State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 73 Autumn 2004


State Library of Victoria Photographic Unit. Redmond Barry's coat of arms on portico.

Des Cowley
Redeeming an Obligation:
Aboriginal Culture at the 1866 Exhibition

In The lead-up to the Melbourne Intercolonial Exhibition of 1866, Redmond Barry, in his capacity as President of the Exhibition Commission, forwarded an invitation to ‘the different representatives of the British colonies’1 requesting them to:
contribute photographic likenesses, and casts of the head of the Natives, specimens of weapons, utensils, and implements used by them and such information respecting the history, traditions, the languages or dialects spoken as could be procured.2
This invitation took the form of a printed letter, signed by Barry, and issued in February 1866,3 in which he identified the Intercolonial Exhibition as:
A favourable opportunity for collecting materials relating to the history, traditions, customs, and language of the aboriginal natives of Australia.3
The proposal to feature Aboriginal exhibits at the 1866 Exhibition appears to have been very much Barry's idea. As part of Victoria's contribution, he commissioned a series of casts made from life of sixteen residents of the Coranderrk Aboriginal Mission at Healesville, and a series of photographic portraits of Aboriginal men, women and children from the Mission.
Barry first proposed the casts as early as 1861,4 possibly with the London 1862 International Exhibition, which he attended as one of Victoria's Exhibition Commissioners, in mind. The casts were eventually made in 1866 by sculptor Charles Summers, best known for his Burke and Wills monument. Although intended for the Melbourne Exhibition, they were not, in the end, displayed, presumably because Summers was one of the judges and could not therefore exhibit. They were, however, exhibited in the Victorian Court at the Paris Universal Exhibition the following year.5
The photographic portraits taken at Coranderrk Mission, and subsequently displayed in the Fine Arts Gallery at the 1866 Intercolonial Exhibition under the heading ‘Photographs of Aboriginal Natives at Coranderrk, near Healesville’,6 were by German-born Carl Walters. Walters' exhibit went on to receive an honorable mention from the Exhibition judges ‘on account of the interest they possess’.7
Aside from the casts and photographs, the Intercolonial Exhibition also featured a large display of 134 ‘Aboriginal Products received from the Aborigines’, submitted by the Central Board Appointed to Watch Over the Interests of the Aborigines of Victoria. It appeared as entry 473 in the catalogue of the Victorian Court,8 sandwiched between samples of clothing produced by inmates of the colony's penal establishment, and ‘Roman Point-Lace Needlework’ by Mrs Claridge, of Barry St, Carlton. The Central Board's exhibit featured an array of weapons, handicrafts, clothing and adornments, in some cases identifying the item's maker.
Aside from commissioning these Aboriginal exhibits, Redmond Barry also proposed the compilation of a vocabulary of Aboriginal languages. To this end, his letter of invitation for materials on ‘the aboriginal natives of Australia’ was accompanied by what was, in effect, a how-to kit for the recording of Aboriginal languages.9 The twenty-eight page kit, printed by Victorian Government Printer John Ferres, included a number of aids: Sir John Herschel's suggestions for the recording of unwritten languages; Mr. Alexander John Ellis's Ethnical Alphabet and instructions for its use; and examples of pure phonetics in eight languages (English, Italian, Spanish, French, High German, Dutch, Danish, and Lowland Scotch). The bulk of the kit (pp. 13–28)
comprised a list of common English words - Man, Woman, Smoke, Light, Build, Fight - with adjacent blank columns for the recording of corresponding Aboriginal words, along with the relevant colony and dialect. It was requested that ‘the Vocabulary, filled up, be returned to the President, on or before, the 1st August next’, presumably to allow for the printing of the vocabulary in time for the Melbourne Intercolonial Exhibition.
It was Barry's firm belief that much work in the field had been carried out already by navigators and travellers, though not always in a scientific or satisfactory manner. What he called ‘more regular and matured investigations’ had also been undertaken by ‘missionaries, ministers of religion, persons connected with the protection of the natives as well as by others of acknowledged ability’. Clearly, what was needed was that ‘all printed grammars, dictionaries, and lists of words and phrases should be brought together’. Work on bringing together these scattered vocabularies appears to have been initiated by Barry, as evidenced by a series of handwritten notes to be found amongst his papers.10 These notes, most probably in the hand of librarian Augustus Tulk, list previously published and unpublished sources on Aboriginal languages, including Sir George Grey's Despatches and Journals of Two Expeditions, and the various vocabularies by Daniel Bunce, George Moore, William Williams, Christian Teichelmann and L.E. Threlkeld.
The 1866 Intercolonial Exhibition was undoubtedly an important one for Barry. He had always been a great advocate for these exhibitions and took a strong interest in the opportunities they afforded Victoria to promote its standing both in the colonies and internationally. The 1866 Exhibition was designed as a preparatory display for the colonies' contribution to the great Universal Exhibition to be held in Paris in 1867.
The site set aside for the Intercolonial Exhibition was at the back of the Melbourne Public Library, after it was deemed that the old Exhibition Building of 1854, located at the northern end of William Street, was unsuitable. It was intended that the new structure would become available to serve as a Museum once the Exhibition had concluded. Central to the plan was the erection of the Great Hall, along with ‘a spacious Octagon leading to it from the Public Library’.11 Joseph Reed, who had designed the original Melbourne Public Library, on Swanston Street, was commissioned as architect, and Edward La Trobe Bateman, who had previously devised the floral designs for the Library's 1861 Catalogue, was commissioned to superintend the decorative work. As the building was to be the eventual property of the Public Library, the Library's Trustees undertook responsibility for the construction.
As both President of the Exhibition Commission and President of the Trustees of the Melbourne Public Library, Barry took more than a keen interest in this new structure being erected behind the Library. On 8 September, 1866, just over a month prior to the Exhibition's opening date, Barry delivered an address to the construction workers engaged on the project. His address, which was also open to the general public, somewhat generously compared the building to the great halls and cathedrals of Europe. Barry expressed a hope that the structure ‘will bear witness to your labour, it may be hoped, for centuries to come’.12 One can only hazard a guess at what these workmen must have made of Barry's extended meditation on European architectural history that ran, in its published form, to some forty pages of text. That aside, his address to an estimated audience of 600 was something of a media triumph, being widely reported in the papers of the day. The Argus of 10 September even went so far as to reproduce the text of Barry's address, further noting that, at its conclusion ‘The cheers were given most lustily, and the assemblage immediately dispersed’.
In the end, it was the construction of the Great Hall that led to Barry's undoing as President of the Commission. Due to what was deemed its state of incompletion just weeks before the Exhibition opening date, the Commissioners voted on 2 October to postpone the opening from 11 to 23 October. Barry, outvoted on the question, and firmly believing such a postponement represented a breach of public faith, tendered his resignation as President the following day. His position as Trustee of the Library must have influenced his position - after all, it was the Trustees of the Library, rather than the Commissioners, who had shouldered responsibility for the building, and Barry must have found himself with divided loyalties. At a meeting of the Commissioners, Barry vigorously defended his decision to resign:

