A kimberley point fastened to a wooden spear handle

Ethnography collections

Explore the diversity of First Nations peoples' cultural heritage
In the collection are 16,000 objects which embody the understanding, relationships and beliefs of the makers, users, traders and collectors of these materials.

The strengths of these collections are the Australian Aboriginal, Torres Strait and Pacific Islander cultural objects and photographs. The collections began with three generations of the Macleay family who lived in New South Wales between 1826 and 1891. Reflecting an Aboriginal, Torres Strait and Pacific Islander history of many millennia, the collections were mostly acquired between 1860 and 1970.

The collections include material acquired on the Chevert expedition as well as through Sir William Macleay’s association with a range of amateur and professional natural history collectors. Search the natural history collections.

Objects and photographs from the early 20th century came to us from research associated with the University, in particular the work of the geography and anthropology departments. The collections have been made contemporary through the work of present-day Aboriginal, Torres Strait and Pacific Islander peoples.

Macleay curators are committed to working with communities to further understanding of the cultural collections we look after. Providing access to a wide range of community groups, students, researchers and the general public is part of this role.

Colourful feathers delicately tied along the length of a stingYolŋu artist B Baŋuyarri Burarrwaŋa, Feather string (detail), photograph: Michael Myers

The collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage is looked after on the lands of the Gadigal peoples of the Eora Nation. Included in the collection are historically significant objects, photographs and culturally important materials managed in collaboration with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

We recognise and proactively assert the importance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander involvement with these collections. We welcome these communities to contribute to decision making on the appropriate display, housing, interpretation and accessibility of collections.

Since 1994, the University of Sydney has been actively involved in returning Old People's remains and sacred objects to Country.

The University of Sydney has an active program of repatriation.

Blue and yellow map of the Pacific Islands including AustraliaMap of the Pacific Islands showing early 20th-century European trade routes, Burns Philp & Co Ltd, Picturesque Travel [magazine], 1925 (detail)

The cultural and photographic heritage from Oceania largely dates from the mid-19th century to early 20th century colonial period.

The countries from which we hold material listed below in order of scale are: Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Papua and West Papua (Indonesia), Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga, Kiribati, Cook Islands, Samoa, Aotearoa – New Zealand, Caroline Islands, Niue, New Caledonia, Hawaii, Tuvalu, Marshall Islands, and Rapa Nui – Easter Island.

We recognise and proactively assert the importance of Pacific Islander and Māori peoples and their Australian-born descendants' involvement with these collections. We welcome these communities to contribute to decision making on the appropriate display, housing, interpretation and accessibility of collections.

Carved wooden portraitCarved portrait of Hongi Hika, estimated date c.1814

The Māori collections from Aotearoa – New Zealand, while small (21 items), are comprised of some historically interesting and culturally significant Taonga (Māori treasures). These include a fine pounamu – greenstone Hei-Tiki, with a pāua shell cross affixed to the back, and wood, whale bone and kāpia – kauri gum Mere (hand weapons). Kāpia had a variety of traditional uses, but in the period 1870 to 1920 an industry based on the digging of kauri gum in the North Island was an important source of income for many Māori when it became a major New Zealand export used for varnish production in America and Europe.

An important Taonga we hold is a carved wooden head said to represent Hongi Hika. Hongi Hika, a Ngāpuhi chief from the West Coast, North Island, is renowned for his role in the Musket Wars (1807–1842), Māori intertribal conflicts which involved European firearms. In 1814, Hongi Hika met Samuel Marsden, a Sydney-based English born Anglican missionary who had travelled to New Zealand to evangelise among the Māori. Hongi Hika and other senior Māori journeyed to Sydney and spent time at Marsden’s residence at Parramatta. It is here he is said to have carved a self-portrait in wood.

This item is today held by the Auckland Museum, Aotearoa – New Zealand. More research is required to establish whether the sculpture at the Macleay is another version carved at the same time or an early copy by another hand. Nonetheless it represents an important figure in early Māori–Pākehā (non-Māori) history. Items of more modern manufacture include dance gear from the late 1940s and Kete – open weave flax baskets of the style used in the collection of shellfish – that date from the 1950s.

The dance gear includes Poi – dance balls made by Guide Rangi (Rangitìaria Dennan) of Arawa an Ngàti Pikiao descent, a well-known leader in the interpretation and promotion of Māori culture especially around Whakarewarewa, Rotorua and a Piupiu – dance skirt acquired by performer Beth Dean when she studied Māori dance with Dovey Katene Horvath of the Ngati Poneke club in Wellington.

