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During preparations for the 1866–67 Intercolonial Exhibition in Melbourne, some humanitarian segments of the press hoped that the exhibition would provide a forum to consider the thorny issues of settler colonialism, violence against Australian Aboriginal peoples and their fate. This chapter explores the terms upon which the question of the ‘native races’ would be ‘gone into’ at the exhibition. Besides the written aspirations of exhibition organisers, it argues that other prevalent ideas on race were apparent, based on a reading of the historical context in which the exhibition occurred, and scrutiny of the exhibition’s catalogue and the displays themselves. The chapter reveals the anxieties and multivalencies of racial discourse in the late 1860s in south-eastern Australia.

Following London’s International Exhibition of 1862, Melbourne’s Intercolonial Exhibition of 1866–67 was billed as an ‘event in colonial history’ embracing ‘all the Australian colonies’, and proudly displaying all products and industries.1 In the months leading up to the exhibition, newspapers discussed the progress of the Exhibition Commission, and its intention to demonstrate the achievements of Australian colonial production. In the Great Hall would be featured the products of manufacture of the colonies, with intending exhibitioners volunteering a variety of items ranging from minerals, cereals, tobaccos, soaps and salts, to photolithography, ferns, mosses, wines, flowers, plants, and envelope-making machines. Yet, intercolonial exhibitions of the nineteenth century were much more than grand trade fairs for Britain’s colonies. They were celebrations of Empire, and, for the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ sister settler-colonies at the edge of Britain’s Empire, an opportunity to flaunt their achievements to each other and the metropole. Importantly, some individuals hoped that the Intercolonial Exhibition in Melbourne would provide a political and scientific forum in which the thorny issues of settler colonialism and the fate of Australian Aboriginal peoples would be considered.

In August 1866 in an article entitled ‘The condition of the Aborigines’, the Australasian newspaper reflected on the ‘steady onward march to create the great Australasian nation’. On the Aborigines, it opined, missionary efforts had failed and it was ‘impossible to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear’. It continued:

We cannot whitewash the Ethiop, but we are not therefore to murder him, and in many, nay most cases, the treatment of the aborigines by the whites is civilised murder. To cause some hundreds of thousands of our fellow creatures to disappear – a powerful word, if understood – may be treated for the time being as a casualty, but is likely in the long run to prove a catastrophe.2

The anonymous author of this compelling article made a severe appraisal of colonialism around the globe. Columbus’s encounter with the Americas had led to ‘overwork, contagious disease, starvation and despair’ for the ‘proprietors of the soil’. The fate of native ‘tribes’ in North America was tragic. ‘Once numbering twenty million’, the article noted, they now represent ‘scarcely as many hundred thousands’, and had ‘evaporated before the improvements of the Yankees’. Further, ‘the extinction of the native tribes entailed the African slave trade’, a ‘cancer at the heart of America’, which preyed upon all ‘Anglo-saxon masters alike’. In the Antipodes however, things were different. Now in the nineteenth century, not the fifteenth, ‘humanity’ and ‘good feeling’ surely played a part. Was it inevitable that the ‘native races’ in Australia, as in North America, the Gulf of Mexico, and Tahiti, would die out? Could these peoples be civilised, could they survive, or were the best efforts of missionaries and others a hopeless and financially wasteful task? Are the ‘aboriginal Australasians and Polynesians … actually capable of coexistence by the side of the Europeans and their descendents or not?’ it asked. The final pressing question was this: ‘Is this substitution of one race for another the consequence of inevitable law, or of European mismanagement and crime?’ The article suggested that these questions, ‘now ripe for solution’, could be addressed by a ‘species of scientific congress’ to run alongside the Intercolonial Exhibition in Melbourne. The article’s last injunction appealed to the public and political potential of the impending Intercolonial Exhibition:

we think that this subject of the native races should be thoroughly gone into at the forthcoming Exhibition, and not left to the irregular and generally ignorant, though most well intentioned efforts of ecclesiastical adventurers.3

Although a specific congress on these issues was apparently never held, issues relating to the civilisation or extinction of the ‘native races’, on colonial violence and on the anxieties of race in general in south-eastern Australia in the 1860s, were nonetheless raised at Melbourne’s 1866–67 Intercolonial Exhibition. The anonymous author in the Australasian hoped that such questions would be ‘thoroughly gone into’ at the Intercolonial Exhibition. In this chapter I explore the terms upon which the question of the ‘native races’ would be ‘gone into’ at the exhibition. The subject of Aboriginal peoples was not explored as the Australasian would have wished. The exhibition organisers set the terms of the displays, and this chapter traces the exhibitionary rationale of Judge Redmond Barry, the President of the Exhibition Commission, who had his own perspectives regarding the survival of the ‘Aboriginal races’. It is also important, however, to look beyond Barry’s written aspirations to the broader context in which the exhibition was held, and to the displays themselves. Here, I argue that other prevalent ideas on race were apparent, based on a reading of the historical context in which the exhibition occurred, and a close scrutiny of the exhibition’s catalogue and the displays themselves. Considering the visual culture of the nineteenth century where many exhibition visitors learned through looking, this chapter pays close attention to the placement and, at times, strategic adjacencies of images and objects relating to Aboriginal peoples on display in the exhibition courts of the colonies of Victoria and Tasmania. The layout of the displays themselves and ceremonial material relating to them, it is argued, are sources revealing the anxieties, ambiguities and multivalencies of racial discourse in the late 1860s in south-eastern Australia.


