Picturing Indigenous Australia in the British Museum

Mary McMahon

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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Colonial depictions of Aboriginal people have been held in museums in the United Kingdom since the nineteenth century, often treated as supplementary to ethnographic object collections. Prior to entering these institutions, they played an influential part in ‘knowledge’ generation and imperial messaging in Britain. This thesis investigates the significant pictorial collection of early colonial representations of Indigenous Australians in drawings, paintings and print held in the Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas at the British Museum, to illuminate their role in colonial, imperial and Australian Indigenous histories. Together with images in the Department of Prints and Drawings at the Museum, and related institutions, this collection contains works by many well-known colonial artists working in early-nineteenth-century Australia. They demonstrate the range of visual records circulating to Britain in the early-nineteenth century and how pictorial works informed public understanding of colonial acts and ideas of humanity and civilisation, when both concepts were in flux across Britain’s empire.

To explore what pictorial records can tell us about perceptions of race and colonisation in the nineteenth century, this study asks how were images of Aboriginal Australians produced in the colonies c.1800-1860 collected and then circulated to Britain? How were they acquired and interpreted by British individuals, public audiences and institutions, and drawn into categories of ‘art’ and ‘ethnography’? What role did these visual images play in the broader aims and ambitions of the British Museum in the nineteenth century? This thesis examines sites of consumption in Britain: in colonial collections; scientific collections; exhibitions and the popular press; and in the museum. It argues that colonial representations of Indigenous Australians and the historic use of this material should be acknowledged in museums today and utilised to confront the legacies of colonial knowledge making.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Laidlaw, Zoe, Supervisor
  • Sculthorpe, Gaye, Supervisor, External person
  • Ansari, Sarah, Advisor
Thesis sponsors
Award date1 Jul 2021
Publication statusUnpublished - 2021


  • Indigenous Australia
  • British Museum
  • Colonial images
  • Institutional histories
  • Nineteenth-century art
  • Museum practice
  • Nineteenth-century institutions

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