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Corporate entry Royal Polytechnic Institute and Museum of Natural History and Science (1862 - 1869)

Bourke Street, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Bourke Street, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Collector, Education, Museum and Science Communication
Alternative Names
  • Melbourne Polytechnic


The Royal Polytechnic Institute and Museum of Natural History and Science also known as Melbourne Polytechnic was founded in 1862 by medical practitioner Dr Louis Lawrence Smith.


The Melbourne Polytechnic was a venue for education and entertainment operating in Bourke Street, Melbourne between 1862 and 1869. Unlike other cultural institutions operating in Melbourne at the time which were often more focused on serious and sombre learning, the Melbourne Polytechnic explicitly aimed to serve as a source of amusement and entertainment. The Geelong Advertiser published an article on Monday the 7th of September 1863 describing an upcoming lecture at the Melbourne Polytechnic as 'designed for entertainment, is to lay claim to scientific correctness, without scientific aridity'.

It also targeted its lectures, displays, and exhibits at a mixed audience, making itself more accessible to children, families, and people with varying levels of education. Topics of the lectures ranged from human health to chemistry and electricity. These lectures were often interactive and sometimes included live experiments. The displays and exhibits included a partial planetarium, working steam engine, large scale papier-mache models of insects, a collection of coins, geological samples and native Australian animals.

One of the reasons cited for the Melbourne Polytechnic's demise only seven years after it opened was an attached museum (for adults only) that provided anatomical wax displays. Some of these displays and other material dealt explicitly and openly with information about human reproduction and sexually transmitted diseases. This focus isn't too surprising as the Museum Founder Doctor Louis Lawrence Smith was known for his work on sexually health and what was described at the time as venereal disease.

A second less controversial reason given for the closure of the Melbourne Polytechnic was funding. The 1 shilling admission charge was believed to be too expensive by many Melbournians. A newspaper article published on page 8 of the Telegraph on 4 September 1869 illuminates the taboo surrounding anatomical museums at the time.

'By an announcement 'of the daily journals he [Dr. Smith] makes it known that, "from what he has heard of anatomical museums and their associations, he has closed his own." Better late than never, certainly. Only I could have wished this light had come to him sooner. Valuable as such exhibitions may be for scientific 'purposes, as public exhibitions they have been an unmitigated curse.'

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Elizabeth Daniels