A Snapshot of the Past – the Gulgong Holtermann Museum

In an effort to kick myself out of the Covid19 doldrums, I read myself the Riot Act and wrote a long list of all the fabulous things I should be seeing and doing in my own backyard.

And, the Holtermann Museum in Gulgong is a F-A-B-U-L-O-U-S discovery in my own backyard.

Yes, museums are not everyone’s cuppa tea, but this little one is a must-see.

The establishment of the Holtermann Museum has been a labour of love for a hardy bunch of Gulgong history buffs and volunteers. So proud of their heritage are these folk, that they couldn’t let the Holtermann story go untold.

1873 photograph of Henry Beaufoy Merlin
Henry Beaufoy Merlin – 1873

Time to cast our minds back to 1872…

Henry Beaufoy Merlin was a talented and successful studio and landscape photographer in colonial Sydney until he decided to throw all that in and head out into the wilds of remote New South Wales to photograph the hardy souls who populated the fledgling villages and towns. As many of these settlements developed off the base of a frantic gold rush, Gulgong just had to be on his list of subject matter.

Gold was first discovered in Gulgong in 1870 transforming the native bush into bare paddocks and then into a bustling mining town of 12 000 people – all within one year. As the golden riches were separated from the earth, all manner of shops, suppliers, and sources of cultured entertainment sprang up to support the miners and, in turn, separate them from their sprinkles of gold. (NB: Between 1851 and 1871 the population of the Australian colonies quadrupled from 430 000 to 1 700 000 as people arrived in this country with dreams of striking it rich in the goldfields.)

Beaufoy Merlin photographed the thriving community of Gulgong using the early collodion wet plate method of photography. His horse-drawn caravan moved from remote community to even remoter community capturing all the beauty and harshness of pioneer life on large plate-glass negatives.

Holtermann Nugget
Holtermann with his nugget, although this image was photoshopped from two separate photos. Source: Wikipedia

The work of Beaufoy Merlin and his offsider, Charles Bayliss, soon caught the eye of Bernhard Otto Holtermann, a gold miner who had discovered the astounding Holtermann nugget at the Hill End gold diggings (the nugget weighed in at 285kg and is valued in today’s money at a cool $5.4million). Holtermann became the photographers’ patron and encouraged them to travel further afield and take even more photographs.

Beaufoy Merlin and Bayliss’ photographs were on quarter size glass plates which were 83mm x 108mm and each print was the same size as the negative. The prints were then trimmed and mounted on card, and were presented to people as carte de visite.

All this astonishing work was pretty much lost to history until 1951 when 3 500 glass plate negatives were found neatly stacked in a backyard shed of a suburban home in Chatswood (a suburb of Sydney). The Holtermann Collection had been rediscovered.

If you are history lover or a photography buff you will be dazzled as you step through the front doors of this little museum. And, it is only small – just three main rooms, but what it contains is simply fascinating and completely entrancing.

The clarity of the photos is incredible and I was astounded by the detail you could see – from the dilapidated footwear worn by the miners to the loaves of bread in the baker’s window.

I just love everything about this museum. The interactive digital displays show the layout of Gulgong’s streets, which follow the original ragtag direction of the miner’s paths. The photos provide such an insight into both the economy and social history of the place, revealing the starkness of daily life and the efforts of the residents to retain their individual dignity and pride as they pose in their ‘best’ frock or suit, and yet are barefoot.

How good would it be to step into a time machine and transport yourself back to these times? Even just for a day?

As I mentioned previously, this museum had been in the planning stage for a very long time. The local Gulgong community worked hard to raise funds to develop it and lobbied the government for additional financial support. They also worked closely with the State Library of NSW who hold the collection of glass negatives in safekeeping. The project’s long gestation process has led to a well-thought-out and well-planned exhibition space with displays and imagery that capture the attention of young and old alike.

Gold miners photos taken by Henry Beaufoy Merlin in the gold rush days of Gulgong

It just shows what can be achieved when there is enough passion and determination. The people behind the development of the Museum are heartily congratulated for bringing history to life.

