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The Australian colonies of Victoria, New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land sent significant contributions to the Paris Exhibition of 1855. Alongside the timber samples, gold nuggets and furniture were a number of items made by Indigenous people. In the context of the exhibition, these were collected to showcase the ‘works of industry’ and labour of the Indigenous people. The chapter discusses the collectors and their relationships with Aboriginal people, describes the preliminary exhibitions held in Melbourne and Sydney in 1854, and traces the subsequent fate of the Australian contributions after they reached Paris.

In September 1854, Governor Charles Hotham of Victoria reported to the Secretary of State for the Colonies on his visit to the goldfields of Bendigo. ‘I attended public breakfasts and dinners … and, most singular, I opened the Exhibition of items destined to be displayed at Paris!’ He finished this sentence with an exclamation mark, unusual in official correspondence. Hidden behind the exclamation mark is Hotham’s amazement and awe that the people of Bendigo, a small outpost of Empire that was no more than three years old, were planning to display examples of their ‘produce and industry’ in an international exhibition on the other side of the world. As he emphasised to London, ‘I would particularly call your attention to this … event, because it marks the rapid advance which this Colony has made in civilisation and wealth’.1

From the beginnings of the international exhibition movement, Australians were participants. Exhibitors from New South Wales, South Australia and Tasmania had sent small displays to the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London in 1851. When the Paris Exhibition of 1855 was announced, and the Colonial Office invited participation from the colonies, public men in Sydney, Hobart, Melbourne and Bendigo responded, forming committees to ensure that the Australian colonies were properly represented. They wanted, in the words of one of them, to ‘make a suitable appearance on that stirring occasion’ (Westgarth 1857, 98). This chapter will consider the contributions to Paris from these four places, describe how the Australian material was displayed in Paris, and comment on what happened to the exhibits at the end of the Exhibition.

The chapter will focus especially on the display of objects collected from Aboriginal Australians, and the variety of contexts in which these were collected and displayed. It will discuss some of the motivations of the individuals who collected this material for display in 1854, and argue that objects made by Aborigines were placed on display by their collectors essentially as examples of ‘industry’, workmanship and adaptability, and as indicators of the common humanity of people from all parts of the world.


In the 1850s, the ‘Exhibition of Industry’ implied much more than simply the display of the products of the industrial revolution. Certainly, the mechanical inventions of the machine age had evoked the greatest wonder at the 1851 Exhibition. But the word ‘industry’ meant more than industrial products; then, as now, one of the dictionary definitions of the word was ‘hard work’. The Crystal Palace Exhibition aimed to show ‘the industry of all nations’, and international exhibitions showed the fruits of the ‘industry’, ‘industriousness’ or ‘hard work’ of the peoples of the world, including the unindustrialised world. Examples of craftsmanship, creativity and skill from many different countries could be seen together, compared and marvelled at; and the common humanity, the ‘brotherhood of man’, could be celebrated. As Asa Briggs (2002) has noted, ‘The values behind the exhibitions were international … Work was hailed, mankind was treated as one, and the future of mankind was explored’ (13).

This aspect of the early international exhibition movement was clearly set out in an article on the Great Exhibition of 1851, published in a popular weekly penny newspaper. The article considered ‘the productions of Aboriginal States’. It began:

The first, and perhaps the most powerful and lasting impression received by an attentive visitor at the Exhibition, when looking through its vast collection of articles from every region on earth, is this – that all men, differ as they may in other important points, more especially the uncivilised from the civilised, nevertheless obey at least one law in common: they all, without exception, but in very different degrees of intensity, labour.

Writing when the European empires were still expanding, the anonymous writer was optimistic and hopeful about the future of mankind. In considering the ‘productions’ of ‘the less civilised races’ he looked at exhibits from British Guiana, Ceylon, North America, West Africa and Van Diemen’s Land. He argued that an examination of these ‘productions’ would benefit visitors to the exhibition in four ways. Viewers could see the basic beginnings of workmanship, and trace the ‘primitive elements out of which the most advanced nations have elaborated their gorgeous … and useful productions’. Visitors would be inspired to a great respect for the skillfulness, patience and perseverance of those who worked with rude tools and materials. Any prejudices about the ‘incapacity’ of such people would be overcome, and this would be a spur to practical assistance, so that these ‘struggling’ fellow humans could ‘be rightfully placed on’ the same level as civilised man. Finally, the evidence of the skill, ingenuity and practical problem-solving abilities of the world’s peoples was evidence also of their resilience. This evidence would:

unquestionably tend to allay the melancholy feeling too prevalent among us, that numerous portions of our race should be doomed by Providence to perish at the approach of their more instructed brethren. [Instead], a capacity for a safer and better condition of life is clearly established by these productions of industry, exercised in every climate.

The writer quoted from Adam Ferguson’s 1767 ‘Essay on the History of Civic Society’ which suggested that human beings, wherever they lived, were capable of much, and could learn to do even more: ‘Art is natural to man, and the skill he acquires after many ages of practice is only the improvement of a talent he possessed at the first’. Humankind was ‘destined to cultivate his own nature, and to mend his situation’, and so all humans were able to be alert to new opportunities, to show ingenuity, and to work towards improving their situation.2

This recognition of a common humanity, a common potential for improvement, and the celebration of ‘industry’ from whatever group of the world’s people, was facilitated by the ways that objects were displayed in the early international exhibitions. At the Paris Exhibition, the products and crafts of the indigenous peoples of the colonised world were scattered throughout the colonies’ displays. They were not divided into separate displays arranged by ethnicity, as they were at later exhibitions. ‘Aboriginal industry’ was shown alongside other ‘works of industry’. So, for example, shell necklaces made by Tasmanian Aboriginal women could be seen in the same showcase as needlework, turned wooden pieces, a chess board and a whalebone walking stick made by other Tasmanians, and all categorised in class 25, ‘Articles of clothing, objects of fashion and fancy’. Workmanship, adaptability and common humanity was on display. While Aboriginal items were exhibited in this way, it was colonialism, the colony itself and the industry of its people that was being presented, displaying the colony’s people and their products in the best light to the whole world (Benedict 1983, 41).

