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The Intercolonial Exhibition of Australasia held in Melbourne during 1866–67 – the first exhibition to involve all of the Australian colonies – provides a significant, previously under-examined, opportunity for exploring Australian national identity and race. Most scholarship in this field has focused on the period leading up to Federation, yet although Australia was still to embrace nationhood and suffered from intense rivalry between the colonies, the construction of a nascent (white) Australian national identity is evident at the 1866–67 exhibition. Representations of Indigenous Australians in the exhibition were integral to this identity formation.

Much interest in nineteenth-century Australian exhibitions centres on the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne’s Carlton Gardens, and two particular events held there, the 1880–81 Melbourne International Exhibition and the 1888–89 Centennial International Exhibition (Dunstan 1996; Findling and Pelle 1990). The Royal Exhibition Building has become an iconic memorial to nineteenth-century exhibitions and the prosperous era of ‘Marvellous Melbourne’. Yet Melbourne’s fascination with exhibitions began long before. Its first Exhibition Building, built on William Street in 1854 at great expense (Knight 1867, xxiii), housed the Melbourne Exhibition of 1854, a preliminary to the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1855, and the 1861 Melbourne Exhibition before the 1862 London International Exhibition. The 1866–67 Intercolonial Exhibition was also anticipatory of a European event, providing a means by which to select displays for the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1867. This exhibition was grander in style and aspiration than its predecessors. It became clear that the original Exhibition Building would be too small to hold the event and a large extension to the Public Library on Swanston Street was built to house the new exhibition.1

For the first time, the Australasian colonies came together to display and compare their industry, manufactures and natural wealth. The cooperation required to stage such an event, displaying the spectacle of colonial progress and the richness of natural resources, prompted many to imagine that the spirit of unity fostered by the exhibition would lead to the birth of a great new nation. Open for exactly four months, the exhibition was hugely successful. More than 200,000 visitors saw a display of developing Australian identity, by exhibitors who set out to exhibit the expanding technical capabilities and developing cultural refinement of the colonies.

As Graeme Davison (1988) has observed, before the Olympic Games became the celebratory site of national identities, nineteenth-century exhibitions were ‘the most important of the symbolic battlegrounds on which nations demonstrated their prowess and tested the strength of their rivals’ (158). They are thus key sites for scholars interested in tracing the creation, construction and representation of national identity.2 This chapter will argue that the Intercolonial Exhibition provides a significant, although under-examined, opportunity for exploring these issues. While Australia was not yet a nation, and indeed there was intense rivalry between the colonies, the construction of a nascent (white) Australian national identity is evident at the exhibition. Integral to this identity formation were the representations of Indigenous Australians.

There has been as yet little research on the earliest exhibitions in Australia in the mid nineteenth century, and on the Intercolonial Exhibition of 1866–67 in particular.3 Existing research on the 1866–67 Exhibition is predominantly on the few surviving items from the display, and includes discussion of broader issues of material culture and representation.4 Some aspects of the racial themes at the event have been noted, but there has not been a detailed analysis (Russell 1999, 40).

Meanwhile, studies of Australian national identity and race have quite naturally focused on the period leading up to Federation, and questions of race and xenophobia have informed the scholarship about early Australian identity (Hancock 1930; Ward 1965). It was most definitely a white Australian identity that the new nation enshrined in the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, better known as the ‘White Australia Policy’. Indeed, what makes the study of the conceptualisation of early Australian identity so distinctive is its extremely limited nature, frequently excluding women, non-white immigrants and the indigenous population altogether. This chapter argues that the Intercolonial Exhibition reveals some of the much earlier roots of these ideologies.

Although Federation remained a far-off goal, ideas of a union had been floated since the mid-nineteenth century (Garran 1933, 426). The 1866–67 Exhibition was seen as a vehicle to promote unity between the colonies and, ultimately, the idea of nationhood. It was widely believed that the exhibition would lead to formal Australian unity. In parliament there was discussion that it might ‘prepare the way for a federation of the colonies, which must take place some time at all events’, and that the event would help create a sense of understanding and ‘brotherhood’ among the colonies to ease their transition into a single nation. This hope was repeated in the official exhibition guide.5 A racial identity was central to both hopes of unity and dreams of nationhood.

