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Imogen walks in her forefather’s footsteps.

By: Patricia Egan, Category: Museullaneous, Date: 10 Oct 2016

Walking through the rooms lived in by her ancestor William Sheridan Wall, delighted 12 year old Imogen Fennessy.

Imogen Fennessy admiring a photo of her ancestor, Australian Museum Curator William Sheridan Wall

Imogen Fennessy admiring a photo of her ancestor, Australian Museum Curator William Sheridan Wall
Photographer: Patricia Egan © Australian Museum

We flocked to see the movie “Night at the Museum”, we pay to sleep over in the dinosaur exhibition and people happily party after hours at Jurassic Lounge but what would it be like to live in a museum?

William Sheridan Wall ‘Collector and Preserver of Specimens’ wrote to the Trustees of the Australian Museum in 1846 that though his duties had increased he had not had an increase in salary since his appointment in 1840. Acknowledging not only his curatorial functions but also his secretarial duties, especially with the construction of the Museum building, Wall was granted an increase in salary and a title reflective of his position. Soon though, his residential costs would also be part of his salary package.

Within a few years Wall and his family were the first residents of the Australian Museum living within several rooms at the front of the not yet completed building. Unfortunately no records enlighten us as to how Wall was managing his domestic affairs as his first wife died in 1847 leaving Wall with the care of their three children. No doubt his second marriage just prior to the completion of the remainder of the building in 1852 would have eased his domestic circumstances.

Little is known about the layout of the household rooms except that by 1852 Wall and his family along with the Messenger (J Leedom) and his family were ‘amply accommodated’ in the two floors and the basement of the Museum leaving a far smaller area for scientific activities, administrative tasks and meetings.

The kitchen, with an open hearth was in the basement and candles, kerosene, gas and of course the sun were the main sources of light. As the sewer was not attached the toilets were located in “the old wooden shed at the corner of the paddock” and a vegetable garden helped feed the families. As Wall retired from the Museum the year the water was laid on, 1858, his family would have been carting water for all their cleaning and washing needs. Undoubtedly the family considered their privacy compromised as they not only shared a front door with the Museum but access to the Museum’s mezzanine level was via the residential staircase.

Imogen, William Sheridan Wall's great, great, great, great granddaughter recently visited these rooms on a Museum Heritage Tour. Sharing her mother’s interest in family history Imogen & her mother visited the Archives where they regaled staff with family stories they have unearthed. Recalling Wall’s infamous expedition (australianmuseum.net.au/image/william-sheridan-wall-curator) and scientific achievements Imogen was asked what she would like to do when she grows up. Her answer, a forensic scientist, makes me ponder Wall’s legacy.