City of Adelaide, it replaced the Lavington Bonython fountain that had occupied the site from 1965. Its form is based on the vertebrae of an extinct marine reptile, the ichthyosaur.[18]

In 2011 Mr Rann appointed former Adelaide Lord Mayor and Education Minister Jane Lomax-Smith AM as chair of the Museum Board.[19]

In November 2020 Mr Kim Cheater was appointed as Chair of the Museum Board.[20]

Management and governance[edit]

The official role of the museum, as per the 2017/8 annual report, is:

...the conservation, study and appreciation of nature and culture for the benefit and enjoyment of current and future generations. The Museum's exhibitions, collections, programs and science research activities contribute to global understanding of human cultures and the natural world as well as supporting life-long learning in the community.[21]

Its vision is to "...use [its] world-class collections to create and share new knowledge, focusing on Australian Aboriginal and Pacific cultures, Earth and Life Sciences".[22]

The Director is as of April 2019 Brian Oldman (appointed December 2013).[23]

As a statutory corporation, management of the museum is prescribed under the South Australian Museum Act 1976 and State and Federal Government regulations. The museum was a division of Arts South Australia (previously Arts SA) within the Department of State Development until 2018.[21] After the election of the Marshall government in March 2018, the Arts Ministry was removed, Arts SA was dismantled and its functions were transferred to direct oversight by the Department of the Premier and Cabinet.[24]

The Board of eight people appointed by the Minister, chaired by Mr Kim Cheater, oversees the management of the Museum.[20]

New Aboriginal cultural centre[edit]

The South Australian government is committed to splitting the Museum, retaining a natural history museum on its existing site and creating a new gallery for Aboriginal art and culture on the site of the old Royal Adelaide Hospital,[25] now known as Lot Fourteen.[26] In early 2019 a consultation process was begun, involving the state government, the Museum, the Art Gallery of South Australia, the State Library, Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute and South Australia's Aboriginal communities, in particular the Kaurna.[27]

An update on the Lot Fourteen gallery was announced by Premier Steven Marshall in February 2020, with a scheduled completion date of 2023.[28]


The museum houses over four million objects and specimens. Permanent galleries include:[29]

  • Ancient Egypt
  • Australian Aboriginal Cultures
  • Australian Polar Collection
  • Ediacaran Fossils
  • Megafauna
  • Minerals and Meteorites
  • Opal Fossils, including gembones
  • Pacific Cultures
  • South Australian Biodiversity
  • Whales and Dolphins
  • World Mammals

Indigenous artefacts collection[edit]

The museum contains the most significant collection of Australian Aboriginal cultural artefacts in the world,[10] housing about 30,000 objects.[30] This collection, along with several others in the museum, is being digitised, with many images and a great deal of data about each item now available for online browsing.[31]

In 2016, a private benefactor, Margaret Davy AM, provided funding for a new position for an Indigenous curator for five years, which she requested be named in honour of her late husband, William Geary. This position is known as The William and Margaret Geary Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art and Material Culture, with the first appointee being Glenn Iseger-Pilkington, a Wadjarri, Nhanda and Nyoongar man from Western Australia with a background in art curating.[32] This was the first time in the history of the museum that a lead curatorial role had been designated for an Indigenous person, and it is hoped that the collection will be developed in a way informed by Indigenous voices and worldview, and also help to make it, in the words of Iseger-Pilkington, "more relevant and accessible to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities".[33]

The museum holds the biggest collection of carvings by Arrernte artist and anthropological interpreter Erlikilyika, also known as Jim Kite, who lived at the tiny and remote European settlement at Charlotte Waters telegraph station.[34] It also holds a bound sketchbook of 24 pencil drawings of native trees, created during the Spencer and Gillen expedition and bought by Herbert Basedow before being acquired by the Museum, as well as photographs of "Jimmy Kite" and other related materials.[35]

Repatriation of human remains[edit]