Of specific relevance to this analysis is Anthony Moran’s (2005) notion of settler nationalism. He argues:

As early as the 1840s one can find public utterances in parliaments, newspapers and in journals, which indicate that forms of racism were used as ideological justification for the colonisation of Australia, and the replacement of Aborigines as a people, by a ‘finer’ white race (172).

He argues that an ideology based upon the conquest of territory and the dispossession of the Indigenous population was integral to a white Australian identity. Interestingly then, the Intercolonial Exhibition and its Parisian successor marked an increased desire to display Aboriginal cultural artefacts, reflecting the growing interest in ethnography that was a hallmark of many nineteenth-century exhibitions. This chapter contends that these representations of the colonial Other were fundamental to the formation of a white Australian national identity. While nationhood and the representation of Aborigines at exhibitions have been explored for the last two decades of the nineteenth century, the Intercolonial Exhibition presents a unique opportunity to analyse these issues at an earlier period. A consideration of nineteenth-century exhibitionary practices – including modes of display, categorisation and supporting narratives at the exhibition – provides new insights into the construction of an incipient national identity in white Australia in the 1860s.



Figure 1. Interior of an exhibit hall at the 1866-67 Intercolonial Exhibition, showing the orderly and highly categorised manner in which items were put on display.
Photograph by Thomas Ellis & Co., 1866–67. (Courtesy of State Library of Victoria)

In a far-reaching demonstration of Australasian friendship, the Intercolonial Exhibition featured exhibits from Victoria, Mauritius, Netherlands-India, New South Wales, Tasmania, South Australia, Queensland, Western Australia, New Zealand and New Caledonia. Each colony was given an individual section (‘court’) for their displays, and the Victorian Court included sub-sections from the various regional exhibitions held in preparation for the intercolonial event.6 It was the Australian colonies that took centre stage at the exhibition, prompting references to ‘national’ unity. The notion of unity was conceived through two axes: capitalism and race.

It was acknowledged that exhibitions were a significant stimulus to trade, with the exhibition’s secretary and general manager, JG Knight, noting: ‘These great periodical festivals of industry and progress are now understood as the best mediums for giving world-wide celebrity to all useful productions. National Exhibitions are gigantic illustrated advertisements’ (The Australian Colonies … 1866, 3).

Moreover, the success of the Intercolonial Exhibition led to speculation that it could bring an end to the tariff dispute between the colonies:

Another suggestion with which the Exhibition is pregnant is … that a close alliance of the several colonies for industrial purposes will be conducive to the prosperity of all … To this end not only must border duties be abolished, but the tariffs of the several colonies must be rendered uniform.7

The press predicted that the exhibition, as a ‘temple of industry’,8 would benefit the Australian colonies by improving their international reputation. In fact, a recurring theme throughout the event was the notion that the colonies would soon become self-sufficient and able to stand on their own in an international market. What Knight (1867) called their ‘very gratifying march of improvement’ (xxv) was evident in the high standard of manufactures, and one newspaper confirmed: ‘the workmanship exhibited is as good as any the world could produce – not good for a young country, or good “considering”, but absolutely as good as men’s hands can accomplish’.9

The exhibition was a site of consumption and instruction. However, my focus is on the aspects of nation building and representations of race inherent in the event. The exhibition offered the opportunity for the colonies to improve their knowledge of each other, while sharing the common experiences of improving life in the new land. Peter Hoffenberg (2001, 49) has argued that exhibitions were important producers of local knowledge in the colonies, which aided the development of national identities. It was certainly intended that the Intercolonial Exhibition would act as a centre of learning, rather than, as the Age newspaper feared, merely ‘as an amusing show’,10 but additionally it would provide the opportunity for the colonies to know each other better:

The mother country knows next to nothing of us, and what little knowledge she possesses is almost as dangerous as ignorance … and we colonists know little more of each other than the great British nation does … We can now, for about the first time, judge what our country is, and comparison cannot fail to teach its invaluable lessons.11

The gathering of exhibits from all colonies under one roof was a way to conquer the distance that fostered a sense of isolation in the furthest flung populations. This was particularly true for Western Australia which, as the Illustrated Melbourne Post noted, was separated by ‘many a league of barren desert from the more southern colonies … the result has been that we know just as much about China or Japan as we do of a country peopled by our own race a few hundred miles distant from us’.12 As another newspaper noted, the exhibition was an opportunity to ‘dispel the ignorance’ and marked ‘a new phase in the progress of all the Australasian colonies without exception’.13 Hence, this ‘gigantic illustrated advertisement’ promoted both the industry and ingenuity of the colonies, while spurring imaginings of a national community across vast distances, united by race.


