Tag Archives: museum

Friday essay: it’s time for a new museum dedicated to the fighters of the frontier wars

Group of Aboriginal people with shields and spears, by Joseph Lycett, circa 1820.
National Library of Australia

Henry Reynolds, University of Tasmania

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains images of deceased people.

Historical research of the last 20 years has confirmed the central importance of the killing times. They lasted far longer and were much more deadly than generations of Australians were led to believe.

For many years the truth was either deftly avoided or consciously suppressed. Aboriginal families kept alive their own memories of those terrible times, even if they were not necessarily aware of the broader national story.

A pioneer Queensland pastoralist who had worked for years with Indigenous stockmen came to appreciate the continuing legacy of the violent early years, or what he termed “the remembrance of the blood red dawn of their civilisation”.

Once anthropologists and linguists began to work in First Nations communities in the 1930s and 1940s, they too learnt how vigorously alive were memories of historical violence. They should perhaps have known more about it but often didn’t. Their education had let them down.

The violence, the “line of blood”, was well known in colonial society. It had been discussed and argued about from the earliest years in New South Wales and Tasmania. The central points of contention still confront us.

Read more:
Of course Australia was invaded – massacres happened here less than 90 years ago

Was it an inescapable companion of colonisation? Was it a case of forced appropriation or none at all? Were all the colonists, including those with no experience of the frontier, complicit by remaining in Australia? Did the new societies bear a collective moral burden? Or was it necessary to distinguish the culpability of free settlers from that of the convicts and the Australian-born children?

“This right to Australia is a sore subject with many of the British settlers”, a Victorian pioneer noted in the 1840s, “and they strive to satisfy their consciences in various ways”.

Albumen silver photograph
No title (Aboriginal man holding a gun) c. 1873. No. 18 from the Australian Aboriginals portfolio, photogaph by JW Lindt.
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

At much the same time, the South Australian settler Francis Dutton thought that the claims of the blacks were “superior to ours”, although his contemporaries were “too eager on all occasions … to persuade ourselves that such is not the case”.

The Aboriginal question “gave rise to more argument” than any other matter in Queensland in the 1860s according to the editor of the Rockhampton Bulletin.

Running close to the colonial debate about the morality of settlement was the unavoidable question of frontier conflict. Was it a form of warfare even if of quite a distinctive kind? Or were the pioneer settlers murderers? Were they heroic pathfinders or criminals?

There were very few court cases where such questions might have been assessed and therefore publicised. On the other hand, war and homicide were matters widely understood, each with their own place in the popular mind. So there was no consensus, no resolution that has been passed down to us. We have to resolve the matter ourselves.

Our most important war

There were always settlers who opted for warfare as the way out of the moral quandary of colonisation. And many of the military men who lived and worked in NSW and Tasmania talked openly of war. Many of them were career officers with battle experience.

It is not surprising therefore that many of the historians who have rewritten the history of frontier conflict over the last 40 or so years have followed in their wake. More to the point is that since at least 1990, Australia’s professional war historians have both accepted and promoted the idea that frontier conflict must be considered alongside Australia’s overseas wars.

But that can only be the start of a significant transformation in the way we think about both the frontiersmen and the warriors of the First Nations who confronted them all over the continent.

Rigorous truth-telling will be of critical importance here, but that can only be part of the required transformation. The telling must be heard and treated with gravity. Changes in traditional accounts of national history will have to be accepted.

Woman stares straight to camera. She wears a necklace of shells.
Portrait of Truganini, a member of The Freedom Fighters, c 1866, photographed by CA Woolley.
National Library of Australia

Read more:
Friday essay: Truganini and the bloody backstory to Victoria’s first public execution

Above all, we must bring together the ways we think about and commemorate the two forms of national war-making … the many overseas campaigns on the one hand and the war fought in Australia for the ownership and control of the continent on the other.

The truth-telling will have achieved its ultimate purpose when Australian children are able to consider that the long-running and widespread conflict that accompanied Australian life for 140 years was arguably our most important war.

Aboriginal people on the frontier

But how can two such disparate narratives be spliced together? It will clearly take time and will need steady and persistent commitment. Many small threads will have to be engaged. Complexity will have to replace simple sagas of heroic settlement. For instance, few people appreciate that Aboriginal people participated from the earliest years in the outward thrust of the frontier.

The first expeditions that pushed out into the interior were invariably accompanied by Aboriginal escorts who acted as guides and diplomats. They were able to find their way across country, discover water, track straying horses, hunt and gather food. They could quickly construct temporary shelters and simple bark rafts to ford rivers.

Two ben on horses.
Aboriginal police trackers Woodley and Gordon in the Kimberley, 1920.
State Library Western Australia

Their value was so obvious that it became a settled custom for expeditions, both private and official, to recruit young men and women to act as valued auxiliaries. When the squatters surged out into the interior of NSW, Aboriginal people went with them and quickly developed the skills that made them valued and competent stockmen and women.

Children, often enough kidnapped, were taken along as personal servants and eventually sexual partners. Once the vast savannah lands of the tropical north were occupied, local Aboriginal people became the mainstay of the workforce, given the scarcity, cost and unreliability of white labour.

They were an essential component of the successful establishment of the northern pastoral industry and, consequently, the principal claim the settler Australians could make to prove they were in effective occupation of as much as a quarter of the continent.

