The many collections of Morton Allport

Morton Allport (1830-1878) was an avid naturalist. You may have seen his collection of bird’s eggs on display as part of our exhibition Bird Woman. The eggs are on loan from the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, where they form part of their natural history specimen collection.

So how did Morton’s collection of shells end up at the library?

Morton Allport’s egg collection – on loan from the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery September 2017 – January 2018

In 1895 Morton’s wife (Elizabeth Ritchie) wanted to give the collection of shells to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in her husband’s name. Her son Cecil believed the museum would break it up and dispose of the shells that were duplicates.

Cecil suggested to his mother that she give the shell collection to her grandson, Morton (1887-1916), when he became old enough to appreciate it.

Glass eyes for taxidermy, shells and pins

Morton’s shells are kept in a lovely 19th century Huon pine cabinet – it is most likely the same cabinet they were stored in during his lifetime. Within the drawers, the shells are stored in a variety of recycled containers – cigarette tins and candle boxes.

The collection demonstrates Morton’s passions for natural history collection. One of the drawers contains the needle he would have used for piercing and blowing eggs. It has pins for mounting insects and glass eyes used in taxidermy. These items help us to imagine the naturalist at work, how closely he interacted with his specimens.

As often happens with museum collections, the shells themselves have not been closely examined and described. Allport curator Ruth Mollison has recently taken an interest in the collection, and we took these photographs as a first step towards enabling their closer study.

Morton Allport’s shell collection. Drawer 1

Unfortunately the younger Morton died during the First World War. The shell collection passed to his brother, Henry Allport. When Henry donated his family’s collections to the State Library, curious items like this came along with it.

Whether or not natural history specimens should be kept within a library, there is something delightful about exploring a collection that has been kept in the same way for decades, centuries. Organised just as their original owners organised them. We might learn more about the collection from these contextual clues, or more about the collector and the world in which they lived.

Morton Allport’s shell collection. Drawer 21. Note the needle used for piercing and blowing eggs.

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Author: Jess Walters

Jess is an archivist with the State Library and Archive Service, and is an acting curator of the Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts.

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