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Curios in endless variety
Bray’s currency was artefacts. Indeed, rather than a lyrebird, his museum’s emblem should have been a bower bird, given the eclectic range of his collecting. Advertisements lured customers to Bray’s Museum with the promise of ‘island curios in endless variety’, alongside human skulls, platypus furs, tortoise shells and ‘live venomous and non-venomous snakes’.
But with urban expansion erasing the traces of Sydney’s Indigenous and early settler heritage, a new antiquarian market emerged. As the colony of New South Wales approached its centenary in 1888, Bray found nostalgic buyers for old china, coins, carvings and ‘early Australian relics’, from paintings and books to convict chains.
Somewhere at the intersection of Bray’s interests as a naturalist, antiquarian, curator and shopkeeper came the records of colonial science. From age 11, when ‘Master James Bray’ donated the ‘nest and egg of a wren’ to the Australian Museum, he became close to its curator, Gerard Krefft. Following Krefft’s death in 1881, Bray came into possession of a range of his scientific effects, including handwritten articles and original artworks, several of which survive in the State Library’s collection.[i]
Nevertheless, because Bray’s own manuscripts range from a ‘living atom of creation’ to the ‘extraordinary appearance of the water in Sydney Harbour’, an undated item entitled simply ‘catalogue of Tasmanian plants’ seemed likely to be his own work.[ii] Emerging from storage, however, the catalogue was clearly not in Bray’s distinctive handwriting. Furthermore, referring to plant specimens collected in Van Diemen’s Land (as Tasmania was then known) in the 1830s, it preceded Bray’s birth by nearly two decades.