Melbourne’s Intercolonial Exhibition of 1866–67 is significant for its subject material and its location. It was notable in its time for the large assortment of Aboriginal artefacts on display and for its considerations of Aboriginal peoples (Cowley 2004, 119). When the Australasian stated that ‘this subject of the native races should be thoroughly gone into’ the newspaper proffered a firm belief in the power of such public, colonial exhibitionary formats to broker ideas specifically on settler colonialism and racial violence for a local and intercolonial audience. And it expressed this in the most powerful ways, brooking none of the usual euphemism prevalent in much writing of the period, stating explicitly that the ‘treatment of the aborigines by the whites is civilised murder’.4

The colonial locus and local production of this intercolonial exhibition is also noteworthy. Rather than a metropolitan spectacle, the colonial polity and specifically Melbourne’s elite, including Redmond Barry, sought to produce their own representations of colonial relations within their own city, and endeavoured to promote the unity of the Australasian colonies. Barry was aware of the wider international audience for such exhibitions. When opening the Melbourne Exhibition of 1861, he announced that it was an opportunity to ‘set the people of Europe right upon many points relevant to this country … Victoria will appear to advantage and the progress made by her during the last decade may rival that of any of the numerous possessions of her Majesty’. The 1866 Intercolonial Exhibition was agreed to be, in the words of the exhibition commissioners, ‘preparatory to the arrangements for the Paris Exhibition to be held there in 1867’ (Lydon 2005a, 91, 74). The Exposition Universelle in Paris was the largest up to its time of all international expositions, and was visited by over nine million people. It featured exhibitions of France and its colonies, Great Britain and its colonies, Ireland, the United States, Canada, Japan and many other nations. Yet counterveiling currents are certainly apparent here. While the Australasian saw the Melbourne Intercolonial Exhibition of 1866–67 as an opportunity to go into the problems of the Australian colonies and the demise of the ‘native races’, it is unlikely that the exhibition commissioners had the same explicit goals, especially when it came to the presentation of the Australian colonies on the international stage later at the Paris Exhibition.

In the 1860s, Australia’s south-eastern colonies such as New South Wales and Victoria were often described as places where the ‘closure’ of the frontier had occurred. Many Aboriginal people had been pushed off their land by Europeans and had been placed on mission stations, and it was presumed that frontier conflict had come to an end. Yet in other Australian colonies at this time, such as Queensland and Western Australia, instances of frontier violence continued (Evans et al 1993). Ideas of imminent Aboriginal extinction had been firmly in place in the settler imagination since the 1820s, unsurprising given the rapid decline in the Aboriginal population especially in the south-eastern colonies. William Hull (1846), taking the ‘Port Phillip natives’ as examples, wrote a litany of the failures to civilise and Christianise Aboriginal peoples, arguing that the ‘civilisation of the native of Australia, it is obvious, has been in every experiment as pitiable as well as mischievous’ (38). Hull wrote pessimistically of the state of Aboriginal people around the Port Phillip area, concluding that as discouraging as it was:

it is the duty of the white man, who now occupies their land, still to persevere in his endeavours to impart the blessings of religion and civilisation to these unhappy savages, who, even in the Protectorate Districts, are rapidly passing away, and who in a very few years … will have ceased to exist but in name (39).

Extinction narratives may have been irresistible. They were fed by common ideas based on the four stages theory of human development, which served to justify Aboriginal demise and loss of land. Adam Smith is generally credited with these ideas of stadial progress, a model of the age of hunters, pastoralists, agriculture and commerce, where these stages came to be understood as distinct, hierarchised and successive modes of production, importantly conceptualised in a progressive, teleological fashion, figuring European society as the highest ‘stage’ (Meek 1977).5 Such ideas of stadial progress came to legitimise and naturalise the presumed entitlement to and the taking of Aboriginal land, and were frequently invoked in the Australian colonies. In 1821 James Wallis claimed that the engravings in his An Historical Account of the Colony of New South Wales would:

serve to show and convince … from what slender beginnings and in how few years, the primeval forests … may be converted into plains covered with bleating flocks, lowing herds, and waving corn; may become the smiling seats of industry and the social arts, and be changed from desolate wilderness, into the cheerful village, the busy town, and the crowded city (cited in Bonyhady 2002, 83).

Here, in a sequential jump from ‘primeval’ to ‘herds’, to ‘corn’, to ‘city’, Wallis’s writing reflected this four-stage model of social development, which had by this time so thoroughly suffused European expansionist discourse. Crucially, in these stadial narratives the apotheosis of commerce, progress and civilisation was the crowded New World settler city, depicted as the triumph of empire. The undeservedness of Aborigines of the country was attributed to their positioning as ‘hunters’ without rights in land. As I will show later, such themes were implicitly built into certain displays.

In the face of massive change and accelerated immigration brought by the 1851 south-eastern gold rush, depictions of Aboriginal people as a doomed race only intensified (Edmonds 2005; Broome 2005, 107). Many Europeans recognised the desperate state of Aboriginal peoples, often camped at the fringes of the goldfields, victims of violence, sexual abuse and drunkenness. Edward Stone Parker, Aboriginal Protector of the Loddon District, did not deny the violence towards Aboriginal people. He stated publicly in 1854 ‘the truth must and ought to be told’. He argued passionately, ‘Let us not for one moment be supposed that there are any intellectual obstacles to the Christianisation and civilisation of these people’ (Parker 1854, 26). The only obstacle was moral, and religious instruction ‘alone’ would ‘place the foot of the aborigine on a higher step in the social scale’ (28). In contrast, in 1855 William Howitt invoked narratives of stadial development to explain Aborigines’ fate. Their degraded condition, he argued, was reminiscent of the ‘biblical distinction between the hunter races (the accursed sons of Ham) and the tillers of the soil (the sons of Japhet)’. The former were destined to disappear, wrote Howitt, because they did not learn to till the soil, ‘they possess no organ of imitation, no emulative principle or faculty of constructiveness and progression’ (Howitt 1855, 141–144 cited in Christie 1979, 147).

By the mid 1850s, Melbourne was heralded as a promising new imperial city, built with gold rush money, and a nodal point in the network of Empire, ambitiously likened to Britain’s metropolitan spaces. ‘Melbourne is London reproduced; Victoria is another England’, remarked James Ballantyne (cited in Hamer 1990, 81). In 1856 Edward Wilson, owner and editor of the Argus newspaper, recognised that the success of the colony came at the expense of the first inhabitants of the land. He wrote that within the five years that Victoria had been a separate colony, ‘the government had sold Aboriginal land worth four and a half million pounds, that gold to the value of thirty-five million sterling had been taken from that land, and that millions more had been made from the sale of beef, mutton, and wool’. In return, he said, the government had appropriated ‘the contemptible sum of 1,750 [pounds] for the Aborigines’ benefit’.6 Clearly, humanitarian segments of the press had the fate of Aboriginal peoples on their minds.

