Museum Victoria Logo   Museum Victoria | Collections & Research | Education | What's On
A History of Museum Victoria


Pictorial Timeline




The Early Collection and Exhibition of Art Work by Aboriginal Artists

Lindy Allen

Museum Victoria holds significant collections of art works executed by Aboriginal artists that date from the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. The artefacts included in the 1866 Intercolonial Exhibition in Melbourne provided the first significant opportunity to appreciate the work of Victorian Aboriginal artists and artisans. These works were transferred to the National Museum of Victoria in 1899. The origins of many of these early works require further investigation, but their combination with works from other parts of Aboriginal Australia in the early twentieth century quickly made the National Museum the foremost collector and exhibitor of Aboriginal art in Australia.

cutis collection mm008086
Kopereipi, Emu, 1912. Artist unknown. Alligator River, Northern Territory. Details of the internal anatomy of the bird are clearly indicated and show the part that 'makes talking'. Collected by Baldwin Spencer.
Source: Museum Victoria Indigenous Collections

As newly appointed Curator for the Northern Australian collections, one of my first priorities was an assessment of this exceptional collection. The entire holding of bark paintings totals close to 400 works, including many of equal significance to the famous 'Spencer paintings'. However the bark painting collection had its beginning with 38 works collected by Baldwin Spencer, Director of the National Museum of Victoria, in 1912 from the Alligator, East Alligator and South Alligator Rivers area of Western Arnhem Land. These were removed from the roofs of living shelters erected for protection from wet season rains done either on sheets of gum-tree bark that form the walls of their mia-mias, or on the roofs and walls of their rock-shelters, and represent animals and mythological gnomes and spirits, of whom they stand in dread. In some cases the drawing is more or less conventionalised. In some the external form only is represented, but in others the internal anatomy is suggested. [W. B. Spencer, Guide to the Australian Ethnographic Collection in the National Museum of Victoria (Melbourne: Government Printer, 1915), 115.]

These paintings went on exhibition in 1915 with other 'X-ray' paintings that arrived in 1914 from Paddy Cahill at Oenpelli. The former buffalo hunter and then pastoralist wrote to Spencer about the paintings, 'I have a fair number of paintings on bark… These I will send along as soon as possible; which will be as soon as the plain is dry enough to get them to the riverbank.'' [Letter from Paddy Cahill to Prof. W.B. Spencer, 20th March 1914.]

Over the next decade Spencer expanded the collection with paintings commissioned from senior men of the region. He provided Cahill with £99 to pay for these works, the subject matter of which was to be left 'entirely to the artist's choice.' [W. B. Spencer, Wanderings in Wild Australia (London: Macmillan, 1928), 794] The close collaboration between Cahill and Spencer from 1912 to 1922 yielded 170 bark paintings from Aboriginal people living in the vicinity of Oenpelli and the Alligator Rivers. It is this Western Arnhem Land collection of works that has become commonly known as the Spencer bark painting collection.

Page 2

© Museum Victoria Australia