This aspect of the aims and rhetoric of the early international exhibitions has been generally overlooked by historians who discuss the nineteenth century collection and display of indigenous objects. However, I argue below that it appears clearly in publications from Victoria and Van Diemen’s Land at the time of the Paris Exhibition. The display of ‘industry’ was not the only strand of thought informing the collecting process at the time when the Australian exhibitors gathered items for the Paris display. By then, the European pastoral expansion into southern Australia was essentially complete. Almost all of the Aborigines had been driven from their lands, dispossessed and the population decimated, and in Van Diemen’s Land the Tasmanian Aborigines were believed to be ‘nearly extinct’. In the southern colonies from the 1840s humanitarians and scientific men were concerned to record what they could about Aboriginal life and cultural practice, because it was believed that it would soon be ‘too late’ (Shaw 2003, ch. 7; Broome 2005, 99–100). There was for some a sense of guilt, sadness at the ‘inevitability’ of the destruction of the Aboriginal people, and a search to preserve what could still be found of the ‘traditional’ ways that were being so threatened (Willis 2007; Rosaldo 1989).

The items were being collected, too, when ideas about ‘race’ and hierarchies of races were hardening. Earlier monogenistic ideas, which had focused on environmental conditions to explain differences between people and which maintained ideas of a universal human race, common humanity and brotherhood, were being challenged by polygenistic ideas that postulated that there were separate and distinct species of humans. Formulations of the inequality of races and of a biological hierarchy from the ‘savage primitive’ to the ‘civilised’ were becoming more developed and more popular (Markus 1994, 12). But in Britain and in the British colonies, there was as yet no dominant view on these matters, and large numbers of people were still influenced by ideas of the equal potential of all people (Stepan 1982, ch. 1). I will be arguing that, in the middle of the disastrous dispossession of Aborigines in the settled colonies – and largely separate from the debates among biologists – the collectors of 1854 were promoting the work of the individual Aboriginal people that they knew. They collected for the Paris Exhibition largely to show the skills, the ‘industry’, of the Aborigines whom they had met and talked with; and to present their work as part of the work done by all human beings. Arguments about ‘race’ and ‘savagery’ played little part in their collection and display of Aboriginal material in the 1850s.3


When in May 1853 the Colonial Office’s request for material to be collected for display in the British Colonies’ section at Paris reached Sydney, a committee of representative men, including Sir Alfred Stephen, Sir Charles Nicholson, George Macleay, William Macarthur and Colonel Sir Thomas Mitchell, sent circulars to regional representatives appealing for appropriate material (NSW Exhibition Commissioners 1855, 3–4). Mining, farming and wool growing were among the industries they wanted to display. They designed a prize medal which showed these industries, and waited anxiously for material to arrive in Sydney.4

The NSW Commissioners for the Paris Exhibition were less interested than the commissioners in the other colonies in exhibiting examples of Aboriginal industry. This probably reflects their position as a Sydney-centred elite, ignorant of the life of Aboriginal people away from the city. In addition, because of the dispossession of Aboriginal communities over many years, few Aborigines still had the opportunity to exercise the type of ‘traditional’ craftsmanship that was noticed by European collectors. The commissioners made no special request for examples of Aboriginal work for display in Paris.

Exhibits trickled in from many parts of the colony, and in November 1854 the gathered material went on display in a hall in the Australian Museum. It was not a very exciting show – Sir Alfred Stephen regretted that large areas of colonial life were unrepresented, and lamented that ‘the useful’ had ‘predominated over the ornamental’ (NSW Exhibition Commissioners 1855, 5). A major section was given over to timber samples – more than 300 of them. William Macarthur of Camden had spent £290 gathering and preparing timber samples from the south coast and many other samples came via the Sydney Botanical Gardens.5 Some of these were listed with their botanical, ‘natural order’ and ‘Aboriginal’ names, suggesting that botanists were continuing to record the names given to trees and shrubs by local Aborigines. Boots of kangaroo leather, woven woolen cloth, pottery and soap were among the local manufactures. There was a large collection of minerals from Reverend WB Clarke, and £5000 worth of gold nuggets was on display. In a small recognition of the Aboriginal people, two printed grammars of Aboriginal languages, prepared by missionary LE Threlkeld two decades previously, were exhibited.6 Artworks included Julius Hogarth’s wax model of an Aborigine with a spear and boomerang and Conrad Erichsen’s gold brooch featuring a wreath of leaves, kangaroo, emu and an Aborigine with a spear. The NSW Commissioners recovered for transmission to the French Government a carved tree that had marked the grave of a naturalist from La Perouse’s 1788 exploring expedition to Sydney Harbour. And there was a ‘grand’ display of colonial wines; some of these were drunk during the opening celebrations (NSW Exhibition Commissioners 1855, 6, 19, 41–50, 79–82).

Although the commissioners made no special call for Aboriginal material, some items made and used by Aborigines were submitted by colonists from the edges of settlement. Scattered throughout the catalogue of the Sydney Exhibition are ethno-historical references to Aboriginal life. In the midst of disastrous dislocation and change, conversations between Aborigines and settlers about traditional ways were sometimes still occurring, and some settlers wanted to share the information that they had received with a wider local and international audience. Exhibitors from Manning River, the Condamine and Maitland reported how Aborigines used particular types of grass seeds, water lilies and bark. A Moreton Bay settler submitted the cone of a Bunya Tree and described the three-yearly festival associated with the tree, and the special relationship of ownership that Aboriginal families had to particular trees.7 ‘Native dillies’, ‘Aboriginal baskets’, a boomerang and ‘womera’, ‘several native spears and waddies’, and an ‘opossum rug’ were sent for display, and one exhibitor showed ‘gloves and cuffs of Aboriginal manufacture from opossum fur’ (NSW Exhibition Commissioners 1855, 71–74, 81–82). The NSW display, like the Victorian and Tasmanian collections, contained Aboriginal items made in traditional ways, and items which showed how Aborigines were adapting old materials to new uses.

