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I’ve always been intrigued by cabinets of curiosities, those precursors of grand museums, and the repositories of passion for the natural world. They’ve been called microcosms of the world and a memory theatre, both fertile metaphors. For princes they were yet another measure of power and control, for scholars they represented knowledge and an attempt to categorise the world as a way of understanding it. The cabinet itself was often a thing of consummate craft and beauty. At this point I think of the story of Governor Lachlan Macquarie’s collector’s chest.

Once upon a time, 1818 it was, Captain James Wallis, in charge of Newcastle settlement for reoffending convicts, had an idea. Macquarie was finishing his term and returning to England. Wallis decided to make him a cabinet, the design based initially on military campaign chests lugged around by serving officers to hold their possessions. But this chest would be special. He found four convict craftsmen to work the red cedar and rosewood, and employed forger and artist Joseph Lycett to paint panels. Then he filled it with Antipodean wonders and presented it to his boss.

Macquarie’s return to England was not a happy one. His vision for the colony didn’t sit well with the English government: too much grandeur and too much spending. He ended his days embittered in Scotland and the chest disappeared.

Until it reappeared in rumours in the 1980s: stories of a chest in a junk room at Strathallan Castle. A man visited the castle on the off-chance of finding something, making his way there in the village taxi which doubled as a hearse. He left with photos, and in 2004 it was bought by the NSW State Library for more than $1million, after a message that said “Come in 30 minutes if you want the first option to buy.”

The curator, Elizabeth Ellis, was alone when she opened it after the purchase. She describes it as very plain, with recessed brass handles. Until you begin opening the lids and taking out the drawers. Then it is all brightness: the colours of the paint, the bright parrots and other birds, some of them now rare; butterflies and moths arranged around the centrepiece of a huntsman spider; and trays of shells.

In our shell collecting days, J made such a cabinet, a basic one out of plywood, painted a not so subtle purple (the paint looked a fetching shade of grey at point of purchase) to house the hundred species of shells we found on local beaches and in shelly coves. In making this he was following a tradition as old as the late 15th century, the preserve of nobles (which we aren’t) or enthusiasts (which we definitely are). Now I reduce the notion of a cabinet of curiosities even further, and offer shells arranged in virtual compartments.

Coda

Overspending was not Macquarie’s worst crime by any means. He sent Wallis off on one of the first massacres of Aboriginal people, and in one of those twists of history and human nature, Wallis later became good friend and hunting and fishing companion to Burrugun Jack, whom he deeply respected.

The source of the information about Macquarie’s chest was a radio interview with Elizabeth Ellis. There is a longer interview here, and you can see the chest on YouTube.