A new museum policy has committed to the repatriation of returning the ancestral remains of about 4600 Old People, currently held in storage at the museum, to Country. Some of the remains now being returned from overseas institutions were "collected" by men like former Museum Director Edward C. Stirling, University of Adelaide Professor Archibald Watson and physician and city coroner William Ramsay Smith (who also bought remains stolen from burial grounds at Hindmarsh Island). However these numbers are small when compared with the vast majority of the remains, which were disturbed by land clearing, construction projects or members of the public.[36]

An Aboriginal heritage and repatriation manager, Anna Russo, was appointed in 2018 as part of a wider restructure to make repatriation and Aboriginal agency a priority for the museum.[36] Kaurna elder Jeffrey Newchurch had been lobbying the museum for years, and SAM Head of Humanities John Carty said the Museum was one of the last cultural institutions in Australia to return ownership and management of ancestral remains to Aboriginal people.[37]

On 1 August 2019, the remains of 11 Kaurna people were laid to rest at a ceremony led by Newchurch at Kingston Park Coastal Reserve. Carty said the museum was "passionate" about working with the Kaurna people to repatriate their ancestors, and would also be helping to educate the community about what it means to Aboriginal people. The Museum continues to receive further remains, and together with the community would need to find a good solution to accommodate the many remains of Old People, such as a memorial park.[38]

Notable exhibitions[edit]

  • Waterhouse Art Prize exhibitions. The annual Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize, the richest prize for natural science art in Australia and named after the museum's first curator, has been awarded in most years since 2003.[39][40][41] Exhibitions of the work submitted for the prizes are held at the Museum.[42]
  • Traversing Antarctica: the Australian Experience (December 2013 – March 2014). Rare artefacts and displays highlighting the scientific, historical, and cultural legacy of Australia's interactions with Antarctica.[43]
  • Shimmer (October–November 2015). A collaborative exhibition with between JamFactory, the South Australian Museum and Tarnanthi, a national event held annually by the Art Gallery of South Australia to showcase Indigenous art and culture.[44]
  • Ngurra: Home in the Ngaanyatjarra Lands (October 2017 – January 2018) Ngurra is a word with complex connotations, meaning home, country, camp, birthplace and belonging. Showed the creativity and ingenuity of the Ngaanyatjarra people of Western Australia in all aspects of their life and art.[45] Curated by Glenn Iseger-Pilkington.[46]
  • "Yurtu Ardla" (March–June 2019). Yurtu Ardla means wood in the Nukunu and Adnyamathanha languages. The exhibition, curated by Jared Thomas, is a continuation of the Ku Arts workshop series in 2015, which consisted of carving camps by Nukunu (of the Southern Flinders Ranges) and Adnyamathanha (of the Northern Flinders and Gammon Ranges) and which revitalised the Nukunu carving practices. Before this exhibition, there were fewer than 20 known Nukunu objects held by the Museum, mostly made by Nukunu man Paddy Thompson and acquired by anthropologist Norman Tindale in the 1920s.[30] The specially commissioned piti (coolamon), thiparra (shields), wadna (boomerangs), yakadi (walking sticks) and wirri (clubs) have added to the historic items to illustrate the continuation of the tradition. Roy Coulthard is a third-generation carver in his family, who visits schools to share his knowledge. With this exhibition, SAM is adopting the practice of naming artists and identifying works for their individual artistry rather than their ethnic identity.[25]

People associated with the Museum[edit]



Partnerships and corporate sponsorships[edit]

Partnerships and sponsorships help the museum facilitate events, conduct research and develop exhibits.

