Searching for Wanamuchoo: Researching and returning Aboriginal photographs from the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

A public lecture by Christopher Morton, sponsored by the Institute of Advanced Studies (UWA) (27 August 2013)

Christopher Morton

Wanamuchoo was an Aboriginal man brought by a police trooper to Adelaide for trial in March 1893 for the murder of another Aboriginal man in Innamincka, some 850 miles away. After trial, he was photographed at the City Watchhouse. According to a local newspaper account, his confusion was such that ‘when confronted by the camera he appeared to think that it was some awful instrument of the white man’s vengeance’.

A print of this photograph was sent by an Adelaide resident, John Bagot, in November of that year, to the Curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. Some years later the Curator mounted the print with a number of others from South Australia, and added the information that Wanamuchoo had been ‘hanged for the murder of a shepherd’. However, it is clear from contemporary reports that he was in fact considered insane at trial and sent to the City Asylum, where he seems to have survived a further eleven years, dying there in March 1903.

The case of Wanamuchoo caused a lively debate in the press of the day on the topic of the applicability of English law to Aboriginal cases such as this, and its themes of dislocation, mistranslation and separation continue to resonate for many Aboriginal people to this day. This lecture will show how the current international research project Globalisation, Photography and Race: the Circulation and Return of Aboriginal Photographs in Europe, led by Jane Lydon at the University of Western Australia, has been exploring visual histories held in remote photograph collections such as Oxford, the ways in which it has attempted to reconnect the images to relevant indigenous communities today, and the research and curatorial issues that have emerge

Found at http://www.ias.uwa.edu.au/lectures/morton

Listen to his UWA lecture HERE

Future Fellow committed to using pictorial past to shape our future – Article for the Australian Research Council

Image: Lynnette Wanganeen with Dr Chris Morton and copy of an 1867 photograph of her ancestor. Image courtesy: Pauline Cockrill and History SA.

Image: Lynnette Wanganeen with Dr Chris Morton and copy of an 1867 photograph of her ancestor. Image courtesy: Pauline Cockrill and History SA.

Family portraits are valued items that give us a unique snapshot of a moment in time and through those image memories that can be cherished for years to come. Such images can also become an important historical record.

But not everyone in the community has access to such images and there may be pieces of one’s past that are unknown due to a loss of photographs, which also becomes a gap in the historical records.

Trying to obtain images from previous generations can be difficult, but one researcher is doing all she can to use the past to change the future.

Professor Jane Lydon, an ARC Future Fellow and the new Wesfarmers Chair of Australian History at the University of Western Australia, wants to establish visual history as a key aspect of Australian and Indigenous historiography.

Professor Lydon is using her Fellowship to reverse the previous flow of a significant heritage resource of Indigenous Australians to European collections, and to make those precious documents available to the communities, relatives and descendants of the Aboriginal people in the photographs.

“To do this we need to return those images—which are often in museum collections held overseas in Europe, having been collected by European explorers from the mid-nineteenth century—to Australia and to the descendants of the people in the photographs,” Professor Lydon said.

“Today they are very much valued as family portraits, they also document a colonial past that isn’t otherwise available through documented images, and they document cultural heritage and cultural traditions that may not have been remembered or recorded in other ways.”

Professor Lydon has had great success with her research under her Future Fellowship.

In December 2012 Professor Lydon published The Flash of Recognition: Photography and the Emergence of Indigenous Rights. The book presents a new way of looking at the relations between Aboriginal people and settler society in the past through visual imagery.

“What I’ve argued in that book is that images were an important way of campaigning on behalf of Aboriginal people, both up until the 1930s as used by white activists and then from the 1930s on as used very much by Aboriginal people themselves to argue for their rights,” Professor Lydon said.

“The book puts forward an innovative argument and brought together a lot of these images for the first time.”
This dedication to her research field was recently rewarded at the 2013 Queensland Literary Awards where Professor Lydon won the history book category.