Melbourne Punch. 11 October 1866. ‘The Naughty Boy’, a caricature of Sir Redmond Barry.

The step I have taken is based on what I am convinced is the right principle… Allow me to review the facts. The erection of this building was conducted by the trustees of the Public Library. The north wing was finished before required. The great hall was finished 'to the day… I have had the repeated assurances of the contractors that they would be ready by the 11th…Gentleman, I have resigned, not from any disinclination to yield to your wishes… but because I consider we are bound to redeem our pledge, not only to Victoria, but to Australasia - not only to Australasia, but to the foreign countries which have been invited to join our undertaking…but I still maintain that I believe you can keep faith with the public. No exhibition that I have ever yet seen or heard of has opened on the first day with arrangements completed so as to please all critics… If you do not open by the 11th, I must cease to act as president.13
Despite his resignation as President, Barry took out a notice in the Age and Argus informing exhibitors that he would be present in the Exhibition Building ‘on Monday next, the 8th, and on Tuesday next, the 9th of October, to assist you to whom space has not already been allotted, in fixing the position to be occupied by your goods… I have the honor to be, ladies and gentlemen, your very obedient and humble servant, Redmond Barry’.14
Barry's resignation, coming so close as it did to the Exhibition's opening, was treated harshly by the papers of the day, most of whom generally supported the Commission's decision to delay the opening.15 Barry's harshest critics, as could be expected, were to be found in the pages of Melbourne Punch. Aside from publishing a caricature of him as ‘The Naughty Boy’, and issuing a public notice alluding to the ‘thinness’ of‘Sir R.B.'s skin’, Punch also ran a merciless fictional account of the Exhibition's opening ceremonials scheduled for 11 October, the cancelled date that Barry had so dearly staked his principles on:
Precisely at two o'clock in the afternoon, the 11th instant, Sir Redmond Barry is to knock with three sonorous knocks at the outer door of the largest hall in the universe. He will then go round by the back, walk up the centre of the room, and let himself in.
Sir Redmond Barry will then do himself the honour of addressing His Honour Judge Barry in a concise speech of an hour and a half's duration, in the course of which he will simply review the onerous labours he has performed in getting up the Exhibition, and congratulate His Honour on the result.
Judge Barry will do himself the honour of replying in a few appropriate remarks, and Sir Redmond Barry will then enter the building, cheering himself loudly as he proceeds up the central aisle.
Arrived at the middle of the hall, Sir Redmond will be received by the chairman of the Organization Committee, and will do himself the honour of shaking that functionary condescendingly by the hand. Sir Redmond Barry, the Chairman of the Organization Committee, and Judge Barry will then march in procession twice round the building, chaunting [sic] the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ in the finest baritone voices, blowing their own trumpets, and occasionally stopping and giving vent to an irrepressible burst of applause. Sir Redmond Barry will finally declare the Intercolonial Exhibition open, and will disperse over the building to inspect the various exhibits.16
Barry remained true to his beliefs, and newspaper accounts of the opening of the Intercolonial Exhibition on 24 October were almost unanimous in drawing attention to Barry's absence from proceedings, Melbourne Punch noting that ‘Mr Punch regrets that, owing to what appears to have been his loyalty to a false principle - Sir Redmond did not on opening day occupy that distinguished position which he is so eminently fitted to adorn’.17
When the Argus newspaper published its response to the Melbourne Intercolonial Exhibition once its doors had closed to the public in February 1867, it declared that ‘Victoria bids fair to become celebrated for magnificent failures’.18 Given Barry's experience as President of the Commission, it might equally have referred to him. The Great Hall, of which he had been so proud, was to remain unfinished, the Age subsequently declaring that ‘it was planned on such a scale of magnificence that there is little prospect of its completion within the next twenty or thirty years’.19 In 1898, the Library Trustees declared it unsafe, and it was demolished in 1908 to make way for the construction of the Domed Reading Room.

Intercolonial Exhibition of Australia. Title Page of Vocabulary of Dialects Spoken by Aboriginal Natives of Australia. 1866–1867. ∗LT 499.6 M48. La Trobe Rare Book Collection.