In 1857, the census, entitled Statistical Notes on the Progress of Victoria showed that only 1786 Aborigines had survived in the colony of Victoria (Archer 1857, 37). However, it was likely that such figures did not include the many peoples of mixed Aboriginal and European parentage. Such figures bolstered ideas of imminent extinction. In 1863 a government census recorded only 33 Aboriginal people for the Melbourne district (Russell and McNiven 2001, 237).7 It was to this great population decline that the Australasian was responding when it spoke of disappearance. By the 1860s in Victoria, many south-eastern Aboriginal people had been placed on remote mission stations, and small reserves had been gazetted for Aboriginal people, well away from Melbourne and the white population (Broome 2005, 126).8 The missions or reserves were modelled on Christian farming villages, where they were governed with an empahsis on Aboriginal redemption, transformation and improvement through Christian instruction (Lydon 2005b).9 Few Aborigines could be seen in metropolitan Melbourne, and by the late 1860s many from the Coranderrk Aboriginal station were afraid to come into the city (Broome 2005, 143, 145).

Aboriginal people may have been largely out of sight in Melbourne, but their treatment by settlers throughout the Australian colonies and the pressing tensions of race were not out of mind for some. Jane Lydon (2005a) observes at this time of turmoil, formal exhibitions, ‘like other quickly established cultural institutions, stood as symbols of civilisation in a dangerously volatile world’ (91). Just as nineteenth-century colonies were considered by some to be Europe’s laboratories for the testing out of new societies,10 so too, official colonial and intercolonial exhibitions orchestrated in and by the colonies were clearly civic forums where issues that were specific and urgent to the colonies, such as the treatment and management of colonised indigenous peoples, might be worked through. Such ideas are apparent in the letters of the President of the Exhibition Commission, Judge Redmond Barry, regarding the 1866 Intercolonial Exhibition.


Redmond Barry was involved with every Melbourne exhibition from 1854 to 1875, and as President of the Exhibition Commission assisted in the shaping of exhibitionary outcomes for almost 20 years (Dunstan 1996, 23). Barry believed that the ‘social and intellectual improvement’ of Aboriginal peoples could be best furthered by scientific study.11 In March 1866, Barry sent a circular letter to a range of individuals associated with the study of Aboriginal peoples. The Intercolonial Exhibition, he wrote, offered ‘a favourable opportunity for collecting materials relating to the history, traditions, customs, and language of the Aboriginal natives of Australia.’12 He continued:

In illustration of these, weapons, implements employed by them should be procured, [and] authentic accounts on which reliance may be placed touching their ideas with regard to the Supreme Being … and such of the affection, social relations, moral obligations and sentiments as they are capable of understanding and explaining – also skeletons and skulls, as many as possible, with photographs of individuals of each sex and of all ages should be obtained. Respecting the language, it is especially desirable that careful enquiries should be made.

Barry’s endeavour to compile Aboriginal languages is also noteworthy. In this project that was both preservationist and scientific, Barry sought to bring together ‘all printed grammars, dictionaries, and lists of words and phrases’. He also believed it would assist in ‘efforts to trace derivation, and to ascertain with probable certainty the relations and the affinities which the forms of speech of the Aborigines may have with these other parts of the globe’.13 For this ethnographic and exhibitionary endeavour, Barry made his appeal to a diverse group of professionals, enthusiastic amateurs and curio collectors: ‘clergy, missionaries, resident magistrates, interpreters, school masters, gentlemen engaged on the surveys, officers of native police, and such of the gentry who will devote a small portion of their spare time to the matter’.14 To these people Barry entrusted the collection of Aboriginal cultures in all their complexity. The value of such an undertaking was clear to Barry. It was one in which:

the combined operations of the European inhabitants of Australasia may be well engaged … Moreover, it may form the groundwork of future more extended inquiries of a like nature, in the progress of which the intercourse with the Aborigines may lead to improvements in their intellectual and social as well as their physical condition. While all employed may have the satisfaction of redeeming, in some degrees, the obligation they owe to the humble race – the primitive possessors of the soil.15

Barry had instigated many of the Aboriginal displays for this exhibition, having a long held interest in Aboriginal peoples and their cultures. He had acted in court for Aboriginal prisoners in the 1840s, and he has been portrayed as a man sympathetic to the plight of Aboriginal peoples (Ryan 1980, 19–20; Galbally 1995, 54–57). The collection of cultural materials, word lists, and human remains of Aboriginal peoples for the exhibition was rationalised by Barry as scientific, preservationist, improving and, importantly, redemptive. Barry’s call for ‘skeletons and skulls, as many as possible, with photographs of individuals of each sex and of all ages’ reflects an engagement with phrenology and racial classification in the colony of Victoria at this time (Lydon 2005a, 85–87; Griffiths 1996, 28–54). However, it must be noted that although Barry was concerned with issues of human origins and difference he had not embraced Darwinian ideas, a subject of intense debate at the time after the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origins of the Species (Lydon 2005a, 83). Like many exhibitions of this time, this was also a ‘preservationist project’, concerned with collecting traditional, ‘authentic’ indigenous culture and language in the face of change, modernisation and Aboriginal cultural transformation (Harris 2006, 41; Hoffenberg 2001, 274). Such collection and representation was likewise conceptualised as a project of Aboriginal ‘improvement’; it would improve ‘[Aborigines’] intellectual and social as well as their physical condition’, assured Barry. Finally, the redemptive promise of the exhibition was a key motivator for Barry. He presented the joint European effort to collect and display Aboriginal culture as a form of collective, public redemption, payment for a debt owed by the ‘European inhabitants of Australasia’ to the ‘primitive possessors of the soil’. These were the terms upon which Barry envisaged that the subject of the ‘native races’ would be ‘thoroughly gone into’.

As Des Cowley (2004) has noted, ‘it is easy, from our distant perspective, to question the attitudes that lay behind these curious arrays of casts, photographs, and weapons. Yet the genuineness of Barry’s sympathies cannot be entirely disregarded’ (119). We need not diminish Barry; however, it is important to place the exhibition in the context of broader public debates on Aboriginal peoples and narratives of race, civilisation and extinction, and to look beyond Barry’s written aspirations to the objects as they were assembled in the displays.


