Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Commodification of Tasmanian Aboriginal People

The commodification of Tasmania's Aboriginal people Truganini most notably – is an issue that cannot be lightly dismissed as some kind of foible – within academe, the Tasmanian Aboriginal community, wherever. In 2009 there was much contention to do with the Southerby's sale of copies of Benjamin Laws' 1936 portrait busts of Truganini &Woureddy. Woureddy and Trucaninni are among the most celebrated Tasmanian Aboriginal people. Law's portraits of them claim precedence as "the earliest major pieces of Australian sculpture". Woureddy sat for Law in early 1835 and his bust was ready by mid year. Trucaninni probably sat for him some months later but it seems that Law did not completed her bust until sometime in 1836.

Law’s portraits were lauded as accomplished works of art when he made them but interestingly they were valued primarily as 'ethnographic records'. In 2009 if something looks like art and theorists quack about it as if it is art, well it might turn out to be art in the context within which it is being discussed. Nonetheless, if it is envisioned otherwise within another cultural reality it may be whatever it is seen as being within that reality too.

Law saw his subjects in a 19th C way, but in a 21st C context the meanings and the fate of the imagery that came from all that has become surreal. As for the notion that ‘the images’ propose that these subjects are the last Tasmanian Aboriginal people, for sure that is a contentious and contestable idea. If physical extermination failed, and it did, the idea that we might kill off the imagination of extermination in images is unhelpful. What would that mean? Rather, there needs to meaningful conversations that lead to better shared understandings. Hopefully, it may be possible to find and an understanding where precedence is not invoked and mutual understandings are both afforded and honoured ... click here for GOGLElinked stories

'The Picture'
the photograph of Truganini's skeleton in the Tasmania Room at the Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery 1904 – 1947 – seems to have been produced as much for commercial sale as much as it may have been for 'marketing' the museum via the press.

Newspaper reports from the time are – note: uncorrected electronically scanned text is denoted in bold italics and blue:
  • Electronically Translated Text Australian National Library – UNCORRECTED SCAN:
    THE LAST OF THE RACE. The Mercury – Hobart, Tas: Saturday 15 October 1904
    "In many of the principal museums throughout the world may be seen interesting exhibits that are looked upon as unique. Few museums, if any, can, like the Tasmanian institution, claim to have a specimen which is absolutely one of great scientific rarity, viz, the complete skeleton of the last of the Tasmanian aboriginals.

    Many residents in this city will remember "Lallah Rooke," or "Truganini," the last Tasmanian aboriginal, and who died in the year 1876. Some few years after her death the hon. secretary of the Royal Society of Tasmania (the Hon. J. W. Agnew), on behalf of the Museum, arranged that the remains of Truganini should be deposited in the Museum. For years the remains have been carefully packed away in one of the store-rooms of the institution. During the present year Professor Baldwin Spencer, F.R.S., C.M.G., Professor of Biology of the Melbourne University, and Director of the National Museum of Victoria, kindly informed the Director of the Tasmanian Museum, that he would be pleased to allow the articulator of the Melbourne Museum to clean and mount the skeleton This generous offer was accepted, and the remains of Truganini were sent to Melbourne. The specimen arrived in Hobart yesterday morning by the U.S.S. Co.'s steamer Waikare, and shortly afterwards Truganini was placed in a specially erected glass case in the Tasmanian room. This new addition, from an anthropological view, will be one of the most interesting exhibits in the Museum. In the case a series of photographs have been placed of Truganini the cast of her face taken immediately after death, a "waddy" used by both men and women, also some examples of their shell necklaces, native bags, and stone implements.

    This new addition to the large and valuable collection in the National Museum will be of great interest to all workers in this particular branch of science. The thanks of the trustees are extended to Professor Baldwin Spencer and the able articulator of the Melbourne Museum for the work they have done gratuitously for the Tasmanian Museum."
    "This week's "Mail," which will be published tomorrow morning, contains two bete of illustrations that mo m striking contrast The one is a photograph of an absolutely unique exhibit to be seen in the local Museum. It consists of a photograph of Truganini, the last of the Tasmanian aboriginals, both in her younger and her later days, of Wourreddy, her husband, of the skeleton of Truganini, and of a collection of tho stone axes, waddies, rope, spears, bags, canoes, and other articles made by the aborigines. Photographs are to be sent to some twenty five or twenty six of the principal museums throughout the world. ............ "
  • TASMANIAN FIELD NATURALISTS CLUB: The Mercury Monday 8 May 1905UNCORRECTED SCAN ............ "It was decided to pay a visit to the Museum last Saturday afternoon, so accordingly a number met there at 3 o'clock. They were in a great part juniom, about 20 of whom were present. Taking the party to the Tasmanian Room, Mr. Morton 'gave a brief outline of" this island's early history, referring especially to the aborigines. He told them about Truganini, the last of the race, and showed them her skeleton. The flints used by these people -wore then examined, and the manner of using them described. It was clearly explained that fossils were not to be regarded merely as rocks, but rather as books that told the people of to-day about the plant and animal life of millions of years ago. Great interest was displayed when the cases containing tho native animals and birds were viewed, and the young people crowded round, eagerly listening to what was being said to them.