Figure 2. The Intercolonial Exhibition Medal, featuring seven women representing each of the Australasian colonies.
Engraving by Samuel Calvert, 1867. (Courtesy of State Library of Victoria)

The binding ties of race were also illustrated in the exhibition medal designed by renowned sculptor Charles Summers. The medal featured six (white) women carrying gifts, disembarking from a boat to be greeted by a seventh woman. The image represented Victoria welcoming the other Australasian colonies (including New Zealand) to the exhibition. The classical gowns and Latin motto are a reminder of the link these colonies shared with the Old World, and the translation reads ‘They all look different, and yet alike as sisters would’.14 The palm leaf held by the woman representing Victoria is suggestive of victory and longevity, perhaps predicting a prosperous future for intercolonial relations, while the lion corresponds to the host colony’s strength as the wealthiest and most populous. Victoria obviously prized its role as architect of the exhibition, thus strengthening intercolonial ties, in addition to acting as what one paper called the ‘emporium of the industrial skill of the whole’.15


The 1860s were a transitional period in racial thinking (Chesterman and Galligan 1997; Edmonds 2006; McGregor 1997), and the exhibition is an excellent site to explore the conflicting ideas of the time, which were expressed both in the displays and the exhibition’s supporting narratives. The meta-narrative of progress, so evident in the exhibition’s displays of colonial technology and cultivation, was bolstered by a ‘counterpoint’ to white civilisation: the Australian Aborigines. Indigenous culture was employed to perform this function, as a signifier of a time before progress and a people without civilisation. Exhibition narratives gave weight to this relegation, which in turn helped to justify the territorial claim made upon the land by the white settlers.

Nowhere was the self-justification of settlement more evident than in the performances at the ‘Grand Evening Concert in Celebration of the Opening’, held on Wednesday 24 October 1866. By all accounts the evening truly was a grand affair, ‘constituting at once the actual presentment and the true reflex of a people exalted to the pinnacle of civilization’.16 Yet, throughout the evening’s performances, the settlers legitimised their claim upon the land by portraying the original inhabitants as nomadic ‘savages’ who had failed to make use of its resources. Implicit in this judgement was the assertion that the Aborigines did not deserve to own the continent they inhabited.

Described in one newspaper editorial as a ‘powerful feature’, The South-Sea Sisters was a lyric masque penned especially for the Intercolonial Exhibition.17 Reiterating the trope of familial relations between the colonies, it was a musical rendition of Australasian progress in three parts. Part 1, beginning with ‘Address to Solitude’ and ‘Primeval Wilderness’, lamented that the fertile lands of Australia had never known ‘The pleasant sight and movement of white flocks / Or chestnut-spotted cattle’. Although acknowledging the presence of Aborigines, the original inhabitants were chastised for their perceived lack of pastoral industry and religion:

[M]an’s form
Though savage as the scene, rarely appeared, –
And when the glossy leanness darkly stalked
From tangled lair, t’was but to hunt for prey
In earth-holes, undergrowth, or lonely creek,
But ne’er to look Above! – O, Solitude!
Though had’st an empire then without a soul
Beneath the solemn and unworshipped heavens
As though nor earth, nor heaven, possessed a God.
(Horne 1866, 5).

The European settlers took possession of a land that, in their eyes, was neglected and unused by its inhabitants:

Such was the scene, till civilized man
Came with his flocks and pastoral hand
To claim – redeem – and use the land, –
A blessing t’were unwise to scan
He, the strong pioneer, for all
In after years who crossed the sea,
Did this, -- which honest truth may call
The first seed of a Nation’s Tree.
(Horne 1866, 6).