The Intercolonial Exhibition was held in the heart of Melbourne, on the present site of the Redmond Barry Reading Room at the State Library of Victoria. The colonies of Tasmania, South Australia, New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia, New Zealand, as well as French New Caledonia and Dutch Batavia were on show. The exhibition was divided into courts or pavilions by colony, and then subdivided into a range of categories.16 It is to the courts of the Colonies of Victoria and Tasmania that I now turn to examine Indigenous and non-Indigenous objects on display and their placements and adjacencies.

Aboriginal cultural items and objects, as well as displays by Europeans which concerned Aboriginal peoples, were generally to be found in Class IV: ‘Manufactures and the Useful Arts’; Section 14 ‘Articles of Clothing, Lace, Embroidery, Specimens of Native Workmanship’.17 Such categories are seemingly strange to our twenty-first century eyes, yet they reveal much about mid to late nineteenth-century modernity’s systems of categorisation. They were largely based on the standard divisons of London’s Great Exhibition of 1851 (Harris 2006, 42).

In examining an exhibition of the past, discrepancies between the organisers’ intentions and the reception of the audience to the exhibit must be considered, if indeed these are possible to discern. We cannot see the original exhibition, nor conduct exit surveys for an exhibition held in the nineteenth century; however, we may examine the terms of the exhibition’s physical organisation and look closely at the catalogue. Our present understandings of these colonial displays are predominantly shaped by secondary texts. To study these exhibitions without considering the specific placement of objects as revealed in the catalogue is to miss the narrative point or visual arc created by the exhibition’s creators in the placement of Indigenous and non-Indigenous objects, which I argue were designed to instruct exhibition viewers in certain ways. In order to consider the viewer’s possible experience of such exhibitions, we need to read through the itemised catalogued which traces the sequence of objects on display, and take an imaginary walk through the exhibition spaces. While we cannot know with certainty how the nineteenth-century visitor received such exhibitions, we may make informed speculations based on knowledge of the historical context and public debates at the time. I thus read the placements of objects with a postcolonial eye, alert to the visual narratives of race on show that may have been conveyed through the exhibition.

Turning to the court of the Colony of Victoria, the catalogue reveals that in Section 14 ‘Articles of Clothing, Lace, Embroidery, Specimens of Native Workmanship’, items made by women were plentiful. The largest display of Aboriginal objects was in this section of the Melbourne Division of the Victorian court (Harris 2006, 44). The placement of artefacts made by Aboriginal people alongside the products of European women, such as lacework and embroidery, suggests some alignment of the handiwork of women with the material culture of Aboriginal people. Such a display was quite different to the great hall of European Fine Art and the hall of machinery, exhibits of progress that spoke to a universalised European masculinity. An imagined, universalised (white) masculinity was often presented in contrast to women and colonised indigenous peoples or ‘primitives’ in many ethnographically inflected displays in the nineteenth century. This is apparent in the exhibiting category entitled ‘Articles of Clothing, Lace, Embroidery, Specimens of Native Workmanship’.

In photographs of these displays, things seem all a-jumble like a Victorian curiosity shop, appearing at first to the uninitiated as an undifferentiated clutter. However, I propose that certain narratives were set out within these displays. Jostling strangely next to samples of lace needlework, hats, caps, and a knitted lace curtain made by the colony’s white women, was a small box of ‘Miniature Native Weapons and Implements used by the Natives of Australia Before the Advent of Europeans’, made by Albert and Caroline Le Souëf, of ‘Parliament House’ (Edmonds 2006). Nearby were 134 Aboriginal weapons and implements, collected from Aboriginal missions and stations, exhibited by the Central Board Appointed to Watch over the Interests of the Aborigines. Many spears, waddies, shields and throwing sticks were on display, but it is also apparent from the catalogue that the individual Aboriginal people were sometimes named. For example, there were traditional items such as ‘grass bags made by Maria’, ‘three grass nets made by Old King Tom’, ‘three nets made by Old Mary,’ alongside examples of agriculture from the Aboriginal station at Coranderrk. ‘The potatoes and oats were grown on the station, the ground being tilled by the Aborigines’, notes the catalogue.18 Next to this large display was a range of articles of clothing and hats made by the inmates of Pentridge Prison. Adjacencies are powerful; it is perhaps not coincidental that the products of inmates of Pentridge Prison were on display alongside the weapons and implements made by Aboriginal people of Coranderrk who, while not as physically confined as criminals, were by 1866 largely under the control of the state. As Tony Bennett (2005) has maintained, in the late nineteenth century museums were commonly viewed as ‘machineries’ used in the ‘shaping of civic capacities’ (522). In this way social messages were generated by such exhibitions where ‘contrived and staged encounters between people and objects are arranged for the purpose of study’ for both civic and epistemological ends (525). What civic messages may have been constructed here for viewers? To my present reading, themes of improvement, transformation and state correction are apparent implicitly linking several groups who were by this time wards of the state. However, the various intentions of exhibition organisers, and the possible multiple readings by an active viewing public must be also taken into consideration. We cannot be certain if visitors saw such linkages in 1866–76. Other readings are also possible.

Coranderrk station, near Healesville, was considered to be a success story. It was deemed to be a showcase mission, as an 1866 Board report notes, ‘it is the most prosperous Aboriginal station in Victoria, or perhaps in Australia … and it is not indebted for its success to any extraneous assistance’.19 With the assistance of Superintendent John Green, the Coranderrk residents were able to establish a township with some self government, sought self-sufficiency based on the sale of hops and Aboriginal artefacts, and were proud of their achievements (Barwick 1998). The agency of the people at Coranderrk needs to be marked. In April 1866 the Argus reported that ‘a number of the aborigines in the district of Coranderrk, Healesville, have expressed their intention of competing at the forthcoming Exhibition, opossum skin rugs, baskets, etc. being the articles in which they intend to exhibit their emulative skill to the test of public verdict’.20 It seems that they contributed these items willingly, although they did not receive any prizes for them. To the viewing public, the items made by Coranderrk’s industrious residents and samples of oats and potatoes grown by them probably highlighted ideas on education, and the improvement and civilisation of the Aboriginal subject, who had successsfully learnt to till the land through missionary instruction. Also on display were photographs of the Aboriginal stations at Coranderrk and Framlingham, submitted by Mr Brough Smyth of Melbourne, perhaps in order to promote the benefits of mission life.

