Catalogue of All Specimens of Natural History Collected by Mr Blandowski’s Party During an Expedition to the Lower Murray in 1857

Front cover of 'Catalogue of all Specimens on Natural History collected by Mr Blandowski's Party during an Expedition to the Lower Murray in 1857' by Gerard Krefft

Cropped image of Gerard Krefft’s handwritten cover of Catalogue of all Specimens of Natural History collected by Mr Blandowski’s Party during an Expedition to the Lower Murray in 1857 [referred to as Blandowski’s Catalogue]. Source: Museums Victoria Archives, ARCHIVE-784. Photographer: David Paul.

Blandowski’s Catalogue is one of the most precious items held by the Museums Victoria Archives. It documents natural history specimens collected by William Blandowski (1822-1878) and Gerard Krefft (1830-1881) for the National Museum of Victoria (predecessor of Museums Victoria) during an expedition along the Lower Murray and Darling River in 1857. The catalogue has become infamous to those studying the early history of the National Museum of Victoria due to Blandowski’s act of defiance against council members of the Philosophical Institute and Professor Frederick McCoy, the National Museum of Victoria’s first Director. Blandowski colourfully named and described members of the Philosophical Institute after Murray fishes, as well as refusing to handover many of the specimens collected on the expedition, and associated research notes and illustrations. Blandowski’s Catalogue has recently been digitised by BHL Australia and is now available to view online.

Black and white photograph of bearded man in overcoat, seated

Self portrait of William Blandowski, 1860. Source: National Gallery of Victoria. Photographer: William Blandowski.

Portrait of a man seated in a suit

Portrait of Gerard Krefft, 1855. Source: Australian Museum. Photographer: unknown.

Blandowski was appointed Government Zoologist in 1854 when the Museum of Natural and Economic Geology (precursor to the National Museum of Victoria, and Museums Victoria) was founded. He had migrated from the Kingdom of Prussia (now Poland) to Adelaide in 1849, then on to the goldfields of Victoria in 1851. Krefft, originally from Duchy of Brunswick (now Germany), immigrated to New York City circa 1850, then to Australia and the Victorian goldfields in 1852. Blandowski was entrusted with a second expedition to the Lower Murray; the first expedition in 1849 had failed under the leadership of Mr Surveyor White. Blandowski selected two assistants to accompany him on the expedition, Gerard Krefft and James Manson. Krefft was hired to collect and sketch specimens on the Lower Murray expedition, and subsequently appointed to catalogue the specimens at the National Museum of Victoria in 1858. The catalogue work Krefft was hired to complete in 1858 is documented in Blandowski’s Catalogue.

Encampment on a river with tents and other structures

Illustration of Blandowski’s expedition camp on the Murray River, Mondellimin, also known as Chaffey Landing at Merbein, Victoria, Australia, on the New South Wales border, 6 February 1858. Source: Museums Victoria reproduced from Illustrated Melbourne News.

Mondellimin, named by the Nyeri Nyeri Indigenous peoples, about 480 kilometres from Melbourne, also known as Chaffey Landing at Merbein, near Mildura, was the permanent campsite for the expedition from April to December 1857. “On the 6th of August he [Blandowski] left the camp in charge of Krefft and Manson and proceeded towards Melbourne with his valuable collections of specimens of natural history, which had been accumulating in his tent during his long sojourn at Mondellimin, to the extent of 28 boxes and parcels, containing in all about 16,000 specimens” (South Australian Register, 15 October 1857, p.3). Blandowski attributed the specimens acquired largely due to the collecting skills of the local Indigenous peoples and acknowledged the taxidermy work of Krefft and Manson.

Although it was reported that 16,000 specimens were collected, less than 3389 specimens were catalogued. Krefft catalogued specimens 1 to 3389, leaving some lines blank, recording specimen number, name of specimen, description of the specimen (although this was mostly left blank), number of specimens, locality whence obtained, donor’s name (also left blank), and remarks. Each specimen has geospatial information allowing scientists to pinpoint where the specimen occurred at a point in time, making the locality data documented in Blandowski’s Catalogue extremely valuable.

The colourful description of Blandowski’s infamous Murray fishes is a highlight of the Catalogue: “Sample N (named after a very prominent member of the Philosophical Institute Council, the Reverend Mr Bleasdale). Slimy, slippery fish. Lives in the mud. Is of a violent bluish colour on the belly. The whole upper surface is of a dirty olivish-green colour, with numerous irregular dark patches.” “Sample B (named after another very prominent member of the Council, Dr Eades). A fish easily recognised by its low forehead, big belly and sharp spine.”

Portrait of a bearded man, seated with a book open in his lap

Portrait of Sir Frederick McCoy, c.1870. Source: Museums Victoria, H29553. Photographer: Johnstone, O’Shannessy & Co. Studio.

Blandowski returned to Melbourne from the expedition in July 1857, four months before the rest of the party. To McCoy’s outrage, Blandowski did not return to the National Museum of Victoria (then located at the University of Melbourne, Parkville campus), and held on to field notes, many of the specimens collected on the expedition, and illustrations from the expedition. The matter was brought before the Board of Science, McCoy wrote to the Chief Secretary on 28 April 1858 (MV Archives OS~04400): “…Mr Blandowski should be compelled to give up at once all specimens, books, journals and field observations, and the portfolio of several hundred drawings made by the party under his orders, and all illustrative lists and memoranda connected with the Public Collections, the property of the Victorian Government.”

Although many of the 16,000 specimens collected were never returned to the Museum, hundreds of specimens are held in the Museums Victoria State Collection to this day. To view the specimens online, visit Museums Victoria Collections website.

a person with fair skin in a black hat and black shirt with bright red lipstick.
Written by

Nik McGrath is archivist at Museums Victoria. She has a master's degree in Information Management and Cultural Heritage. Prior to her work at Melbourne Museum, Nik worked at a variety of institutions including ABC Archives, University of Melbourne Archives, and the Duldig Studio, working on predominantly audiovisual and photographic archive collections.