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Walcott, Richard Henry (1870–1936)

by Carolyn Rasmussen

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Richard Henry Walcott (1870-1936), mineralogist and museum curator, was born on 30 September 1870 at Dunedin, New Zealand, son of James Alexander Walcott, merchant, and his wife Catherine, née Russell. After three years study at the University of Otago, Henry obtained a diploma (1891) as associate of the School of Mines. In 1892 he attended more university classes 'simply for the love of it, and a desire to improve my knowledge'. Walcott was appointed mineralogist at the Industrial and Technological Museum in Melbourne on 5 January 1893; his enthusiastic referees included Professor G. H. F. Ulrich, the museum's first mineralogist. After Cosmo Newbery died in 1895, Walcott succeeded him as the museum's senior officer. On 28 September 1898 at St George's Church of England, Malvern, he married Jane Elizabeth Moore.

When the Industrial and Technological Museum was closed to make room for the collections of the National Museum of Victoria in 1900, Walcott was transferred there with the geological and mineralogical collection, on which he continued to work. He added care of the ethnological section to his duties and worked closely with (Sir Walter) Baldwin Spencer in the development and display of that collection. Among his publications was a paper describing Victorian meteorites and one with Spencer on the origin of cuts on bones of extinct Australian marsupials. Although taking primary responsibility for the Pacific collection, he also accompanied Spencer on some field trips and contributed geological expertise to analysis and dating of the findings.

Throughout this period Walcott's assiduous work behind the scenes to have the Industrial and Technological Museum reopened attracted the influential support of George Swinburne and (Sir) John Monash on the eve of World War I. He resumed full-time duties as curator in 1914 to prepare for the museum's reopening, which occurred on 17 May next year. Characterized by systematic presentation of exhibits drawn from various branches of engineering, applied science, industry and agriculture, the museum (later Science Museum of Victoria) earned considerable praise in the 1920s. Much of its content was skilfully garnered by Walcott through donations and, as sole professional officer, there were few tasks he did not undertake himself.

A fellow of the Royal Geological Society, London, in 1897 he was elected a member of the Royal Society of Victoria, on whose council he served from 1900 until 1916, when he began to devote himself exclusively to the museum. Walcott was a 'tall, slim man with a moustache who looked at the world, quietly and unassumingly, through thick glasses'; his deep intellectual curiosity and commitment to public education through effective museum displays stood him in good stead through the institution's fluctuating fortunes until he retired in 1935.

Predeceased by his wife, Walcott died of hypertension and heart failure on 9 October 1936 at Caulfield and was buried in St Kilda cemetery. A daughter survived him. His estate was sworn for probate at £9518; he bequeathed funds in trust for the education of his daughter's children, but 'not in any school of Roman Catholic denomination'. The Science Museum of Victoria was incorporated into the Museum of Victoria in 1983.

Select Bibliography

  • W. Perry, The Science Museum of Victoria (Melb, 1972)
  • D. J. Mulvaney and J. H. Calaby, ‘So Much That is New’ (Melb, 1985)
  • C. Rasmussen, A Museum for the People (Melb, 2001)
  • Industrial and Technological Museum, Annual Report, 1908, 1914, 1926
  • Argus (Melbourne), 28 Sept 1935, p 22
  • Royal Society of Victoria, Council minutes, 10 Aug 1933, 14 Sept 1933 (State Library of Victoria).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Carolyn Rasmussen, 'Walcott, Richard Henry (1870–1936)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/walcott-richard-henry-13232/text5503, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 17 December 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

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