The same skills made young Aboriginal men ideal troopers for native police forces in Victoria, NSW and particularly Queensland. Their bushcraft was essential to the success of the northern force in crushing the resistance of the First Nations over a vast area of the colony. They were also much cheaper to maintain than a comparable force of European troopers.

Photograph of nine men.
Queensland Native Mounted Police contingent sent to Victoria to help hunt the Kelly Gang, 1879.
Queensland Police Museum, CC BY-NC-SA

There seems to be no precise record of the number of Aboriginal young men who served in the force. In his history of the Native Police, The Secret War, Jonathan Richards listed just over 250 white officers who spent varying periods of time out in the field. But he provided no estimate of the equivalent number of Indigenous troopers.

There must have been hundreds and possibly as many as a thousand. The conclusions that follow from this are compelling. The troopers almost certainly killed more Aboriginal people than the settlers.

Read more:
How unearthing Queensland’s ‘native police’ camps gives us a window onto colonial violence

In total, they may have been responsible for up to a quarter of all deaths in the frontier wars all over Australia. This too has to be part of our truth-telling.

Native Police, Rockhampton, 1864.
Wikimedia Commons

The response of many people when this matter is raised is to express amazement that the troopers could shoot their own people and assume they must have been coerced into killing. But the critical point is that the idea that the First Nations were members of one race or one people was a European one and had little bearing on the situation on the ground.

The young troopers were invariably campaigning far from their own homeland in country previously unknown among people foreign to them. And the locals were people to be feared. If the troopers were caught away from their detachment they would almost certainly have been killed, and this kept them together as much as the discipline imposed by white officers.

So whether as paramilitary troopers, workers, trackers, guides, servants and sexual partners, many hundreds of Aboriginal Australians were participants in the outward thrust of the frontier.

The implication is inescapable. Many Indigenous families have ancestors who were pioneers in the precise meaning of that term, both black and white, whether recognised and acknowledged or not.

White fear

Truth-telling allows us to weave new stories and to make old ones richer while, at the same time, more complex. This is particularly true when it comes to our understanding of frontier warfare. The common view is that the Aboriginal peoples were, for much of the time, passive victims of European brutality.

Such ideas help explain the one-time common view that the Aboriginal peoples were quite unable to put up a spirited resistance of the kind seen in New Zealand and North America, that they were “pathetically helpless” in their response to the invaders of their homelands.

Etching of a muscular man in a boat.
Pemulwuy was a significant figure in the resistance to colonisation. This is believed to be the only picture of him, drawn in 1803, a year after his murder.
State Library Victoria

Such opinions, common among professional historians until the 1960s, underpinned the idea that we had a uniquely peaceful history. Since then, the violence of the frontier has flooded back into the national story. But the overwhelming idea of Aboriginal people as victims of irresistible violence has lived on as a powerful political weapon, readily mobilised to assault the conscience of white Australia. Still, as is often the case, good politics makes bad history.

A few days’ research among the documentary records of the colonies would dispel these ideas. It was understood at the time that white fear was overwhelmingly important. The brave frontiersmen were terrified of the Aboriginal people. The evidence for this will be found everywhere.

A Sydney Morning Herald journalist who toured North Queensland in the 1880s concluded that “mere wanton slaughter would be unknown if the natives were not feared so much”.

Some years later, on the other side of the continent, the government resident at Roebourne reported that the “fears of whites are more the cause of disorder than the aggression of blacks”.

This should come as no surprise. In most frontier districts the invading force was spread very thin. The small parties were almost everywhere outnumbered by resident bands. They were in country they knew little about. It looked, felt and smelt dangerously exotic. They had no maps and had no idea where Aboriginal parties periodically disappeared to.

The people they were displacing had a profound knowledge of their own land. They were in many cases taller, stronger and better nourished than the Europeans, who got by on a very limited diet. And they were hunters trained from childhood.

Print depicting formal Aboriginal combat scene from the time of the Baudin voyage, c1825.
Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

They could track the intruders and stalk them without being seen or heard, and throw their spears with lethal force and accuracy. Guns were important, particularly late in the 19th century when men on the frontier carried revolvers and high-powered repeating rifles.

But it was the horse that had tipped the balance in the invaders’ favour. Their power, speed and endurance made all the difference on the vast open plains of inland Australia.

When speaking in their own defence, frontiersmen insisted that they acted in response to Aboriginal aggression. A typical argument was advanced by the editor of the Hodgkinson Mining News who wrote in 1877:

It is not the rule that the white men are the aggressors. The first settlers came peaceably onto the land they had got by right from the Crown, and no sooner had they done so than the hostilities of the natives compel them to adopt not merely defensive but offensive measures.

It was special pleading but there is no doubt the frontiersmen, like invaders anywhere, would have preferred to achieve a bloodless usurpation.

The editor’s comment nudges us, however, towards an enhanced understanding of the frontier wars. It was Aboriginal resistance that determined where and when conflict broke out and for how long it lasted. And that was clearly the result of innumerable political decisions, made often at band level, about how to respond to the white men.

Initially there was a choice of attempting to accommodate the intruders, avoiding them altogether or spying on them in order to gather information about them. The fateful decision to begin forceful resistance often took some time.