And what of Barry's plans for a vocabulary of Aboriginal languages? At an Exhibition Commission meeting in early August 1866, it was reported that ‘Some of the vocabularies prepared for the collection of data of the various forms of aboriginal language, &c., were now returned by those to whom they have been forwarded, and bore evident proof of the attentive care bestowed upon their completion’.20 Even after Barry's departure as President of the Commission, it was reported, at a general meeting, that ‘A letter was received from the Aboriginal Station, King Georges Sound, enclosing photographs and vocabulary’.21 Yet publication was delayed until well after the closure of the Exhibition. More likely than not, it was Barry's departure from the Commission that stalled the impetus to publish the vocabularies. The fact that the King Georges Sound vocabulary, received by the Commission after Barry's departure, did not appear in the published version supports such a likelihood.
Vocabulary of Dialects Spoken by the Aboriginal Natives of Australia was finally published in May of 1867, some months after the close of the Intercolonial Exhibition on 23 February 1867. Its publication was in time for the Universal Exhibition in Paris, which opened in 1 April that year. The fact that the pamphlet was issued in both English and French editions makes it likely that Barry intended it to be circulated in Paris, particularly given his new role as President of the Royal Commissioners for Victoria at that Exhibition. Yet there is no reference to it amongst the catalogue of the Victorian Court in Paris, neither in the extensive display of ‘Printing and Books’ - which included a variety of current Victorian newspapers, journal issues, almanacs, and pamphlets - nor amongst the displays of Australian Aboriginal culture, which included the Charles Summers‘ casts of Aborigines made from life, the Walters photographs from Coranderrk, and a display assembled by R. Brough Smythe of ’native weapons and shield'.22
In its final form, the Vocabulary of Dialects, printed by Masterman Printer, Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, comprised a brief preface by Barry outlining the background to the project, a reprinting of his 1866 letter soliciting vocabularies, Sir John Herschel's ‘Suggestions’ for the recording of unwritten languages, and six large folding charts, each measuring approximately 450mm by 550mm, of English words and their equivalents in French and ‘Dialects Spoken by Aboriginal Natives of Australia’. In all, some 700 English words were rendered into the following Victorian dialects: Wannikin - Mount Rouse Tribe, Mount Talbot Tribe, Upper Murray Tribe, Lower Murray Tribe, Swan Hill Tribe, Wannon - Yarlook Tribe, Lower Goulburn Tribe, Lake Tyer - North Gippsland, Maryborough Tribe, and Dialect Bewa - Lake Kindmarah. The only dialects included other than from Victoria were: South Australia (Dialect Maal and Adelaide Tribe), Tasmania (Tribes about Mount Royal, Brune Island, etc.), and New Caledonia who, along with Mauritius and Batavia, also exhibited at the 1866 Intercolonial Exhibition.
Barry must have been disappointed that his original ambitions for the publication were not realised. Certainly, the ‘cordial and active support’ he had petitioned for does not appear to have been forthcoming from New South Wales or Queensland. The pamphlet's publication received no notices in the press, and furthermore appears to have received almost no circulation at the time.23 Although it is likely that Barry forwarded it to a number of overseas dignitaries, as was his habit with the Melbourne Public Library catalogues, it was to become a rare pamphlet, unrecorded by Ferguson's Bibliography of Australia, and, until recently, held by few Australian libraries. If we can point to any subsequent influence that Barry's comparative language tables might have exerted on future endeavours in the field, then it is perhaps to Edward Curr's ‘comparative vocabulary’, published as volume four of his The Australian Race in 1887, that we would turn.
Barry's stated hope that the influence of the Vocabulary ‘will not be confined to the period or the place of an Exhibition’ but ‘form the groundwork of future more extended inquiries of a like nature’ was not to be case. In his favour, the Melbourne Intercolonial Exhibition of 1866 represented the most substantial display of Aboriginal culture of any of the colonial exhibitions of the nineteenth century. It is easy, from our distant perspective, to question the attitudes that lay behind these curious arrays of casts, photographs, and weapons. Yet the genuineness of Barry's sympathies cannot be entirely disregarded, nor his hope that ‘all employed’ in the compilation of the Vocabulary of Dialects ‘may have the satisfaction of redeeming, in some degree, the obligation they owe to the humble race, -the primitive possessors of the soil’.24


