Inside the Collection

Museum Mythbusters – the graphite elephant story

Graphite Sculpted Elephant 1884
Sculpted Elephant, carved from graphite, purchased from F Krantz, 1884, Powerhouse Museum, 6189

For most of the hundred-plus years this graphite elephant has been in the Powerhouse Museum’s collections it has been inextricably tied to the Garden Palace fire of 1882. The main reason for this has been the ongoing claims that the elephant was one of the only Museum objects to survive the flames. These claims have, over the years, increased its significance and given it a special place within the Museum’s collections. But research over the past few years has revealed a very complicated tale, and while this elephant has played a starring role, it is perhaps not quite as heroic as once thought.

When the fire broke out on 22 September 1882 the Museum’s collections were housed in the Garden Palace building waiting for the opening ceremony which had been scheduled in a few weeks time. The Powerhouse Museum (or Technological Museumas it was known then) was an offshoot of the hosting the ‘Great Exhibition’ in Sydney in 1879 and the museums collections were a perfect fit for the building.

In early 1880 a Museum Committee was appointed which included: Archibald Liversidge; Alfred Roberts; Robert Hunt and Mr. C. R. Buckland.  Unfortunately by the time the committee received its 1000 pounds to acquire objects many of the best specimens had already been moved toMelbourneto be rehoused in the ‘Melbourne International Exhibition’. As a result the money only allowed them to purchase a few of the poorer specimens and display cases for the museum, even so by October 1880 there were around 5000 specimens housed in three courts in the old exhibition building.

According to newspaper accounts after the fire all that remained were a few bricks and the pillars of the four main entrances. The only object above the level of the main floor was a portion of the central fountain upon which the statue of the Queen stood. The loss to theTechnologicalMuseumwas devastating as everything, with the exception of a few badly twisted iron samples was destroyed.

Even so a number of stories began to emerge soon after the fire suggesting not all the objects the Museum had stored in the ‘Garden Palace’ had been destroyed. These ‘fire-survivors’ seem to fall into two distinct categories: objects collected by the museum which survived the fire, and objects collected from the site in the Domain by members of the public. It is clear from contemporary accounts that people were admitted to the site where and did take mementoes like bits of glass, bricks and even nails from the site. The Museum has since acquired some objects collected from the site of the fire but the graphite elephant was thought to be one of a very select number of objects from the first group.

However the contemporary claims that nothing survived the fire seem to be at odds with the Museum’s own claims that the elephant, and a few other select objects which included crucibles and iron wheel, survived the fire. Once we started researching this it became clear the Museum’s own records threw doubt upon these claims. Perhaps the most conclusive evidence for dispelling any questions about what survived the fire came from the Annual Report of the Committee for Management of the ‘Technological Industrial and Sanitary Museum’ for 1882 and submitted on the 3 April 1883.

Detail of excerpt from the Report of the Committee for Management of the Technological Industrial and Sanitary Museum 1882
Excerpt from the Report of the Committee for Management of the Technological Industrial and Sanitary Museum for 1882, 3 April 1883., Research Library, Powerhouse Museum

As you can see the excerpt above it clearly states that only the heaviest of iron specimens survived, and surely by this time a graphite elephant that had survived the fire would have received a mention in this report tabled more than 6 months after the fire. Even if it had been picked up by some person scouring the ruins it seems likely something would have written about this miraculous event by this time.

So what are the earliest objects acquired by the museum which are still in the collection? This is easy enough to answer. They are parts of a donation of natural history specimens ordered before the fire from the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kewand which were accessioned in October 1882. Among the earliest items actually purchased by the Museum was a collection of Worcester ceramics, the vase below was the 136th object acquired by the reformed Museum.

Vase, Worcester porcelain vase, basket finish, 1882
Vase, Worcester porcelain vase, basket finish, 1882, PowerhouseMuseum, 136

It turns out the graphite elephant was the 6189th object acquired by the museum. And was purchased from a German mineral dealer F. Krantz in March 1884.

If this is the case where did the myth about the elephant surviving the fire come from? Well it appears to have sprung from the Museum itself, and not recently. In fact the earliest references I have come across where the museum is touting objects which survived the fire are over 100 years old.

For some reason it appears Museum staff singled out a group of objects as survivors of the fire and put them on display. In fact none of this group actually appears to have survived the fire and instead their selection appeared to have been based solely on the materials they were made from.

All of these objects, plumbago crucibles, iron-work and of course the graphite elephant are resistant to intense heat and appear to have been selected to illustrate this. Unfortunately the labels, which were painted onto the objects and can still be seen today, blatantly claim they survived the Garden Palace Fire.

Papier-mache tram wheel, with steel & iron plates, 1890-1895
Papier-mache tram wheel, with steel & iron plates, 1890-1895, Powerhouse Museum B45

Some of these claims, like the ones made by the label on a tram wheel above, must surely have raised the eye-brows of the public. This sectioned tram wheel was donated by Samuel Osborne & Company in June 1890, nearly eight years after the fire, and while made from crucible cast-steel was “cut away at top to reveal layers of papier-mache inside”

Thankfully we have the Museum’s own rigorous record management systems to fall back on. This means that even though 100 or so years elapsed since the original claims were made these anomalies could still be uncovered by working our way back though the accession and documentation records.

Geoff Barker, Curatorial, 2012

Baker, R. T., ‘Technological Museum’, in the Australian Technical Journal of Science and Art, Vol. 1, No. 2, 30 March, 1897
Commissioners of theSydneyInternational Exhibition, ‘Official Record of theSydneyInternational Exhibition1879’, Thomas Richards, Government Printer, Sydney 1881
Davison, G., Webber, K., Yesterday’s Tomorrows; the Powerhouse Museum and its Precursors 1880-2005, Powerhouse Publishing in association with the University of New South Wales Press, 2005
P., Proudfoot, R. Maguire, and R. Freestone (eds.), Colonial City Global City, Sydney’s International Exhibition 1879, Crossing Press, Sydney, 2000
Sydney Morning Herald, October 1880

One response to “Museum Mythbusters – the graphite elephant story

  • And yet it DID survive the fire. Two members of the Museum’s staff refused to believe that the elephant was acquired as a mere graphite sample, one of a group of minerals for colouring, writing and drawing: then registrar Barbara Palmer and myself (then curator Debbie Rudder). In our own time, we searched out the true story.

    In 2014 Barbara identified the elephant in the State Library of Victoria’s photograph H3858, taken at the 1880 Melbourne International Exhibition ( The dimensions and design details are in very close accord with the object. The clinching feature is the distinctive unevenness towards the back of its base; even if a sculptor carved several almost identical elephants, surely only one could have this exact flaw.

    The annual report of the Museum for 1881 confirms that it obtained a range of objects from the 1880 Exhibition’s Ceylon Court, all flammable except the object or objects made from graphite. As none of them appear in the Museum’s extant records, they probably all arrived in Sydney before the 1882 fire that destroyed most of the Museum’s objects and records.

    I subsequently discovered a Sydney Morning Herald report of 31 December 1883 ( that confirms the story that the elephant survived the fire ‘almost unscathed’. Graphite is a brittle material, and the object bears scars consistent with a fall. There are photos on its file taken before and after conservation work, perhaps done in the 1970s; they suggest that adhesive used to repair it after the fire had failed and needed to be replaced.

    On the basis of this evidence, I wrote new documentation for the object. I hope this becomes available on the website in the near future, even though the elephant has not been given a new number and still travels ignominiously along with a group of mineral samples that share neither its magnificence nor its amazing story.

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