Photos of Indigenous Australians

Photos of Indigenous Australians
Kate discovers far-flung treasures of the shared Australian cultural record
19 June 2015

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers should be aware that this blog post contains images and names of people who are now deceased.

Portrait of three Indigenous Australians

Friends of the National Library Travelling Fellowship

Each year, the Friends of the National Library offer an invaluable Travelling Fellowship for a Library staff member to undertake research and professional development. As the 2014 recipient, I visited the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford University, the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris and Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington. I explored collections of colonial photographs of Indigenous Australians and discussed cultural rights with staff across curatorial, rights liaison, public programs and online teams. I have benefitted hugely from Professor Jane Lydon's research and am indebted to my wonderful hosts, Dr Christopher Morton, Curator of Photograph and Manuscript Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Dr Christine Barthe, Head of Photographic Collections at the Musée du Quai Branly and Matiu Baker, Curator Historic Māori Visual Materials at Te Papa Tongarewa.

Three photographs, from left, Kate at Oxford University, the Paris skyline and Wellington Harbour
Staying in a student college at Oxford University, my daily walk to work along the Seine in Paris and being caught in thrilling harbour-side winds in Wellington were like something out of a dream.

Photography in Australia

In 2007, the distinguished curator Professor Helen Ennis introduced her book Photography and Australia, with this statement:

[The significant local differences of photography in Australia] stem from one inescapable historical reality: photography in Australia is not simply a product of the modern era, but is tied inextricably to the imperialist and colonialist underpinnings of modernity... Of primary importance therefore is the interaction between Indigenous and settler Australians. This has given rise to some of the most potent images in Australian visual culture...
Helen Ennis, Photography and Australia (London: Reaktion Books, 2007), p. 8

Photograph of box 49 open to show its contents, Pitt Rivers' own collection of Australian Indigenous photographs
Box 49 contains General Pitt Rivers' own collection of photographs of Indigenous Australians, which he cut and pasted in this own arrangement.

During this period, many photographs were taken of largely unidentified Indigenous Australians. These photographs were both highly treasured and somewhat ephemeral. The majority were sent to Europe with family letters, or for scholarly exchange, and the National Library of Australia has a very large and rich collection of them.

These historical photographic collections operate in a murky space between science, art and documentation and as such can be found in museum, art gallery and library collections. Photographic portraits and tableaus of Indigenous Australians were produced for all of these reasons—as documentation of a ‘dying race’, as visual evidence for scientific research, as picturesque representations of the noble savage to feed the commercial taste for the exotic, and in service of the colonial project. However, they were predominantly collected by museums for the medium’s perceived capacity to document reality. As such, even staged studio photographs intended for the souvenir market were collected by anthropology museums as scientific data. European museums are particularly significant to the Australian colonial context as they displayed and promoted the colonial project. 

The Museums

The old building of the Natural History Museum with the little, newer Pitt Rivers Museum at one end.
The little Pitt Rivers Museum was added as an annex on the right of the Natural History Museum.

The cluttered cabinets of curiosities still display the objects in their original typological groupings at the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford University.

The Pitt Rivers Museum is a holy grail for anthropologists. It was founded in 1884 by General Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers to house his donated collection. It was built as an annex to the Natural History Museum. To descend into the dimly lit and packed Pitt Rivers Museum, I had to first walk under the airy and bright vaulted ceiling and past the towering dinosaur skeletons of the Natural History Museum. As stipulated in the terms of his donation, Pitt Rivers’ collection must forever be displayed according to 'typology', a now anachronous approach which sought to demonstrate the progress of humankind from primitive to civilised through disparate pieces of material culture. It was arguably a misappropriation of the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin. This makes for fascinating limitations for a museum in a post-colonial context, but also for a uniquely valuable time capsule. I was able to step into the context in which these photographs were collected.

The Musée du Quai Branly is a dramatic contemporary building which peeks out from behind its huge vertical garden and bathes in the linear shadows of the Eiffel Tower. 