It may have begun with a compelling desire to carry out a revenge mission aimed at a particular individual for what would have been a crime in traditional society — the kidnapping and rape of a kinswoman, for instance.

From that point on, violence spiralled out of control. Attacks on vulnerable white men were often combined with the killing of sheep, cattle and horses; the burning of huts and crops; and the pillaging of undefended camp sites.

The fighting continued until the Aboriginal bands decided that the cost they were paying was too high. Once again there must have been intense and urgent debate about how to bring the merciless killing to an end.

And even then, the question of how to negotiate a capitulation must have occupied time and thought. But everywhere, sooner or later, the survivors were, in the victors’ words, “let in” to pastoral stations, mining camps or rudimentary townships.

Not everyone was willing to surrender, and small parties of what the white men called myalls continued to live independently in remote areas of their homeland.

‘We are at war with them’

The explorer Edward Eyre was one of the people who was able to look beyond the conventional view that the warriors were dangerous but lacking martial virtue. He observed that:

It has been said, and is generally believed, that the natives are not courageous. There could not be a greater mistake … I have seen many instances of an open manly intrepidity of manner and bearing, and a proud unquailing glance of eye, which instinctively stamped upon my mind the conviction that the individuals before me were very brave men.

From an admiration of Aboriginal bravery it required a further step to regard the warriors as heroic patriots defending their homelands, although that was one too demanding for most colonists. It required an even-handed approach difficult to sustain in times of conflict and that threatened to undermine the legal and moral foundations on which the Australian colonies rested.

Bullock team and cart with two prisoners, prison guards and a crowd outside the gaol
‘The First Execution’, drawn by W. F. E Liardet c, of the execution of Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner.
State Library Victoria

It was the war in Tasmania in the 1820s that produced one of colonial Australia’s most provocative manifestos. It was printed in a Launceston newspaper at the very end of five years of conflict. The author J.E., assumed to be the young surveyor James Erskine Calder, posed what he called some solemn questions about the islands’ Aboriginal peoples. He declared:

We are at war with them: they look upon us as enemies – as invaders – as their oppressors and persecutors – they resist our invasion. They have never been subdued, therefore they are not rebellious subjects, but an injured nation, defending in their own way, their rightful possessions, which have been torn from them by force.

Given the time that it was written that was provocative enough. But J.E. followed the logic of his position much further arguing:

What we call their crime is what in a white man we should call patriotism. Where is the man amongst ourselves who would not resist an invading enemy; who would not avenge the murder of his parents, the ill-usage of his wife and daughters, and the spoliation of all his earthly goods, by a foreign enemy, if he had an opportunity? He who would not do so, would be scouted, execrated, nay executed as a coward and a traitor; while he who did would be immortalised as a patriot.

Why then shall deny the same feelings to the Blacks? How can we condemn as a crime in these savages what we should esteem as a virtue in ourselves? Why punish a black man with death for doing that which a white man would be executed for not doing?

They were challenging questions then. They remain so today.

Warriors as patriots

I came across J.E.’s letter years ago and have used it in several books. I have also read it to audiences in many parts of Australia. In almost all cases people have found it a complete surprise. They are amazed that a colonist would publish such an enlightened letter almost 200 years ago. They correctly assess that his questions still confront and challenge us.

Can we, by which I mean Australia as a nation, regard the First Nations’ warriors as patriots? Can we immortalise their heroic defence of their homelands? We have a great deal of experience when it comes to remembering and commemorating our citizens who have died in conflict. No expense is spared. The phrase “Lest We Forget” is surrounded by a sacred penumbra.

But do we want to allow the heroes of the First Nations to join the chosen ones? Do we want to extend to them the honours we award to the war dead from all our overseas engagements?

Do we want to honour them with a place in the nation’s pantheon? Do we want to share the honours we have hitherto preserved for our warriors who fought on foreign soil? See it as a national priority? If the answer is yes, what would be required?

Memorials to our overseas wars can be found all over the continent, even in the smallest and most isolated villages. In his book Sacred Places, Ken Inglis estimated that there are more than 4,000 war memorials of one kind or another.

And then there are the tens of thousands graves cared for by the War Graves Commission in Australia and many places overseas. During the carnival of first world war commemoration we witnessed between 2014 and 2018, old monuments all over the country were refurbished and avenues of honour replanted.

A new museum costing $100 million was built in northern France to commemorate the achievements of the AIF. Meanwhile the Australian War Memorial had achieved an unparalleled place in national life. Visiting schoolchildren are taught that it is where they must go to understand what it means to be an Australian.

Hallway of the Australian War Memorial decorated with poppies.
The Australian War Memorial.

It is now described by the director of the institution as the “soul of the nation”, a view endorsed by Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, who has said the memorial embodies “the soul and the psyche of Australians”. The government has recently granted it half a billion dollars for a highly controversial building program.

Read more:
Gargoyles and silence: ‘our story’ at the Australian War Memorial

The memorial’s apotheosis has been achieved during the years when many aspects of Australian history were transformed and in particular our new understanding of the magnitude of the frontier wars.

But rather than embrace the new historiography, the memorial has turned its back on it, despite the highly relevant research and writing of many of the Canberra-based war historians, some of whom have actually worked inside the institution.

The reason for this recalcitrance has never been convincingly outlined. The most common explanation is that while frontier conflict has been accepted as part of the national story, it should come under the aegis of the National Museum rather than the War Memorial.