Intertwined with the romanticising of the colonies’ origins – and absence of any hint that violence had accompanied settlement – was again the notion that the Australian colonies would inevitably unite. Undeniably, unity was forecast as being a prerequisite to a successful future, as the song continues: ‘Ye South Sea Sisters! circling east, west, north! / Unite in Federal bonds for one fixt power, / So shall ye find no sudden evil hour / Darken your future – check your prosperous growth’ (Horne 1866, 14).

The Triumphal March and Chorus, as its title suggests, was an exercise in self-congratulation. Also composed for the Opening Ceremony, it noted with pride the colonies’ supposed ‘bloodless’ history of good deeds:

Bright land Australia;
Bright great and free!
A nation young,
An infant strong,
Greater to be!
Yet great in peace,
Unlike the lands where wars increase,
Not writ our chronicles in blood,
Our pride of greatness doing good.
(Horne 1866, 15)

It was true that there was no history of civil war between the colonies, and this was the ‘bloodless’ past celebrated in the March. The failure to acknowledge violence toward the Indigenous populations in the burgeoning ‘national’ story – despite ill-treatment of Aborigines having been the focus of a British Select Committee investigation in 1837 – further strengthened the exclusion of Aborigines from the imagined beginnings of a national community.18


Surprisingly – given the Opening Ceremony’s fleeting references to the Aborigines and almost complete disregard of colonial violence – the Intercolonial Exhibition had a much larger Indigenous presence among its displays than the two previous Victorian exhibitions. Utilising the exhibition catalogue to explore the manner in which Indigenous items were displayed reveals more about the way representations of Aborigines aided the development of a white Australian national identity. (Intercolonial Exhibition 1867a). Given the nineteenth-century obsession with ‘order’, it seems odd that the haphazard arrangement of catalogue entries echoed the apparently random positioning of ‘traditional’ Indigenous artefacts alongside Western products made by Aboriginal hands. However, both kinds of displays were indicative of the competing racial narratives woven through the Intercolonial Exhibition.

These narratives were embodied in the items crafted by Indigenous Australians, which can be divided into two categories: firstly, items that act both as signifiers of white knowledge of traditional Aboriginal culture and a reflection of ‘imperialist nostalgia’; secondly, items which were useful as evidence of the successful ‘civilising mission’, the project of the white man’s burden. Renato Rosaldo (1989), who coined the term ‘imperialist nostalgia’, describes this phenomenon as a ‘mourning for what one has destroyed’. Agents of colonialism ‘often display nostalgia for the colonized culture as it was “traditionally” (that is, when they first encountered it)’ (107). Conversely, the white man’s burden was seen to be his responsibility to bring Christianity and civilisation to these new subjects of Empire (Stephens 2003, 30).

The practice of displaying ‘live natives’ was not common at exhibitions until later in the nineteenth century,19 but there had been requests for Victorian Aborigines to take part in exhibitions abroad in the 1860s. However, the Central Board Appointed to Watch over the Interests of the Aborigines of Victoria (Central Board) denied these requests, a move that was consistent with the practice of missionising and separating Aborigines from white settlers (Hoffenberg 2001, 223). This separation ensured that the Indigenous items on display were collected and exhibited by settlers, and categorised according to the Exhibition Commissioners’ system, revealing much about colonial assumptions towards Indigenous culture.

Indigenous items were classified according to their origin, unlike items exhibited by settlers, which were classified by type or use. Hence Aboriginal drawings and jewellery were not included in ‘The Ornamental Arts’ with contributions from white settlers. Rather, they were displayed alongside ethnographic items under ‘Specimens of Native Workmanship’. The separation implies a distinct objectification of Aboriginal cultural artefacts, collected and preserved for the addition they could make to the completeness of Western knowledge.

The most numerous Aboriginal items on show were ‘traditional’ tools, weapons and ornaments displayed as specimens of ethnographical interest and representations of a primitive culture. Three exhibitors from Western Australia contributed Indigenous items, and they were all traditional artefacts. Spears were arranged in a fan-like design, while shields and waddies approximated the symmetrical pattern of typological displays common to later presentations of Indigenous weaponry (Edmonds 2006, 130). Similarly, the two Tasmanian collections of Indigenous items were traditional ornaments, although on display were head dresses, necklaces and bracelets rather than weapons. The head dresses were reputed to be those ‘worn by the Aboriginal women at the Government-house Ball on Queen’s Birthday’, indicating that the Aboriginal women had been called upon to ‘perform’ their culture at official functions, again contributing to Western ethnographic knowledge.

