Collecting the West and the NHM Petrology collection | Curator of Petrology

As part of “Collecting the West”, an Australian Research Council funded research project that is looking at what’s been collected from Western Australia and what these collections tell us about who Western Australians were, researchers Tiffany Shellam (History, Deakin University) and Alistair Paterson (Archaeology, University of Western Australia) studied the NHM petrology collection. One of the project partners is the British Museum, whose relationship to these early collections and shared history with the NHM is reflected in the catalogue code ‘B.M.’ seen on the specimens in these drawers.

Among the old wooden cabinets, storing historical specimens from around the world, they have encountered various early collections from the period 1818-1860.

The inspection of this collection of Western Australian specimens allowed the researchers to understand the reasons for collecting rock specimens and their findings were published in the article “A historical stratum of geological collections from Western Australia in the Natural History Museum, London” in the journal Studies in Western Australian History.

The Western Australian specimens, part of the NHM petrology collection, are stored in a series of drawers labelled ‘1911 Australia’ and ‘Geological Society Collections’. These drawers are interestingly described by the researchers as being like “the sedimentary layers of the earth, offer interesting strata of different collectors and collecting practices in Western Australia over a 40-year period from 1818-1860”.

The NHM Petrology collection has been of great help to the researchers, in their aim to understand the changing motivations for collecting geological specimens from Western Australia in the first half of the nineteenth century.

B.M. 1911,1557(7) ‘Petrified roots from subterranean forest Garden Island – n.b. broken off the rocks 9 feet above high water mark’, Thomas Hobbes Scott.
B.M. 1911,1557(4) ‘Limestone from Garden Island’, Thomas Hobbes Scott.

Among the collections mentioned in the paper stand out:  samples collected during Phillip Parker King’s hydrographic survey around the Australian coasts between 1817-22, the rock collection made by Thomas Hobbes Scott when he was stranded at Swan River in 1830, and a collection by early colonial surveyors F.T and J.W. Gregory, made between 1830-1860s. Another drawer contains rocks collected to gather evidence of the growing economic mineral value of Western Australia by gold discoverer, Edward Hammond Hargraves.

The presence of these specimens suggest that the colonial government directed the collecting of geological and other information through surveyors and explorers while the Geological Society and the Colonial Office in London continued to state their directives about geological collecting in Western Australia, particularly regarding the prospect of gold discovery.

B.M.1911,1559 (11) ‘Murchison River, Geraldine Mine’, Gregory brothers collection, NHM.

This study, beside allowing the ‘Collecting the West’ project to consider the various motivations for collecting the specimens, has revealed important connections such as Phillip Parker King’s connection to leading London-based geologist W. H. Fitton. This link allowed King’s geological specimens from Australia to be studied and utilised by Fitton as a method of good practice for future collectors, and where also used as a production of geological knowledge of Western Australia from London.

The authors concluded also that the existence of the geological assemblage ‘1911 Australia’ reveals changing motivations for the collection and observations of Western Australian geological specimens.

If you would like to know what specimens are available in our petrology collection, please look up our Data Portal, and if you would like to visit and see any of these fascinating items do get in touch with the Petrology curator at the Natural History Museum.