But the catalogue descriptions of these isolated examples of Aboriginal craftsmanship give only the most basic information, not even the name of the maker’s tribal group, even though many of the objects were collected directly from the maker and the collector could have recorded more information at the time. These fragmented items seem to have been collected more as ‘curios’ than as any systematic collection of Aboriginal industry.8 The commissioners expressed their frustration with all the collectors, not only those who submitted Aboriginal items, complaining that ‘the place of production was frequently not mentioned, the mode of production, scarcely ever’ (NSW Exhibition Commissioners 1855, 88).


In Melbourne, as in Sydney, the colony’s contribution to Paris was organised by a committee of public men. The committee chair was Redmond Barry, and it included John Foster, the Colonial Secretary, Hugh Childers, Collector of Customs, Godfrey Howitt, William McCrea, Ferdinand Mueller and Alfred Selwyn, Government Geologist, among others. They sent out circulars appealing for examples of ‘the natural and artificial productions of the colony’ to be prepared for dispatch for Paris (Special Instructions … 1854, 9). The Bendigo committee, under JA Panton, decided to have their own exhibition first and built a new exhibition building, with a grand entrance on the north-west side.9 The Sandhurst (Bendigo) Exhibition opened in September 1854 and in early October some of the Sandhurst material was sent on to Melbourne to form part of the Melbourne Exhibition.

In Melbourne, a glass-roofed exhibition building was speedily erected in William Street. The exhibition opened with much fanfare. Surveyor-General Andrew Clarke submitted a collection of nearly 600 mineral specimens, ‘rocks, ores and fossils’. Ninety gold specimens and 149 samples of gold in quartz and clay were displayed. Melbourne Museum sent a tiger shark, and for Paris there were samples of wool, flour and wheat from some of the wealthier squatters. Clarke also sent 70 specimens of wood, bark, gums, resin, mollusca and zoophytes. The developing mining industry was not forgotten. S Jones of Bendigo contributed a model of a digger’s tent, with a miner’s full equipment; and a miner’s cradle was also on display. The merchants of Melbourne displayed a plethora of colonial-made goods, including saddlery, furniture, baskets, rugs, ‘patent hessian boots, and digger’s watertight boots’; but most of these items were not sent on to Paris (Official Catalogue … 1855). The Melbourne committee produced silver and bronze prize medals, and cheap metal medals were struck within the Melbourne Building.10

In Victoria, the intent to include examples of ‘Aboriginal industry’ in the Victorian display was apparent from the beginning of planning. In their correspondence with regional representatives, the Victorian organisers sought examples of Aboriginal work, listing specifically Aboriginal weapons and implements, (‘every variety of boomerang, club, shield, spear, net, yam-stick &c’), ‘native food’, (including ‘specimens of grubs … together with the containing cavity’, ‘the yam roots as found in the mallee scrub’, and ‘the edible fungus, properly dried’), opossum rugs, ‘photographic portraits of Aborigines’ dwellings’ and shell necklaces (though it is not clear if Aboriginal shell necklaces are meant here). They also wanted to demonstrate how the settlers had improved on Aboriginal people’s technology, suggesting that exhibitors could collect ‘opossum rugs as prepared by the Aborigines, and also as manufactured in a superior manner’ (Special Instructions … 1854, 24).

What was behind this Victorian request? The specificity of their list suggests that the commissioners had detailed knowledge of some aspects of Aboriginal life and industry. Perhaps the committee’s request was influenced by what Bain Attwood has identified as a ‘humanitarian resurgence’ in Victoria during the 1850s (Attwood 1989, 82). Chairman Redmond Barry and other members of the committee were men with social consciences, dismayed at the decimation and dispersal of the Aboriginal people.11 Perhaps they had a sense that Aboriginal material should be collected before it was too late and it all disappeared (Broome 2005, 99–100). Perhaps, also, the Victorians wanted to show their superiority to the northern colony. New South Wales had been criticised at the Crystal Palace Exhibition because it had displayed no examples of Aboriginal work, signifying that all the Aboriginal people there had been destroyed.12 Possibly the Victorians wanted to ensure that people in Europe could see evidence that, in their colony, some aspects of Aboriginal life were still continuing (Willis 2003, 50).

Ludwig Becker’s design for the prize certificate for the Melbourne Exhibition included representations of the usual suspects – a European gold miner, a shepherd and a farmer. But he also included depictions of the industry of two Aboriginal people. The design featured two Aboriginal men: a hunter in traditional clothing with spears and boomerang, and an Aboriginal bullock driver, ‘dressed in Guernsey, trousers and high-lows’, his work for the day completed, comfortable in an urban setting, and ‘clearly benefiting’ (reported the Argus) from his contact with the ‘civilisation of the white man’.13 The message was that not only were ‘traditional’ ways continuing, but that some Aborigines were learning new skills in response to European settlement; and that all types of work, settler and Aboriginal, were equally on display.

The settlers who actually collected Aboriginal material for Paris had first-hand knowledge of the ingenuity and adaptability of their Aboriginal neighbours, and the variety and innovation of their tools and manufactures. They collected to show these aspects of industry to a wider, international audience.

Gentleman squatter John Hunter Kerr prepared a large display of Aboriginal material culture, collected from the members of the ‘Murray and Loddon Tribes’ who were living around his station, Fernyhurst, near Boort in northern Victoria. This collection was impressive in its variety and extent. As well as Aboriginal tools – shields, waddies, boomerangs, ‘native tomahawks’, spears and spear throwers – it included ‘opossum skins worked by Aborigines’, an emu skin, the ‘skin of an opossum on bark’ showing how skins were prepared to be made into cloaks, some other examples of the work of the women, particularly ‘native grass wrought by lubras’, presumably in baskets, and ‘a kangaroo rat bag’; and some ‘native boys’ play sticks’. In addition, Kerr displayed three items of ceremonial significance: ‘emu feathers used in corrobberys’, ‘kangaroo rat skins, used in corrobberys’ and a large curved piece of bark in the shape of an emu decorated with white ochre lines, which he had seen used in corroborees. To round off the collection, he exhibited at least two bark etchings, drawn on the curved inside edge of smoke-blackened pieces of bark. As well as the material identified as having been specifically made by Aborigines, Kerr presented other things produced by the people who lived and worked on his station: ‘specimens of iron ore, gum-vines, pine gum, lime, salt, gypsum and smelted iron ore,’ and ‘woollen gloves and socks made from rough wool’ (Official Catalogue … 1855, 35–36).14 He wanted to display the full range of work done on the station, the full range of the industry of the people who lived there.