This experience was then contrasted by my visits to two contemporary museum projects, the Musée du Quai Branly which opened in 2006 and Te Papa Tongarewa (Te Papa) which opened in 1998. The Musée du Quai Branly combined two different museums: The Musée National des Arts d’Afrique et Oceanie, and the Musée de l’Homme, an ethnology museum including photography. It was designed to exhibit objects of the non-western world all on one level in line with its stated principles of universality and equality. It describes itself as a dialogue between cultures, rather than a museum. To this end it strives for a diverse array of indigenous curatorial partnerships for its temporary exhibitions and performances.

Te Papa Tongarewa is the world's pre-eminent bicultural museum.

Te Papa Tongarewa (broadly, ‘the place of treasures of this land’, or just Te Papa, ‘Our Place’) is the National Museum and National Art Gallery of New Zealand. It was once the Colonial Museum, later known as the Dominion Museum. It is renowned as the world’s preeminent bicultural museum, and its core principle is the partnership between the Tangata whenua ‘people of the land’ (indigenous New Zealanders) and Tangata tiriti ‘people of the treaty’ (non-indigenous New Zealanders). Te Papa has a nuanced and considered approach to cultural rights across the whole institution. ‘Mana Whenua’ or cultural authority is given to different iwi (or tribes) iteratively. At the time of my visit, it sat with Ngāti Toa Rangatira, the local iwi in the Wellington region. Two positions at Te Papa were filled by elders of this tribe for the one-to-two year period. They curated an exhibition on their history, called Whiti Te Rā! The story of Ngāti Toa Rangatira, which would stay on display for this period.

Photographic collections

John William Lindt, Portrait of Mary-Ann Cowan, New South Wales 1873, 19.8 x 14.4 cm; sepia-toned photograph, Pictures Collection, nla.pic-an23334292

Photographic collections have long been considered as internal reference for museum staff. Their exhibition value was considered minimal compared with the centrality of the object. Research in this area is growing and it is fascinating to see how these museums have been constructing new physical exhibition spaces for them, and undertaking large-scale digitisation projects to make them available online. In the digital environment, their research and print and online publication value competes much more closely with the heavy material significance of the object. It also breaks them out of the museum and takes them into the homes and hands of their audiences­, including the members of the Indigenous communities whose ancestors are depicted.

The full photographic collections of Indigenous Australians at Pitt Rivers and the Musée du Quai Branly are digitised and available on their online catalogues as low resolution files. Both approaches were to open access first, and take down if contacted later. The curators of both of these collections are involved in a project with Professor Jane Lydon to travel to Australia and visit the nation-groups depicted in some of their foremost collections. They have received a great deal of metadata for their catalogues, which they are in the process of updating. They are also undertaking repatriation of digital copies and prints to these communities. At the time of my visit, Te Papa’s Collections Online database had recently been launched, and they were planning rights agreements for future efforts with Māori content online.

There are many particular discrepancies between the value in increasing access to material, and various Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander traditions surrounding the power and cultural relevance of visual imagery. This is exacerbated dramatically as our institutional pursuit for increased digitisation, online discoverability and precedence of images makes them easily viewable to a mass audience. This is important because most Australian colonial era photographs in museum collections were produced by anthropologists or commercial photographers; obtained without consent and contain sensitive, personal and culturally critical information, often unwittingly disclosed to these early lenses, without regard for differing Indigenous laws and customs regarding access to this visual information.

Descriptive metadata

Also, much of our descriptive metadata comes from the original creators or collectors of this material and is often vague, inaccurate, prejudiced or non-existent.

Below is a portrait of an Indigenous man for which we have very little bibliographic data. It is part of a scrapbook in our collection composed by C.H. Allen during a journey around the world between 1868 and 1872. You can see that someone, probably CH. Allen, has captioned the image. Usually a cataloguer would use inscriptions such as this to form the title for the item on the catalogue. To contact communities referring to this photograph by this title, sending a link to the catalogue, or reproducing it in a caption in a publication would run a very high risk of upsetting people as most non-librarians would be unlikely to understand that the National Library didn’t give the photo this title. It is important however, to not delete this information or to tamper with the historical record. 