The largest display of Indigenous items was contained in the Melbourne division of the Victorian Court. In all, 134 articles were on show, with each article containing one or more example. Unlike the displays from other colonies, here traditional cultural artefacts were set alongside European goods made by Aborigines as evidence of successful education and ‘civilisation’. Exhibitor number 473, the Central Board, displayed ‘Aboriginal products received from the Aborigines’ (Intercolonial Exhibition 1867a, 27–28). With the creation of the Central Board in 1860, and the subsequent establishment of a number of missions or stations (generally referred to as ‘reserves’), almost a third of Victorian Aborigines had come under state control (Koorie Heritage Trust and Museum of Victoria 1991, 25). Reserve managers coordinated the contribution of the items and only a few catalogue entries list the names of their creators.

Reading the catalogue further reveals that the categorisation adopted created the most incongruous of adjacencies. Albert Le Souëf’s box of ‘Miniature Native Weapons, and Implements used by the Natives of Australia before the advent of Europeans’ – a miniature set of Aboriginal weapons carved by Le Souëf – was nestled between entries for ‘Artificial Teeth’ and a ‘Perfume Fountain’ (Intercolonial Exhibition 1867a, 30). An entry for items made by Pentridge Prison inmates immediately preceded the Central Board’s display (Intercolonial Exhibition 1867a, 29). Penelope Edmonds has noted this powerful adjacency, which connected the prison inmates with the Aborigines living on the reserves under the control of the State (Edmonds 2005, 229).20 Furthermore, I argue that there is a deeper parallel at work, that of education, rehabilitation and the ‘good management’ of these two groups of social outcasts. The clothing and hats made by the Pentridge inmates were received as evidence of the successful regulation of the criminal and socially deviant. The Jurors stated, ‘We consider great credit due to Colonel Champ for the evident care bestowed upon the due employment of the prisoners under his charge’ (Intercolonial Exhibition 1867b, 344). Similar indications of employment in ‘useful industry’ are evident in the Central Board’s display.

Queensland and South Australia did not contribute any ‘Specimens of Native Workmanship’ to the exhibition, and only one Aboriginal item appeared in the New South Wales Court. Exhibit 227, from Mr JF Wilcox of Grafton, was listed as ‘Aboriginal Stone Hatchet, Clarence River. Turned up by the Plough; formerly used by Aborigines of the District’ (Intercolonial Exhibition 1867a: 69). At first this entry seemed to suggest a settler-turned-exhibitor by a fortuitous turn of the plough. However, Museum Victoria’s Indigenous Cultures Department’s database reveals that in 1865, a Mr Wilcox from Clarence River donated two sets of human remains to their collection.21 This additional information indicates that Wilcox was in fact, like many settlers, an amateur ethnographer ‘trying to piece together a global history and to discover Australia’s place within it’ (Griffiths 1996, 42).

The absence of other displays of ‘native workmanship’ might be taken to imply a lack of interest in New South Wales regarding their Indigenous populations. In fact, it was a reflection of the low priority given to the Intercolonial Exhibition in comparison to the preparation for their display in Paris in 1867. In contrast to the ‘sidelining’ of items in the Melbourne classification system, Indigenous items took a prominent place in the New South Wales court in Paris. The colony’s Parisian catalogue lists two-and-a-half pages of exhibits under a stand-alone division entitled ‘Aboriginal Weapons and Implements’ (New South Wales Commissioners 1867, 37–39). The items were predominantly weapons, bags and ornaments; however, there were also skulls and plaster casts of Aboriginal feet and fingers on display. Indeed, far from a lack of interest in Aborigines, the New South Wales commissioners employed both cultural artefacts and representations of the Other’s body to educate the visitors to their court in Paris about Australia’s Aborigines.22

The increased presence of Indigenous items in Paris was attributable to the fact that it was ineffective for the Australian colonies to compete with displays of European manufactured goods, particularly given the cost of transportation. Hence, Aboriginal culture and ethnographic displays were employed to promote a unique feature of Australia to international audiences. While generally considered a ‘new’ continent, the displays also suggested a notion of ‘prehistory’ that added a romanticised sense of antiquity to the Australian exhibits. As early as 1867, the cultural appropriation of Indigenous artefacts was being associated with a distinctly ‘Australian’ identity in an international arena.

