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excerpts from Valda Rigg’s article looking at colonial ideology in 19th century NSW

Rigg, V. ‘Curators of the Colonial Idea: the museum and exhibition as agents of bourgeois ideology in nineteenth century New South Wales’, Public History Review, Vol. 3, 1994

excerpt one

Inaugurated in 1827, the Australian Museum was the colonies' first state museum. The Sydney International Exhibition – 1879-1880 – was the colonies' first international exhibition. Each played an important role in the public articulation of bourgeois ideology. Not only did they provide the educative and civilizing centres for its public expression but they promulgated the 'evidence' of theories that justified expropriation of Aboriginal land and at times the extermination of Aboriginal people.

Although the Australian Museum and the Sydney International Exhibition were not directly controlled by the state, it could exercise and exert power by appointing as museum board trustees and exhibition commissioners ideologically aligned men whose personal and professional advancement benefited from involvement in the patriarchal infrastructures of government. But they were not the only stake-holders in the public articulation of Aboriginal inferiority. All who had a vested interest in acquiring land for settlement benefited from it.

By the end of the nineteenth century each Australian colony had a state museum and the focus of each was natural history and natural science. The curators were not historians, they were geologists, biologists and botanists. Their primary focus was on natural history and what was then perceived as its concomitant category, ethnology. The Australian Museum was the first and the primary exemplar of the colonial museum. As with the other colonial museums that followed, the Australian Museum was conceived and developed against a background of frontier violence. It was also informed by European racial theories which, though changing over the century, always placed Aborigines at the bottom of the hierarchy. In the first decades of the nineteenth century as the idea of a state museum developed, the 'Great Chain of Being' was the accepted theory to explain European superiority. It placed Aborigines (and other black races) at the bottom of the chain, barely advanced from the apes. As the Australian Museum developed in the 1830s and 1840s the 'science' of phrenology (establishing intelligence by the study of skulls) became a popular colonial belief. By the 1860s this had given way to a theory which was given greater credence by scholars and the educated elite, that of Social Darwinism. Darwin's evolutionary theory of the survival of the fittest was easily corrupted to explain and justify the supposed and seemingly inevitable extinction of Aboriginal society.

The Australian Museum was developed in the image of the British metropolitan museums. As with these institutions, it served two purposes: the practical and the ideological. Its practical function was primarily for scientific research for the scholarly elite; secondarily, it was a centre of instructive and rational recreation for the masses. The museum's ideological function was also twofold. Firstly, the edifice proclaimed the colony's civilisation, wealth and material progress. Secondly, by employing the empirical knowledge's of anthropology, archaeology, biology and geology, the contents of the museum demonstrated the ability of the colonising power to collect, order and interpret the culture of the colonised.

The Australian Museum was established and developed primarily as a museum of natural history. But in the nineteenth century, as Australian Museum anthropologist Jim Specht reminds us, 'natural history was the a broadly defined area of study'. Aborigines were not regarded by museum curators as part of the continent's human history and were thus subsumed into the categories of natural history. They could therefore be scrutinised, classified and studied in the same way as other specimens of the natural world and, more significantly, be represented as being less than fully human. As the demand for land expanded the Enlightenment notion of the Noble Savage lost its appeal. By the mid-nineteenth century it was more ideologically useful for European colonists to regard Aborigines as living fossils who having 'overstayed their time on Earth' were obstructing colonial expansion.

The first thirty years of the Museum's development was a time of open warfare in New South Wales as Aborigines staunchly resisted European encroachment which was pushing settlement beyond the Great Dividing Range. In 1832, when the Museum was still housed in the old Legislative Building, Dr George Bennett, who was the Museum's secretary and curator from 1835-1841, wrote that:

Native weapons, utensils, and other specimens of the arts, as existing among the Aborigines, as well as the skulls of the different tribes and accurate drawings of their peculiar cast of features, would be a desirable addition. At the present, such might be procured without much difficulty; but it is equally certain, as well as such, to be regretted, that the tribes in the settled parts of the colony are fast decreasing, and many, if not all, will, at no distant period, be known but by name. Here, in a public museum, the remains of the arts, &c, as existing among them, may be preserved as lasting memorials of the former races inhabiting the lands, when they had ceased to exist.