Figure 1. Two Aboriginal men join representatives of settler industry in Becker’s design for the Melbourne Exhibition of ‘Produce and Works of Industry’, 1854.
Courtesy of Museum Victoria.

Kerr made his collection with the active involvement of his Aboriginal neighbours, and it seems to have been compiled with the deliberate intention of representing most of the activities of the people, including their artistic traditions and some aspects of their ceremonies (Willis 2003). The collection is notable because it included material from women and children, as well as men. In the exhibition catalogue, only minimal information is recorded, but when Kerr met collector RE Johns at the Sandhurst Exhibition, he told him more about the ways that some of the objects were used.15

In Bendigo, the press reports described Kerr’s exhibit as ‘an excellent collection of weapons and various articles used by the aborigines’, and it received a silver medal. Strangely, the accompanying citation referred to the display as one of ‘native weapons’. Despite the gathering of material to show a complex Aboriginal culture and a great breadth of Aboriginal industry, the judges interpreted the collection through eyes which took interest in only the weapons.16 At the Melbourne Exhibition, the press described it as ‘a most interesting and elaborate collection of aboriginal implements and articles of clothing’. Again, only the weapons were noticed by the judges: Kerr’s bronze medal on this occasion is inscribed ‘Native Weapons and Natural History’.17

Other examples of Aboriginal industry were on display at the Melbourne Exhibition, though some of these were not sent to Paris. Ludwig Becker showed a ‘pencil drawing by an Aborigine’ and ‘part of a necklace made of native seeds, worn by a Chief of the Murray tribe’, while T Jones from Bendigo contributed a ‘bullock hide halter made by Aborigines on the Murray’, indicating that Aboriginal people were working in the pastoral industry, and showing the adaptation of old techniques to a new material and purpose. He sent some additional unspecified ‘objects used by the Aborigines’ to Paris (Exposition Universelle de 1855 1856, 132). Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Anderson displayed ‘various specimens of native weapons, etc.’, possibly collected from the people of the Goulburn region. The Government Museum showed a display of ‘tomahawks, in various stages of manufacture,’ from the Mount William district (Official Catalogue … 1854, 8, 24, 29, 35). We might wish that we still had access to curator William Blandowski’s fieldnotes, which may have recorded the name of his informant.

Kerr’s exhibits, and those of Jones and the Government Museum, were clearly showing ‘Aboriginal industry’. However, a further exhibit, not on display in Melbourne but sent to Paris, hints at a different way of thought. Dr J Hutchinson, a Bendigo surgeon who had served as the Honorary Secretary for the Sandhurst Exhibition, sent ‘skulls and bones of the Aborigines’ for display in Paris, alongside an ‘anatomical model’. Hutchinson’s offerings were displayed in a section relating to ‘Hygiene, Pharmacy, Surgery and Medicine’ (Exposition Universelle de 1855 1856, 132).


No exhibition was arranged in Hobart in 1854, but a large collection of material was gathered from throughout Van Diemen’s Land, described in a catalogue, and sent on to Paris in early 1855. The Tasmanian catalogue was compiled by surgeon Dr Joseph Milligan who was Secretary of the Royal Society of Van Diemen’s Land. He was a member of the colony’s scholarly elite, a noted botanist and geologist and a Fellow of the Linnean Society. He was also Superintendent and Medical Officer of the Aborigines (from 1843 until 1855) and had lived on Flinders Island with the Tasmanian Aborigines after they’d been taken there from the mainland. Among the many deaths on that terrible island was his wife who had died giving birth in 1844 (Hoddinott 1967, 230–231). Milligan had supported the Aborigines in their 1846 petition for fair treatment and access to land on the mainland, and a year later he supervised their transfer from Flinders Island to Oyster Cove (Reynolds 1995, 10–12). He continued to visit the Oyster Cove settlement intermittently, and had submitted a small collection of Aboriginal manufactures to the 1851 exhibition.

By early 1854 only 18 of the original 200 Tasmanian Aborigines who had gone with George Robinson to Flinders Island were still alive. Milligan had been in constant contact with the Tasmanian Aborigines for 11 years; he had seen many people succumb to disease and infection and had apparently been powerless to save them. He writes from the belief that the people were ‘nearly extinct’. Milligan’s first-hand knowledge and his sense of grief are equally apparent in his catalogue.

The catalogue is a model of descriptive information. It includes the name of the exhibitor, name and description of the exhibit, and ‘remarks’, and it also lists the ultimate destinations of the exhibits. Milligan, like William Macarthur, aimed to place objects from Australia in overseas museums. Most of the Tasmanian items, including the Aboriginal material, timber samples, geological specimens, resin, algae, whale oil, platypus skins, samples of gum and beeswax, and gemstones, were destined for the Museum of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, a forerunner of the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle. A collection of insects was destined for the British Museum; some objects were sent to the Secretary of State for the Colonies; and other specimens were to go to JD Hooker, who was in the process of establishing the economic botany collection of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. Some items were to be sent on to Edward Solly, Esq., formerly Secretary of the Royal Society in London, who was establishing a new Trade Museum to show the natural products of the Empire, and to promote research and investment in their use (Tasmanian Contributions … 1854).18

Some Tasmanian exhibitors took the opportunity to send items to their relatives and friends via the Paris Exhibition at the government’s expense. Mrs Mary Morton Allport sent a chess table, inlaid with wooden squares painted with images of the native flowers of Tasmania, which was destined eventually for a friend serving with the 37th Regiment of the Bengal Army in Calcutta. Other exhibitors requested that their possum skin rugs, paintings and other collections be sent on to relatives in England. A milk churn made from huon pine and wattle was to be sold after the exhibition, and the proceeds to be given to the ‘Patriotic Fund’ (Tasmanian contributions… 1854).