Public sector partners have included the University of Adelaide, University of South Australia, Flinders University, the Botanic Gardens of South Australia, CSIRO and SARDI.[50] The museum also collaborates with national and international universities.[51]

Corporate partners have included the Adelaide Festival, the Adelaide Festival of Ideas, the Adelaide Film Festival, Australian Geographic, BHP, Beach Energy, Newmont and Santos[50][52]


Opal fossils at the South Australian Museum[edit]

See also[edit]

References and notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b c Annual report 2019-20 SA Museum. Retrieved 18 January 2021.
  2. ^ Our people SA Museum. Retrieved 18 January 2021.
  3. ^ "About Institutes of SA" (Video). Institutes of South Australia. 16 September 2021. Retrieved 3 January 2022.
  4. ^ Hancock, Joelie (Winter–Spring 2021). "Beginnings of Institutes in South Australia". Useful Knowledge. Mechanics' Institute of Victoria (55): 20–21. Retrieved 3 January 2022 – via Institutes of South Australia.
  5. ^ "South Australian Institute". South Australian Advertiser. 27 October 1863. p. 4. Retrieved 18 May 2019.
  6. ^ The Institute building was officially opened on 29 January 1861 and is still in use as part of the State Library of South Australia.
  7. ^ "SA Institute Act (No 16 of 19 Vic, 1855-6)". Australasian Legal Information Institute (AustLII). Retrieved 4 July 2020.
  8. ^ "The South Australian Institute". South Australian Register. Vol. XX, no. 3074. South Australia. 11 August 1856. p. 2. Retrieved 4 July 2020 – via National Library of Australia.
  9. ^ a b "History of the State Library of South Australia: Board members & legislation". State Library of South Australia. Retrieved 31 July 2019.
  10. ^ a b c d "A Potted History" (PDF). South Australian Museum. 2004. Archived from the original (PDF) on 25 April 2019. Retrieved 18 May 2019.
  11. ^ "The Museum Officials". South Australian Register. Vol. XLIX, no. 11, 835. South Australia. 18 October 1884. p. 4. Retrieved 19 May 2019 – via National Library of Australia.
  12. ^ "National Gallery of South Australia (Record ID 36484115)". Libraries Australia. Libraries Australia Authorities – Full view. Retrieved 30 July 2019.
  13. ^ "South Australian Museum Act 1976, Version: 12.5.2011" (PDF). Government of South Australia. 2011. Retrieved 30 July 2019.
  14. ^ "Museum Act 1976". Government of South Australia. Attorney-General's Dept. Retrieved 31 July 2019.
  15. ^ "Annual Report of the South Australian Museum Board: 2002–2003" (PDF). South Australian Museum. Retrieved 1 August 2019.
  16. ^ Edblog. "Artrave". Artlink. Retrieved 3 August 2019.
  17. ^ Annual Report of the South Australian Museum Board, 2008–2009 Accessed 10 September 2014.
  18. ^ Elton, Jude (7 January 2014). "14 Pieces". Adelaidia. Retrieved 9 February 2022.
  19. ^ Former Rann Cabinet minister Jane Lomax-Smith to chair South Australian Museum The Advertiser, 19 August 2011. Retrieved 10 September 2014.
  20. ^ a b Distinguished leader takes seat as new Chair of the South Australian Museum Board SA Museum. Retrieved 13 November 2020.
  21. ^ a b "2017–18 Annual Report for the South Australian Museum Board" (PDF). South Australian Museum. 25 September 2018. p. 4. Retrieved 24 April 2019.
  22. ^ "Mission & Vision". South Australian Museum. Retrieved 24 April 2019.
  23. ^ "South Australian Museum Board Announces New Director". South Australian Museum. 3 December 2013. Retrieved 24 April 2019.
  24. ^ "About arts and culture". South Australia. Dept of the Premier and Cabinet. 26 June 2019. Retrieved 27 July 2019.
  25. ^ a b Jorgensen, Darren (16 April 2019). "Yurtu Ardla". Artlink. Retrieved 18 May 2019.
