Globalization, Photography, and Race: the Circulation and Return of Aboriginal Photographs in Europe, 2011-2015

The Pitt Rivers Museum is a pleased to announce its collaboration on a major new Australian Research Council-funded project, led by Dr Jane Lydon of Monash University (Australia), which will address the momentous intersection of new digital technologies and Aboriginal traditions surrounding visual imagery. TenburyThe project will explore the global circulation of photographs of Australian Aboriginal people that began in the 1840s, and their central role within the emergence of modern views regarding race and history. It investigates the significance of colonial photography to Indigenous communities, and through international collaboration returns photographs currently housed in four key European collections to descendants, providing an important Indigenous heritage resource, a major international conference, and a travelling exhibition.

During the 1890s the ethnographer Francis Gillen wrote to his colleague, Baldwin Spencer, that he had printed a set of photographs of an Arrernte ceremony. He described having ‘had a neat shallow tin case made to hold them and they are to be taken and deposited with the Churinga [secret sacred boards] in the Ertnatulinga [storehouse cave],’ to the pleasure of the Arrernte men concerned. Twenty years earlier, Gerard Krefft, curator of the Australian Museum, had offered similar booty to his metropolitan hero, writing ‘My dear Mr Darwin... Today I only want to send you some Photographs which I know you will like. I enclose 3 Views (on different scales though), of a northern black fellow's skull and of another found at Bondi near Sydney with a regular “Neanderthal” superc. Ridge!’ As a medium of exchange, photographs of Aboriginal people have served vastly different purposes within Indigenous and Western knowledge systems, from embodiments of kin and ancestral powers, to visual data that actively created scientific knowledge. In the digital age, it has become an urgent matter to understand and balance these traditions.

The Pitt Rivers Museum cares for one of the most significant collections of nineteenth photography of Australian Aboriginal people, including what is probably the earliest portrait of an indigenous person from South Australia, known as Tenberry (pictured), taken sometime before his death in 1855. As part of this research project the Pitt Rivers Museum’s Curator of Photograph Collections (Dr Chris Morton) will travel to Australia to meet indigenous communities represented in the collections in Oxford, establishing new relationships and returning copies of historic photographs.

The project has two primary aims:

1. To explore the global circulation of photographs of Australian Aboriginal people that began in the 1840s, charting their central role within the major shift in Western visual culture from Enlightenment humanism to the emergence of modern views regarding race and history. Through international collaboration with key European museums, it will connect their local production to their concrete effects as objects circulated through commercial, governmental, scientific and private visual networks that spanned the world.

2. To return photographs currently housed in Europe to their subjects’ descendants, providing a major Indigenous heritage resource. In doing so it will explore the significance of colonial photography to Indigenous descendants and contribute to resolving the momentous and complex intersection of new digital technologies and Aboriginal cultural traditions regarding visual imagery. The project will produce a range of scholarly and popular histories, including a significant digital tool, as well as convening a major international conference and a travelling exhibition.

The collaborating European curators and institutions are:

Dr Christine Barthes, Musée du Quai Branly (MQB), Paris
Dr Anita Herle, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA), University of Cambridge
Dr Christopher Morton, Pitt Rivers Museum (PRM), University of Oxford
Dr Wonu Veys, Museum Volkenkunde (National Museum for Ethnology, MV), Leiden.

The project builds on an earlier research project at Monash University led by Jane Lydon and Lynette Russell, Aboriginal Visual Histories: Photographing Indigenous Australians, which ran from 2008-2011. See http://arts.monash.edu.au/mic/research/visual-histories for more information on that project.

Further reading/resources

1. Braithwaite, S., T. Gara, J. Lydon. 2011. From Moorundie to Buckingham Palace: Images of “King” Tenberry and his son Warrulan, 1845-55, Journal of Australian Studies, 35: 2, 165 — 184.

(research article which deals with a number of early Australian photographs in the PRM, especially the portrait of Tenberry reproduced on this webpage)

2. Morton, C. 2011. Ten Queensland Photographs in the Founding Collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum http://web.prm.ox.ac.uk/rpr/index.php/objectbiographies/72-10-queensland-photographs

(online research article about the set of Queensland prints acquired by Pitt-Rivers from the Godeffroy Museum in Hamburg in 1879)

3. Conversations with Michael Aird

A series of three short interviews with Aboriginal cultural heritage researcher Michael Aird, filmed in his office in Coomera, south-east Queensland. The films were made by Sari Briathwaite, as part of the Aboriginal Visual Histories project at Monash University. Michael Aird is also a collaborating researcher on the Globalization, Photography, and Race project.