Milligan’s collection of Tasmanian Aboriginal material sent to Paris included weapons, foodstuffs, shell necklaces, baskets and model boats. He provided detailed notes on these objects, describing both how they were made and how they were used. He comments on the precision and force with which spears were thrown, reporting that ‘An Aborigine would with great ease transfix with one of these spears a piece of inch board set up as a target at a distance of 40 or 50 yards’. He describes ‘waddies, a sort of javelin made of pointed Tea-tree, formerly used in hunting and war…’, and explains how an Aboriginal hunter could kill small game with his ‘waddy’ ‘faster than a sportsman could bring them down with a gun’. Milligan noted ‘remarkable’ similarities between the baskets used by Tasmanian Aboriginal women when collecting crayfish and Aboriginal baskets from near Moreton Bay; this suggests that he was aware of the tools and equipment used by Aboriginal people on the mainland, and also that he was interested in their relationship with the Tasmanian Aborigines.

Milligan had observed the people making the things he collected; he provides a very detailed description of how shell necklaces used to be made, and how the modes of production had changed since European settlement. He notes that ‘these necklaces have come into some repute amongst ladies in England, as ornaments for the hair, and as bracelets variously enriched with gold clasps’. He also comments on the food eaten by Aboriginal people, explaining that ‘the children of the European settlers are quite as fond of the clear gum of the black wattle as the aborigines were…’ (Tasmanian Contributions… 1854, 20–21, 48). The sadness comes through as he describes most of these activities, with the exception of the making of shell necklaces, in the past tense. Milligan’s tone is one of respect for the ability of Aboriginal people, and deep regret at what he identifies as their ‘near extinction’.

Milligan had collected much of this material some years previously, some with the help of the Aborigines, some presumably obtained after the death of their makers. A collection of gems had been ‘obtained by digging and washing upon Flinders Island, chiefly by means of the Aborigines whose extremely sharp eye-sight enables them to detect small or distant objects more quickly than could be done by any European’. The Aborigines of Oyster Cove, accompanied by Milligan, made a trip back to Flinders Island during late 1849, and possibly a later trip in the early 1850s, in order to gather gems; a similar collection had been exhibited in London in 1851 (Plomley 1987, 199–200). Some items may have been made by a Tasmanian Aborigine especially for the Paris Exhibition. Two models of ‘catamarans or boats of Tasmanian aborigines, made by one of themselves from the bark of the Eucalyptus gigantea and the Meleleuca squarrosa’ were sent to Paris. These were similar to four models which Milligan had exhibited in London in 1851; they may have been commissioned and acquired on Flinders Island, or they may have been made at Oyster Cove in the 1850s.19 Milligan made an effort to highlight the significance of these models for his French audience, alerting his readers to the illustrations of these vessels that had been published in the reports of La Billardiere’s expedition of 1791–93. He described how up to 12 Aborigines used to travel in each small boat to visit the islands around Van Diemen’s Land, and commented that the people were ‘excellent swimmers’ (Tasmanian Contributions… 1854, 20, 35).

Milligan is describing a culture that is still alive in the memories of his Aboriginal informants, and in his own memory. He focused on the Indigenous people’s works of industry, how their objects were made and used; on the men’s strength and accuracy in hunting and the women’s skill in basket-making and making shell necklaces. The catalogue draws on his discussions over many years with the Tasmanian Aborigines, mostly on Flinders Island but possibly also at Oyster Cove; it reflects his sense of a shared humanity, and suggests ways in which Aborigines had superior ability to Europeans. He did not describe a timeless culture, frozen in traditional ways, but spoke of how the women took advantage of new materials introduced by Europeans when they made shell necklaces. By the 1850s, Milligan was among the few Europeans who were in a position to describe aspects of traditional life of the Tasmanians by speaking directly with the people. A few years later he published the first paper on the Tasmanian languages (Milligan 1859).

In addition to the items collected by Milligan, there were three other exhibits relating to Tasmanian Aborigines. Frederick von Stieglitz exhibited drawings of an Aboriginal man and his wife ‘to convey a correct idea of the appearance and character of Tasmanian Aborigines’. To spare the sensibilities of the European audience, the drawings depicted the people clothed in skins, though the contributor noted that such clothing was not usual. Mr Rodd, a Hobart lawyer, exhibited a ‘cranium of an Aboriginal native of Tasmania’. How Rodd obtained this skull is not known. In Paris this was displayed in the class relating to ‘Hygiene, Pharmacy, Surgery and Medicine’. Mrs Haller exhibited a ‘lock of hair from the head of an aboriginal chief of Tasmania’, coloured with red ochre. In Paris this was exhibited together with the shell necklaces and baskets in a class for ‘Articles of clothing, objects of fashion and fancy’ (Tasmanian Contributions … 1854, 47, 22, 24).


The Tasmanian catalogue included an essay by Milligan on the physical characteristics of the Indigenous people, their clothing, housing, languages, food, marriage customs, religious beliefs and burial customs. The essay concluded with a comment on the devastating effects of colonisation: ‘Long after Tasmania was first occupied, tribes have been met numbering more than 100; as the European population crept in and increased, and their flocks and herds spread over the country, sanguinary feuds often arose between the original inhabitants and the Stockmen and Shepherds, usually terminating most fatally to the former’. It ends with the common regret: ‘the inferior race has slowly but steadily yielded, and though long succoured and protected, there is now a mere handful of the aboriginal inhabitants left…’ (Tasmanian Contributions… 1854, 22–24).

What was Milligan’s view on ‘race’? In the above context, Milligan seems to be using the term ‘the inferior race’ to indicate an inferiority of arms and numbers and the Tasmanian Aborigines’ inability to defeat the settlers who were invading their lands. The term ‘inferior’ should not necessarily be interpreted to mean that Milligan was supposing an overall racial inferiority; in fact, in the same document he has detailed areas in which the Aborigines were more skilled than Europeans.