Photograph of Cook Island dancers[Cook Islands dancers], Raratonga 1976, photograph: Van Eijk & Meers

The Macleay Collections hold more than 30 cultural objects from the Cook Islands. The collection is dominated by material dating from the late 1960s related to Cook Islands dance and ceremonial practices. These items were all collected by Beth Dean and Victor Carell and include skirts, hats, bark cloth masks and headdresses originating from the islands of Rarotonga, Atiu and Mangaia. Dean and Carell were heavily involved in the dance and theatre scene and passionately interested in dance as an aspect of cultural expression.

In 1969, the couple were involved in the establishment of the Cook Islands National Arts Theatre. They went on to produce and direct the inaugural South Pacific Festival of Arts staged in Suva, Fiji in 1972, which included thousands of participants from across the Pacific. Following the success of the festival, they especially selected Cook Islander dancers to take part in cultural performances they organised for the opening of the Sydney Opera House in 1973.

Items in the Cook Islands collections are related to many of these events as well as Independence celebrations in Rarotonga. There are only five items dating to earlier times in the collections, a series of four undecorated bark cloth pieces and a stone artefact from Aitutaki island. Thought to date from the late 19th century they probably formed part of the original Macleay family bequest (1865–1891) and are likely to have been traded to Macleay via the London Missionary Society. The society established a mission on Aitutaki following the arrival on the island of Reverend John Williams in 1821. Today, the majority of Cook Islanders identify as Christian, yet missionary attempts to halt traditional music and dancing were less successful. The collections held at the Macleay are testament to the continuity of this element of Cook Islands culture.

Photograph of a Chief's house[Chief’s house], Fiji, before 1940, HP99.1.1567

There are approximately 130 items of Fijian material culture in the Macleay Collections including domestic and ceremonial objects, weaponry, tools, barkcloth and mats. The majority of the collection dates to the mid-late 19th century and was collected by J. A. Boyd, a European planter based in Fiji between 1865–82. Boyd also sold animal specimens to William John Macleay, which are housed in the Macleay natural history collections. Material of more recent manufacture includes items collected during the 1st Annual South Pacific Festival of Arts, which was staged in Suva, Fiji, 1972.

In the historic photography collections there are an estimated 100 images depicting aspects of Fijian life. The images document aspects of ceremonial and daily life, and historical events of the period 1900–1940. We are currently preparing more detailed information on the Fijian collections in conjunction with the Fiji National Museum and the research project, Fijian Art: political power, sacred value, social transformation and collecting since the 18th century, being coordinated by the Sainsbury Unit, University of East Anglia, United Kingdom. As we refine our documentation we will be making our Fijian collections publicly accessible via our collections search.

Bark cloth mask with red, black and white details from Papua New GuineaCharo (barkcloth mask), Motu Motu, Aird River, Papua New Guinea, collected 1887, ETA.473.2

The collection reflects Australia's colonial interest in the nation's resources. The majority of the 3000 items come from those coastal regions well known to Europeans in the 19th century. The collection is distinctive for the range of cultural objects collected in the 1870s from Western, Gulf, Central Provinces. From the 1870s to 1920s are significant cultural heritage items collected from the island archipelagos to the east of the mainland: Trobriand and Louisiade islands, along with New Ireland, New Britain, Bougainville and Buka.

The photographic collection strongly reflect Australian Administration times, with many images of the former German New Guinea territories.

A number of 19th and early 20th century maps from the Geography Department enhance understanding of the University research and interest in the country and its peoples.

Stone blade wrapped in decorations.Djagus (exchange blade owned by Dadik), Walalimo, Papua collected 1971, ET80.214

Just over a third of the collections we hold from the island of New Guinea are from Papua and West Papua (Indonesia). Apart from eight Humboldt Bay items, this material was collected by Robert Mitton in the 1970s. The strength of the collection is material from the Central Highlands region acquired from various Dani groups (222 items). From the Southern region the collection includes intricately and distinctively carved objects of the Asmat peoples (134 items). There are smaller numbers of items from other parts including the Paniai and Northeast regions and Lake Sentani. Significantly, Mitton recorded detailed geographic and cultural provenance and regularly recorded the names of artists and prior owners as well as the language names of many of the pieces he collected.

Robert Mitton initially worked in the mining industry, however his collecting interests led to a greater concern for the diverse cultures of the region as he went on to serve as a cultural consultant to the PNG National Museum and Cultural Council. A keen photographer, Mitton took hundreds of photographs during his work and travels. Those in the Macleay collection include many of the Indigenous people he met, their villages, gardens, daily life and ceremonial events.

Traditional spoons.Spoons, Uki Island, Makira Province, Solomon Islands, collected 1865 by JW Brazier during HMS Curacoa expedition, ETD.765 and ETD.760

There are close to 300 cultural objects from the Solomon Islands in the Macleay Collections. We hold material identified as being from Makira, Isabel, Malaita, Guadalcanal, Central, Western and Temotu Provinces. The collection includes arrows, canoe paddles and ornaments, spoons, containers, basketry, shell money, and body adornments such as necklaces, arm bands and combs. Many of the cultures of the Solomons archipelago produce highly distinctive types of objects and art, however there are certain types of items that are more widespread. Items without specific provenance are the subject of ongoing research.

