Casting light in Pacific Views

9 December 2021
by Steven Gagau and Jude Philp
The latest exhibition in the Chau Chak Wing Museum’s dedicated historic photography gallery.
red tree reflected in the water

Poinciana regis, unknown Pacific location, c. 1935. Archaeology department Lantern Slide, Macleay Collections, HP2008.1.141

The Pacific Views exhibition reveals the fragile, flourishing, and diverse ecosystems nurtured by Pacific Islanders during a time of colonisation and missionisation. Music and language are central to Indigenous identity so it was essential that visitors could hear from Pacific Islanders through audio recordings, oration and poetry. These resonating voices and songs of Pacific peoples connect contemporary culture to the histories captured in the photographic images.

When we first worked to locate Pacific landscape images in the historic photography collection for the exhibition, we expected only images of sepia, greys, and whites. This was true of the photographic prints and albums, but there were also images we found that transported us to a brightly colourful world through black and white images that had been individually hand coloured. These images were lantern slides, made for an old form of image projection.

Lantern slides are made from two pieces of glass, one with the photographic positive, the other a protective glass ‘cover’, which were sandwiched together for use in a projector. Images were shown by casting light through the glass slide and enlargement lens onto a wall or sheet. This technology was originally developed for hand-drawn images but quickly converted for photographic projections from the 1850s.

Immensely popular, lantern slide shows were part of popular entertainment, travelogue-style documentaries, and education. It was through lantern slides that many Pacific peoples were introduced to the places of European’s origins, their biblical stories, and humour. Pioneer anthropologist Alfred Haddon used lantern slides in his visits to Torres Strait and New Guinea, writing: “When a group of children were thrown on the screen, I asked if any of them were there present and I got a lad and a lass to come before the screen and stand by the side of their portraits taken 10 years before [1888]. There was a photographic interlude and I gave another lantern show of ... decorative art and native animals.”

Volcano erupting

Kīlauea volcano 1919–21, Kīlauea, Hawai’i
Lantern slide (reproduction), transferred from Department of Archaeology, 2008, HP2008.1.142

At the same time, students at the University of Sydney were learning about foreign places in the same way, with slides showing geographic and geological features, everyday life and buildings and places of prestige. It is these images employed for University students from the 1870s through to the 1970s that are used in Pacific Views.

Many visitors will see in the images parts of their own family histories, as these images directly connect with colonial administration, missionary endeavour, tourism and economic opportunity. Sensational events of the past were captured, such as the 1937 volcanic eruptions of Tavurvur, or the emerging colonial centre of Rabaul, pictured long before Tavurvur changed the view physically and personally. 

Coconut palm in black and white

Captured too are images pregnant with future events – such as the opening image of a peaceful coconut tree against the bright moon of Pearl Harbour. This place is now synonymous with North American involvement in the Pacific campaigns of World War Two.

This sense of future is the pathway visitors are welcomed to follow in Pacific Views through photographic prints, albums and reproduced images, accompanied by the voices of poets from across the region. Through QR code links, visitors can listen to songs, thanks to a partnership with PARADISEC, the international sound archive based at the Conservatorium of Music. 

Pacific Views brings to life the historic landscape images, voices, songs and poetry of Pacific peoples, evoking emotional and exciting rediscoveries of the past, and capturing contemporary perspectives on history and culture.

Pacific Views, co-curated by Steven Gagau and Jude Philp, is on now until April 2022

Steven Gagau is a Research Support staff member at PARADISEC at the Conservatorium of Music, University of Sydney. Jude Philp is Senior Curator, Macleay Collections, Chau Chak Wing Museum.