Milligan’s silences in his catalogue are as instructive as his words. At the time he was writing the catalogue, he, like most people in Van Diemen’s Land, believed that the ‘extinction’ of the Tasmanian Aborigines was inevitable. The way he accounted for this was to acknowledge the culpability of the settlers, particularly convict and ex-convict stockmen and shepherds, in the violent decimation of the Aboriginal population. In this he was repeating views expressed by his contemporaries West, Burn and Melville (Williamson 2004, 178). There were at the time other ways of accounting for the decline of the Aborigines. RH Davies, another member of the Tasmanian Royal Society, had published an article on Aboriginal life in 1846, where he drew on arguments related to the people’s alleged ‘savagery’, their internecine warfare and their inferior technology, together with their inability to adapt to the loss of their land, to explain their decline (Davies 1846). Milligan had seen the disastrous effect of introduced diseases, and he had first-hand knowledge of the demoralisation of the people at Oyster Cove, and the level of alcoholism and promiscuity there.20 But he used neither arguments from ‘savagery’ nor from individual behaviour in his catalogue essay. Instead, he laid the blame solely on the violence of the colonisers, and hinted at the settlers’ continuing responsibility to care for the remaining people.

The main thrust of his catalogue writings is to provide details about Aboriginal industry as it had been and to suggest that some cultural practices were still followed. He presents the results of conversations with Aboriginal people at Flinders Island and Oyster Cove, and himself as a keen and sympathetic observer. Throughout, Milligan emphasises the common humanity and the achievements of the Tasmanian Aborigines. When he speaks about the Aboriginal people being ‘long succoured and protected’, there is a huge degree of cultural blindness; but throughout the catalogue there is kindness, sympathy and respect as well. Twenty years later, Tasmanian writers like Bonwick, Calder and Roth, influenced by ideas about ‘the survival of the fittest’, began placing the blame for Aboriginal decline on a basic racial inferiority, natural causes outside human control (Williamson 2004, 178). These ideas are not to be found in Milligan’s writings of the 1850s.

It has been suggested that collectors like Milligan exploited the knowledge gained from Aboriginal people, and that their main motive for collecting was to receive prestige for themselves within the scientific establishment at home and abroad (Griffiths 1996, ch. 2). Joseph Milligan did benefit from his scientific and ethno-historical investigations in Van Diemen’s Land; he became respected as an ‘expert’ on Tasmanian Aboriginal culture, both in Hobart and after his return to England in 1860. His 1859 Vocabulary was re-published by the Tasmanian commissioners for the 1866 Melbourne Intercolonial Exhibition, when the commissioners appealed to his ‘character and attainments’ as ‘a guarantee of the fidelity and accuracy of his work’.21 In England, Milligan made contact with scientist Dr Joseph Barnard Davis, an exponent of the theories of ‘scientific racism’ (MacDonald 2005, ch. 4). In 1867 Davis asked Milligan to examine the extensive ethnographic collection and some skeletal material that he had purchased from George Robinson. Milligan identified most of the objects as Victorian, not made by Tasmanian Aborigines as Robinson had claimed (Plomley 1962, 5).

In Britain, Milligan gave British scientists some Aboriginal skulls which were used in the development of ideas of ‘scientific racism’. He donated four skulls to Davis’s collection before 1867 and one skull to the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in 1869. The recorded provenance of these skulls suggests that they were collected by Milligan during his botanical and geological expeditions. None of the skulls were provenanced to Flinders Island or Oyster Cove (Plomley 1962, 7). Milligan’s collection and export of ancestral remains adversely affects the degree of sympathy that twenty-first century Australians have for him, but it is an unsafe basis for drawing conclusions about his character or motivation in the 1850s.22

One of Milligan’s motives in preparing his Vocabulary in 1859 was to record in sorrow the words of a nearly extinct race (Milligan 1866, 3), and his attempts to record the skill and craftsmanship of the Tasmanian Aborigines as he knew it during the 1840s and 1850s can be seen to be motivated by the same wish to document the industry and achievements of a people facing ‘extinction’. Recognition by his scientific peers was no doubt welcome, but there is no reason to suggest that a search for this was his only motivation, or that, in such a search, he lost sight of the human dimensions of the tragedy that he was seeing and recording.


The NSW exhibits were transported to Paris in early 1855. William Macarthur and two other gentlemen were appointed as Commissioners for the NSW Court in Paris; they were to look after the exhibits, display them well, answer questions, and dispose of them appropriately.23

Mr RW Nutt, a Hobart lawyer who was in Florence on a private visit, was appointed the Tasmanian Commissioner. He travelled to Paris and employed an agent, a clerk in the office of a Paris merchant, whose first task was to locate the Tasmanian items in the chaos of the exhibition halls. The Australian material had been repacked in London before being sent to Paris, causing much confusion. The Tasmanian collections were eventually set up near some of the NSW and Victorian displays (Nutt 1856).

Edward Bell, immigration agent, was appointed Special Commissioner for Victoria. He was given detailed instructions about the 20 boxes sent for display, together with the ultimate destination of each item. Unfortunately, the list of Victorian items and their ultimate destinations was never received by Bell, and he found himself at the end of the exhibition in Paris without instructions about where to send the items.24

There was a gap between the Australian colonists’ high expectations for the Paris Exhibition, and what actually happened in the exhibition halls. The Australian material seems to have been scattered throughout the Paris Exhibition buildings, rather than gathered in one spot as the Canadian exhibits were. British officials were so ignorant about Australia that in their initial plans for the Australian displays, Sydney was described as the capital of Western Australia, and New South Wales as part of South Australia (Nutt 1856).25 The Victorian and NSW gold nuggets attracted great attention but the main other comments were about the ‘great variety’ of goods on show all mixed up together, and a complimentary report about Australian wines (Universal Exposition de 1855 1855, 177, 198–199; Great Britain. Board of Trade 1855, 72–73).26 Commentators noted examples of ‘native industry’ from the Dutch East India Company, New Zealand, Ceylon and Canada. No-one seems to have taken special note of the Australian Aboriginal collections, though Sir William Hooker noted the bark etchings from Fernyhurst, recording ‘some curious drawings by the natives of Victoria’ on the inside of a piece of bark. Hooker opined that the printed catalogue from Victoria was ‘void of any useful information’; and unfortunately Milligan’s catalogue of the Tasmanian contributions did not arrive until several months after the Exhibition closed (Great Britain. Trade Board 1856, 104, 105).

