Portrait photographs of Magdalena Abakanowicz, Isobel Bennett and Amelia Edwards

Women pioneers from the past

8 March 2022

Celebrating International Women's Day

Our curators put a spotlight on three women who were trailblazers in the past, and whose legacies are still felt today. 

Black ball sculptural work

Magdalena Abakanowicz, Czarna kula (Black ball II), 1968. Purchased with funds from the JW Power Bequest 1976. University Art Collection, PW1976.1

1. Magdalena Abakanowicz (1930–2017)

Magdalena Abakanowicz was born in 1930 in Warsaw, Poland. When she was nine years old, her family was forced to flee their home and go underground after Germany invaded Poland. This experience gave Abakanowicz the impetus to reinvent herself.

In 1949, she commenced studies at the Gdansk Academy of Fine Arts, an interdisciplinary art school that fostered collaboration between art forms. It was here that she was first introduced to textiles. Wanting to be part of the new cultural centre of post-war Warsaw, Abakanowicz transferred to the Academy of Fine Arts in 1950. 

By the early 1960s, she had cemented her reputation on the international stage with her series of soft sculptures called Abakans. These transformative works redefined fibre art from the more conventional tapestry to monumental sculpture. She was a leader in the revitalisation of figurative sculpture in the 1970s and 80s.

She was the recipient of many honours and prizes including the Grand Prix of Sao Paulo Biennale, Sao Paulo Brazil in 1965 and represented Poland at the Venice Biennale in 1980. Her work is held in collections worldwide. She lived and worked in Warsaw, where she died in 2017.

– Katrina Liberiou, Assistant Curator, Art Collection

2. Isobel Bennett (1909–2008)

Isobel Bennett was a pioneer in Australian marine biology and remains an inspiration to generations of marine scientists. Her career is particularly remarkable given that her training was essentially on the job.

Bennett was employed by the University of Sydney for 40 years, resulting from a chance meeting with Professor William John Dakin and his wife on a cruise to Norfolk Island. Initially hired to research historical records for Dakin’s 1938 Whalemen Adventurers, she later assisted Dakin with a wide range of studies, including his research on Australian plankton and on the ecology and distribution of New South Wales intertidal organisms, and, during World War II, in his important work on camouflage for the Department of Homeland Security.

Along with fellow pioneering marine biologist Elizabeth Pope of the Australian Museum, she played a large role in researching and producing Dakin’s influential Australian Seashores, seeing the book through to publication following Dakin’s death in 1950. Over the next 35 years, she took on the responsibility of revising and eventually authoring editions of Australian Seashores. She also produced eight other books, including The Fringe of the Sea (1966), The Great Barrier Reef (1971), Shores of Macquarie Island (1971), A Coral Reef Handbook (1978), Discovering Lord Howe Island (1979) and Discovering Norfolk Island (1983).

Bennett was the first person to receive an Honorary Master of Science from the University of Sydney and was later awarded an Honorary Doctor of Science in 1995 from the University of New South Wales. She was made an Officer of the Order of Australia, for her services to marine biology in 1984.

An upcoming exhibition at the Museum will feature historic photographs from and about Dakin’s Australian Seashores.

– Anthony Gill, Curator, Macleay Collections

Black and white photograph of two women

Isobel Bennett (on right) with a colleague (probably W.J. Dakin's wife, Catherine). Macleay Collections, HP84.7.110.3

Cover of the book 'A Thousand Miles up the Nile' by Amelia Edwards, 1877

Cover of the book A Thousand Miles up the Nile by Amelia Edwards, 1877

3. Amelia Edwards (1831–92)

Amelia Edwards was an established novelist when she took an unexpected journey to Egypt in 1873–74. Beginning in Cairo, Amelia and her companions travelled the Nile recording the ancient sites and their experiences, which she would publish as a travelogue, A Thousand Miles Up the Nile in 1877. This journey inspired Amelia to become a public advocate for the burgeoning discipline of Egyptology, making it her mission to raise awareness and funding to support the conservation and preservation of ancient Egyptian heritage.

In 1882, Amelia co-founded the Egypt Exploration Fund (now known as the Egypt Exploration Society, EES), to support British led excavations of the prominent archaeological sites of the Nile. This coincided with the beginning of the British occupation of Egypt. The early excavations led by William Flinders Petrie and Édouard Naville immediately began to reveal hundreds of thousands of artefacts. Museums and universities that supported the excavations were sent crates of the finds from the excavations. This arrangement, known as partage, split the finds nominally in half between the Service des Antiquities in Egypt and the foreign-led excavations.

Amelia became the honorary secretary of the society and was active in seeking new funders and organising the transportation and division of finds between funding institutions. The Nicholson Museum began support of the EES thanks to a large donation by Josiah Mullens, a prominent Sydney businessman in 1888. Amelia personally wrote to the University of Sydney Senate to offer her appreciation and to Mr Mullens, and the citizens of Sydney for their generous support and announced that Sydney would receive a significant granite column capital carved with the face of Hathor and an over life-sized sculpture of Ramesses II from the excavations at Bubastis.

Amelia Edwards died in 1892, aged 60. She would not see the results of her passion. However, her legacy lives on the EES today and the collections around that world that contributed to her vision. For more about the dispersal of material culture see the Artefacts of Excavation research project.

– Candace Richards, Assistant Curator, Nicholson Collection

Large red granite column capital with the face of the goddess Hathor on two sides

Column capital depicting Hathor, currently on display in the Egyptian Galleries at the Museum, Bubastis, Lower Egypt, 900 BC. Nicholson Collection, NM2004.557 

Header image from left to right: Magdalena Abakanowicz, courtesy Aware Women Artists; Isobel Bennett, photo by Alex Ozolins, courtesy National Library of Australia; and Amelia Edwards, courtesy Wikimedia Commons