A new national museum

The War Memorial’s implicit disrespect for the warriors of the First Nations represents a case of profound moral failure. It has let us all down. It was made worse by a parallel political failure as a consequence of the complete lack of interest in the subject from all sides of the federal parliament.

The problem could have been resolved so easily. One formal ceremony would have woven the two traditions together. The placing of a tomb for the unknown warrior in the heart of the memorial next to the grave of the unknown soldier would have been an event of immense national importance, a symbol of respect, inclusion and reconciliation. What a difference that would have made to the way we feel about ourselves!

There seems little chance now that this will ever happen. We will have to persist with two separate stories of war. The inescapable implication is that the nation itself is deeply divided, its soul bifurcated and located in different places.

But if the two histories are to be told in different ways and in distinctive institutions, they must be given equal resources to not only continue the truth-telling, called for in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, but to enable the truth to be proclaimed and illustrated in a compelling way.

The call must be: “If not inclusion then equality”.

What is clearly required is a new national museum dedicated to the frontier wars and supported with the same level of funding that is received by the War Memorial.

It will be expensive, but if $100 million can be lavished on building a museum dedicated to a few years of fighting in France, that is the least that should be expected to establish an institution here dedicated to the story of the conflict experienced in all parts of the continent over 140 years.

The new institution could then provide advice and encouragement to regional organisations to consider ways to research and commemorate the war fought within their own traditional boundaries.

Not every community would necessarily respond, but the variety of the chosen manner and form would likely provide an exhilarating experience for locals and visitors alike. In some places the descendants of the white pioneers might be invited to participate in the commemoration.

Museums and monuments are important instruments to both remember the past and to engage in truth-telling.

This is an edited extract from Truth-Telling: History, Sovereignty and the Uluru Statement by Henry Reynolds, New South Books.The Conversation

Henry Reynolds, Honorary Research Professor, Aboriginal Studies Global Cultures & Languages, University of Tasmania

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Friday essay: 5 museum objects that tell a story of colonialism and its legacy

This wooden dish from Broome, pre-1892, was made by Yawuru people, collected by police and later presented by the Commissioner of Police, Colonel Phillips, to the WA Museum.
Courtesy of the WA museum

Alistair Paterson, University of Western Australia; Andrea Witcomb, Deakin University; Gaye Sculthorpe, The British Museum; Shino Konishi, University of Western Australia, and Tiffany Shellam, Deakin University

Two new Australian museums are emerging from old ones as the year draws to a close.

The new Chau Chak Wing Museum at the University of Sydney assembles rich collections from across the campus, and the WA Museum Boola Bardip (Noongar for “Many Stories”) has opened in Perth. Museums remain relevant in a globalised world where stories of objects and collecting connect people, institutions, places and ideas.

Our Collecting the West Project, in collaboration with the Western Australian Museum, the State Library of WA, the Art Gallery of WA and the British Museum, explores the history of collecting in WA since the late 1600s.

We are tracing the role of collecting in histories of empire, exploration and colonisation; the relations between natural history and ethnographic collecting; the role of state instrumentalities and private individuals; and the networks between them.

Here, we highlight five objects, some displayed in Boola Bardip’s Treasures Gallery, to reveal how they can provide us with insights into history, values, emotions and power.

One of the new exhibition spaces, the Ngalang Koort Boodja Wirn gallery at Boola Bardip.
c Michael Haluwana Aeroture

1. Everything was contemporary once — Corona Smoking Bucket, 2020

On March 26 2020, the WA government suspended tourist operations on Rottnest Island (Wadjemup) to support the government response to the pandemic. Australian citizens aboard the Vasco de Gama cruise ship were directed to be quarantined on the island from Monday March 30.

Whadjuk monitors Ben Ugle and Brendan Moore were on the island to support conservation works at the heritage site — a prison that once held Aboriginal people from all over WA, where many died.

The two Whadjuk men chose to perform a smoking ceremony for the island’s transition to pandemic quarantine facility. Smoking ceremonies are often conducted to cleanse a place spiritually, such as after a death, to welcome people, and as a sign of respect to people including past elders.

Corona Smoking Bucket: a metal beer bucket used for a smoking ceremony.
Courtesy of Wadjemup Museum Collection.

A metal tin was found for the smoking ceremony — given the unplanned nature of the event, the only suitable vessel they could find was a Corona beer bucket. Seeing the irony in the serendipitous use of this object, the “Corona Smoking Bucket” was collected for The Wadjemup Museum on Rottnest Island in March 2020.

Like many objects, this bucket symbolises several histories: the fact of its collection, the impact of a global pandemic at a local level, growing recognition of Indigenous cultural practices and the connection between an Indigenous smoking ceremony and the island’s dark history of Aboriginal incarceration (circa 1838-1931).

These histories compete also with the island’s later use — as the site of decades of annual school leavers’ celebrations, reflected in the presence of the Corona bucket.

Read more:
Indigenous medicine – a fusion of ritual and remedy

2. Collections carry emotions — Shell, Shark Bay, 1820

This watercolour and ink drawing of a beautiful shell — the Volute ethiopienne — was drawn from a specimen brought back from Shark Bay in 1820 as part of the French Freycinet expedition. It can now be found in the State Library of Western Australia.