NSW Commissioner William Macarthur was indefatigable in promoting the potential and resources of his colony. He exchanged mineral and fossil specimens with other countries, adding to the Australian Museum’s collections, and corresponded with collectors and investors from many parts of Europe. He soon recognised that timber samples per se were of little interest, so he had pieces of furniture made from some of the NSW wood, to show more clearly its potential. Macarthur received honours for his work, including the Legion of Honour and a knighthood from the Queen.27 Mr Nutt, the Tasmanian Special Commissioner, seems to have been asked to act without remuneration; he had to leave Paris to return to Hobart before the end of the exhibition, so it is not clear whether the wishes of the exhibitors were carried out (Nutt 1856). More research might determine how much Tasmanian material from Paris actually reached the Jardin des Plantes and other collections; however, no elements of the Tasmanian Aboriginal collections at Paris were discovered by Plomley in 1961, which suggests that they have vanished without trace (Plomley 1962).

Edward Bell for Victoria showed no initiative at all. He reported back to his committee only once, complaining that he had only been able to find a hot and crowded corner for the Victorian exhibits.28 He seems to have soon lost interest in promoting the colony and went on a private visit to Sweden. At the end of the exhibition, those parts of the Victorian exhibition that had not been sold, five boxes including £10,000 worth of gold nuggets, were left languishing on the docks in Paris because of a conflict over payment with the Parisian agent. Bell was instructed to make a special trip to France to find and release the boxes, and in May 1856 (six months after the exhibition closed), the material eventually arrived in London. The Colonial Office sought instructions from the Victorian Government; the gold was sold and the money put towards ‘emigration purposes’, but no other response from Victoria about the disposal of the items was received. The Victorian Commissioners for the Paris Exhibition had long since dispersed, and a new administration in Melbourne found itself too busy to worry about collections that had been sent to the other side of the world.29 Eventually, some of the cases must have been opened and the contents distributed in Britain. Two bark etchings and a ceremonial piece collected by Kerr had entered the collections of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew by 1861. One etching and the ceremonial piece were later transferred to the collections of the British Museum. The fate of the other Aboriginal material collected by Kerr, Jones and Hutchinson has not been traced (Willis 2003).


Clearly, objects in museums may change their meaning and significance over time. Objects that were collected as evidence of Aboriginal industry can become ‘curios’ as they lose their context. Conversely, an object that was once regarded as a ‘curio’ can become a symbol of oppression, or a focus for the rediscovery of a tradition, or an example of cultural practice and adaptability that gives rise to great feelings of pride and belonging.

One aim of this chapter has been to illuminate the original motivations of some of the collectors of Aboriginal material in 1854. I have argued that the collectors of 1854 intended to present Aborigines in human terms, not as ‘primitive savages’, not as ‘racial types’, and not as representatives of a ‘timeless, unchanging race’. They drew on their knowledge of Aboriginal life, gained through conversations with their neighbours and through observation of the industry, skill and adaptability of the Aboriginal people whom they knew, and they presented the products of this workmanship and industry to the world. It has been suggested that collectors in the colonial period acted as if tribal cultures were unchanging and therefore unproblematic and ‘primitive’. But Milligan and Kerr, the two most prolific collectors in 1854, were not collecting a culture that was ‘frozen in time’. While displaying Aboriginal objects made from traditional materials, they also collected to show the Aborigines’ adaptability in the midst of a rapidly changing world. They placed these items on display in the 1850s as indicators of the common humanity of people from all parts of the world.

This way of looking at the products of the labour of the world’s peoples was prevalent in the early 1850s, but it has largely been forgotten by historians writing on the ways that ‘native industry’ was exhibited in later decades.

Museum curators know that it is almost impossible to predict or control how exhibition goers ‘see’ and react to objects on display. We know nothing about the actual experience of those who saw the Aboriginal items on display in Paris. It may well be that most visitors saw only ‘unskilled’ or ‘primitive’ work, and that the level of skill and hard work that produced the items was not understood and not appreciated. It may be that the evidence presented of cultures in flux, of people adapting in difficult circumstances, or of people retaining many traditional ways in the midst of a changing world, was too subtle and not appreciated by the great majority of the visitors who flocked to the Paris Exhibition. And it may well be that even five years later, with the development of later polygenistic views about ‘race’, and the post-Darwin codification of ideas about a hierarchy of races, many viewers could no longer see evidence of ‘industry’ and hard work in the ‘productions of Aboriginal states’.

Once the works of Aboriginal people were most often dismissed as ‘primitive’ or ‘unskilled’, the isolated objects in museums or exhibitions lost their importance as tools or examples of ‘industry’, skill and craftsmanship; they became no more than ’curiosities’. But these items had a greater significance at the time when they were first collected and displayed. Although the collectors’ relatively benign purpose of displaying Aboriginal industry has often been overtaken by other agendas and interpretations, this should not diminish or negate their original intent.


1    Hotham to Grey, 18 September 1854. A2343:2752, Mitchell Library.

2    ‘Foreign and Colonial Departments. Productions of Aboriginal States’, The Crystal Palace and its Contents, Issue 3, 18 October 1851: 42

3    Robert Kenny’s book The Lamb Enters the Dreaming: Nathanael Pepper & the Ruptured World (Melbourne: Scribe, 2007) was published as this chapter was being finalised. It includes extensive and nuanced discussions of changes in ideas about ‘race’ in nineteenth-century Victoria. See especially chapters 4 and 20.

