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In the decades following Separation, a fervent group of educated immigrants established Melbourne's major museums. The National Museum of Victoria, founded in 1854, moved to the University of Melbourne in 1856. Frederick McCoy, professor of natural science, was its director until his death in 1899. Part of an international community of scientists, McCoy exchanged natural history specimens with museums in Europe and America. He also procured agricultural and mining collections, including a remarkable series of instructive models depicting various mining operations, which were transferred to the Industrial and Technological Museum when it opened in 1870.

Melbourne's first museums were utilitarian in intent, promoting the development of Victoria's industrial and commercial economies: the historical and abstract orientation of the collections only gained precedence in the following century. The National Museum offered trainee scientists, working men and curious members of the public alike 'eye knowledge' of Victoria's natural materials - animals, minerals, and timbers - placed within imperial/colonial systems of classification. The Museum was popular: during the 1880s nearly 120 000 visited annually, viewing traditional display cases and mounds of stuffed animals, which McCoy had arranged for full visual impact rather than strict taxonomic adjacency.

In the 20th century the habitat diorama became one of the main exhibiting techniques, beginning in 1906 when the new National Museum in Russell Street featured a lyrebird habitat display. Groups of Aboriginal people were also depicted in habitat dioramas through to the 1970s, consistent with the idea that they were a curious antipodean 'race' stalled in time and place. For Melburnians the most memorable diorama display was the Victorian fauna series, installed at the National Museum from 1940, and only dismantled in 1998.

The museums' attempts to develop, modernise and popularise their collections were often hampered by lack of space and funds. Throughout the 20th century they engaged in circuitous argument with government about funding and popular appeal. The 1980s saw the most radical change in the major museums when they embraced 'new social history' and the new collections and exhibiting techniques it implied, culminating in the Story of Victoria exhibition, opening at the Museum (of) Victoria in 1985.

The complex mix of a resurgent, populist nationalism, multiculturalism and raised heritage consciousness also resulted in the opening of many local or specialist museums, including the Museum of Lilydale, the Performing Arts Collection, the Jewish Museum of Australia, the Museum of Chinese Australian History, Melbourne's Living Museum of the West and the Australian Gallery of Sport. Financed by a mixture of local, State and philanthropic funding, these museums offer thematic exhibitions, embracing a wide range of collection material and seeking to engage the public through visual, aural and other 'hands-on' and immersive techniques.

Maryanne Mccubbin