The same court also featured items from the Ebenezer mission at Lake Hindmarsh, submitted by Moravian missionary Reverend Spieseke. Included were European items of clothing made by Aboriginal women, such as ‘a pinafore made by Ruth’, ‘a net for the hair by Rebecca’, ‘one pin cushion, frock, collar and cuff’ made by ‘Margaret Elliot’, a ‘chemise by Topsy’, and a ‘pinafore by Lilley’. These were juxtaposed with ‘Roman Point-Lace Needlework by Mrs Claridge, of Barry St, Carlton’, and a university gown by a non-Aboriginal woman. Ideas of comparable European and Aboriginal women’s handiwork, and the skilling and improvement of Aboriginal women in the European domestic arts may be read here. There was apparently no partition of these different objects. Yet strangely, in the next section (still under the banner of ‘manufactures and the useful arts’) was an array of objects collected by CM Officer, of Mount Talbot, ‘spears, boomerangs, clubs, two Aboriginal skulls, one white kangaroo skin’, for which he received an honourable mention, and then incongruously, ‘ladies underclothing by Mrs Robinson of Brunswick street Fitzroy’.21 Within the broad category ‘manufactures and the useful arts’ it is possible to read multiple and perhaps contradictory themes.

The items were seemingly placed at random and many were indeed examples of ‘the useful arts’. Nevertheless, we must account for objects like the ‘two Aboriginal skulls’, which were not craft items, and the photographs of mission stations. Noteworthy also is the arrangement of items both traditional and new by Aboriginal women, as well as the products of Aboriginal agricultual endeavours on missions. Further, the placement of the products of Aboriginal people alongside those of prison inmates as described earlier cannot be overlooked. It may be, of course, overly deterministic to read a strategic colonising intent in every exhibit and every object’s placement, and the possibility that there could be a democratic juxtaposition of material, contrasting with the social realities of Victorian society outside the exhibition, should not be dismissed. It seems equally implausible, however, to suggest that such exhibitions were entirely devoid of political intent, with the only rationale being to create an appreciation or sense of equivalence between European handiwork and that of Aboriginal peoples on missions. Despite the category ‘manufactures and the useful arts’, it must be recalled that Barry had overriding scientific, preservationist and improving concerns in his call for Aboriginal items. Yet this is a challenging exhibition to read, as we cannot presume Barry’s singular curatorial vision; the displays were arranged by the exhibition commisioners with all their possible divergent intentions. In fact, Barry had resigned from the Commission several weeks before the opening, apparently embarrassed by the postponement of the exhibition’s opening date (Cowley 2004, 115). We cannot therefore presume that his vision for the exhibition was always implemented in the displays.

It may be that these displays were merely the random juxtaposition of craft items. However, such an argument proposes an easy pluralism between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples that was not in practice in 1866. Further, the collective descriptors ‘craft items’ and ‘handiwork’ tend to obfuscate the specificity and type of objects selected by the commissioners, where they came from, and from whom they came. In addition, the specular commerce of objects should not be underestimated. Objects, both individual and when placed in sequence, operate beyond their formal boundaries, activating narratives in viewers that may well have been anticipated by the organisers. I suggest that in the display a multivalency and fluidity of the racial narratives of the 1860s are revealed. To my reading, there is a constant movement in a narrative sequence between incarceration and state protection, and between transforming Aboriginal subjects who had successfully taken on European ways in comparison with traditional items made by ‘by Old King Tom’, ‘Old Mary’, ‘Old Jessie’ and ‘Old Lina’, Aboriginal people who were deemed to be passing away. Such items were also placed next to trophy and array-style displays of Aboriginal weaponry, and randomly placed skulls of unnamed Aboriginal people. Such array-style displays were an emulation of typological and ethnographic styles increasingly found in museums in Europe and the colonies by the 1860s. This was so much more than the comparison of craft work. Appreciating the multiple themes as well as the ambiguities within the exhibition here is key.

The inclusion of the Aboriginal skulls may have been for the sake of mere curiosity. Equally, however, such placements were often gestures to popular phrenology and the growing concern with racial science and taxonomic racial schema in the colony of Victoria at this time. To whom did these Aboriginal skulls belong and how did CM Officer of Mount Talbot obtain them? Tom Griffiths has explored the trend for collecting and sometimes nefariously exhuming Aboriginal skulls in the name of an emergent scientific racism in the colony of Victoria during the 1860s and 1870s (Griffiths 1996, 28–54). Barry himself had called for Aboriginal ‘skeletons and skulls as many as possible.’ Objects such as skulls clearly had a resonance or purchase within the public imagination at this time due to the wide appeal of phrenology.22 We cannot ignore the broader social context and the confluence of powerful narratives of transformation, race and science in the settler imagination that informed these displays.

The question of the ‘native races’ was certainly being considered at the exhibition, although perhaps not in the ways the Australasian had hoped, and settler violence was not considered. Barry preferred a scientific approach, and his written instructions ran in accordance with scientific thought of the day. The Aboriginal people of Coranderrk station may have possessed a certain amount of agency in the display of their own cultural material, but they were also subject to much moral and scientific scrutiny at this exhibition at the behest of Barry. In line with ethnography and general interest in racial typologies, the residents of Coranderrk station were systematically photographed by Charles Walter specifically for the 1866 exhibition, as Lydon (2005a) has noted. Walter had been commissioned by Barry to take these photographs (73–121). The large panel of portraits taken of 104 Aboriginal people entitled, ‘Portraits of ABORIGINAL NATIVES Settled at Coranderrk, near Healesville, about 42 miles form Melbourne. ALSO VIEWS Of the of Station & LUBRAS BASKET-MAKING’ was displayed in the Fine Arts section of the Intercolonial Exhibition. As Lydon has observed, the selection and arrangement of the portraits is important. People were divided by age, sex and tribe, and the frontal, portrait focus of the subjects reveals a ‘contemporary ethnographic interest in individuals as racial types’ (82). Further, older males at the top were denoted as ‘full blood’ and those at centre and bottom were whiter and described as ‘half caste’ revealing the interest at the time in blood quanta and issues of miscegenation. These were classic ‘type’ portraits employed by ‘adherents of the emerging discipline of anthropology for collecting data’, allowing for ‘systematic comparison’. Lydon (2005a) continues, in a ‘final reductive moment this single object abridged 104 people, making them stand for the Aboriginal “race”’ (82).