  26. ^ "Lot Fourteen". RenewalSA. Retrieved 18 May 2019.
  27. ^ Richards, Stephanie (6 February 2019). "Consultation process begins for new Aboriginal art and culture gallery". InDaily. Retrieved 18 May 2019.
  28. ^ Richards, Stephanie (11 February 2020). "Marshall sets 2023 deadline for Aboriginal Cultural Centre". InDaily. Retrieved 12 February 2020.
  29. ^ "Museum galleries". South Australian Museum. Retrieved 24 April 2019.
  30. ^ a b Thomas, Jared (17 April 2019). "A celebration of Nukunu and Adnyamathanha wood carving: A shared vision". Adelaide Review (470). Retrieved 25 April 2019.
  31. ^ "Digital Collections". South Australian Museum. Retrieved 24 April 2019.
  32. ^ Gage, Nichola (3 September 2016). "First Aboriginal curator appointed to South Australian Museum, with benefactor's support". Australian Broadcasting Corporation News. Retrieved 26 April 2019.
  33. ^ Daly, Paul (3 September 2016). "An Indigenous curator for Indigenous artefacts: South Australia breaks new ground". The Guardian. Retrieved 26 April 2019.
  34. ^ Kelham, Megg (November 2010). "A Museum in Finke: An Aputula Heritage Project" (PDF). Territory Stories. pp. 1–97. Archived from the original (PDF) on 10 May 2019. Retrieved 11 May 2019. See Territory Stories for details of document.
  35. ^ "Series AA 108/01: Series of drawings of trees (with native names) by "Jimmy" a native of Alice Springs, C. A." South Australian Museum. Retrieved 19 May 2019.
  36. ^ a b Marsh, Walter (27 April 2019). "Why returning 4600 Old People to Country is the duty of all of South Australia". Adelaide Review. Retrieved 6 May 2019.
  37. ^ Campbell, Claire (23 March 2019). "Thousands of Aboriginal ancestral remains to be returned to communities". Australian Broadcasting Corporation News.
  38. ^ Sutton, Malcolm (1 August 2019). "Ancestral remains of the Kaurna people returned to country from UK in emotional Adelaide ceremony". ABC News. Radio Adelaide. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 1 August 2019.
  39. ^ Annual Report of the South Australian Museum Board, 2003–2004 Accessed 10 August 2011.
  40. ^ The Waterhouse Natural History Art Prize Accessed 10 August 2011. Archived 18 February 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  41. ^ "Waterhouse natural science art prize 2016". South Australian Museum. Retrieved 7 July 2017.
  42. ^ "Exhibitions". South Australian Museum. Retrieved 26 April 2019.
  43. ^ "Traversing Antarctica: the Australian Experience". South Australian Museum. Retrieved 26 April 2019.
  44. ^ "Shimmer". South Australian Museum. Retrieved 26 April 2019.
  45. ^ "NGURRA: Home in the Ngaanyatjarra Lands". South Australian museum. Retrieved 26 April 2019.
  46. ^ "Speakers: Glenn Iseger-Pilkington". Museums Aotearoa 2017 Conference. Retrieved 26 April 2019.
  47. ^ "Dr Philip Jones, Senior Curator, Anthropology". South Australian Museum. Retrieved 17 April 2019.
  48. ^ "Jared Thomas". Writers Week 2015. Archived from the original on 5 April 2015. Retrieved 25 April 2019.
  49. ^ "Dr Jared Thomas". South Australian Museum. Retrieved 25 April 2019.
  50. ^ a b "Annual report of the South Australian museum board 2013–2014" (PDF). Board of the South Australian Museum Annual Report. South Australian Museum: 6. 2014. ISSN 0814-2262.
  51. ^ "Government & university relations". South Australian Museum. Retrieved 25 April 2019.
  52. ^ "Palaentology Week at the SA Museum". Santos. 17 March 2010. Archived from the original on 5 February 2015. Retrieved 5 February 2015.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 34°55′15″S 138°36′11″E / 34.920783°S 138.603017°E / -34.920783; 138.603017