Early Pacific captured in Sydney photo exhibition | Pacific Beat

Early Pacific captured in Sydney photo exhibition

Early Pacific captured in Sydney photo exhibition

Updated 20 February 2014, 18:03 AEDT

An upcoming free exhibition of historic photographs at the University of Sydney's Macleay Museum will show some of the first photos of the Pacific during the early colonial period.

Dating from the late 1850s the show includes photographs taken by missionaries, anthropologists, tourists, and early government expeditions. The exhibition, called "Points of Focus" features images of the British proclamation of a protectorate in Papua in 1884, colonial and civil war in Samoa in the late 19th century, and Douglas Mawson's first scientific expedition to Vanuatu in 1903.

Presenter: Bruce Hill

Rebecca Conway, ethnography curator at Sydney University's Macleay Museum

CONWAY: There's about fifty thousand photographs in the collection, really great variety of formats from glass plate negatives, glass lantern slides, various types of prints, stereograph prints. The exhibition itself we are reproducing digitally because many of those early formats are really quite fragile so we can't have them on display for a long period. The other thing is that a lot of the images, the original copies are quite small, so it's difficult to see the detail. So we've been able to through digital technology blow them up quite large so that people can really examine the detail of what's in the images.

HILL: What kind of images are people going to see?

CONWAY: We've seen the exhibition, there will be images to do with community, key individuals, particular villages and communities in the Pacific conducting their daily activities. So we've got early photographs taken by anthropologists that worked here at the university, so some of the earliest ethnographic fieldwork photographs. So people really going about their everyday business and ceremonial business, that kind of thing. And then we have sort of images of officialdom, so photos from the early government expeditions and naval expeditions to the Pacific where for example we have flag raising ceremonies being documents, as the British proclaimed PNG a British protectorate. And then we have sort of geological survey images, and then we have images for example from big business, so we have quite a large collection from the Burns Philp Pacific Trading Company. And we have photos from their business sort of documenting their activities in the Pacific, the establishment of plantations, and sort of photos that I guess track their relationships with people with the region, that kind of thing.

HILL: Seeing this kind of Pacific history in the medium of photography makes history a bit more real for people doesn't it? Photographs are very different from paintings, we experience history differently through that kind of lens?

CONWAY: I think people do have a personal response to photographs, particular portraits. You're able to really examine them in quite close detail, so you do have a personal and human response, yeah. And it does give you an insight to history and maybe what people were thinking and feeling at the time, yeah.

HILL: What kind of stories do some of these photographs tell? Do you have any particular favourites amongst these photos?

CONWAY: Look what we try to do is present a real cross-section of the types of photos that are in the collection. So we have photos that tell stories about particular individuals, for example the second Maori King came through Sydney in the 1880s and was photographed in a Sydney George Street studio. So we have a story about him travelling with a Maori deputation to Britain. And then we would have photos and stories that are much bigger or broader across the region, for example about early missionaries in the Pacific, sort of policing in the Pacific. So early colonial intervention if you like, early naval expeditions travelling around the region and policing what European settlers are doing in the area, trying to monitor what's going on, that kind of thing.

HILL: Do you think this exhibition will be of particular interest to the Pacific Island communities living in Sydney?

CONWAY: Look we hope so, we try to present a diversity of views and we're not saying that this is the only way to look at photos, but we want to let people know that the photos are here, that people are welcome to access them for their own purposes, to trace family or their own communities or interact with their own history. So yes we hope that members of the Pacific community that are living in Sydney in particular will come and visit. We have a quite close relationship with the Casula Powerhouse and the Pacific community that lives mostly in the western suburbs, but also in the inner west here in Sydney. So yeah hopefully they'll come and have a look and see what they think, yeah.

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