Shells from WA were prized for their beauty, part of the Enlightenment’s love affair with discovering the diversity of the natural world.

Drawing of Volute ethioienne specimen, Shark Bay, 1820. A. Provist.
Freycinet collections, State Library of Western Australia, ACC 5907A/12.

Aboriginal people have long valued shells for ornamentation and exchange. Shells were also attractive items for some of the earliest European explorers of the WA coast.

In 1697, for instance, Willem de Vlamingh, a Dutch sea captain working for the Dutch East India Company, collected a number of shells from Shark Bay, including a nautilus and a conch. He failed to find the shipwreck he was searching for, but helped to chart the coast. The English explorer William Dampier arrived in 1699 and some of the shells he collected in Shark Bay ended up in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum.

French explorers followed. Nicolas Baudin’s expedition took a considerable number of shells back to Paris, where they can now be seen at the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle.

In his journal of the Baudin expedition, the naturalist François Peron described a mussel he found on the shore:

Of all the species of mussels known so far, the one that I discovered [in Shark Bay] is incontestably the most beautiful. Stripped of its marine coating, it shines with the most vivid colours of the prism and precious stones; it is dazzling, if I may say so.

Read more:
Friday essay: the voyage of Nicolas Baudin and ‘art in the service of science’

3. Mokare’s place — Spear-thrower, King George Sound, (Albany), c.1831

This spear-thrower was collected by Alexander Collie, the government resident at King George Sound between 1831-33, who formed a close friendship with Menang Noongar man Mokare.

Such historic objects remind us that many collections of plants and objects were formed with the expert assistance of Aboriginal people who knew the land intimately.

Spear-thrower, Albany.
British Museum, 1613225872

The spear-thrower also highlights how objects can embody moments of unexpected friendships, such as the close relationship that developed between Collie and Mokare. Mokare lived with Collie in his hut in the settlement of Albany in 1831, and when near death, Collie asked to be buried beside his friend.

Collie had worked as a naval surgeon and sent objects he collected back to the Royal Navy’s Haslar Hospital Naval Museum at Portsmouth, to assist in naval education. In 1855 the admiralty disbanded the museum, depositing the spear-thrower and other objects in the British Museum.

In 2016-2017, the spear-thrower, along with other objects collected by Collie, returned to Albany to be displayed in the Yurlmun exhibition, which focused on the meaning of these collections to Menang Noongar people today. Despite these objects being only a temporary loan from the British Museum (where they are now in storage), the Menang people viewed their arrival as a “return home to country”.

The objects collected by Collie point to the role of the Royal Navy as a key network of colonisation; the agency of individual Aboriginal people in processes of colonial collection and the potential of these collections to highlight not only the role played by Indigenous people such as Mokare but also the cultural knowledge contained in the objects themselves.

A portrait of Mokare by Louis de Sainson (1833).
Wikimedia Commons

A much earlier collection of weapons, also from Albany, hints at the complexity of collecting practices undertaken within colonial contexts. A Royal Navy surveying expedition, captained by Phillip Parker King, visited King George Sound in December 1821. The crew were engaged with the Menang people in a prolonged and intimate trading exchange for two weeks. In exchange for ships’ biscuit, the crew collected:

one hundred spears, thirty throwing sticks, forty hammers, one hundred and fifty knives and a few hand-clubs.

By contrast, at Hanover Bay on today’s Kimberley coast, a few months earlier, a cache of Worrorra weapons and artefacts were taken as a retaliatory theft for the spearing of the crew’s surgeon.

The crew members related this theft in their journals with the language of revenge: “taking possession of”, “riches”, “spoil”, “prize” and “treasure”, where they took pleasure in “capturing” an Aboriginal “depot”.

These collecting moments reveal different kinds of intimacies — of friendships and violence, trade and exchange — that occurred during early coastal encounters. They also explain why there is no early material from WA in Western Australian collections — most went to Britain as a result of these imperial networks.

4. Colonialism never dies — Wooden dish, Broome, pre 1892

This small wooden bowl carries a history that hints at the role of colonial state instrumentalities in collecting. It is part of a large collection at the WA Museum known as the Phillips Collection.

Wooden dish from Broome, pre-1892, made by Yawuru people, presented by the Commissioner of Police to the WA Museum.
Courtesy of the WA museum

George Braithwaite Phillips was the commissioner of police between 1887-1890. His family was amongst the first colonists to emigrate to the Swan River Colony (now Perth), coming from Barbados, where they owned sugar plantations.

Phillips had been a high profile civil servant and the commandant of the Western Australian Military Forces. From those positions he was able to commandeer a large network of policemen throughout the colony to collect both Aboriginal material culture and human remains.

Many of the Aboriginal objects collected by police, though not the ancestral human remains, were displayed at International Exhibitions in Paris, Glasgow and Melbourne.

Read more:
The violent collectors who gathered Indigenous artefacts for the Queensland Museum

The collection, which included this bowl from Broome, made by Yawuru people, helped form the new Western Australian Museum and Art Gallery in 1894. (The bowl can now be seen at WA Museum Boola Bardip.)

Bernard Woodward, the museum’s first director, continued to ask Phillips for help in sourcing both ethnographic objects and human remains, many of them destined to be exchanged for natural history specimens and ethnographic material from other parts of the world.

