Accepted Paper:

Points of Focus: an exhibition of historical photographs from the Pacific Islands   


Rebecca Conway (University of Sydney)

Paper short abstract:

The use of museum photo collections in the exhibition, Points of Focus: historic photographs from the Pacific Islands (Sydney Uni, Macleay Museum, 2014). The exhibition marries aspects of history to images to excite and expand an understanding of the region and its peoples in the early colonial period.

Paper long abstract:

From the mid-19th century Europeans developed a keen appetite for photographs of Pacific Islanders. Many of these images, today housed in institutional collections, have little specific associated contextual data or documentation. So - how can we invite interest in and increase engagement with collections we sometimes know little about?

Targeted research and promotion through exhibition can expand knowledge and excite curiosity in museum collections. This was the rationale for the Macleay Museum exhibition, Points of Focus: historic photographs from the Pacific Islands. Using five broad themes - community, landscape, spirituality, governance and the market, the exhibition encourages the audience to not simply take images at face value. Histories were built around small groups of photographs to show how they might be 'read' in the absence of specific primary data. Examples from the exhibition range from individual-level histories such that of Maori King Tāwhiao illustrated by commercial studio portraits, to aspects of village and community history accessed through anthropological fieldwork photos, to capital, whole island and regional histories told via the lens of missionary, scientific and governmental images.

The exhibitions intent is illustrate how thinking beyond the frame might allow us to engage with the historical milieu of 19th century Pacific Islanders. It also seeks to promote the relevance of historic photographs to understanding the region of today. Ultimately it aims to go some way towards re-claiming and reinstating the place of historic photographs as important evidence of and vehicles for the telling of many and diverse histories.

Panel P05
Reviving the archives as pictorial histories