The Burke Museum has been described as a ‘museum of museums’.
Established in 1863 during a period of enthusiastic collecting, many members of the original museum committee were keen collectors. As a result the Burke museum reflects Victorian-style collecting, with natural history (including geology, taxidermy and conchology) as well as significant collections of Indigenous objects from South-eastern Australia and Fiji, and many original cabinets and furnishings.
The museum holds its original records, allowing us to track the history of many of the objects still in its collections.
The later nineteenth century saw additions to the building with a new wing and expansion of the collection. In 1979, the Street of Shops was opened, realising the vision of Curator, Roy Harvey. At this time a new north wing was also added. The addition of the Street of Shops began a new period of collecting, when Roy Harvey called to the community for donations. The response resulted in an influx of material adding to the town history and development, and local identities collections. The Shops and their contents reflect another period in museology.
The museum has continued to collect and now houses a large photographic collection, costume, documents and objects, as well as being the north-east repository for the Public Records Office, Victoria. Displays tell stories that include the Kelly gang, goldmining, the Chinese community on the goldfields, Wars of the twentieth century, the wheelbarrow push from Beechworth to Mt. Buffalo and life in the north-east.
The Robert O’Hara Burke Memorial Museum is one of Australia’s oldest museums, established as a memorial to Beechworth’s Superintendent of Police from 1854-1858 (and leader of the tragic Burke & Wills expedition in 1860-61). The museum site dates back to 1856, when a Young Men's Association was formed, leading to the establishment in 1857 of the Beechworth Public Library and Athenaeum, re-named as the Museum in 1863 . Collecting activities since then have created a substantial collection reflecting many aspects of the Museum’s and Beechworth’s history. The collection includes natural history specimens dating back to the 1860's (including the extinct Tasmanian tiger), a comprehensive collection of south-eastern Australian Aboriginal artefacts, many items relating to the discovery and mining of gold in Beechworth and the surrounding district, and material documenting local families and identities, including bushranger Ned Kelly. Some of the collection is exhibited in a 19th century recreation of an early Beechworth streetscape, which, together with the Museum and related buildings, form the Beechworth Historic Precinct.
The collection provides a unique perspective on Beechworth’s place in Australian History, contributing to community understanding and appreciation of the natural environment, customs, activities, historic episodes, and local identities associated with the Beechworth area.