So, this bowl is a powerful object. It speaks to Aboriginal cultural practices, the police as active agents of colonisation, and the complex terrain of colonial encounters and their aftermath that form part of the museum’s own inheritance — now slowly being addressed in consultation with relevant communities.

5. Collections are commodities — Red figure hydria, 350-320BC

This red figure vase (circa 350-320BC), probably from Bari
— then a Greek colony — was, according to the museum’s first art and craft register, given by Professor E H Giglioli in 1902. Giglioli (1845-1909) was the Director of the Museo Zoologico in Florence — a zoologist and anthropologist remembered as the father of Italian science.

Red figure hydria (water jar), Bari, Apulia, southern Italy.
Courtesy of the WA Museum.

He visited Australia in 1867, writing a book on Australian Aboriginal people. Giglioli understood the uniqueness of WA’s flora and fauna, seeking valuable specimens with which to build his own collection and to trade for other specimens from elsewhere in the world.

Giglioli sent Roman and Etruscan antiquities he acquired in Italy to Perth in exchange for natural history specimens, human remains and ethnographic material.

Collections circulated through collecting institutions, often exchanged or bartered. Giglioli exchanged the WA material with the Smithsonian Museum.

In Australia, antiquities from Europe had their own rarity value. Widely understood as the foundation of Western culture and aesthetics, antiquities were hard to come by in colonial society.

In 1904, Woodward wrote:

it is of paramount importance that the local craftsmen should have good examples to study, in order that they may successfully compete with their fellows in the older centres of civilisation.

The notion of civilisation was especially important in a young nation. Colonial societies, wanting to demonstrate their rightful place amongst civilised societies, often purchased copies of originals.

So it is not surprising Woodward wanted to exchange Western Australian natural history and ethnographic specimens for objects representing the high end of European artistic production or material representing the birth of European civilisation.

This was part of his effort to educate Western Australians into what they thought was the best that Western civilisation offered.

While this was a way for museums around the world to build their collections, it also involved practices that are totally discredited today and which many find deeply distressing. It is important to know about this history and address its legacies. 

The collections made by early explorers and settlers, sometimes in collaboration with Indigenous peoples, are important for their role in the development of knowledge about WA, opening up areas of scientific discovery and knowledge about First Peoples, the richness of the state’s flora and fauna and our shared historical experiences.

They are also tangible symbols of colonialism and its legacy today.The Conversation

Alistair Paterson, ARC Future Fellow, University of Western Australia; Andrea Witcomb, Professor, Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies, Deakin University; Gaye Sculthorpe, Curator & Section Head, Oceania, The British Museum; Shino Konishi, ARC Research Fellow, University of Western Australia, and Tiffany Shellam, Senior Lecturer in History, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Hidden women of history: Ennigaldi-Nanna, curator of the world’s first museum

The National Museum of Iraq photographed in February 2018. Many of the pieces discovered at the ruins of Ur, arranged and labelled by Ennigaldi-Nanna, can be found here.
Wikimedia Commons

Louise Pryke, Macquarie University

In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.

“It belongs in a museum.” With these words, Indiana Jones, the world’s best-known fictional archaeologist, articulated an association between archaeologists, antiquities, and museums that has a very long history. Indeed, even Jones himself would likely marvel at the historic setting of the world’s first “museum,” and the remarkable woman who is believed to have been its curator, the Mesopotamian princess, Ennigaldi-Nanna.

Ennigaldi-Nanna was the priestess of the moon deity Sin, and the daughter of the Neo-Babylonian king, Nabonidus. In the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur, around 530BCE, a small collection of antiquities was gathered, with Ennigaldi-Nanna working to arrange and label the varied artefacts.

C. Leonard Woolley (left) and T. E. Lawrence at archaeological excavations in Syria, circa 1912-1914.
Wikimedia Commons

This collection was considered by the British archaeologist, Sir Charles Leonard Woolley, to be the earliest known example of a “museum”.

In 1925, Woolley and his team were excavating at Ur (now in the Dhi Qar governate of southern Iraq). They discovered a curious collection of artefacts among the ruins of a Babylonian palace. Especially unusual was that while the items were from different geographical areas and historical settings, they were neatly assembled together.

An example of Sumerian script on a foundation tablet 2144-2124 BCE (Lagash II; Ur III).
The Walters Art Museum

The items ranged in dates from around 2100 BCE to 600 BCE. They included part of a statue of the famous early king, Shulgi of Ur, who ruled around 2058 BCE, a ceremonial mace-head made of stone, and some texts. The statue, Woolley observed, had been carefully restored to preserve the writing.

There was also a Kassite boundary stele (called a “kudurru”), a written document used to mark boundaries and make proclamations. The stele was dated to around 1400 BCE, and contained, Woolley noted, a “terrific curse” on anyone who removed or destroyed the record it contained.

Many items were accompanied by labels giving details about the artefacts. These were written in three languages, including Sumerian. The labels have been described in modern scholarship as early examples of the “metadata” that is so critical to the preservation of antiquities and the historical record.

Read more:
Fifteen years after looting, thousands of artefacts are still missing from Iraq’s national museum

The museum, over 2,500 years old, was centred on cultural heritage, and it is thought to have perhaps had an educational purpose. Along with her other roles, Ennigaldi-Nanna is believed to have run a scribal school for elite women.

