Aboriginal Australia and the Pacific


‘Mariwuda and Muringa crossing salt arm on Timor coast in a dug-out canoe’ Wadeye, NT, Australia, 1934. Photographer: W.E.H. Stanner. HP99.1.1487 © Sydney University Museums

Amongst the 50,000 historic photographs held by the Macleay Museum, it is estimated there are about 10,000 with ethnographic or social history content relevant to Australian Indigenous and Pacific Islander communities. The majority of these images date from the late 19th–early 20th century. Key holdings include:

  • An estimated 4,000 glass lantern slides, featuring images from ethnographic fieldwork c1930s–1940s and used for teaching in the early University of Sydney, Anthropology Department. The collection includes images taken in Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Nauru and elsewhere in the Pacific, and from a diversity of Australian Aboriginal communities particularly in the Northern Territory, WA and Queensland.
  • 1,500+ glass plate negatives and mixed prints from The Burns Philp Pacific Trading Company, many documenting their plantations in the Solomon Islands as well as other parts of the Pacific where they conducted business.
  • Early expeditionary images. We hold copies of photographs taken during the HMS Royalist 1891-1892 expedition including images from Fiji, Solomon Islands and the Gilbert Islands (Kiribati) and photographs taken during the HMS Espiegle expeditions of 1883 and 1884 taken in parts of Micronesia, Samoa, Tonga, and New Guinea, including British flag-raising ceremonies along parts of the south coast. We also have a set of albumen prints from the Horn Expedition to Central Australia 1894–1895 many of which feature Aboriginal people.
  • Pacific Islander and Aboriginal portraits and scenes by early commercial photographers, studios and others, including William Hetzer, Henry King, Kerry & Co, Jevons, and missionaries. Images taken by Kerry include a series of large format prints documenting Wailwan Aboriginal ceremonies conducted in Quambone, NSW in 1898.
  • A large collection of photos taken by Robert Mitton c1970s in West Papua and Papua Province (Indonesia).

Due to the reproducible nature of photographs and the wide circulation of early ethnographic imagery in academic circles, single images and parts of collections are often located in different institutions. In addition, copyright and conventions for crediting original artists were less stringent than they are now. For example, if a studio purchased someone’s photo they often re-printed under their own name. These aspects add additional layers of complication to collections which already have potentially myriad cultural, social and historical interpretations. The collections are not fully itemised or digitised and many are the subject of on-going internal and external research. We welcome genuine requests for access to the collections. Please email the if you have an enquiry about these parts of the historic photograph collection.