Back in Melbourne, the Guide to the Intercolonial Exhibition noted that ‘the native weapons contributed by the Central Board … conspicuously attract attention’, and referred to the collection as being among ‘many Victorian exhibits of importance’ (Companion to the Official Catalogue … 1866, 47). Yet this ‘attention’ and ‘importance’ seems to be attributable to the opinion that the displays represented a culture soon to be extinct. This attitude was apparent in comments made by the Jurors and the exhibits they chose to award. Honourable mentions were given to squatter Charles Officer for his ‘Exhibit of Native Weapons’, and to William Thomas, Guardian of the Aborigines, for his ‘Exhibition of Aboriginal Products’ (Intercolonial Exhibition 1867b, 345). An exhibit of ‘Vegetables used for food by the Aborigines’ was also warmly received: ‘The laudable example set to elucidate this subject should be followed up in other parts of Australia before the aboriginal [sic] population passes away’ (259). Hence, it was not Aboriginal craftwork or industry being awarded, but the comprehensive collections – by Europeans – of artefacts and other items that represented an accumulation of cultural knowledge about this ‘doomed race’.

There was a tension throughout the exhibition between displaying Indigenous cultural artefacts of ‘authentic’ or ‘traditional’ value and those that illustrated the success of the civilising process. One early press report indicated that a number of Aborigines intended to compete as exhibitors: ‘[I]n one district – that of Coranderik [sic], Healesville – a number of the aborigines have notified an intention of becoming competing exhibitors in the articles of opossum skin rugs, baskets &c’.23

However, no Aborigines were credited as competing exhibitors and it was settlers, or the Central Board and reserve managers, who coordinated the displays and ultimately framed the items either as remnants of a dying culture or as evidence of education.

The dual representation of Aborigines reflects the transitionary period of the 1860s in the formulation of ideas about race. The exhibits that were awarded prizes by the Jurors demonstrate the value placed upon the display of Indigenous culture, knowledge and representations. They were valued as informative collections, not for any intrinsic or artistic merit in themselves.24

Furthermore, the alternating and interlinked racial narratives embedded in the Indigenous displays at the exhibition aided the development of a white Australian identity. Imperialist nostalgia encouraged a desire to ‘preserve’ as much of traditional Aboriginal culture as possible, enriching the canon of Western knowledge. Meanwhile, colonisation rendered the disappearance of the Indigenous population – an undesirable reminder of the conquest necessary for settlement – inevitable. ‘The white man’s burden’, most clearly embodied in the collections at the exhibition from the Victorian reserve system, was predicated upon a belief that Aboriginal culture, if not the Aborigines themselves, was inferior to Western society. In turn, this justified the colonisation of Australia by a more ‘civilised’ people, the height of colonial civilisation being so conspicuously on display at the Intercolonial Exhibition.


The Reverend Dr Bleasdale’s remarks from the closing ceremony reflect the growing sense of independence, confidence and community among the colonies that was apparent throughout the event:

This Exhibition has been a fair exponent of our own internal and intercolonial resources of all kinds; and, I may be bold to say, has drawn the cords of sisterhood closer together. Thousands of people have learned a vast deal more about Australasia during the past four months than they had acquired in years before; and, let me hope, have strengthened in the feeling that if some dire calamity – which Heaven avert – should separate us from our parent country, we shall soon be in a position to supply ourselves with the necessaries and conveniences of life, as well as its luxuries and refinements (Knight 1867, xxxiv).

The idea of Australian unity had been a strong undercurrent throughout the planning and staging of the event, expressed both in terms of racial unity and economic benefit. The exhibition was considered to be an ideal forum in which to instigate the move towards becoming a nation, since:

The only federation which is likely for years to take place is a federation of interests, promoted not so much by legislative action as by mutual dependence and confidence – a result which one such Exhibition as the present will have a greater effect in producing than scores of conferences or years spent in diplomatic negotiations.25

And yet, it was not to be. While the exhibition proved to be a tremendous commercial success – the closing date was postponed a number of times due to continued public interest – it seemed to bring the colonies no closer to uniting.

Nonetheless, there is still evidence of an emerging sense of white Australian national identity, and certainly a desire for unity from some quarters. The exhibition had succeeded in presenting a unity of purpose, race and ideology among the Australian colonies. It had offered a tempting glimpse of the prosperous future that national unity promised. The familial theme reiterated numerous times throughout the event reinforced the intensity of racial ties in the colonial imagination. The friendly competition inspired by the exhibition worked to spur industry and allowed the colonies to learn more about each other. In doing so, they were imagining a shared community where self-sufficiency seemed inevitable.

While the Indigenous objects on display served to highlight the technological advances of the settlers, they also represented a shared Other who remained outside the (white) imagined future nation. In contrast to the narrative of civilisation brought to Australia’s shores by the settlers, Indigenous items were seen more as curiosities than objects of real significance. The importance they did hold was in what these artefacts could add to Western knowledge as evidence of man’s prehistory. Furthermore, the other narratives evident in these displays reveal much about attitudes towards the Aborigines in this transitional period of racial thinking.

Imperialist nostalgia consigned traditional Aboriginality to prehistory, incompatible with civilisation. Hence the population declines were portrayed as an inevitable phenomenon, alleviating responsibility and guilt while simultaneously removing a potential impediment to the colonial project. Meanwhile the idea of the ‘white man’s burden’ was evident in the European items made by Aborigines living on the reserves and displayed by the Central Board. These displays showed that there was still a belief in the idea that people could be educated and civilised, resisting newer biological theories of race which dictated that some humans were simply inferior to others and incapable of attaining a higher level of development. However, these narratives are closely intertwined, as the civilising mission was predicated on the notion that intervention and separation was required to ensure the survival of the ‘natives’ after contact with the vices of civilisation.

When the colonies took part in exhibitions overseas, rather than compete with European manufactures, Australia was primarily represented by natural history and ethnographic displays (Hoffenberg 2001, 137). Unlike the marginal position at the Intercolonial Exhibition, New South Wales gave centre stage to their Indigenous items in Paris. Then, as now, ‘traditional’ Aboriginal culture was employed to convey a sense of uniqueness. A large factor in shaping Australian identity has been the representation of Indigenous Australians: from advertisements in the 1930s featuring a ‘traditional’ Aborigine in the outback as an Australian icon, to the 900 Indigenous Australians performing Awakening, a massive corroboree and welcoming ceremony at the opening of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games (International Olympic Committee 2000). However, the notion of ‘authenticity’ is irrevocably linked with that of ‘traditional’, which presents a limited view of Aboriginality that is recognised and celebrated by white Australia.

It has been argued that ‘any notion of cultural authenticity carries with it a notion of inauthenticity, against which the former is evaluated’ (Root 1996, 69). Hence, the continued appropriation of traditional symbols and implied definition of authenticity is problematic. Concepts of authentic Aboriginality leave little room for people who don’t fit these expectations. Furthermore, ‘traditional’ Indigenous cultural symbols have been incorporated into constructions of Australian identity far more easily than the Indigenous history of the past 220 years, as the ‘History Wars’ (Macintyre and Clark 2003) demonstrate.

The Indigenous artefacts displayed at the Intercolonial Exhibition and the Paris Universal Exhibition were simultaneously a commemoration of Aboriginal (cultural) passing, and trophies of a successful territorial conquest. The romanticised Australian antiquity was constructed by the invaders, and aided the notion of ‘conquest and settlement’ inherent in the meta-narrative of colonial progress (Davison 1996, 15–16). Discussing the ongoing saga of white Australia’s appropriation of Indigenous culture is most pertinent today. The irony of ‘plundering’ a culture to embellish an Australian national identity whilst ignoring current social and health inequalities – and requests for an acknowledgement and apology for past injustices (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 1997) is all the more striking when we consider the long history of this practice. The Intercolonial Exhibition demonstrates that the pattern was set as long ago as 1866, when an early white Australian national identity was being constructed in response to representations of Indigenous Australians.