Portrait of an Aboriginal Australian man
, Queensland c. 1870, 9 x 5.8 cm; albumen photograph, Pictures Collection, nla.pic-an24632721 This photograph is in our collection at the National Library of Australia, and I was excited to see that it was also chosen for Pitt Rivers' own scrapbooking in Oxford.

One image, many meanings

Changes to museological approaches to these collections mirror shifts in the scholarship of early photographs of Indigenous Australians, as well as shifts in the perception of them by many Indigenous communities. They were once seen as predominantly exploitative, a mechanism of control. Without discounting the context in which they were taken, today many Aboriginal people are likely to see them first as family photos.

One of the great things about doing a research project like this is stumbling across amazing stories. I heard Shauna Bostock-Smith's story, which she tells in Calling the Shots: Aboriginal Photographies, edited by Jane Lydon. Watching an episode of Australian Story, The Light of Day, Shauna discovered that a portrait by J.W. Lindt from 1873 titled 'Mary-Ann of Ulmarra' had been identified by descendants and researchers as Mary Ann Cowan, who was her great-great-grand-aunt:

I gasped aloud when I heard this. I have been researching my family history for the past few years, and I knew that Mary Ann Cowan was my great-great-grand-aunt. This exciting news had a profound effect on me. It is as though this lovely photograph has spiritually reached through time and altered my perception of her today. She has now magically transformed from an abstract entity—a name on her marriage and death certificates—into a real life, flesh and blood, beautiful young woman.

Shauna Bostock-Smith, 'Connecting with the Cowans', Calling the Shots, ed. Jane Lydon (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2014), p. 61

Mary Ann Cowan's portrait in the collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum, the Musée du Quai Branly, the National Library of Australia and the Grafton Regional Gallery.

I was amazed to discover that this same photograph is held here at the National Library of Australia, and it was overwhelming to then go on to see it in the collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum and the Musée du Quai Branly.

I look at this photograph and see a woman who was married according to European laws in Australia and who would have worn Western clothing and run her house, who has been stripped naked and posed in a studio for a photo of the noble savage for a European audience. However, when Shauna looks at this photograph, she sees a name on marriage and death certificates transformed into a flesh and blood, beautiful young woman.

Both these readings, and many others, are true. It is important that we make these photos available so that all interested parties—and especially families and communities—have the opportunity to read them for themselves.

Upper body portrait of an aboriginal man, identified as Tenberry (or Tenbury), and described as 'Chief of the Murray Bend tribes', before 1855, 10 x 5 cm; black and white photograph, Courtesy Pitt Rivers Museum, 1998.249.33.1

Staff in all three museums felt strongly that it was the priority to make the vast majority of these photographs accessible online, and occupy a stronger place in our public programs. All agreed that increased communication and collaboration with Indigenous cultural rights holders was instrumental, as was increased institutional courage in engaging with risk management when there are gaps in descriptive metadata.

When I first turned the page in Pitt Rivers’ album at Oxford University and saw Tenberry, currently the oldest known photograph of an Indigenous Australian, I was overwhelmed by the historical magnitude of this tiny flimsy photograph to my country. Professionally, I have been incomparably challenged and rewarded by this hugely valuable and generous fellowship and the efforts of all of my hosts. The experience has cemented a passion and given me skills that I’m sure will remain for the rest of my career. As an Australian, I have been honoured to engage with such far-flung treasures of our shared cultural heritage.

If you have any information about the people in these photographs, or other Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander pictures in our collection, let us know.

Dear Kate, Your blog post is truly fascinating and it looks like you've had such an amazing experience abroad. I am currently completing honours in Gender Studies at Sydney University and my thesis concerns colonial photographs of Indigenous women and how contemporary Indigenous women artist subvert or challenges these frames in their work. I am really interested in your career path. As someone who's just about to step into the real world with a BA (Hons), I would love to know how you got to this position and if you had any recommendations for someone who is aspiring to work with Indigenous texts and archives. Thank you so much. My email is if you find the time to respond. All the best, Julia Readett
Hi Julia, lovely to hear from you and so great to hear you are interested in this work! I will respond to your email directly.
A most moving blog post, which is beautifully written.