It’s not the only one of Professor Lydon’s books to receive high recognition. Fantastic Dreaming: The archaeology of an Aboriginal mission (AltaMira, 2009), won the Australian Archaeological Association’s John Mulvaney Book Award in 2010.

She is now working on a new book looking at how photographs have played a role in shaping ideas of what it means to be human.

The book will be international in its scope, but will be framed through the lens of race relations in Australia and the way that Aboriginal people have been represented by photographers and have represented themselves.

Her research will also be developed further by a six-month visiting fellowship to Cambridge University this year, enabled by her Future Fellowship.

Another achievement has been the collating of a database that brings together images from four overseas collections in the UK, Netherlands and France. This will be an important resource to establish which images held overseas relate to which communities here in Australia. It will also serve as an important tool for returning those images.

This collaborative work has led to strong links with the renowned Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, UK. In August last year Dr Christopher Morton, Curator of Photograph and Manuscript Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum, who is working with Professor Lydon on her research project, visited Australia presenting a public lecture Searching for Wanamuchoo—Researching and returning Aboriginal photographs from the Pitt Rivers Museum.

This lecture highlighted the importance of Professor Lydon’s research project in exploring visual histories held in remote photograph collections such as Oxford, the ways in which it has attempted to reconnect the images to relevant indigenous communities today, and the research and curatorial issues that have emerged.

While in Australia, Dr Morton was fortunate to be introduced to a descendant of one of the early Aboriginal portraits in the Museum’s collection. The portrait in question is of James Wanganeen, an Aboriginal member of Poonindie Mission in Port Lincoln, South Australia, and his descendent is Lynnette Wanganeen (James’s great great great granddaughter).

Dr Morton was delighted to be able to present Lynnette with a print of this portrait, as well as one of James with his third wife, Mary Jane.

“The presentation of the copy of the PRM portrait was a very emotional moment for Lynnette, who felt a close bond to James despite the generational distance,” Dr Morton said.

“She spoke of the importance of seeing James and having a copy of his portrait, and for me it was a transformational moment also, in that I had known this portrait for many years, pasted onto a mount with maybe twenty or more other portraits.

“James was placed there in about 1931 by Henry Balfour in a box containing hundreds of historical portraits of Aboriginal people. Reunited with his family, the portrait in Oxford takes on a new meaning, and begins a new life with family in South Australia.”

It is these precious moments that make Professor Lydon’s research even more rewarding and she has a very clear picture of what she wants to achieve in the future.

“In a broad sense I’m hoping that a research outcome of my Future Fellowship will be establishing visual history as an important field of research and visual archives and photographs as an important heritage resource, particularly for Indigenous communities.

“I want to help the Australian public to become more conscious of the legacies of the past in the present. I’m hoping the books will also have an impact on Australian history and heritage.

“We all want to be acknowledged for our intellectual contribution to research, but I’d also like to be thought of as someone who tried very hard to mentor and collaborate with Indigenous people.

“I’d like to draw more Aboriginal people into academia and bring them into the field as researchers of their own past and their own heritage,” Professor Lydon said.

For more information please contact Professor Jane Lydon.

Article found at http://www.arc.gov.au/news-media/news/future-fellow-committed-using-pictorial-past-shape-our-future

The Return of Photographs – what does it mean for Aboriginal people?

1998.249.33.9

“Portrait of young Aboriginal man called James Wanganeen (1836–1871) in European coat, waistcoat, shirt and necktie. Plain studio background. James Wanganeen was a catechist or lay preacher at Poonindie mission.” Pitt Rivers Museum; Accession # 1998.249.33.9

 The process of returning historical photographic collections to Aboriginal communities today is a complicated process. This is why it is fundamental that the process of returning photographic materials is handled in a culturally appropriate manner. Having personally worked with Indigenous visual and audio archival collections previously and been involved with the returing of photographs to communities – some of which contained culturally sensitive materials, it is important to fully understand the significance these compilations represent for Indigenous peoples.

