Tate Museum attracts young scientists

The Tate Museum, at the University of Adelaide, is considered to be the largest and best Australian university geology museum.  Although established in the 1880s by Professor Ralph Tate, the foundation Elder Professor of Natural Sciences at the University (1875 – 1901), the Museum was named in his honour in 1902, after his death.  It was moved into its current location in the Department of Earth Sciences’ Mawson Laboratories in the early 1950s.  The history of the Museum, which is an important part of University Collections, has been well documented by Dr Barbara Kidman.

The extensive assemblage of minerals, meteorites, Antarctic rocks and memorabilia relating to Sir Douglas Mawson’s expeditions, as well as rocks and fossils that record important aspects of Australian and South Australian geology, are presently being catalogued and recorded using digital tools not available in past decades.  New displays are also being designed.  Much of the work is being undertaken by volunteers in lieu of a Museum Curator, a position that has not existed in the Mawson Laboratories for many years.

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Tate Museum with specimens housed in cabinets  matching those made for the first-generation of the museum in the 1880s.

Visitors to the Museum, which occupies a ‘foyer’ to the Mawson Lecture Theatre, include University students attending lectures, attendees at Learned Society meetings, parties of school students and off-the-street visitors. All express delight that a historical Museum such as this exists.  Research students and staff from within the University, and also overseas, are surprised at the breadth of the mineral and meteorite collections, and occasionally request subsamples for specific research purposes.  In this manner, the Museum has an ongoing role in assisting new research and, at the same time, receiving new data and information about its specimens.

Visits by parties of school students are especially noteworthy.  On Tuesday 8th May, twenty enthusiastic young (7-12years) Science Club students from the Woodcroft State School visited the Museum.  Dr Vic Gostin, who often hosts visitors to the Museum, talked to them about the work of Professor Ralph Tate, who studied and maintained collections of Type Specimens of molluscs (including fossil forms) found in South Australia.  As well, his analysis of the ancient glacial features on Fleurieu Peninsula eventually led to a total paradigm shift to ‘Plate Tectonic’ theory.  The students were encouraged to visit the Hallett Cove Conservation Park to view the scientific evidence.  Dr Gostin also pointed out the pioneering exploratory work of Sir Douglas Mawson in Antarctica, as illustrated by displays of his Antarctic specimens and memorabilia.

A special display of hand-sized meteorites and Australites enabled the students to ask questions and become aware of the asteroid/space connection.  Finally, they were allowed to handle and be photographed with the Nakhla Martian meteorite and so, in great excitement, ‘got their hands on another planet’!

The 90-minute visit of this keen group of Science Club students was peppered with exclamations and insightful questions, including many about the variety of spectacular minerals on display.

The Tate Museum and its collections are recognised by many visitors as an important University asset and scientists like Dr Gostin, who know of its history, say that it generates great interest and provides encouragement for current and potential future earth scientists.

Additional reading:

Kidman, B P (2015).  Ralph Tate, his Natural History Museum at the University of Adelaide and the ‘Tate Museum’.  Historical Records of Australian Science, 2015, 101-121. (CSIRO Publishing).

Dr Tony Milnes, Dr Vic Gostin

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