When considering the discovery, Woolley noted that the discovery of a museum associated with the priestess was not unexpected, given the close connection between religious specialists and education. He also commented on the “antiquarian piety” of the time of the museum’s construction — an interest in history was a common feature among monarchs from the Neo-Babylonian period.

A family fascination with history

Indeed, Ennigaldi-Nanna’s appreciation for the past seems to have been a family trait. Her father Nabonidus had a fascination with history which led him to conduct excavations and discover lost texts. Many of the items in the collection were discovered by him, with Nabonidus sometimes described in the modern day as the world’s first archaeologist.

Stela of Nabonidus made of basalt.
Wikimedia Commons

Nabonidus was the last king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, and a religious reformer. His eldest son, Belshazzar, ruled as his regent for many years, but is perhaps best known for his appearance in the biblical Book of Daniel. In a famous scene, the unfortunate regent sees the end of the Neo-Babylonian kingdom coming when it is foretold through the writing of a disembodied hand on a wall.

King Nabonidus’ interest in history didn’t end with archaeology. He also worked to revive ancient cultic traditions relating to the moon deity, Sin (Sumerian Nanna). His daughter Ennigaldi was an important part of these efforts, indeed, her name is an ancient Sumerian one, meaning “the priestess, the desire of the Moon god.”

A boundary stele/kudurru showing King Melishipak I (1186–1172 BC) presenting his daughter to the goddess Nannaya. The crescent moon represents the god Sin, the sun the Shamash and the star the goddess Ishtar.
Wikimedia Commons

The appointment of Ennigaldi as high priestess in Ur reinvigorated a historical trend made famous by Sargon of Akkad, who installed his daughter, the poetess Enheduanna, in the role over 1000 years earlier.

Read more:
Hidden women of history: Enheduanna, princess, priestess and the world’s first known author

By the time of Ennigaldi-Nanna’s appointment, the religious role she would inhabit had long been unoccupied, and the rituals associated with the post had been forgotten. Nabonidus, however, describes finding an ancient stela belonging to Nebuchadnezzar I, and using it to guide his actions.

The historic aspects of the appointment of Ennigaldi-Nanna were further emphasised by Nabonidus when noting his research into the requirements of her role. The king describes consulting the writings of a previous priestess, a sister of the ruler Rim-Sin named En-ane-du.

Rim-Sin reigned over 1200 years before Nabonidus came to power. While some scholars doubt Nabonidus’ discovery of the stela of Nebuchadnezzar I, his recovery of the writings of the priestess, En-ane-du, has greater acceptance.

Ruins in the town of Ur, Southern Iraq, photographed in 2006. Around 530BCE, a small collection of antiquities was gathered here, with Ennigaldi-Nanna working to arrange and label the varied artefacts.
Wikimedia Commons

Little known today

Ennigaldi is largely unknown in the modern day. An exception to her modern anonymity may be found in the luxury fashion line, Ennigaldi, which creates pieces inspired by ancient Babylonian architecture.

While relatively little is known of the life of Ennigaldi, there are other well-known women in her family tree. Ennigaldi’s grandmother, Adad-guppi, was also a powerful priestess involved in the political world of her son, Nabonidus. Adad-guppi is best known in the present day from her “autobiography,” a cuneiform account of her life, written in the first person. Adad-guppi’s autobiography records the blessings she received from the moon deity such as living to the age of 104 with a sound mind and body.

The city of Ur and its museum were abandoned around 500 BCE, due to deteriorating environmental conditions. These included a severe drought, along with changing river and silt patterns. The prevalence of drought has also been cited as a likely cause of the falls of many earlier kingdoms from the Bronze Age.

The story of the world’s first known museum, its curator, and her family, shows the timeless appeal of conserving the treasures of the past. At the same time, the disappearance of this early institution of learning over two millennia ago demonstrates the significant overlap in the important areas of cultural heritage and environmental conservation.The Conversation

Louise Pryke, Lecturer, Languages and Literature of Ancient Israel, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Fifteen years after looting, thousands of artefacts are still missing from Iraq’s national museum

Craig Barker, University of Sydney

On April 10 2003, the first looters broke into the National Museum of Iraq. Staff had vacated two days earlier, ahead of the advance of US forces on Baghdad. The museum was effectively ransacked for the next 36 hours until employees returned.

The National Museum of Iraq in the wake of looting in 2003.
Jamal Saidi

While the staff – showing enormous bravery and foresight – had removed and safely stored 8,366 artefacts before the looting, some 15,000 objects were taken during that 36 hours. While 7,000 items have been recovered, more than 8,000 remain unaccounted for, including artefacts thousands of years old from some of the earliest sites in the Middle East.

The looting is regarded as one of the worst acts of cultural vandalism in modern times, but much more of Iraq’s rich cultural history has been destroyed, damaged or stolen in the years since. Indeed the illegal trade in looted antiquities is growing.

Gold and lapis bowl from Ur, Iraq Museum IM8272. Current statue is unknown.
Oriental Institute Lost Treasures from Iraq database

One of the museum objects that remains lost is a black stone weight shaped like a duck made around 2070 BC and excavated from the ancient city of Ur. Another is a fluted gold and lapis bowl from a royal cemetery in the same city.

The museum’s collection of cylinder seals (used to print images, usually into clay) was hit especially hard as they were easy to conceal and transport and had a ready market overseas. Of the 5144 taken, just over half have been returned. The museum reopened in 2014, somewhat a shadow of its former self.