It is often said that a photograph can speak a thousand words, but for Indigenous peoples these archival images represent so much more. Not only do they depict images of people’s ancestors, their country and places of significance, but they become ‘living entities’ in their own right – able to remove themselves from the Western concept of ‘the past’ and place themselves within the ‘here and now’.

By recording our histories within oral traditions, Indigenous peoples were able to keep alive the memories of love ones and the knowledge of country without the necessity of the archival record. Having said that however, with greater access to relevant visual collections, our Indigenous peoples and communities today are able to amalgamate the visual image with their oral stories and histories. As a result, the concept of time becomes somewhat blurred whereby the past, present and future co-exist in the here and now.

1998.172.34.3

“Group of five senior Noongar men wearing European trousers, with ornate white paint on their bodies, faces, arms and legs. Left to right: Joobaitch, Woolber, Monnop, Dool and Genbursong.” Circa 1900; Source: Henry Balfour. Accession #1998.172.34.3

Many collections today are welcomed by the majority of Aboriginal peoples who see these records as evidence of their survival and strength, not as depictions of a ‘dying race’ or the colonised. What is more important to community members is the people, places of significance and country that can be found within these images. The photographic archive is a powerful source of information for Aboriginal peoples. In each image we see where we’ve been and in turn what we’ve become. They are ‘living’ proof that Aboriginal people are survivors and that our culture has survived through tremendous adversity.

The importance of the photographic archive?

Visual repatriation is, in many ways, about finding a present for historical photographs, realizing their potential to seed a number of narratives through which to make sense of the past in the present and make it fulfill the needs of the present.

(Elizabeth Edwards)
***

P.14325

“Group of Aboriginal women and children. The children are sitting, while the older women are standing. The women are all wearing long-sleeved long dresses or long skirts and blouses. There are trees in the background.” Photo originated in Daisy Bates Collection. Accession #14325

 Traditionally, Aboriginal people recorded their history orally and were able to keep alive the memories of loved ones and the knowledge of country without the necessity of the written word or archival record. Since colonisation however, people’s oral histories in many places have become fragmented. With access to relevant photographic collections, Indigenous people/communities today are able to amalgamate the archival image with their oral histories. As a result, the concept of time becomes somewhat blurred whereby the past, present and future co-exist in the here and now. Not only do they depict images of people’s ancestors, their country and places of significance, but they become ‘living entities’ in their own right – able to remove themselves from the spectrum of time and the Western concept of ‘the past’ and place themselves within the ‘here and now’.

In the past, Indigenous interaction with Institutions like museums and state government run libraries and departments have been limited and one sided. In many cases Indigenous peoples had become the object and subject of archival collections –collected and archived through the eyes of the non-Indigenous outsider. However, with greater access to resources that allow Aboriginal communities greater agency, the process of reconciling aspects of the past can begin. With Aboriginal peoples now looking back at these institutions through the looking glass (so to speak), the relationship between institutions and Aboriginal people can be based upon a more equal footing.

1998.249.12.3

“Group of Aboriginal women and children. The children are sitting, while the older women are standing. The women are all wearing long-sleeved long dresses or long skirts and blouses. There are trees in the background.” Photo originated in Daisy Bates Collection. Accession #1998.249.12.3

Finally, with access to these images, we as Indigenous people are able to come full circle – what was then has become the now. For many today, finding and receiving images of one’s ancestors may be the only link people have to their pasts. It is especially relevant for members of the Stolen Generations who were forcibly removed from their families and cultural heritage. Thus, they are able to begin a healing process and find – for want of a better term – an ‘end in the beginning’. It is also rewarding to be a part of a process that can also bring so much joy to many Indigenous families and communities who are able to view images of their ancestors long since departed. What was once a research tool used to “study” Aboriginal peoples, the photographic archive has now become an amazing window into our pasts.