Monthly Archives: March 2014

Captured in the Museum of Brisbane

When I was in England a couple of years back, I met a woman who showed me a photo album her ancestor had collected during a sea voyage around the Pacific, from the Solomons to Fiji to Yokohama, some time in the late 19th or early 20th century. She knew the photos had an economic value – you often see old photos for sale on market stalls, or the 21st century equivalent, eBay – but she wanted my opinion as a historian. Did they have any historical value, and if so, where should they go?

I took a few photos of pages I thought would interest a colleague who works on Solomon Islands history, but the photos themselves didn’t turn me on. Most were obvious commercial pastiches, designed to sell to passing tourists like her forebear. They covered so many subjects, from Fijian villages to Japanese street scenes, that it was hard to know where they should go, and some were horribly racist. I particularly remember a picture of a Solomon Islander wearing nothing but a lap-lap painted with the Union Jack. Chortle.

I’ve just been to see an exhibition of photographs at the Museum of Brisbane, and I think I owe Sophy an apology for my dismissiveness. Captured is a sensitively curated exhibition of photos of Aboriginal people from the Moreton Bay district. Michael Aird has collected, researched and curated these photographs, and the collection is fascinating.  It’s a clever title of course, alluding to the way that images of these people were treated as commodities, but the people in the photos are subjects, not objects, and are treated as such by the curator.


The photos come from several Brisbane photographic studios of the 1850s and 1860s. A new technology like photography always attracts new commercial opportunities, and as well as photographing the European settlers, these photographers found a niche market producing cartes de visite – small photographs printed in batches of 8 at a time. This mass production made them commercially viable in a way that individual, one-off portraits of Aborigines might not have been. Continue reading

Lost in the Roaring Forties

So far, says the Air Commodore, the only thing the radar has turned up are whales and dolphins…. 

Like everybody else, I’ve been gripped this last week by the sad mystery of Malaysia Airlines MH370 – not least, I have to confess with shame, for purely selfish reasons: I’m booked on a Malaysia Airlines plane in a few weeks time. Who would have thought that the search for a plane heading for Beijing would end up southwest of Australia, in the Great Southern Ocean?

Map of the roaring forties from 1873

Ship Navigation Chart – Southern & Pacific [sic] Oceans, Charles Wilson, 1 March 1873

The Roaring Forties are my territory, historically if not literally, though I’ve only personally ventured that far south once. A few years ago, I took a boat tour from Adventure Bay, south around the tip of Bruny Island, south-east of Hobart, to see fur seals breeding on an outcrop of rock. As we left the lee of Bruny to sail into the Great Southern Ocean itself, the sailors warned us that we would suddenly experience much rougher conditions, and sure enough we did. Continue reading

Wardrobe Malfunctions

Audrey Tennyson was the wife of Hallam Tennyson, Governor of South Australia and later Governor General of Australia. Her letters to her mother back in England are full of tales of high life in Adelaide and Melbourne around the turn of the 20th century. The problems of celebrity, it seems, aren’t new. Audrey Tennyson’s clothes were frequently scrutinized in the local press, and in 1902, she complained that her gowns ‘have all been described in the newspapers in every detail, [so] they are useless & I cannot wear them’. [30 September 1902] She was constantly trying to ring the changes:

Ask Mrs Lane how I can do up my purple velvet… She might put in anything that would do for doing up gowns, & also what sleeves are worn for the evening… I want something to eke out my old evening gowns at the endless concerts & plays. The smart morning gowns are chiefly for the Races… [25 January 1900]

She was particularly worried in the months leading up to the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall coming out to open Federal Parliament in 1901. (No, not Wills and Kate, but the earlier ones who later became George V and Queen Mary). The situation was complicated by the need for everyone to wear mourning following the death of Queen Victoria.

Tom Roberts, Opening Federal Parliament 1901

Tom Roberts, Opening of the First Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia by H.R.H. The Duke of Cornwall and York (Later King George V), May 9, 1901, 1903. Only the carpets and the Cardinal are red, because everyone was in mourning.

Will you tell Mrs Lane I am larger round the hips, I think, & send her new measurements & also the lengths of the skirt at the side seams, as they are always inclined to be short at the sides.  My bust & waist are smaller than they were, but that I don’t mind for I can always take them in & I may get fatter again… [17 February 1901]

Despite her requests, the following year she complained that Mrs Lane had

sent me a grey gown I never ordered & it is so tight round the hips it all gapes at the fastening & can’t be altered, so I have had to send that back… It really is a little trying, is it not? [30 September 1902]

I sympathise! Continue reading

Pecunia non olet

There has been a stoush going on in Sydney this week, because the Sydney Biennale has accepted funds from Transfield, and Transfield is one of the companies involved in running Australia’s highly controversial immigration facilities on Nauru and Manus Island. Since I’ve been too busy writing my book to write a blog post during the last week, I’m lazily re-blogging instead a post I wrote in 2011 that addressed the general issue of tainted money:

Historians are Past Caring

The Emperor Vespasian, a notorious tightwad, once introduced a tax on urine – it was used for washing togas, and other chemical purposes.  When his son Titus objected, he said, we are told by Suetonius, ‘Pecunia non olet’ – ‘money doesn’t stink’.  But does it?

The director of the London School of Economics, Sir Howard Davies, has just resigned because he accepted a donation of £1.5m for the university from a Gaddafi foundation, just shortly after Saif Gaddafi was awarded a PhD from the LSE.  As far as I know, no cause and effect has yet been proved, but it looks bad.

Universities have a long and dishonorable tradition of accepting money from rogues and ratbags, and the odd tyrant.  In a way, it’s the Robin Hood principle at work: there’s no point in robbing from the poor, but soliciting money from the rich means cosying up to…

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George Orwell and the English Language

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about how bad much academic writing is. There’s nothing new in this. I’m sure people have been complaining about the aridity and complexity of academic writing since Edward Casaubon first put pen to paper in Middlemarch.

All writers, I’m sure, go through a stage where the imperative is to get everything down on the page.  It’s the next stage though – making those pages readable to either a specialist or a general audience (and deciding which one is more important) – that we academics particularly seem to struggle with. Partly, it’s the pressure to publish as quickly as possible, but sometimes there’s a perverse security to be found in woolly prose and arcane jargon that prove we are a part of the group.

A friend yesterday sent me the draft of  an article to read, with an apology that she used to be a better writer before she wrote her PhD.  In fact, she’s still a pretty good writer, with an interesting topic and fascinating source material – but how sad that writing a PhD might have such a stifling effect! And every academic knows, if they are honest, that there’s some truth in what she says. Continue reading