Despite the scientific curiosity, a self-fulfilling prophesy of the destruction of Aboriginal society was inherent in Bennett's statement. It was becoming obvious to the colonisers that successful colonisation was going to require this end. While professing a scientific concern for Aboriginal material the Australian Museum was one of the public articulators of colonial and imperial power. Its Aboriginal exhibits were invested with symbolic value as trophies of conquest and exhibited for a public audience. This fulfilled the museum's first functional role of public instruction. But by representing Aborigines as the uncivilised and doomed 'other' it justified 'settler' practices of indiscriminate slaughter. While protests were made from time to time about frontier depredation's the imperatives of progress overshadowed humanitarian concerns and gave de facto endorsement to entrenched practices.

excerpt two

Six international exhibitions were staged by the Australian colonies in the late nineteenth-century. These occurred in Sydney in 1879, Melbourne in 1880 and 1888, Adelaide in 1887, Launceston in 1891 and Hobart in 1894. Over 6 000 000 visitors attended the exhibitions. With the 'progress' that had occurred in New South Wales in the fifty years since the inception of the Australian Museum, the 'mother colony' saw its international exhibition as a stage for its promotion. External imperial progress was also of significance. With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, which eased the tyranny of distance for the colony, and the national and international linking of the telegraph in 1872, the colonies could claim their place more easily on the world stage. Furthermore, the Aboriginal cricket team sent to England in 1868 demonstrated to the old country the extent of the civilising effect that the colonisers had exercised over the 'uncivilised' indigenes. Given the 1870s 'long boom' and a nascent colonial nationalism which was a component of colonial pride in material progress and the delivery of civilisation to an 'uncivilised' land, the international exhibitions could proclaim conspicuously, and thus justify, bourgeois settlement ideologies that had displaced an existing order…

Some regard for presenting Australian history emerged out of the Sydney Exhibition but that history was one of colonial progress. In the Sydney International Exhibition's sumptuous, purpose-built, fast-tracked building which was erected in the precincts of power in the outer domain of Government House, a life-size statue of Captain Cook enjoyed a place of prominence. Cook symbolised discovery and enlightenment, but it is significant, as Shirley Fitzgerald has observed, that 1879 was also the centenary year of his death at the hands of other 'savages' in Hawaii.

While artefacts from Australia's colonial past comprised only a handful of exhibits the display of Aboriginal material from the Australian Museum served a useful ideological purpose rather than any historical function. The exhibits were included in the ethnological court, part of the exotic curiosities of the 'other', and were in no sense an attempt to integrate Aboriginal and colonial history as Australian human history or present it as material evidence of indigenous culture. Although the ethnology court was a late addition to the Exhibition, and its genesis is unclear, its advocates were all trustees of the Australian Museum Board. Among them were the surgeon Dr Alfred Roberts (a trustee from 1858), Mr W J. Stephens (from 1862) who was largely responsible for the development of the Macleay Museum at the University of Sydney, Professor Liversidge, professor of geology and mineralogy at the university and E. P. Ramsay, curator of the Australian Museum. The display of Aboriginal material, consisting largely of weapons and tools to highlight the Aborigines' hard primitivism, was useful to the state to underline the triumph of advancing civilisation in supplanting the 'savage' and 'primitive' culture of the indigenous people with the civilisation of the English empire-builders. The ideology inherent in the three-dimensional presentation was reinforced in the Official Record in which the Commissioners, all government appointees, wrote that:

'the Australian aboriginal native... seems incapable of the improvement of other native races to which we have referred (Maori, Fijian and Hawaiian); he appears to have few aspirations beyond the satisfying of the necessities of nature, and indulgence when near European settlements in acquired but questionable tastes'.

excerpt three

The Australian Museum no longer presents the racist theories of the nineteenth century. Their Aboriginal Gallery is informed by input from Aboriginal people which does much to change out-dated perceptions of them as inferior and lacking the traits of civilisation.

Clearly the reclaiming of their history by Aboriginal people and their control of its public presentation will continue to influence and inform Aboriginal galleries in the museums of the state. As Aboriginal people establish their own space in public history and claim it within state institutions, it is to be hoped that we have seen the last of state-promulgated perceptions of Aboriginal people as part of natural history, the de-contextualised presentations of Aboriginal artefacts harnessed to serve bourgeois ideologies and the offensive display of Aboriginal remains to support racial theories. But Aboriginal curator Gaye Sculthorpe warns that if museums seek to present Aboriginal history, they should not forget their own role in this history'. Henrietta Fourmile, another persuasive Aboriginal critic of non-Aboriginal museum practice, argues that it remains the case that 'the interests ot science are put before the interests of the people scientists purport to study' and that 'the distribution of power and resources between the two groups is organized to favour science'. Fourmile gives a sobering reminder that scientific imperialism continues as cultures are globally prescribed by the concepts of world and national cultural heritage and ratified by international conventions. She suggests that though the killing and grave-robbing may have ended, colonisation of the Aboriginal people and their culture continues. Museums, she asserts, 'are becoming symbols of our cultural dispossession.' To the nineteenth century colonialists, convinced of their right to collect, interpret, order and exhibit the cultures of colonised indigenous peoples, museums were symbols of their triumph. 

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