I’m sitting in the Griffith University Library at Nathan. It’s the mid-90s and I’m researching an assignment for my Bachelor’s degree. One of my subjects this semester is Aboriginal Studies. I open the study guide and turn to the required reading. As I read, great silent tears start to flow down my cheeks, splashing onto the page below. I don’t sob. There are no histrionics. I don’t make a sound. My face just starts to resemble a waterfall in slow motion. It is the strangest, saddest feeling, and one I will never forget.
In the 1920s and ‘30s it was accepted as inevitable that Aborigines were a ‘dying race’. The only way future generations would know what Aborigines looked like – at least ‘full blood’ Aborigines – was from photographs, preserved skulls and models in museums. But, of course, the museum models needed to be ‘authentic’.
In 1924, the Australian Museum decided to produce an exhibit of Australian Aborigines from live models. It was decided to make three sculptures: a man, a woman and a boy. The sculptures were to be made as realistic as possible by taking plaster casts of the faces of the subjects. This was not the first, nor was it the last activity of its type. The practice went on until at least 1931.
At some point, someone decided that having the subjects close their eyes while the plaster was applied resulted in a less than perfect mould. So, at least in some cases, subjects were encouraged to keep their eyes open during the procedure.
I’ve had a plaster cast made of my face. Even knowing in advance what it involved, and doing it voluntarily it was a ghastly experience I wouldn’t want to repeat. I can only imagine what it was like for Aborigines with poor or no English, amongst people they didn’t know, and having no real idea what was being done to them or why!