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Blandowski’s Archive is the subject of a 12 year research project conducted by Dr. Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll based at the University of Cambridge. The research has generously been supported by The British Academy Newton Fellowship, the Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung, the State Library of Berlin Maps Department, the Museum of Natural History Berlin.

This encyclopaedia and the recently re-discovered archive in Berlin include art works by German artists and scientists and provide evidence of their international networks. Exceptionally, the collector, Silesian miner and naturalist Wilhelm von Blandowski (1822­–1878), focused on local Aboriginal practices that he aimed to illustrate in an encyclopaedia of Australia. Over ten years (1849-1859) Blandowski compiled images and theories about the continent’s natural and cultural environments. He established the first museum in Melbourne and was employed by the crown as the first government zoologist in the colony of Victoria (Paszkowski, 1967). Blandowski deliberately represented the changing natural environment and cultural practices of southeastern Australia in detail by commissioning a range of British and German artists and scientific illustrators. His images documented the Indigenous guides and informants who were commonly used by scientific explorations to obtain specimens and provide identifications and details of habitat. Indigenous environmental knowledge and cultural classifications (names, relationships, cosmologies) were thereby expressed in the field records of the natural philosophers and artists with whom they worked.

Of great interest to this research is the particular focus on Aboriginal culture that Krefft, Blandowski, and other German artists working in Victoria during the 1850’s display. This project is focussed on critical retrievals, interpretations, and revivals of Indigenous knowledge drawn from natural history collections in Australia in the first half of the nineteenth century. It places collectors, artists and researchers who collaborated at that time in comparative and metropolitan contexts, as well as within the scientific networks between Melbourne, London and Berlin. While most expeditions in the nineteenth century were interested in geology, geography, zoology, and botany, by taking Indigenous knowledge seriously the material from Berlin makes a radical departure from the better known British expeditions.

The sources for Blandowski encyclopaedia, held in Cambridge and Berlin, embody systems of local knowledge, yet remain excluded from dominant systems of classification when the information returned to metropolitan centres (Allen, 2010). ‘Art in the Time of Colony’ (Carroll, 2014) argues Blandowski’s own career fell into obscurity and failed precisely because he tried to foreground Aboriginal classification. In this he ran against the grain of his nemesis and successor Frederick McCoy. Melbourne, booming during the Gold Rush, attracted a network of German and British artists whose works documented diverse aspects of life in the colony and of the Australian environment. These included trained draftsmen and amateur scientific illustrators, employed by the government to participate in the representation of scientific findings because of their great precision. Along with the likes of Ludwig Becker and Gerhard Krefft, there are several other significant nineteenth-century Australian artists who remain utterly unknown to this day.

The Blandowski’s Archive project aims to fills this gap in Australian art history with an interdisciplinary analysis of the 142 images on this site, the five hundred images of the environment stored in the Museum of Natural History’s Blandowski archive (MfN), State Library and Ethnographic Museum of Berlin. In collaboration with the scholars that published a collection of essays on Blandowski (Allen, Darragh, Kean, Landsberg, et al, 2009), the project harnesses the expertise of research partners at the University of Cambridge and its Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (UK), Potsdam University Berlin, University of Melbourne, and Museum Victoria. The project has resulted thus far in these online databases such as this one at the Haddon Library and the following:

The unpublished archives held in Berlin

These collections include paintings and drawings, notebooks and photographs, maps and books produced by the network of illustrators, printers, artists and Aboriginal people along the Murray River that Blandowski collected from. The hundreds of field drawings from Australia plus the finished illustrations made by Blandowski and the artists he employed represent a cross section of Aboriginal life and ecology that is not recorded in any other archive and one that is partially extinct in the natural world. There are a range of art historical questions that this unexamined archival material immediately poses, such as who was the artist of the unsigned works attributed to Blandowski, since comparative visual analysis shows that their provenance is not any named artist known to be working in Melbourne at the time. The larger conceptual problem that this research addresses is that Indigenous systems of classification are not included in the history of science. Given this theoretical framework, the material Blandowski collected is significant because it provides a case study of how categories to do with race, gender, class, discipline (art/science) and geography (Australia/Europe), used as premises for exclusion, can be revised for colonial collections.

Blandowski’s Library

An ongoing reconstruction of Blandowski’s library of 184 books in the State Library in Berlin on their online database.

An international conference focussed on Blandowski’s archive within the context of nineteenth-century networks and a travelling exhibition which will thereby return many of these originals for the first time to Australia is in its planning stages.


