Nicola Froggatt

From ‘wretched savages’ to the world's ‘most beautiful’ artefacts: British ethnographic collections from Western Australia

Supported by

Arts and Humanities Research Council

My project explores the history of indigenous Australian material culture now in the British Museum and other UK collections.

In particular, I look at the ways in which indigenous artefacts from Western Australia were produced, circulated and then collected by British visitors and settlers in the region. By analysing these cross-cultural journeys, I hope to show how indigenous material culture has helped to shape colonial and postcolonial ideas about value, place and identity.

Start Date: October 2017
End Date: October 2020
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, Museum studies
Location: Pacific, UK
Staff member: Dr Gaye Sculthorpe
Departments: Africa, Oceania and the Americas
University and department: Royal Holloway, University of London, Department of History
University supervisor: Dr Zoë Laidlaw

Who were the British collectors?

A wide range of people including settlers, policemen, explorers, mining workers, colonial administrators, missionaries and activists for indigenous rights.

Why focus on Western Australian objects in British collections?

Many colonial objects are in museums outside WA, partly because WA did not have its own museum until the 1890s, and also because many British were in Australia only temporarily.

Why were the collectors interested in indigenous artefacts?

Collecting motivations were wide-ranging, for example some collected to provide evidence for scientific debates, whilst others wanted a souvenir of their time in Australia.

About my research

My project seeks to understand how and why British people collected artefacts made by indigenous people in Western Australia. My focus is on the later colonial period and its aftermath, when a range of British people were visiting or living in the region for different reasons. I will examine the rich variety of objects that they collected and sent back to the UK, and which are now in the British Museum and other institutions. I will also conduct research into the makers (where known), the collectors, the range of objects collected and the methods of collection. By developing a greater understanding of these processes, we can better understand how settlers and collectors understood and engaged with indigenous Australian material culture.


Carved baobab nut from the neighbourhood of Broome in the Kimberley region, Western Australia, nineteenth century. © The Trustees of the British Museum.


Spear-points from the Kimberley region, Western Australia, c. 1885-1940. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Aims of my research

No general analysis has yet been undertaken of ethnographic collecting in Western Australia. This project will therefore help to shed light on such practices, and what they tell us about colonial and postcolonial culture in Western Australia and the UK. In particular, I hope to improve our understanding of the motivations behind why British people made collections, and how these were used to reinforce and/or challenge existing knowledge paradigms about colonised peoples. I also hope to show, even amidst the unequal colonial relationship, the different ways in which indigenous communities in Western Australia strove to exercise their own agency.