Mary McMahon

Picturing the Antipodes: race, image and empire in 19th-century Britain

Supported by

Arts and Humanities Research Council

Using the Museum’s significant early pictorial collections depicting Australian Indigenous people this research project will investigate the role of images within colonial, imperial and Australian Indigenous histories.

Start Date: September 2016
End Date: September 2019
Themes: The 'lives' of objects from their making, use, reception, loss, collection and later use and understanding. What objects can reveal about the social, cultural, religious, creative and political history of their makers, users, owners, depositors and collectors.
Research discipline: Anthropology, Fine and decorative arts, Scientific research
Location: UK, Pacific
Staff member: Gaye Sculthorpe
Department: Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas
University and department: Royal Holloway, University of London, Department of History
University supervisor: Zoe Laidlaw

How did depictions of Aboriginal Australians change c.1800-1860?

The project will survey the surviving material from the period in British and Australian collections to see what patterns and anomalies can be established.

How were these images and objects collected and displayed?

The movement, collection and display of images in Britain, Australia and the wider empire will be explored in this study.

How were images used in Britain to engage with issues of race and empire?

This research will investigate the role images may have played in naturalizing the dispossession of Indigenous peoples, and the European settlement of their lands.


About my research

Using the pictorial collections of the British Museum my research will build on scholarship surrounding the images of exploration and discovery that proliferated in the late 18th-century, following Captain Cook’s voyages and the arrival of the First Fleet in Australia, to investigate how depictions of Indigenous Australians developed in the early 19th-century.

The period in focus, c.1800-1860, falls after the earliest exploration and settlement of Australia, but before the granting of settler self-government, when ideas of humanity and civilization were in flux in Australia and across Britain’s empire. My project will explore the artists, sitters, collectors and collections that contributed to the lives of these objects to consider what the different kind of pictorial representations of Australasia can tell us about 19th-century understandings of race and colonization.


Aims of my research

Using images from a range of museum collections this project will establish further information regarding the production and collection of images of Aboriginal Australians. It will explore how these visual representations were circulated and recycled in networks between Britain and Australia, and perhaps also within the wider empire.

The research will illuminate how these images came to be held by the British Museum and other institutions, how they have been displayed in the past to the British public, and how they can be better understood and known in Britain and Australia in the 21st-century.