A people learning: Colonial Victorians and their public museums, 1860-1880
by Kathleen Fennessy, Australian Scholarly Press, 2007.
ISBN: 9781740971751. RRP A$39.95

review by Susannah Helman
A people learning book cover

Kathleen Fennessy has written a focused, sleek and elegant study based on a wide range of primary research. Its five chapters examine the colony of Victoria's five major public cultural institutions between 1860 and 1880 and the way they 'developed as sites for the people's learning' (p. 3), as 'places where people took pleasure in learning both as a purposeful and serious activity and as an enjoyable recreation' (p. 206). Her primary focus is the educational role of the 'Institution' (as the Public Library, National Museum, National Gallery, and Industrial and Technological Museum were then jointly known) and the Botanic and Zoological Gardens. She argues that they 'provided all the people with means for individual self-improvement. At the same time, they cultivated civic values and promoted the colony's economic growth' (p. 3).

While others have, often lavishly, covered the history and collections of Melbourne's major cultural institutions separately, hers is the first to study them as organs of the body they were during this period. Although each chapter examines a different institution, there is an overall cohesion that only such a study can achieve. Familiar figures like Sir Redmond Barry and Augustus Tulk of the Public Library, Frederick McCoy of the Museum and Baron Ferdinand Von Mueller of the Botanic Gardens pop in and out of the various chapters, adding to the unifying effect. Fennessy overviews each institution's educational function, aims and aspirations, contemporary debates about their directions, and how visitors used and reacted to them.

With 50 pages of notes, and a 51-page bibliography, the book is obviously based on copious research. Fennessy draws on public records (particularly those of the individual institutions now at the Public Record Office of Victoria), contemporary manuscripts, government reports, lectures, newspapers, journals and private travel accounts. This rich contemporary material gives an immediacy to each chapter, placing the reader among the debates, reports and accounts to great effect, and making reading this book an enjoyable immersive experience.

It is hard to forget many images Fennessy's evidence conjures. About the Public Library, now the State Library of Victoria, she writes vividly of its commitment to accessibility, overcrowding during winter in the 1860s, the experiences of the people who used it and how the library packed its books for their equivalent of interlibrary loans in the 1870s. In the museum chapter, the same goes for the collection's mining models and the excitement caused by the entry of the taxidermied Central African gorilla specimens in 1865 and McCoy's efforts to use them in his own anti-Darwinian arguments. Of the National Gallery, highlights include how Fennessy captures debates about its educational purpose, complaints about student copyists obstructing access and passageways and the dissection of a contemporary engraving of visitors to the gallery from the Australasian Sketcher (pp. 91–2). About the Botanic Gardens, she handles the different philosophical and educational approaches taken by its director Ferdinand von Mueller and his successor William Guilfoyle well. Finally, I particularly enjoyed her treatment of the Zoological Gardens' director Albert Le Souef and his guidebook.

Accessibly and stylishly written, the book becomes increasingly lyrical. Despite its appealing prose, it does assume some familiarity with Melbourne and the institutions discussed. There are no maps of Melbourne or plans of the institutions. More personal information about the figures mentioned might have further humanised them and increased the book's accessibility.

Yet in examining these institutions one after another, drawing subtle links between them, it becomes clear that Fennessy is focusing on how people experienced these institutions during this short period. The great success of this book is that the reader understands what opportunities for learning were available at each institution. I found that Fennessy really gets into her stride in chapters two and five, which are about the museum and the Botanic and Zoological Gardens respectively.

My only reservation — and it is a personal preference if anything — is that I like to know upfront from where, from whom and from what period quotations are coming. Throughout her text, Fennessy has integrated small quotations so seamlessly that I cannot always answer these questions without referring to the endnotes. At the same time, these lively quotations and the way they are used give the book a quirky tone.

It is the ideal book for people who like to read on the run. Its size and shape are agreeably portable, its pages spaciously set and its paperback binding robust. The illustrations could have been higher quality prints, or perhaps reoriented so their size could have been maximised, but as they are, they resonate well with the sources Fennessy uses in the text.

It is a valuable addition to the literature.

Susannah Helman is assistant curator, Exhibitions, at the National Library of Australia.