The State Library of Victoria Foundation gratefully acknowledges the assistance of the following in the preparation of this number of The La Trobe Journal:
  • Paul Fox
  • Gerard Hayes, La Trobe Manuscript Collection, State Library of Victoria
  • Professor Kathy Laster, Victoria Law Foundation
  • Maria McGarvie, Victoria Law Foundation
  • Photography Unit, State Library of Victoria


Vocabulary of Dialects Spoken by Aboriginal Natives of Australia, 1867, p.iii


The February date is based on a copy of Barry's letter, signed and dated 23 February 1866, held in the Public Records Office of Western Australia.


Redmond Barry, Introductory Letter, Australian Manuscripts Collection, State Library of Victoria, MS 12072, p. 1.


Exhibition Trustees Letterbook, Australian Manuscripts Collection, State Library of Victoria, H17247.


See Christine Downer's ‘Charles Summers and the Australian Aborigines’ in Art and Australia Vol. 25, no. 2, Summer 1987, pp. 206–212, for an extended discussion of these works. Anne Galbally's Redmond Barry, 1995, questions Downer's assumption that it was Summers' role as a judge at the Exhibition that precluded the casts being displayed.


Intercolonial Exhbition 1866, Official Catalogue Melbourne, 1866, p. 104. A set of Walters' photographs is held in the State Library of Victoria's Pictures Collection.


Intercolonial Exhibition of Australasia, Melbourne 1866–67, Official Record Melbourne, 1867, p. 352,


Intercolonial Exhibition 1866, Official Catalogue, p. 27–28.


Redmond Barry, Introductory Letter, pp. 3–28.


Notes and List of Source Material on the Aboriginal Language, Australian Manuscripts Collection, State Library of Victoria, MS 8380.


Intercolonial Exhibition of Australasia, Melbourne 1866–67, Official Record, p.xii.


Redmond Barry, Address to the Workmen Employed in Building the Great Hall of the Melbourne Public Library and Museum in Melbourne, Victoria 1866, p. 39.


14Argus 6 October 1866.


Age 8 October 1866.


See Australasian 6 October 1866, Argus 8 October 1866.


Melbourne Punch 11 October 1866.


Melbourne Punch 25 October 1866.


Argus 22 April 1867.


Age 16 April 1867.


Argus 7 August 1867.


Age 16 October 1866.


The Royal Commissioners for Victoria Catalogue of Products from Victoria, Australia, at the Paris Universal Exhibition, 1867 London, 1867.


In the early 1990s, I discovered almost 1,000 copies of the pamphlet, the majority damaged, in the Library's Verdon Basement.


Vocabulary of Dialects p.viii.