Aboriginal Environments Research Centre

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How Meston's 'Wild Australia Show' Shaped Australian Aboriginal History

A collaborative research project between University of Queensland, Australian National University, Museum Victoria, Queensland Museum and State Library of NSW.
The Wild Australia Show (1892-93), staged by a diverse company of Aboriginal people for metropolitan audiences, provides the focus for an interdisciplinary study of performance, photography, collections and race relations in colonial Australia. Using archival and visual records, and in partnership with key cultural institutions and Indigenous communities, the research seeks to produce an authoritative and original interpretation of the Show situating it within local, national and transnational narratives informed by contemporary Indigenous perspectives. It aims to illuminate Aboriginal agency in the ensemble, reconnect Aboriginal kin to performers, and chart changing concepts of race at a critical juncture in Australian history.

The Wild Australia Show emerged at a critical time in colonial history when the perception of Aboriginal people on the frontier was shifting from one of a threatening population justifiable of extermination, to that of a ‘subject’ people requiring protection. By the 1890s Australia’s Indigenous population had dropped to its lowest in the colonial era, their numbers having diminished due to introduced diseases and so-called dispersals, a euphemism for the systematic killing and displacement of Aboriginal people on a ruthless and violent colonial frontier particularly across the Queensland frontier during the second half of the nineteenth century.

The Wild Australia Show was conceived by Meston as a travelling choreographed troupe of Aboriginal people conscripted from the Queensland frontier. Some 27 eventually performed in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne during 1892-93 in preparation for departure on an international tour to Chicago, the host of the 1893 World Fair. This research has discovered that the troupe members came from the Wakaya people of the Northern Territory; groups from around Normanton including Kuthant, Kurtjar, Arapa, Walangama, Mayikulan; Kalkadungu people from west of Cloncurry; Prince of Wales Island in the Torres Strait; and the Kabi Kabi in south-east Queensland. Meston’s vision for the Wild Australia Show was to be a demonstration of the superior physique and skills of the “wild” Aborigines, presented for the last time because of theories of likely racial extinction. The Show never left Australia, however, as plans were curtailed during the Melbourne leg of the tour due to contractual disputes, scandals of financial incompetence, and accusations of troupe members being held against their will in chains. Instead, the Wild Australia Show achieved an international market through concepts, images and artefacts traded overseas.

During the troupe’s tour to Sydney and Melbourne, striking portraits of the performers were taken by three leading Australian studio photographers: Charles Kerry (Sydney), Henry King (Sydney), and John W. Lindt (Melbourne) (Frost 1974, Burke 1983, King 1983). These photographs were traded through global networks and are held by museums, libraries and private collections around the world, where they continue to communicate ideologies about Australian Indigenous people to international audiences.

Existing evidence: gaps and inaccuracies in what is known. Through seed research in 2014, Paul Memmott and Michael Aird identified significant knowledge gaps in Australia’s understanding of the background to the Wild Australia Show and its contemporary implications. Initial investigations by the project team found the misrepresentation of troupe members in more than 120 photographs, through inaccurate labelling and provenance of images, which have been reproduced through an international network trading in Indigenous photographs. What is not known are the particular circumstances in which the performers were recruited; the relationships which developed among them; their experiences on tour; and the nature of their dealings with Meston and his partners. A particular and novel aim of this research is to focus on the performers’ experiences, as far as the visual, material and archival sources allow, contextualised through a broader scholarship on indigenous performance in colonial and imperial contexts. We shall seek an understanding of the Show’s constituent events, ideological conflicts, and impacts on shaping and influencing views about Aboriginal people in the wider Australian society and internationally. 

Importantly, this research has the potential to engage the descendants of troupe members in the recovery of the history of their ancestors and through this to strengthen their connection to their history and heritage. Connection to one’s history and heritage has been identified as contributing to health and wellbeing. Understanding the historical events that led to the separation of families and of people from their tribal lands is of high priority to many Aboriginal people today, yet younger generations have only a sketchy knowledge of it. This knowledge aids affected people to deal with grief and anger, and build and strengthen their cultural identities. This project therefore has a capacity to contribute to the mental and spiritual wellbeing of Indigenous Australians, both in urban and regional communities. 


  • Redress historical gaps and inaccuracies in our knowledge of the Show, its performer identities, artefacts and" "photographs, as well as its reception in Australia and around the world.
  • Analyse the beliefs, values and socio-political context underlying the creation, commodification and commercialization" "of this piece of intercultural performance and varying responses within colonial society and its subsequent history.
  • Provide alternative narratives of Indigenous/settler relations that can contribute to the deconstruction of myths about “being native” in Australia at the turn-of-the-century.
  • Re-connect descendants of the troupe to their history and thereby help to reclaim this past and its enduring resonances for contemporary Indigenous Australians.
  • What meanings and values does the Show have for today's Aboriginal people, organisations and artists?
  • Current
  • 2019
Project Contacts
Partners & Funding Details
  • Australian National University
  • Museum Victoria
  • Queensland Museum
  • State Library of New South Wales
    Funding Body: 
  • Australian Research Council Linkage Project (160100415)
    Funding Amount: 
  • $360 000.00