The role that various scientific societies played in the early life of the colony of New South Wales is briefly reviewed. It is suggested that one of the reasons that was instrumental in the formation of these societies and in the establishment of the Australian Museum in 1827 was the diverse and apparently bizarre biota that engaged these early colonists. This is even more remarkable, given that the colony was initially established as a penal settlement. A brief history of each of the scientific societies is given as well as the development of the Royal Botanical Gardens and Taronga Zoo in Sydney. The paper then focuses in detail on the development of the Australian Museum from its initial beginnings as the Colonial Museum to its current role as one of the leading museums with its extensive collections which document Australia’s animal biodiversity and cultural heritage. A chronological discussion is given of the staff appointed from the museum’s inception to the present, together with their interests, which were initially natural history and anthropology, to the current staff who are involved in systematics and phylogeny of various groups using morphological and molecular techniques. Finally the problem of declining taxonomic expertise in Australia is discussed and how this can be addressed.
Key words: scientific societies, natural history, Australian Museum, gentleman natural historians