Opinion

The Floor of Sydney Harbour Part II

‘While the animals, plants and geological formations of the floor of Sydney Harbour are constantly under study by scientists, how can the study of the under-Harbour contribute to cultural history?’

Photo by Dalelan Anderson . Sourced via Unsplash.

In a recent blog – The Floor of Sydney HarbourI mentioned the marine scientist, William Dakin (1883–1950), Challis Professor of Zoology at the University of Sydney. Dakin was a trustee of Taronga Zoo and President of the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales. He wrote many books about the Great Barrier Reef, whaling, animal behaviour, camouflage in nature and war, and the now classic Australian Seashores (1952) published posthumously and produced in conjunction with marine scientist and environmentalist, Isobel Bennett (1909–2008), and Australian Museum scientist, Elizabeth Pope (1912-1993). The book describes the seashore as “one of the most delightful and exciting areas of the earth’s surface”. Through this book generations of Australians have come to know the characteristics of the regional shoreline, especially the uncanny, marvellous animals and plants of the littoral zone around Sydney Harbour.

William Dakin, Mounted sponges, courtesy Macleay Museum HP84.7.118.001 Sponges – scanned from photographic print (supplied by Ann Elias).

Dakin’s connections with art are interesting. Above, I’ve included one of his many scientific photographs. Part of the collection of the Macleay Museum at the University of Sydney, it shows a 3-d model of sponges. As an art historian I like the way the photograph of the model relates to the organic ocean shapes and coral-like patterns in “decalcomania” paintings by the surrealist artist, Max Ernst (1891–1976) who investigated art by also exploring scientific studies and scientific methods including the study of three-dimensional models in the Institute of Poincaré in Paris. Conversely, Dakin knew something about art, and in his book on coral reefs said that the shorelines of Western Australia reminded him of scenes from surrealism. Max Ernst and William Dakin are both connected to the German scientist, Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), who influenced not only the development of marine zoology but also the surrealist fascination with underwater imagery. When William Dakin and Max Ernst were active in the early twentieth century, the underwater of oceans promised a new realm of experience for art and science. A contemporary was Jean Painlevé, one of the earliest filmmakers of the underwater. As his many films intimate, including The Seahorse (1934), Painlevé was both scientist and surrealist. Seahorses were also a favourite animal for William Dakin although Dakin was quick to point out that the seahorses found among the weeds of Sydney Harbour “are not quite the same as the French sea-horses”.

In my last blog – The Floor of Sydney Harbour – I mentioned a research group in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Sydney University that is looking at the underwater in relation to Sydney Harbour. Not the science of the underwater, but a cultural history of the Harbour’s floor. Why the floor? Because, as Jerry J. Bentley explained in 1999, history unfolds on different levels and oceans and waterways offer useful alternatives to land-based coordinates for historical and geographical analysis. Many of us in the group research and publish on water, harbours, oceans, reefs, rivers and waterways. How is research into bodies of water different to research into land and air? For one, the metaphors are different. Traditionally, the terrestrial realm is stoic, stable and resolute while the maritime is fluid and shifting and invokes boundaries that dissolve. And a medium that dissolves borders can only be a good model for the future social and environmental state of the planet.

My personal interest in the underwater of Sydney Harbour began with an impulse to research the earliest representations of the under-Harbour in underwater photographs and films. So far, I haven’t turned up much that predates the 1950s and the influence of Jacques Cousteau. But I’ve found plenty of interesting material on professional divers of the Harbour who wore standard diving dress before the invention of scuba and maintained the city’s industrial, submarine activities including dredging and salvage work. They represent the cyborg dimension of everyday social life in the history of Sydney, a history that is not at all well known. The material will contribute to a workshop on December 4th. In collaboration with the Floor of Sydney Harbour research group, and academics and partners from other universities, libraries and museums, Sydney Environment Institute will hold a workshop to discuss current research in the arts, humanities and sciences into Sydney Harbour from the viewpoint of the underwater. There will be representation from the fields of art history, history, cultural and gender studies, anthropology and archaeology, museum studies, and marine biology. One key question is this: while the animals, plants and geological formations of the floor of Sydney Harbour are constantly under study by scientists, how can the study of the under-Harbour contribute to cultural history?


Ann Elias is Associate Professor in Art History at the University of Sydney. Research interests include: camouflage as a military, social and aesthetic phenomenon; flowers and their cultural history; coral reef imagery of the underwater realm. Books include Camouflage Australia: art, nature, science and war (2011), Useless Beauty: flowers and Australian art (2015), and Coral Empire (19 March 2019, Duke University Press) about photographic and cinematic representations of the underwater at the colonial tropics in the early twentieth century. She is a Key Researcher with the Sydney Environment Institute, a serving member of the International Committee of the College Art Association of America, and International Liaison for the Art Association of Australia and New Zealand.