In addition to these photographs, which were sent to the 1867 Paris Exhibition, Barry commissioned sculptor Charles Summers to create a series of cast busts made from life of 16 Aboriginal people from the Coranderrk mission station. As Cowley (2004) observes, although they were intended for the Melbourne Exhibition, in the end the casts were not displayed. It appears that Summers was one of the judges and therefore could not exhibit. The casts were exhibited in the Victorian Court at the Paris Universelle Exhibition the following year (112).23


Figure 1. The Tasmanian Court at the Intercolonial Exhibition, Melbourne, 1866–67. Wood engraving in Illustrated Melbourne Post, 24 January 1867. (Courtesy of State Library of Victoria)

Turning now to the Tasmanian Court (Figure 1), immediately we find a basket made by an ‘Aboriginal woman’ placed beside a series of ‘last of’ black and white photographic portraits of Aboriginal peoples, mainly of older Aborigines such as ‘“Patty” or Cooneara … nearly 70 years old’, ‘“Wapperty” or Wanoteah Cootamena (Thunder and Lightning) … nearly 70 years old’, and ‘“Lalla Rook” or Truganini (Seaweed) … nearly 60 years old’. One young man ‘William Lanney’ who was ‘about 26 years old’ was also photographed and described as the ‘last of the Aborigines’.24 These photographic images had also been commissioned for the exhibition, and were taken by photographer Charles Woolley. The Tasmanian Mercury reported on the portraits on 12 September 1866, noting that they were:

exhibited at the meeting [of exhibition commissioners] yesterday and they are the best specimens of photography which we have seen in this colony. Three portraits of each individual have been taken – one full face, one three-quarter face, and one profile – so that the lineaments of each face are fully exhibited. The portraits form a most valuable ethnological series’ (cited in Craig 1961, 284).

Woolley was awarded a medal for his photographs, probably because the three perspectives of each subject’s face conformed with ‘developing anthropometric conventions’, as Lydon notes (2005a, 91). The Tasmanian photographs were of great contemporary signficance, portrayed as tragic symbols of ‘the last’ Aborigines of Tasmania, and therefore took their own global journeys. As well as their exhibition in Paris, they later appeared as engravings in James Bonwick’s The Last of the Tamanians (1870), and in the Italian ethnologist Enrico H Gigioli’s I Tasmaniani (1874) (Craig 1961, 284–288). British anthropologist Edward Tyler later used these images by Woolley at the Pitt Rivers Museum as examples of the ‘last remnants of Paeleolithic man’ (Lydon 2005a, 170). Through these diverse scientific networks and global journeys the images would take on new meanings.

As I have outlined earlier, in the colonies of south-eastern Australia narratives of imminent Aboriginal extinction, of stadial development, progress, and of transformation through Christian instruction and civilisation were pervasive and enduring. In the Victorian Court, the transformation and civilisation of Aboriginal people were major themes of the exhibits. In the Tasmanian Court, I argue that narratives of extinction were central. In the Victorian era there was an obsessive concern with the representation of narratives of progress (Bennett 2004, 25). In the Tasmanian Court, representations of ‘last of’ Aborigines were placed immediately next to classic images of European colonial modernity in order to tell such stories. On display in this court was a series of photographic plates of the ‘public buildings of Hobart town’, with ‘statistics of the city and Corporation of Hobart’ proudly displayed with ‘copies of the old and present seals of the colonies’.25 The narrative purchase of these adjacencies should not be underestimated. Here, Aboriginal peoples disappear in the wake of progress, expressed so effectively by images of the New World settler-colonial city on Indigenous land. This placement of progressive stadial themes, ‘last of’ photographs juxtaposed with images of the progress of cities and white commerce, the regalia of the Town councils, and the ‘Corporation of Hobart’ is heavy with symbolism. In much colonial writing the settler-colonial city built on Aboriginal land was deemed to be the consummation of Empire (Edmonds 2005, ch. 2). Bennett’s work (2005, 525, 528) has considered the role of museums at this time in ‘mapping out both social space and orderings of time’ in order to create ‘new entities’ such as ‘art, community, prehistory, or national pasts’. In these ways as Bennett notes, nineteenth-century museums served to organise the ‘socio-temporal coordinates of colonialism’ (527). However, just as they created new entities, they also replicated enduring themes already popular in the mind of the general public. In this display the Western historicising narrative played out in stages was apparent, and instructive linkages between the city, the state, bourgeois metropolitanism or city building, and the governance of Aboriginal peoples were on show for exhibition viewers.

In the photograph of the Tasmanian Court (Figure 2) items seem crowded and disorderly, but the catalogue prepared by the exhibition organisers takes the viewer through a sequence of objects. For example, the ‘Photographs of Two Aboriginal women’ by Mrs Davidson of Hobart, are next to a ‘Sketch in Oils of the Baptism of Christ’, followed by ‘life size portraits of their Royal Highnesses the Prince and Princess of Wales’. These were followed immediately by ‘busts from Life of Woureddy and Trugernina, Natives of Tasmania’, often figured in popular discourse as the ‘last’ Tasmanian Aborigines (see also Figure 1). Also on display in this court was a tinted lithograph titled with the misnomer ‘Governor Davey’s Proclamation to the Aborigines, 1816’.26 Illustrated with compelling images of friendship, equality before the law, and mutual punishment for Aborigines and Europeans alike, the lithograph reproduced the images on boards which had been issued by Governor George Arthur and fastened to trees in Van Diemen’s Land in 1829–30 as humanitarian entreaties to friendship and for the cessation of frontier violence.27 The lithograph was prepared specifically for the 1866 exhibition (Morris 1988, 86), and along with much material relating to the Aboriginal peoples of Tasmanian was sent on to the Paris International Exhibition of 1867. The decision of the Tasmanian organising committee to display this lithograph in Paris reveals the conscious discursive management of debates on Australian settler society, conciliation and violence at the international level in the nineteenth century.