4    Copies of the medallion are held by Museum Victoria, NU 20513, NU 20514.

5    For information about William Macarthur as a gardener and collector, see Paul Fox, 2004.

6    These were probably LE Threlkeld. 1834. An Australian Grammar: Comprehending the Principles and Natural Rules of the Language, as Spoken by the Aborigines in the Vicinity of Hunter’s River, Lake Macquarie, &c. New South Wales. Sydney: Stephens and Stokes; and LE Threlkeld. 1836. An Australian Spelling Book in the Language as Spoken by the Aborigines in the Vicinity of Hunter’s River, Lake Macquarie, New South Wales. Sydney: Stephens and Stokes. The catalogue describes it as Grammar of the Aboriginal Language and Key to the Structure of the Language. Threlkeld was a missionary with the London Missionary Society, in charge of a mission station to the Aborigines at Lake Macquarie between 1825 and 1841 (Gunson 1967).

7    The significance of the bunya pine as a seasonal food source for Aboriginal people and also its role in the maintenance of cultural life was recognised by authorities during the 1840s. From 1842 until 1860, large areas of New England and Moreton Bay were included in a reserve declared by Governor Gipps to protect the bunya pine for local Aboriginal groups. It was illegal to settle or clear land where bunya pines occurred. Order by Governor Gipps, Government Gazette, 19 April 1842.

8    Vanni (1999) argues that all the Aboriginal objects at the 1855 Exhibition were essentially ‘curios’ (9). I hope to argue that the collections, especially those from the two other colonies, are more complex than this.

9    Bendigo Advertiser, 5 September 1854.

10    Examples of the prize medals are in the collection of Museum Victoria, e.g. NU 34982 and NU 34980. One of the medallions is held by the National Library of Australia.

11    See for example the careers of Godfrey Howitt, with his work as President of the Melbourne Benevolent Asylum; Joseph Panton, defender of the rights of the Chinese on the Bendigo goldfields; and GW Rusden, a sympathetic observer of Aboriginal people. Australian Dictionary of Biography, various.

12    The Crystal Palace and its Contents, Issue 3, 18 October 1851: 44.

13    Argus, 7 May 1855: 6. The certificate is held by Museum Victoria, SH 01.728.

14    Argus, 18 September 1854: 5 contains further detail of Kerr’s exhibit.

15    RE Johns, Scrapbook. Volume 1, n.d. Held in Museum Victoria.

16    Argus, 18 September 1854: 5.

17    Argus, 18 October 1854: 5. The medal is held by Museum Victoria, NU 34980.

18    For Solly, see the Royal Society website, Accessed 6 September 2006.

19    Two similar models, donated by Milligan to the Royal Society of Tasmania, are now in the collection of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart.

20    Milligan to Colonial Secretary, 17 February 1854, CSO 24/241/9498, cited in Plomley, 1987: 178; Milligan to Colonial Secretary, 31 July 1851, CSO 24/284/6314, cited in Ryan, 1981: 209.

21    Foreword by R Officer to Joseph Milligan, Vocabulary of the Dialects of Some of the Aboriginal Tribes of Tasmania, Hobart Town, Government Printer, 1866: 1.

22    Even more damagingly, Milligan has been accused of directly assisting Morton Allport in locating Aboriginal graves and obtaining skeletons from Flinders Island and Oyster Cove in the early 1870s for export to Britain (MacDonald 2005, 120). If true, this would mean that Milligan connived, at a distance, in the robbing of the graves of individuals whom he knew, at a time when relatives were still alive at Oyster Cove. Yet MacDonald presents no direct evidence; the only relevant consideration she brings forward is that Milligan and Allport were acquainted. Specifically, she gives no reference to any correspondence between Milligan and Allport relating to grave robbing. Milligan was in Britain in the 1870s, a long way from Hobart, and he was not the only person who knew the location of the burial ground on Flinders Island. When Robinson visited the Island in the 1840s, he wrote of the rows of graves, ‘mounds of earth now before us where the people are buried, as they are in single graves… (Plomley 1987, 329). Something of these regular mounds no doubt remained by the 1870s, visible and accessible to a grave robber like Allport. There were still a number of people in Hobart who had been associated with Flinders Island who could have helped Allport locate the graveyard if it had been necessary. Milligan could not have been instrumental in locating for Allport the grave of Bessy Clarke, as MacDonald implies; Mrs Clarke died at Oyster Cove after 1866, several years after Milligan had left the colony.

23    Macarthur Papers, A2940. Sir W Macarthur. Paris Exhibition Correspondence, 1854–63. Mitchell Library.

24    I have been unable to find a copy of this list, though it does appear to have been sent to Bell in Paris. It is referred to in letters of January 1855 in the Paris Exhibition Commission, June 1854 to May 1862, ‘Letterbook’, La Trobe Library, H17247.

25    Sir William Macarthur, Argus, 27 December 1855.

26    Edward Bell, Argus, 15 December 1855: 6.

27    Macarthur Papers, A 2940. Sir W Macarthur, Paris Exhibition Correspondence, 1854–63, letters of 8 November 1855 and earlier. Mitchell Library.

28    Argus, 15 December 1855: 6.

29    Correspondence about these events is found in CO 386/80, CO 386/128, CO 374/2 in the Public Records Office, London; and in the Dispatches to the Governor of Victoria, 1856–57, from the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Mitchell Library, A 2362.



Colonial Secretary’s Correspondence, Paris Industrial Exhibition, 1854. VPRS 1189, Consignment P0000, Unit 227, Victorian Public Record Office, Melbourne.

Colonial Office records, CO 386/80, CO 386/128, CO 374/2, Public Records Office, London.

Johns, RE (n.d.) Scrapbook. Held in the Indigenous Cultures Department, Museum Victoria.

Macarthur Papers, A2940. Sir W Macarthur, Paris Exhibition Correspondence, 1854–63. Mitchell Library.

Secretary of State for the Colonies. Dispatches to the Governor of Victoria, 1856–57. Mitchell Library, A2362.


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Cite this chapter as: Willis, Elizabeth. 2008. ‘“The productions of Aboriginal states”: Australian Aboriginal and settler exhibits at the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1855’. Seize the Day: Exhibitions, Australia and the World, edited by Darian-Smith, Kate; Gillespie, Richard; Jordan, Caroline; and Willis, Elizabeth. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 2.1–2.19.

© Copyright 2008 Elizabeth Willis
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   by Kate Darian-Smith, Richard Gillespie, Caroline Jordan, Elizabeth Willis