Collected - 150 years of Aboriginal Art and Artifacts

A 112 page catalogue of the collection is available from our bookshop.

Collected: 150 years of Aboriginal Art and Artifacts at the Macleay Museum, displayed nearly 200 objects from the Museum's important Australian Aboriginal collection. Largely gathered between 1850 and 1940, this collection had its origins in the private ethnographic collection of Sir William John Macleay (1820-1891), a wealthy pastoralist, politician, and member of colonial Sydney's scientific community.

Originally housed at the Macleay family home, Elizabeth Bay House, Sir William's ethnographic collection contained more than 2,000 indigenous artifacts from Australia and the Pacific Islands. It was one of the largest collections of its type in private hands in the Australian colonies in the nineteenth century and includes some extremely rare and significant material. One of the highlights of the collection are ten Aboriginal bark paintings from the Northern Territory collected during or before 1878, making them some of the earliest surviving Aboriginal bark paintings in existence today.

Six of these paintings are on display in the Exhibition.

Bark painting



Artist unknown

Waidja people (?)
Port Essington area, Northern Territory

Ochres on bark, white pipe clay, 64 x 31 cm
Collector unknown, before or during 1878
W.J. Macleay Collection, P997

These bark paintings from the Northern Territory reveal some of the problems associated with Sir William Macleay's collection. Important details about objects, their use and the Aboriginal communities from which they originated are lacking. Such a dearth of documentation is typical of collections made during the colonial period. One of the aims of this exhibition has been to improve the documentation for Sir William's collection and where possible to identify the Aboriginal communities from which objects originated.

With the exception of those artifacts acquired during the voyage of the Chevert, Sir William Macleay's scientific collecting expedition to Papua New Guinea in 1875, most of Sir William's collection was amassed by other individuals. In Australia, male natural history collectors employed by him to gather zoological specimens were the main collectors, although occasionally Macleay acquired items from the collections of other individuals or from curia shops in Sydney. In a collection gathered entirely by men, few women's objects are represented. Like many collections amassed during the nineteenth century, this one contains a large number of weapons and stone tools as well as articles of clothing or body adornment, reflecting both the interests of collectors and colonial attitudes towards Aboriginal people at the time (see Figures 2-3).

Forehead Ornament and Body Ornament

Figure 2

Forehead Ornament and Body Ornament

Larrakia people
Port Darwin, Northern Territory

Plant fibre, pigments, 18 cm (diam.), 30.5 cm (diam.)
Collected by Edward Spalding (?), c1877
W.J. Macleay Collection, A1089, A1090


Figure 3


Nyawaygi people (?)
Herbert River, Queensland

Fig tree wood, ochres, 72 x 29, 94.5 x 36.5, 83 x 34.5 cm
Collected by J.A. Boyd, c1885
W.J. Macleay Collection, H1122, H1120, H1121

Sir William's collection includes Aboriginal material culture from the Northern Territory, Western Australia, Queensland and New South Wales. While a small group of artifacts from the Kimberley region in Western Australia appears to have been obtained after a punitive raid on an Aboriginal camp in 1887, most artifacts were probably obtained through trade with Aboriginal people. This is hardly surprising since Aborigines were making and trading artifacts with Europeans from the early days of European settlement in Australia (see Figure 4) .

Knives (taap)

Figure 4

Knives (taap)

Minang people (?)
King Gorges Sound, Western Australia

Wood, quartz flakes, gum cement (probably Xanthorrhea), 42.8 cm, 42.5 cm
Collected by George Masters, 1866 or 1869
W.J. Macleay Collection
H1080, H1081

Taap knives are unique to the southwest region of Western Australia where they were used to cut through and separate the flesh of seals and other animals. Captain Phillip King, who visited King George's Sound in 1821, recorded that taap knives, hammers and spears were readily produced for barter with Europeans, a practice that appears to have continued well beyond the 1850s.

Viewed in its entirety, Macleay's collection represents interaction between Aboriginal people and Europeans at a time when Europeans were moving on to Aboriginal land. Aboriginal reactions to European encroachment on their land can only be gleaned from the journals, correspondence and writings of collectors and settlers as only the European version of events is recorded.

Artifacts collected by anthropologists, geographers and geologists employed by the University of Sydney now supplement Sir William Macleay's original collection. This part of the collection includes an important collection of Aboriginal paintings from Yirrkala mission, obtained by the renowned anthropologist Ronald Berndt in the 1940s. A selection of these paintings is on display as well a small group of engraved pearl shells from the Kimberley region of Western Australia, made by University of Sydney anthropologists in the late 1920s and early 1930s (see figures 5-6). The collection has further been added to by generous donations from members of the public from the late 1960s.

Pearl shell Ornament

Figure 5

Pearl shell Ornament

Artist unknown

Bardi people
Cape Leveque, Kimberley region, Western Australia

Pearl shell, red pigment, 15 .5 x 9.0 cm
Collected by Gerhardt Laves, 1931
Transferred from the Anthropology Department, 1978

Wandjina Figure

Figure 6

Wandjina Figure

North Kimberley region

Plant fibre, cotton, plywood, pigments, 70cm
Collected by H.J. Coate, 1968
Donated by A.P. Elkin, 1976

© Susie Davies 2001


Exhibition Credits

Curators: Susie Davies and Rosemary Stack
Design: Bannyan Wood and Marianne Hawke, Graphic Design
Conservation: Antiquities Conservation Pty Ltd.
Fabrication: Display by Design
Installation Coordination: Stuart Norrington
All the staff of the Macleay Museum have contributed to this exhibition.

We acknowledge the generous assistance of staff in the following institutions: The Australian Museum; The Berndt Museum, University of Western Australia; The Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW; The Northern Territory Library and Archive Service; The Parliamentary Library of NSW; The South Australian Museum; The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery