Colonial Museums and the Indigenous Dead, c. 1830–1874

  • Paul TurnbullEmail author
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Pacific History book series (PASPH)


This chapter begins by briefly surveying anthropological collecting by Australian museums during the first half of the long nineteenth century. It then explores the meanings and values that Indigenous Australian remains accrued in the wake of the rapid and widespread assent Darwin’s theory of evolution gained in the 1860s. In Darwinian evolutionary discourse, the morphology of Indigenous Australians was seen as likely to furnish important clues as to the evolutionary genealogy of the human species. Museum curators and scientists in the Australian colonies were consequently inspired to try and build collections of skulls and other skeletal remains, imagining a future in which locally-based researchers would enjoy greater intellectual equality with their metropolitan peers in theorising and debates on humanity’s place in nature. The chapter documents how museum curators went about acquiring remains with the help of networks of collectors that they cultivated across much of rural and remote Australia. As the chapter shows, metropolitan medico-scientific interest in Indigenous Australian morphology and its stimulation of colonial anthropological collecting resulted remains being collected in the half century or so after 1860 on a scale that dwarfed what had occurred since the last years of the eighteenth century.

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of TasmaniaLauncestonAustralia
  2. 2.University of QueenslandBrisbaneAustralia

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