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The Australian National University

'My Favourite Slide'

The Exhumation of James Smithson - Discussed by one of our project's Chief Investigators, Associate Professor Martin Thomas

A man – or the remnants of one – stares from his coffin. The cranium with its cavernous eye sockets is all you see of him. The ribs, vertebrae and long bones are hidden by earth or mulch. It’s a photographic slide, a monochrome, and it provides a view of the cemetery from which the coffin was disinterred. A path between rows of graves cuts through the composition, extending to infinity, as if to suggest that this man, though dead, has a journey ahead of him – which was in fact the case.

Image ID 09986.tif: Smithson’s bones from the lantern slide series ‘Alexander Graham Bell’s visit to the San Benigno cemetery to retrieve the tomb of James Smithson, Geona, Italy, 1904.’ Gilbert H. Grosvenor Collection, Library of Congress Lot 11533-26 (J).

The skeleton was James Smithson, an English scientist and fellow of the Royal Society. A creature of the Enlightenment, he investigated such mysteries as the chemistry of snake venom and teardrops. He was also extremely rich. A mineral ore, Smithsonite, is named after him and, more famously, a rather large complex of museums and research facilities. When Smithson died in Italy in 1829 aged sixty-four, he had never set foot in the United States. But he willed his fortune ‘to found in Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.’

Smithson rested in peace on the outskirts of Genoa until the early twentieth century, at which time quarrying beneath the cemetery threatened its stability. News of this reached the regents of the Smithsonian and one of them, the fame of whom surpasses Smithson, was especially alarmed. He was Alexander Graham Bell, a long-term Washingtonian, and he led a campaign to have Smithson’s bones transported to the US and interred on Institution premises. To this end, Bell travelled to Genoa in 1903 to bring home the benefactor. Whether he took, or merely commissioned, this lantern slide is unknown. It is part of a series of more than thirty slides, documenting the removal and opening of the coffin and its ceremonial removal to the port where the voyage to America began. There is a close-up view of the skull, being held by the American consul in Genoa, and various slides depicting Bell, bearded, venerable, and himself somewhat ghost-like in his mourning attire, superintending these momentous affairs.

Image ID 09987.tif: The American Consul William Bishop holds Smithson’s skull. Gilbert H. Grosvenor Collection, Library of Congress Lot 11533-26 (J).

Whether Bell publicly exhibited the slides is one of many unanswered questions raised by the image. Perhaps he shared them only with friends and family. The slides and a set of matching photographic prints are held in Library of Congress, donated by Dr Gilbert Grosvenor, Bell’s son-in-law, another passionate advocate for the rescue of Smithson’s remains. Grosvenor was the longstanding president of the National Geographic Society who, as editor of the Magazine, transformed it into the international phenomenon we know today. Powerful forces coalesce around this projected image of a box of bones, preserved in memory by the ‘father’ of the telephone and the man who is sometimes described as the ‘father of photojournalism’.

Image ID 11533_26 No. 29.tif: Alexander Graham Bell (facing camera) in Genoa. Gilbert H. Grosvenor Collection, Library of Congress Lot 11533-26 (J).


Cyclo-Creatia Ethnographica – Discussed by Bruno Jordanoff

Elisa deCourcy and Martyn Jolly had a fascinating conversation with Bruno Jordanoff, and the following is based on that conversation

I was born and spent a fantastic portion of my life growing up in the Kimberley, so I have always found myself drawn to collecting many forms of physical, visual and aural artifacts relating to the region. Early in 2013 I procured a lantern slide which, based on other examples I had seen, I believed would have been in circulation around the 1920-30s. The slide was labeled 'Y33'. I guessed from the types of artifacts in the scene that the image came from the Kimberley region. I forwarded a digital copy of the slide to my friend Kim Akerman. I asked Kim about the headdress worn by the character shown kneeling in the composition. I wondered if it was connected to the pelican headdress I knew to have been worn by Butcher Joe Nangan in the Kimberly right up until the 1980s. Kim replied that he had previously come across another version of the same image in a book from 1928. The caption to the book’s illustration ‘Moth, Bugong and Caterpillar Totem-Men’ suggested that the image was from Eastern Australia, but Kim told me he had shown the illustration to ‘Butcher’ Joe who confirmed it was of himself, Joe, as a young man, and was taken close to the time that 'Pelican Dance’ was created.