    The Ethnological Room was next visited; and the uses of the various weapons, musical instruments, etc., wore explain- ed. At the elote, Mr. Morton took the party into the Royal Society's boardroom, where ample seating accommodation had been provided, and he there gave interesting notes on what Museum work should be, the advantages of studying natural history, and bo on. Mr. A. D. Watchorn was appointed chairman ............ "
  • PASSING NOTES "Mrs. Mercurius" The Mercury Saturday 18 October 1919UNCORRECTED SCAN ............ " I am informed, privately and through the newspapers, that the cost of living has greatly increased since the good old early days of 50 years ago. lu those days I was net interested much in the cost of living; I was quite satisfied to live. In those days 1 was more con corned with the cost than with the living itself. However, as a Tasmanian native I can take ¡n academic interest in the concerns of Tasmania's natives of the old d.iys. So far as I know, the Tasmanian natives of a century or two aco lived very cheaply, the main items of diet being" kangaroos, badgers, oysters, and other natural primary products. But ou years ago tho cost of living had gone up enormously. If you go to the Hobart Museum you will see the skeleton of Truganini, a lady who had the distinction of being the last female aborigine of Tasmania. But tho Museum authorities will not inform you how much it cost for the living of the lady. According to Walch's Al- manac ¿f 1SG9 there was at that time two Tasmanian aborigines living. One was ii man, who was then employed on a whaling ship, and probably his living did not cost anyone very much. The other was a woman, known as "Lalla Rookh," whose skeleton you see in the Museum with the name of Truganini. She lived at Oyster Cove in a Government reservation, and the cost to the Government was £300 a year. The Almanac gives no details of her manner of dress or items of her food. tlio Nor i*,.anv statement made about the number of officials who had a cut at the £300. ¡Seither am I interested. 11 simply mention that 50 years ago it cost a single woman in Tasmania £300 a year to live."
  • AS OTHERS SEE US: IMPRESSIONS OF A VISITOR. Mr. Sydney Adeld Killara, Sydney, writes as follows: - The Mercury Wednesday 6 January 1909UNCORRECTED SCAN ............ "On the wharf are a crowd of people who are awaiting relatives and friends. Handkerchiefs and handsaTB bein* wav- ed as a welcome, and wireless messages are sent on board, asking all sorts of questions. All is excitement ... The Museum was visited, and the many objects of interpsr were much admired. The Picture Gallery is excellent. containing many good pictures by eminent artist«: but the piece de resistance is the beautiful statue of Medusa. The work is Bplendidlv oxec-utpd bv the famous sculptor, Franklin Simmons, and was bequeathed to the Museum by Sir James Wilson Agnew. K.C.M.G.. M.D.. M.E.C., November, 1901, the value being estimated at £1,500. Many well-known statues excite but little interest in the beholder, because they indicate neither soul nor feeling, but hero both are present, and ns one touch of nature makes the whole world Jap, wo all sympathise with the beautiful, but unfortunate creature, who is about to undergo a dreadful experience. The next thing of great interest is the skeleton of the last of the Tasmanian aboriginals, a female named Lalla Rook or "Truganini," who died, aged 70 years. It Is not often one has the opportunity of seeing the last of a race. The next museum visited was the one at Brown's River, known more particularly by the name of Williamson's curiosity shop. ............ "
  • OUR MELBOURNE LETTER (From Our Special Correspondent.) The Mercury Monday 19 August 1907 UNCORRECTED SCAN ............ "Unless he be that curious product of modem democracy, a member of Parliament by profession, man cannot live by politics alone; nor, indeed, can he, in nn ago of culture, offer excuses for those moment- ii' his customarily workaday life' ... Incidentally one observes that Professor Baldwin Spencer, reporting on the ethnological branch of tho museum, and in referring to notable additions, points out as "the most important," the case of the skeleton of Truganini, "the last of the Tasmanians"
  • The Mercury Saturday 31 December 1904 UNCORRECTED SCAN ............ "A Distinguished Visitor - Professor Baldwin Spencer, the distinguished ethnological explorer of Central Australia, passed through Hobart on his way to New Zealand with his wife and daughters a few days ago. It was 'otting lo Professor Spencer's good offices that the skeleton bf Truganini, now on view at the Museum, was mounted free of cost to Tasmania. Having visited the Museum and inspected tho skeleton, together with the ethnological collection surrounding it in the Tasmanian room. Professor Spencer declared that no better place could have been found for it, and congratulated the trustees on the possession of a more unique exhibit than could be found many other museum in the world - the last of a race."

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