1    This paper is based on my honours thesis, Harris 2006.

2    A great body of work exists on the culture of International Exhibitions and World’s Fairs, specifically relating to those held up until World War Two. (See Davison 1988 and 1996; Greenhalgh 1988; Hoffenberg 2001; Rydell 1993.) This literature has emphasised the role of these events in creating trade, promoting cultural hegemony, presenting representations of race, and promoting consumption and technology (Rydell et al. 2000, 5–7). Exhibition scholarship has also highlighted the central themes of nation-building and progress, which were displayed particularly through contrasting western technology with ethnographical, and eventually live, displays of exoticised ‘non-Western’ cultures (Rydell 1984; Rydell 1993; Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1991). International Exhibitions were thus a significant stage for the performance and consumption of racial stereotypes and national identities. Australia’s own exhibition history, and the way the nation presented itself on a world stage, is receiving greater interest. The focus of works extends from exhibition buildings as enduring cultural sites (Dunstan 1996), to the early stirrings of nationhood in nineteenth-century Australian exhibitions (Davison 1988; Hoffenberg 2001). Scholarship particularly concentrates on dioramas and the live display of Aborigines at home and overseas, presented as examples of a ‘primitive’ race within the discourse of scientific racism (Poignant 2004; Russell 1999).

3    One notable exception being Willis (2003), which discusses the Bendigo and Melbourne Exhibitions of 1854 and the international exhibition in Paris the following year, specifically focusing on early representations of Indigenous people which aimed to demonstrate their ‘industry’ or work. See also Willis in this volume. In his overview of colonial exhibitions, Hoffenberg (2001, 279–280) refers briefly to the early exhibitions, but his work is rather a broad study of common themes throughout the major Australian, English and Indian exhibitions from 1851 to 1911.

4    For example, Charles Walter’s photographs of the Aborigines at Coranderrk in the 1860s are the focus of two chapters in Lydon (2005), and researched in-depth in Partos (1994). Edmonds (2006) explores the meanings of the miniature Aboriginal weapons crafted by Albert Le Souëf which were on display in 1866.

5    Mr GV Smith, Victorian Hansard, 12 May 1865 (Knight 1867, vi).

6    Exhibitions had been organised in Sandhurst, Beechworth, Ballarat and Castlemaine, while complete collections were also presented from Wangaratta, Dunolly, Clunes, St. Arnaud and others (Bright 1866, 9–10).

7    Argus, 7 November 1866.

8    The Age, 24 October 1866.

9    Argus, 7 November 1866.

10    The Age, 24 October 1866.

11    Australasian, 27 October 1866.

12    Illustrated Melbourne Post, 24 December 1866.

13    Australasian, 27 October 1866.

14    ‘Facies non omnibus una nec diversa tamen / qualem decet esse sororum’ (Museum Victoria 2005).

15    Leader, 27 October 1866.

16    Herald, 25 October 1866.

17    The Age, 24 October 1866.

18    Violence toward Indigenous peoples had been an issue in Britain for some time. In the 1830s humanitarian groups became concerned about the decreasing native populations and a Select Committee was established in 1837 to report on the treatment of Aborigines in British colonies (Stephens 2003, 30).

19    For example, Australian Aborigines were among other ‘natives’ on display at the 1879 Sydney International Exhibition (Hoffenberg 2001, 225). The focus of Poignant’s study is people who were removed from Australia and ‘exhibited’ throughout the 1880s and 1890s (Poignant 2004).

20    See also Edmonds in this volume.

21    Indigenous Cultures Department database, Museum Victoria, Melbourne.

22    Victoria’s court in Paris also featured a number of Aboriginal items, although not as many as the New South Wales display (Royal Commissioners for the Colony of Victoria 1867, 10–11).

23    As reported in the Argus, 7 May 1866. ‘[I]n one district – that of Coranderik [sic], Healesville – a number of the aborigines have notified an intention of becoming competing exhibitors in the articles of opossum skin rugs, baskets &c.’

24    See also Edmonds in this volume.

25    The Age, 24 October 1866.


Many thanks to my honours supervisor, Jane Carey, Penelope Edmonds and staff from Museum Victoria. A special thank you to Myke Bartlett, whose support made my research possible.



The Age, 1866

Argus, 1866

Australasian, 1866

Herald, 1866

Illustrated Melbourne Post, 1866

Leader, 1866


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Cite this chapter as: Harris, Emily. 2008. ‘Race and Australian national identity at the 1866–67 Intercolonial Exhibition’. 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. 3.1–3.16.

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