The collections from the Solomon Islands include material transferred to the Macleay from the University of Sydney Geography Department in the 1960s. Materials thought to date from the 1930s were transferred from the Old Teachers College more recently, including items transferred in 2012. However, most of the Solomon Island collection was part of the original Macleay bequest to the University acquired in the region during the period 1865–72. John Brazier, principally a conchologist (shell specialist), is identified as the major collector of this material.

In 1865, Brazier was invited to join the HMS Curacoa South Sea Islands expedition alongside explorer and avid 'gentleman collector' Julius L. Brenchley. Read more about the journey. The HMS Curacoa (1865) spent approximately two weeks in the Solomons as well as visiting Norfolk Island, Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu and New Caledonia. Brazier revisited the region on the HMS Blanche (1872). Such expeditions were part of a regular traffic of British navy visits surveying colonial interests in the region. The Macleay historic photography collection contains a number of early images from the region. These capture moments of colonial history, such as the torching of canoes by crew of the HMS Royalist c.1891 and plantations set up by Burns Philp & Co in the early 20th century.

There are also photos taken in the late 1920s by up-and-coming University of Sydney anthropologists, Raymond Firth and Ian Hogbin. Taken among the Solomon Islands communities with whom they worked, the photographs document, often in amazing detail, relationships between people and aspects of daily and ceremonial life.

Brown ceremonial basket with red and white bead embellishmentsKato’alu (ceremonial basket), mid-19th century, Tonga, photograph: Michael Myers

There are approximately 60 items from the Kingdom of Tonga in the Macleay Collections. There are a few fine late 19th and early 20th century pieces but the majority of the material dates from the 1980s. Early items include two kato’alu – decorated baskets used in wedding and funeral ceremonies – and a series of delicate kupesi – design tablets for tapa printing. Carefully made of pandanus and stitched coconut leaf mid-ribs, kupesi are traditionally passed down mother-to-daughter in order to preserve particular patterns through the generations.

More recent material includes baskets, bags, tapa and mats. Collected by a past curator of ethnography, this latter part of the collection also includes tools, samples of raw materials such as natural dyes, plant material in various stages of processing and samples which document and help to explain how the important arts of tapa and mat production are carried out in Tonga.

We hold a very small number of historical images from Tonga as part of our historic photography collection. These photos are thought to date from the late 19th century.

Curved pig tuskCurved pig tusk, early-20th century, Aoba, Penama Province, Vanuatu, ET86.33.2

The Macleay Collections hold approximately 180 cultural objects from Vanuatu. This includes weaponry, axes, baskets, masks, sculptures, and body adornments such as belts, skirts and ornaments. Penama is the province from which we hold most material (54 items). There are smaller representations from Malampa and Tafea (more than 20 items each) and fewer again from Sanma, Shefa and Torba (under 10 each). The remainder of the collection is identified only as being from Vanuatu and has not yet been identified to a specific place or region.

More than half of the Vanuatu material was collected in the late 19th to early 20th century. The objects were acquired by W. J. Macleay through his relationship with various visitors to the region, including John Brazier on HMS Curacao (1865), J. A. Boyd (1876 – 1889) and A. A. Onslow (1857–61). Apart from this, the major collectors were two members of the Godden family. Reverend Charles Godden, an Anglican missionary in the region acquired around 25 objects there in the early 1900s, and his daughter Ruth who visited in his footsteps in the mid-1960s collected a similar number.

We hold only a few photographs from the region but there are some interesting historical artefacts. These include: a fragment of a cross related to the John Frum religious movement, a 1915 copy of a conveyance document between the Burns Philp Pacific Trading Co and the New Hebrides Presbyterian Mission, and a metal plaque dated 1885 pronouncing 22,000 acres of Malo land had been bought from the Chiefs by Englishman C. De Lautour.

Issues surrounding the protection and maintenance of cultural heritage continue to be of great import and interest to ni-Vanuatu (Vanuatu peoples) today. One aspect of these belief systems is that many things are believed to have spiritual, not only physical, presence.

Through Honorary Associate of the Macleay Museum, Kirk Huffman, we have strong ties to the Vanuatu Cultural Centre and via these relationships we are able to better understand these aspects and manage the collections with respect to the thinking and requirements of the contemporary community.

Feature image (top of the page): Kimberley point, Kimberley Region, WA, ET83.35

We acknowledge the traditional custodians of the country on which the University of Sydney campuses stand and our responsibility to respect and care for country, people and spirit.