Duck-shaped weight from Ur, Iraq Museum IM3580. Current status unknown.
Oriental Institute Lost Treasures from Iraq database

Some high value items looted from the museum were so recognisable that they could not possibly appear on the open market, suggesting they were taken with buyers already lined up. In contrast to this was the opportunistic looting undertaken by locals: in some galleries copies were stolen but genuine pieces ignored.

Global outrage at the looting did lead to immediate action. One of the most successful programs was an amnesty granted by authorities that saw almost 2,000 items returned by January 2004, and a further thousand items seized by Iraqi and US investigators.

Iraqi Col. Ali Sabah, displays ancient artefacts Iraqi Security Forces discovered in 2008, during two raids in northern Basra.
Wikimedia commons

Initial returns were largely local. One early success was the famous Lady of Warka, dated to around 3100 BC; she was recovered by investigators at a nearby farm following a tip off.

Others have come home following international investigations (a large number of objects seem to have travelled through London and New York in the aftermath), such as a statue of Assyrian king Argon II seized in New York in 2008 and returned to the museum in 2015.

Likewise the heaviest item stolen, a headless statue of the Sumerian king Entemena of Lagash was recovered in New York in 2006 with the help of an art dealer. Interpol and the University of Chicago have fastidiously maintained databases for objects looted from museum.

Demand increasing

While destruction and looting of cultural heritage has been a by-product of war for thousands of years, the scale of the looting of the Iraq Museum was staggering. Particularly frustrating were the neglected warnings that such an incident could happen, and the immediate response from the Bush administration that “stuff happens”.

The museum looting should have been a clarion call for the need for better protection of antiquities in conflict zones, both from combatants and local populations. Sadly, this has not been the case. There has been subsequent destruction of archaeological sites and museums in Syria and Libya, ISIS selling antiquities to finance weapons, and increases in thefts from both private and public collections and from archaeological sites.

Part of the problem with halting the illegal global trade of stolen antiquities is the scale of the market. In late 2017, an investigation by the Wall Street Journal presented the sobering assessment that over 100,000 antiquities are offered for sale online daily, of which up to 80% are likely to be faked or looted.

National Museum of Iraq in 2018.
MohammadHuzam/Wikimedia commons

The industry is estimated by Neil Brodie of the University of Oxford to have a turnover of US$10 million a day. Today’s antiquities black market is using social media platforms and messenger apps to reach buyers in a way that would have been inconceivable to looters in 2003. There has been a surge in antiquities originating in Syria available online since the outbreak of the civil war.

In order to halt looting, it is essential that private collectors and institutions only purchase antiquities with a legal provenance to dry up the demand.

Ironically, centuries after many of the remains of these ancient cultural entities were looted by European colonial forces in order to fill grand national museums, we are seeing a 21st century version of cultural colonialism. Private collectors are enabling an entire economy of illegal activities.

The ConversationThe loss of these sites and artefacts is disastrous for humanity. The Baghdad looting has shown that in times of conflict, not even a museum can necessarily provide a sanctuary, without meaningful policies of protection. Sadly, it appears we have not learnt the lessons of April 2003.

Craig Barker, Education Manager, Sydney University Museums, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Dirk Hartog’s Plate Back in Australia… For Now

The link below is to an article reporting on the arrival of Dirk Hartog’s plate in Australia for a limited time in Western Australia.

For more visit:

Article: The Canadian Potato Museum

The link below is to an article that takes a look at the Canadian Potato Museum.

For more visit:

Computer History Museum

The link below is to a YouTube Channel – the Computer History Museum. Hope you find some old computer memories here.

For more visit:

Today in History: 15 April 1912

The Titanic Sinks

On this day in 1912, the luxury liner and so-called unsinkable Titanic sank in the North Atlantic after hitting an iceberg.


ABOVE: RMS Titanic

ABOVE & BELOW: Launch of the Titanic

ABOVE: Grand Dining Room of the Titanic

ABOVE: Cross Section of the Titanic

ABOVE: Illustration of the Scene of Disaster

ABOVE & BELOW: The Titanic Sinking

The article below deals with some myths surrounding the Titanic:

The link below is to an article with some rare photos of the Titanic:

A letter from one of the victims, penned before he boarded the Titanic has been found. The letter by Robert Douglas Norman can be read at the link below:

Historic records can be viewed online for free until the 31st May 2012. For more information visit:

ABOVE: Captain of the Titanic – Captain E. J. Smith

ABOVE: Titanic Lifeboat

ABOVE: The Carpathia Rescued Survivors and
Titanic Lifeboat Alongside the Carpathia

ABOVE: Titanic Survivors – Ida & Jean Hippach

ABOVE: J Bruce Ismay, Chairman of the White Star
who Survived

For more on those who died on the Titanic and those who survived visit:

Here’s an article on pets on the Titanic:

The video below is a simulation of how the Titanic is believed to have sunk:

For more, visit:


A museum exhibit on the Titanic has opened. See the link below for more info:

Marking the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, the feature film ‘Titanic’ is being released in 3D.

There is also a memorial cruise being organised.

For news on the cruise visit:

The book, ‘The Titanic for Dummies,’ by Stephen Spignesi was released in January 2012. For more on the book visit:


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