The juxtapostions of the supposed ‘last’ of the Tasmanian Aborigines, images of Christ, royalty, and images of conciliation and British rule of law side by side in the Tasmania Court of the Melbourne Intercolonial Exhibition proffered a highly symbolic visual narrative of British Empire, Christianity and ideas of civilisation. These displays contained very few captions and little that approximated the ‘text panel’ of today’s exhibitions. Further, the low or partial literacy rates in the mid to late nineteenth century of some of the visitors need be recalled here. Learning through looking was a feature of nineteenth-century culture. Visual instruction and ‘object based pedagogy’ was central for Britian’s museum curators and directors (Bennett 2004, 160). At Melbourne’s International Exhibition in 1880 the trustees promoted its capacity as ‘a national educator, to teach by the eye’ (Bennett 2004, 160; Hoffenberg 2001, 72). Further, as Annie Coombes (1994) reminds us, during the late 1860s ‘the middle-class viewer was too thoroughly steeped in evolutionary doctrines in relation to such material to avoid their association with an interpretation of the displays’ (119). While some viewers like Barry may not have been persuaded by social Darwinism and ideas on social evolution, ideas of ranking, of the superiority of Europeans over Aboriginal peoples and of the benefits of Christianity for their improvement were nevertheless common. Such objects and images may have elicited in viewers narratives that were already becoming regularised. It was precisely because the nineteenth-century public learned about much of their world by observation rather than reading that the power of visual instruction to a public steeped in doctrines of progress was effective.

The invocation of stages of progress was not limited to the physical displays. As Emily Harris (2006, 116–117) has pointed out, The South-Sea Sisters, a lyric masque written for the 1866 Intercolonial Exhibition, sang of Australasian progress.28 At the opening address of the Intercolonial Exhibition Sir Frances Murphy remarked on the ‘intelligence and industry of our sister colonies’ and the ‘enterprise and skill of workmen’. He closed with the remark, ‘I invite you to regard this exhibition as a trophy commemorating industrial victories already achieved’.29 The entire exhibition then with its halls of machinery and industrial products may be understood within this stadial schema (Figure 3). It was a celebration of the final stage of settler civilisation: commerce and industry.


Figure 2. Photograph of the Tasmanian Court, Intercolonial Exhibition, Melbourne, 1866–67. (Courtesy of State Library of Victoria)


When colonial viewers looked at such representations of indigenous peoples I suggest that they were also schooled in their relative positions in these imperial hierarchies, and racialised as such in the process. We therefore need to turn our attention to the role that such exhibitions may have played in shoring up ideas of imagined white and Anglo-Saxon communities stretching throughout the colonies. Exhibition visitors who were looking at such imperial narratives were simultaneously interpolated as progressive, Anglo-Saxon subjects of Empire. In this reflexive way, the race of the exhibition viewers was also ‘gone into’.

The medal struck for the exhibition, designed by Charles Summers, represented the allegorical figure ‘Victoria’ receiving her six colonial sisters, who each bring a contribution. The Latin quotation on the medal read, ‘Facies Non Omnibus Una Nec Diversa Tamen / Qualem Decet Esse Sororum’ or ‘They all look different, and yet alike as sisters would’ (Harris 2006). In this way visitors from the colonies were invited to imagine themselves part of a family, trans-imperial Anglo-Saxon subjects who, notwithstanding their differences, were racial kin connected through an imperial network.

One visitor to the exhibition did voice his opinions. According to Charles Wentworth Dilke, Melbourne during the Intercolonial Exhibition of 1866 was ‘exceptionally gay’, and the exhibition received 50,000 people a week, ‘a great number for the colonies’ (Dilke 1869, 21, 106). Dilke was a fervent Anglo-Saxonist, and according to his book Greater Britain: A Record of Travel in English-Speaking Countries during 1866 and 1867, the colony of Victoria was the ‘wealthiest of all the Australian nations, and India alone excepted, has the largest trade of any of the dependencies’. He judged that ‘the progress of Melbourne is that of San Francisco’. Victoria, he proclaimed, was a ‘model colony’. Dilke (1869) noted ‘her statistics’ to be the most ‘perfect in the world’ (25). In Dilke’s mind, economic success was entirely due to the ‘strong vitality of Melbourne men’. He attributed such imperial success to the ‘unsurpassing vigour of the Victorians’, and the fact that they were ‘far more thoroughly British’ than the citizens of Sydney, the rival capital (23). Inviting a racialised environmentalism even between Australia’s colonies, he continued that Sydney people were mere ‘cornstalks’ ‘reared in semi-tropical climates’, but the ‘Victorians were ‘full blooded English immigrants, bred in the more rugged climes of Tasmania, Canada, or Great Britain’. Above all, Dilke believed in the primacy and ‘vigour’ of the Anglo-Saxon race, and its ability to overcome moments of mixedness and miscegenation. For Dilke the colony of Victoria was the model of Anglo-Saxon success, and the 1866 exhibition was its testament. Like Summers’s medal, the narrative symbol of the 1866 Intercolonial Exhibition, the Anglo-Saxon sisters were on display to the world, and despite differences, in Dilke’s words the ‘race was always one’ (23).

The Triumphal March and Chorus prepared for the opening of the Intercolonial Exhibition spoke of the colonies’ triumph, and of a history without aggression or bloodshed: ‘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’, as Emily Harris (2006) has noted (28–30).

Despite the ruptures and anxieties of the colonial encounter in south-eastern Australia, R.H. Horne, as the writer of the Triumphal Chorus, and journalists such as Dilke believed they could recognise with confidence the face of the Anglo-Saxon empire in Melbourne. They could easily dismiss or ignore ‘miscegenation’ and the endurance and survival of Aboriginal peoples in the face of expropriation and violence. Melbourne was the ‘London’ of the Australian colonies. The very high proportion of immigrants from the British Isles makes such hopes for cultural replications unsurprising. Yet, as Ian Baucom (1999) writes, imperialism is above all else a ‘zone of occult instability’ (3). For some British people seeking a mirror of their own identity, the colonies caused confusion and anxiety. Rather than places of triumph, confidence and sameness, such sites of British imperialism were spaces of bewilderment and loss which continued to trouble and confound some colonial and metropolitan subjects. For the Australasian newspaper, the ‘civilised murder’ of the Aborigines was an issue of vital concern for those ‘possessed with a conscience’.30 For others like Redmond Barry, redemption was desirable and necessary. The 1866 Intercolonial Exhibition and public debates surrounding it revealed the counterveiling currents of these complex anxieties.