What ‘pocket rocket’ museums do you recommend?

The Basics

What: Entry fees are $10 for Adults, $5 for children and concession and family tickets are available.

Photos taken by Henry Beaufoy Merlin in the gold rush days of Gulgong

Where: 125 Mayne Street, Gulgong. About 4.5 hours drive north-west of Sydney.

When: The Museum is open seven days except for the main public holidays. Allow yourself at least one hour to visit and even longer if you love history and photography.

Why: To be dazzled by the imagery and insight into times long past.

How: You will need a car to get to Gulgong as there is only very limited public transport. Pick up a walking map of Gulgong from the Museum, which will then take you to some of the original buildings featured in the exhibition.

Who: Amateur historians, curious children and photographers. There is a large glass-shelf display of old cameras which is sure to please.

Related Posts: Wondering what else there is to do in the Mudgee region? Set your stopwatch and see what you can cram into a 48-hour visit.

Photos taken by Henry Beaufoy Merlin in the gold rush days of Gulgong

Related Blogs: Feel the urge to explore some gold fields and perhaps find your own sprinkling of yellow? See what is on offer in the gold-rich state of Victoria.

Read About It: For explore the Australian gold rush from the comfort of your own home grab a copy of David Hill’s epic tome The Gold Rush. Go straight to Book Depository.

#gulgong #travelinspo #museums #holtermannmuseum #australianhistory #goldrush  #history #visitmudgeeregion #photography

11 thoughts on “A Snapshot of the Past – the Gulgong Holtermann Museum

  1. Girl in Niagara November 18, 2020 / 12:59 pm

    What an interesting place and yes, wouldn’t it be great to step back in time, for just one day.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. TheRamblingWombat November 18, 2020 / 8:00 pm

    Up front sorry for a couple of links to my blog… hope you don’t mind.

    As usual a very interesting post… I love looking at old photos like this and as such I would love this museum.. It reminded me a similar (though more informal and smaller) museum in Gundagai which displays the work of the local doctor, Dr Charles Louis Gabriel, from around the same time. Perhaps you have visited it ? https://ramblingwombat.wordpress.com/2017/11/10/the-gabriel-gallery/

    Also, are you aware of the origin of thesaying ‘reading the Riot Act? As you have capitalised it I expect you are but just in case https://ramblingwombat.wordpress.com/2017/09/10/reading-the-riot-act/

    Liked by 1 person

  3. margaret21 November 18, 2020 / 8:52 pm

    I love these slightly quirky off-the-radar museums that have the added bonus often of having enthusiastic staff keen to share their passion.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Life...One Big Adventure November 21, 2020 / 9:12 am

      Agreed. Many years ago I stumbled into the tiny Confederate museum in Greenville, South Carolina and I swear the museum attendant had just stepped out of the Civil War AND he was all set to recruit me to the Daughters of America! 🙂 Very memorable.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. rkrontheroad November 19, 2020 / 2:16 am

    Photography required such skill in the early days, the equipment, developing, printing. That is a history in itself.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Life...One Big Adventure November 21, 2020 / 8:30 am

      I can only imagine how hard it would have been travelling from gold field to gold field in a horse and cart, over rough and ready dirt tracks with all their camera gear. And how they did that without breaking the huge glass plates, I have no idea. All amazing history as you say. Thanks for reading, Mel

      Liked by 1 person

  5. The Travel Architect November 20, 2020 / 11:28 pm

    Ah yes, the “no smiles” era of photography. We had that here in the US, too. 🙂

    In that top pictures (with his nugget – a word that, to my ear at least, doesn’t seem to fit given its enormity) I thought he was standing next to a miniature Christmas tree.

    Makes you wonder how many other undiscovered treasures of history are sitting in people’s sheds/basements/attics/garages all over the world.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Life...One Big Adventure November 21, 2020 / 8:25 am

      Yes, the photo of the nugget is photo-shopped, or the equivalent of photo-shop of the day. The nugget actually was that big and Mr Holtermann was added later. No wonder he had money to burn!

      Liked by 1 person

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