Kim wanted a high-resolution image of the slide for his records, but I only had a domestic grade scanner. My father, who incidentally as chief librarian of the Broome Public Library and Art Gallery had helped organize an exhibition of Joe’s works back in the 1980s put me in touch with Patrick Baker from the WA Maritime Museum who was able to produce a high quality copy of the slide. Patrick, in-turn, had plenty of anecdotes for me from his time on the Kimberley coast some 35 odd years earlier. A short time after I asked Kim if he would like the slide. I thought it would be more useful in the hands of someone who knew what they were doing. He traded me a hard-to-find book on Kimberley rock art for it, one article born of the Kimberley for another. When I was asked by Heritage in the Limelight to write on ‘My Favourite Slide’ I asked Kim Akerman to confirm the details we had initially discussed in 2013. He confirmed that the photograph from 1928 showed Joe as a young man dressed in the pelican headdress which had been shown to him by Kintimayi (see further reading). He is accompanied by two other dancers dressed as balangan, spirits of the dead. Joe performed the mayata nula that recreated the original visitation until 1985, with the distinctive niwalki thread-cross pelican headdress becoming a local icon of Aboriginal culture. Kim told me he had shown the 1928 book to Joe and Paddy Roe at their home at Mamabulandja in Broome and they identified Joe in his pelican headgear. In my mind, this slide, along with its mysterious label ‘Y33’ is important to illustrate the point that even though we are presented with seemingly small and obscure images, which are often initially offered up with large helpings of ‘red herring’, the perseverance of more oral and physical traditions still continually help us to grow a bigger picture from them, even after ninety years.

Picture of Joseph ('Butcher Joe') speaking about the Pelican Headdress. Image Supplied courtesy of Bruno Jordanoff. 

Further reading:

Kim Akerman, ‘Joseph (‘Butcher’ Joe) Nangan’ 1900-1989, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre for Biography, Australian National University. Accessed online, 22 February 2017.

‘Butcher Joe Nangan: An Introduction’, Desert, River, Sea Project, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth.


Henri Mallard's 'Collaroy' - Discussed by Art Gallery of New South Wales Resources Librarian Eric Riddler

New Year’s Day, 1935, and the beach at Collaroy is crowded with colourful beach umbrellas and daring backless swimsuits for both women and men. Not everyone is joining in the backless craze. Several of the beachgoers are wearing cardigans and pullovers, belying an unseasonably mild January day (not getting above the low twenties Celsius, according to the Sydney Morning Herald [‘Meteorological reports’, 2 January 1935, p 11]). Tellingly, there seem to be few beachgoers actually in the surf.

It’s a black and white slide, uncoloured, but we can get some idea of the colour of the time from paintings of Sydney’s northern beaches made at the same time, like Maud Sherwood’s The beach, Dee Why (1936), in the Te Papa collection in Wellington, New Zealand.
People on the lookout for time travelling hipsters may be drawn to the man just to the right of the umbrellas, wearing the particularly daring swimming trunks with narrow back straps. To 21st century eyes he may appear to be talking into a mobile phone but I suspect that, like the woman adjusting her swimsuit in Max Dupain’s Form at Bondi (1939), the man is doing something more mundane, like tapping seawater out of his left ear (he was clearly one of the brave souls willing to test the waters).
The popularity of backless swimming costumes and the push to allow men (but not women) to sunbath topless on public beaches were contentious issues in 1930s Australian beach culture. Not long before Mallard took this photograph, Eric Spooner, the Assistant Treasurer of New South Wales, announced that tighter regulations for swimming costumes would be introduced for the next summer [‘Bathing costumes: Spooner butts in: Skirts and no bare chests’, National Advocate [Bathurst], 14 December 1934, p 6].
Immodest swimming costumes were not only a public decency problem [‘Scanty bathing costumes’, Daily Examiner [Grafton], 28 December 1934, p 4]. The popularity of backless costumes had reduced the summertime demand for wool, and graziers dreaded any further loss of business [‘Graziers don’t want trunks’, Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, 8 August 1938, p 6].
Perhaps the bravest fashion choice among the sunbathers seen in Mallard’s slide, however, would be the fine art deco evening shoes worn by one of the women towards the lower right. Perfect for dinner at Romano’s and a screening of The gay divorcée at the Regent Theatre but not the most practical beachwear.




The Exhumation of James Smithson - Discussed by one of our project's Chief Investigators, Associate Professor Martin Thomas

The Exhumation of James Smithson - Discussed by one of our project's Chief Investigators, Associate Professor Martin Thomas A man – or the remnants of one – stares from his coffin. The cranium with its cavernous eye sockets is all you see of him. The ribs, vertebrae and long bones are hidden by earth or mulch. It...

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