For most of the hundred-plus years this graphite elephant has been in the Powerhouse Museum’s collections it has been inextricably tied to the Garden Palace fire of 1882. The main reason for this has been the ongoing claims that the elephant was one of the only Museum objects to survive the flames. These claims have, over the years, increased its significance and given it a special place within the Museum’s collections. But research over the past few years has revealed a very complicated tale, and while this elephant has played a starring role, it is perhaps not quite as heroic as once thought.
When the fire broke out on 22 September 1882 the Museum’s collections were housed in the Garden Palace building waiting for the opening ceremony which had been scheduled in a few weeks time. The Powerhouse Museum (or Technological Museumas it was known then) was an offshoot of the hosting the ‘Great Exhibition’ in Sydney in 1879 and the museums collections were a perfect fit for the building.
In early 1880 a Museum Committee was appointed which included: Archibald Liversidge; Alfred Roberts; Robert Hunt and Mr. C. R. Buckland. Unfortunately by the time the committee received its 1000 pounds to acquire objects many of the best specimens had already been moved toMelbourneto be rehoused in the ‘Melbourne International Exhibition’. As a result the money only allowed them to purchase a few of the poorer specimens and display cases for the museum, even so by October 1880 there were around 5000 specimens housed in three courts in the old exhibition building.
According to newspaper accounts after the fire all that remained were a few bricks and the pillars of the four main entrances. The only object above the level of the main floor was a portion of the central fountain upon which the statue of the Queen stood. The loss to theTechnologicalMuseumwas devastating as everything, with the exception of a few badly twisted iron samples was destroyed.
Even so a number of stories began to emerge soon after the fire suggesting not all the objects the Museum had stored in the ‘Garden Palace’ had been destroyed. These ‘fire-survivors’ seem to fall into two distinct categories: objects collected by the museum which survived the fire, and objects collected from the site in the Domain by members of the public. It is clear from contemporary accounts that people were admitted to the site where and did take mementoes like bits of glass, bricks and even nails from the site. The Museum has since acquired some objects collected from the site of the fire but the graphite elephant was thought to be one of a very select number of objects from the first group.
However the contemporary claims that nothing survived the fire seem to be at odds with the Museum’s own claims that the elephant, and a few other select objects which included crucibles and iron wheel, survived the fire. Once we started researching this it became clear the Museum’s own records threw doubt upon these claims. Perhaps the most conclusive evidence for dispelling any questions about what survived the fire came from the Annual Report of the Committee for Management of the ‘Technological Industrial and Sanitary Museum’ for 1882 and submitted on the 3 April 1883.
As you can see the excerpt above it clearly states that only the heaviest of iron specimens survived, and surely by this time a graphite elephant that had survived the fire would have received a mention in this report tabled more than 6 months after the fire. Even if it had been picked up by some person scouring the ruins it seems likely something would have written about this miraculous event by this time.
So what are the earliest objects acquired by the museum which are still in the collection? This is easy enough to answer. They are parts of a donation of natural history specimens ordered before the fire from the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kewand which were accessioned in October 1882. Among the earliest items actually purchased by the Museum was a collection of Worcester ceramics, the vase below was the 136th object acquired by the reformed Museum.
It turns out the graphite elephant was the 6189th object acquired by the museum. And was purchased from a German mineral dealer F. Krantz in March 1884.
If this is the case where did the myth about the elephant surviving the fire come from? Well it appears to have sprung from the Museum itself, and not recently. In fact the earliest references I have come across where the museum is touting objects which survived the fire are over 100 years old.
For some reason it appears Museum staff singled out a group of objects as survivors of the fire and put them on display. In fact none of this group actually appears to have survived the fire and instead their selection appeared to have been based solely on the materials they were made from.
All of these objects, plumbago crucibles, iron-work and of course the graphite elephant are resistant to intense heat and appear to have been selected to illustrate this. Unfortunately the labels, which were painted onto the objects and can still be seen today, blatantly claim they survived the Garden Palace Fire.
Some of these claims, like the ones made by the label on a tram wheel above, must surely have raised the eye-brows of the public. This sectioned tram wheel was donated by Samuel Osborne & Company in June 1890, nearly eight years after the fire, and while made from crucible cast-steel was “cut away at top to reveal layers of papier-mache inside”
Thankfully we have the Museum’s own rigorous record management systems to fall back on. This means that even though 100 or so years elapsed since the original claims were made these anomalies could still be uncovered by working our way back though the accession and documentation records.
Geoff Barker, Curatorial, 2012
Baker, R. T., ‘Technological Museum’, in the Australian Technical Journal of Science and Art, Vol. 1, No. 2, 30 March, 1897
Commissioners of theSydneyInternational Exhibition, ‘Official Record of theSydneyInternational Exhibition1879’, Thomas Richards, Government Printer, Sydney 1881
Davison, G., Webber, K., Yesterday’s Tomorrows; the Powerhouse Museum and its Precursors 1880-2005, Powerhouse Publishing in association with the University of New South Wales Press, 2005
P., Proudfoot, R. Maguire, and R. Freestone (eds.), Colonial City Global City, Sydney’s International Exhibition 1879, Crossing Press, Sydney, 2000
Sydney Morning Herald, October 1880