Sculpture of Aboriginal Group 1925

People behind the sculptures

Aboriginal Group 1925

Photographer: G C Clutton © Australian Museum

In 1924 Ernest Wunderlich, the President of the Board of Trustees of the Australian Museum and prominent Sydney businessman, proposed producing an exhibit of a group of Australian Aborigines sculpted from live models. Similar exhibits of indigenous people were already displayed in major world museums. Wunderlich’s idea was sparked by, then a common belief, in the continuing decline of the Aboriginal population. Such beliefs were voiced in the newspapers of that time and explained with authority in the Australian Museum Magazine Editorial in 1925. Wunderlich thought that it was desirable to document and show to the public a faithful physical representation of the original Australians. He was willing to finance a production of such a display with his own money. So, the arrangement was made with the Museum ethnologist William Walford Thorpe, to commission an artist who would make the sculptures of three or four Aboriginal people.

Internal Museum documents cast some light on the planning ideas. In 1924 Thorpe drafted a memo to the Director suggesting that the group should include four Aborigines. A young man hurling a boomerang, another almost abreast of the first, with hand to brow, gazing in the direction that the boomerang would travel. Finally a young mother, a pace or two behind the men, leading a child by the hand.

The project was set in motion when the artist Rayner Hoff was commissioned. He was a teacher of drawing, modelling and sculpture at the East Sydney Technical College (now the National Art School), located just up the road from the Museum in the old Darlinghurst Goal. Hoff was still to produce his major Australian sculptures, prominent in several war memorials. It was decided that Hoff would make three sculptures: a man, a woman and a boy. The sculptures were to be cast in plaster and the Australian Museum artist Miss Ethel A King would paint the figures to give them a realistic appearance.

The Aboriginal Protection Board and the police participated in the search for three suitable Aboriginal models. The people chosen were: Yangar or Jimmy Clements from Orange; Nellie Walker, a woman originally from Bombala and Harold Marsh, a nine year old boy from Grafton.

The completed exhibit was opened for public viewing in 1925, with good intentions, however still reinforcing the stereotypical view of Aborigines, with a dash of sentimentality and nostalgia.

Dr Stan Florek , Database Manager
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