South Australian Museum (Minerals Collection)

From Darwin’s Theory of Evolution to the steam engine, scientific enquiry and exploration of the natural world was an important aspect of the Victorian era, and like many worldly men of his time Henry kept a close eye on new developments. The early public institutions of North Terrace such as the South Australian Institute helped cultivate these interests, initially through talks and public seminars and later through the construction of the key institutions we now know today as the State Library of South Australia, South Australian Museum and Art Gallery of South Australia.

Only the North Wing of the current Museum was completed in Henry's time, but today it provides us with a tangible link to one of Henry’s life pursuits: mineral wealth. Arriving in Adelaide as a law clerk, Henry made his fortune after becoming Secretary of the South Australian Mining Association and later Managing Director in 1850, maintaining strong links until his death. Through a combination of shrewd financial management and good fortune, Henry grew fabulously wealthy when the Association’s mining lease at Burra Burra proved to be a lucrative source of copper. Many of the copper samples in the Minerals Collection come from Henry Ayers’ collection, donated in 1880 ahead of the construction of the Jervois Wing and an important part of what has grown into one of the Museum’s most colourful attractions.

Copper wasn’t just integral to Sir Henry’s success, but the wider colony as well. It not only provided an important export, but was essential in ensuring South Australia kept apace of modern technological developments like the telegraph. Indeed, South Australia’s newly discovered mineral wealth was important in securing its economic recovery following a difficult first decade marked by costly, if necessary, infrastructure investment under Governor George Gawler.