The Naturalist by Brendan Atkins

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

The Naturalist tells the story of Allan Riverstone McCulloch, who worked for the Australian Museum across the decades leading to 1925. McCulloch was immensely talented. He was scientifically able, demonstrated artistic talents way above the ordinary, and possessed organisational skills that were a credit to his department. He wore the badge of senior curator and star exhibitor as though it was designed for him.

McCulloch demonstrates the difficulty, indeed, one could almost say the futility, of placing a highly motivated, professional individual, in the power of a committee that exists to perpetuate its own grandiosity. McCulloch preferred to work out in the field, most happy when identifying and drawing the types of fish he found in the waters of Australian foreshores and nearby islands. He was happiest when taking part in field trips to the Great Barrier Reef, Papua, and Lord Howe Island. His relief was easily observed when he escaped office politics to accompany cinematographer Frank Hurley on expeditions to record the fish population that visited Australia’s shores.

In this regard it becomes necessary to mention a nasty habit that Hurley and McCulloch and their generation demonstrated. Today it is considered ‘poor form’ to steal artifacts from primitive populations or to offer tobacco as a means of exchange to purchase materials from less advanced populations. To acquire a shield or other products of a man’s labour for a paltry price was an acceptable business practice in McCulloch’s time. One particular trip that McCulloch undertook to Papua in 1922 came back to bite him. He may have obtained native art for a cheap price but was forced to pay for it in the form of dysentery and malaria, and a decline in his mental health.

Brendan Atkins offers a highly focused skill in his revelation of The Naturalist. He experiences no difficulty in presenting a portrait of a genius, who was personally troubled by a committee of lesser souls busily engaged in exercising bureaucratic power just for the sake of controlling someone far more able than themselves.

The Naturalist is a scientist’s account. It is meticulously researched and keeps its focus on the life and daily activities of this eminent scientist. Its purpose is to chronicle the scientist’s work but, in addition it introduces a myriad of topics that enriched the life of the protagonist. Atkins covers subjects such as dioramas and taxidermy and addresses the ongoing problems that a modern museum must face. The approach is always honest and insightful.

That McCullough’s story had to end in tragedy is shameful. The committee members who drove him to taking his own life exemplify the worst pettiness of which the human race is capable and stand damned whenever McCulloch is lauded.

The Naturalist

(2022)

by Brendan Atkins

NewSouth Books

ISBN: 978 174223 775 6

$34.99; 208pp

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