Figure 3. View along part of the exhibition hall containing machinery, Intercolonial Exhibition, Melbourne, 1866–67. Photograph by Thomas Ellis and Co. (Courtesy of State Library of Victoria)


The Australasian’s assertions showed that that some segments of the press and public had expectations that the 1866 Intercolonial Exhibition would be much more than a popular diversion or technological fair. The Australasian hoped that the exhibition would provide a public forum in which questions of the demise of the ‘native races’, their possible civilisation, and colonial violence would be addressed or worked through. Yet, the imperative of showcasing the products of industry and of displaying the colonies to each other and to the metropole in the most favourable light meant that the Australasian’s concerns would never be fully addressed. Further, Redmond Barry’s concerns were framed in specific ways. The display of Aboriginal artefacts and remains was to be scientific, improving and, importantly, redemptive. However, beyond Barry’s immediate aspirations, issues concerning the ‘native races’ and the broader dynamics of race were worked through at multiple levels in the careful placement of objects in the displays, in the official chorus and exhibition medal, and revealed in attitudes regarding a superior Anglo-Saxon destiny. Through these various formats themes of imminent extinction, stadial development, progress and Aboriginal transformation through Christian instruction, as well as Anglo-Saxon triumph were communicated, revealing the particular multivalencies of race in the Victorian and Tasmanian courts at the Intercolonial Exhibition. The exhibition’s overt emphasis on progress and industry only affirmed the stadial narratives inherent in displays, songs and official addresses, and the positioning of Aboriginal objects and people within such schema. In these ways, the question of the ‘native races’ was ‘gone into’. We may never be sure of the extent to which the audience received these themes. But for some, such as Dilke, the debt that he and other visitors may have owed to the ‘humble races’, was their own interpolation as progressive, Anglo-Saxon subjects of Empire.


1     Australasian, 3 March 1866, 25 August 1866.

2     Australasian, 11 August 1866.

3     Australasian, 11 August 1866.

4     Australasian, 11 August 1866.

5     Meek (1977) has charted the various lineages of the four stages theory. While contending that there were several general streams of thought that may have led to the emergence of the four stages model, the key point is that the stages came to be conceptualised as distinct ‘modes of production’. Meek argues that such ideas were in fact a joint Scottish-French phenomenon. One of the greatest influences on Smith was the works of Montesquieu’s and his Spirit of Laws (1748), particularly Book XVIII where he developed his ideas on the notion that ‘difference, manner and social institutions are related to differences in the mode of subsistence’ (23, 29).

6     Argus, 14 March 1856, cited in Christie (1979), 152.

7     ‘In 1877, five Aboriginal people remained in the Melbourne district’ (Russell and McNiven 2001, 237).

8     Broome (2005) notes that by 1863, only ‘7 reserves … and 23 handkerchief-sized camping places and ration depots were in place, creating the most comprehensive reserve system in nineteenth century Australia’ (126).

9     By the 1860s many of these missions were run by Moravians, a Protestant evangelical denomination, which had been afforded a dominant place in Port Phillip due to the association of the colony’s Superintendant Charles La Trobe with the British Moravian church (Lydon 2005b). In 1866 Corenderrk was managed by Superintendant John Green, a Presbyterian lay preacher (Barwick 1998).

10    Authors such as Alexis de Tocqueville (1835–40), for example, were crucially concerned with such new societies and the democratic process.

11    Redmond Barry, letter regarding the Intercolonial Exhibition, Melbourne, 5 March 1866, Miscellaneous papers relating to the Aborigines 1839–1871 MSSA610, CY979, State Library of New South Wales.

12    Redmond Barry, letter 5 March 1866.

13    Redmond Barry, letter 5 March 1866. As Cowley (2004) notes, the Vocabulary of Dialects Spoken by the Aboriginal Natives of Australia was published in May 1867 (118).

14    Redmond Barry, letter 5 March 1866.

15    Redmond Barry, letter 5 March 1866.

16    Intercolonial Exhibition 1866, official catalogue, MS 12392, box 3194/5, State Library of Victoria.

17    Intercolonial Exhibition 1866, official catalogue.

18    Intercolonial Exhibition 1866, official catalogue, 27, 28.

19    Sixth Report of the Central Board to Watch over the Aborigines, Colony of Victoria, John Ferres Government Printer, Melbourne 1866, 4.

20    Argus, 24 April 1866.

21    Intercolonial Exhibition 1866, official catalogue.

22    So popular was this pseudo-science that it was possible to have a phrenological reading of one’s character made in many places in Melbourne. Madam Sohier’s wax works in Bourke Street, not far from the Intercolonial Exhibition, often displayed murderers with complete studies of their phrenology to explain why they had committed their crime (Thearle 1993, 523).

23    For a discussion of these busts, see Christine Downer’s (1987) ‘Charles Summers and the Australian Aborigines’ in Art and Australia (25) (2) (summer): 206–212. Cowley (2004) notes that Galbally’s 1995 Redmond Barry ‘questions Downer’s assumption that it was Summers’ role as a judge at the Exhibition that precluded the casts being displayed’ (120).

24    Intercolonial Exhibition 1866, official catalogue, 82.

25    Intercolonial Exhibition 1866, official catalogue, 82.

26    Intercolonial Exhibition 1866, official catalogue, and related papers, MS 12392, box 3194/5, SLV.

27    Lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen’s Land, Thomas Davey (1758–1823), made no such visual proclamation during his short term from 1813 to 1816.

28    See Horne, RH. 1866. ‘Intercolonial Exhibition 1866: Grand evening concert in celebration of the opening – the south sea sisters, triumphal chorus, &C. &C. &C.’ In Victorian Pamphlets LXXIII. Melbourne: Wilson and Mackinnon.

29    Sir Frances Murphy, Opening Address, Intercolonial Exhibition 1866, Official Record, xxi.

30    Australasian, 11 August 1866.



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Cite this chapter as: Edmonds, Penelope. 2008. ‘“We think that this subject of the native races should be thoroughly gone into at the forthcoming Exhibition”: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. 4.1–4.21.

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