Power and Politics in Classification and Representation: Indigenous Taxonomy in Wilhelm von Blandowski’s Encyclopaedia, in Anne Kockelkorn and Nina Zschocke (Eds.), Universal – Specific: From analysis to intervention?, 2015.

‘Koloniale Kunstgeschichte und die Ästhetik der Klassifikation: Wilhelm von Blandowski’s Encyclopaedia von Australien’, Mitteilungen des Freundeskreis für Cartographica, 22 (2015) 2-35.

With Berlin State Library I have scanned some of the most valuable 2D material and their director Wolfgang Crom has agreed to allow any Australian institution a free copy. This includes for instance the 3 by 3 meter map of Australia by Blandowski, which through my visual and material (spectroscopy) analysis shows evidence of influence from Aboriginal representations of land and reference to that specific land through the use of metallic colours (gold) and ochre in the paint chosen. The collection of plant samples, possum skin cloaks, string bags, and other material artefacts collected by Blandowski in Australia and the Pacific are held in the Ethnographic Museum in Berlin, valuable cultural heritage we would like to show in Australia, through the exhibition phase of the proposed research.

‘What would Indigenous taxonomy look like? The case of Wilhelm von Blandowski, Arcadia, online journal (2014).

Research done on the environment in the nineteenth century is useful to conservation, social and historical projects. For example, Blandowski’s material is now used in studies of the extinction of species; in tissue banks that conserve these materials and extinct species’ DNA in the US; in Zoology, History of Science, and History of Art teaching; and in cultural revival projects within Aboriginal communities (Edmonds, 2009). There is an ongoing mentoring relationship between Indigenous community members Vicki Couzens, Maree Clarke, and Lee Darroch that are actively engaged in using this Blandowski research for cultural projects to engender wellbeing in their communities. Together we plan follow-on projects from the film and video installation Skins Cloak, which we made together during 2007-2012. ‘Art in the Time of Colony’ includes ethnography of this language and craft revival through possum skin cloak and film making processes. See also the special issue entitled The Importance of Being Anachronistic of the journal Discipline.

We would like to work further with conservation scientists and Indigenous groups on land regeneration that use Blandowski’s encyclopaedia of Australia as a source. Blandowski’s contemporary, Eugene von Guérard’s paintings of the environment are of such scientific precision that Tower Hill has been revegetated using his painting of the site in the mid-nineteenth century as the source for the exact native species replanted there. Von Guérard collected what is now the oldest surviving possum skin cloak, held in the ethnographic collection in Berlin. The proposed travelling exhibition outcome would make it possible for this cloak among other valuable artefacts to return to Australia for the first time.

Using genetic, evolutionary and behavioural studies, zoologists, biologists et al come to conclusions that they say are the same as Indigenous knowledge. The confidence of Western science’s superior knowledge of nature has a history in the British Empire’s faith that the colonial collectors ‘knew better than those on the ground’ (Drayton, 90). Indigenous knowledge is in need of further research, and the hypothesis guiding this inquiry is that if knowledge systems are analyzed more closely, we will also find they are not always the same. This hypothesis will be tested in further dialogue and collaboration with scientists interested in using Blandowski’s Ichthyology as a case study for the question of what are Indigenous classifications?

How does Indigenous knowledge differ from the standard nomenclature developed by Carl von Linné? Linné’s research was based on observing Swedish plants push winter freeze aside to bloom, hence Linnean nomenclature focuses on a plant’s flower. In Australia, plants have to perform an altogether different set of transformations in the given environment. Ludwig Leichhardt wrote in his notebook that Aboriginal people observe the bark on stems and trunks to identify a plant most precisely. Rather than focusing on how the first sun of spring stirs European environments into flower, the question is how each plant’s skin responds to the Australian sun’s burn.

From comparative observations of the environments in northern Europe and southeastern Australia, Wilhelm Blandowski also saw that the specificity of each land should guide classification. His spectacular Ichthyology includes a hundred and twenty five fish drawings. He gathered what he called the ‘ancient names’ for the fish of each family from his Aboriginal fishermen ‘friends’. Blandowski thought the Aboriginal Nerri Nerri names were beautiful, smart, funny, and therefore worth adding to the history of science. He also had a growing distain for the British intellectual establishment in the colony of Victoria. Germans were objects of ridicule, as were Aborigines, and in a famous act of revenge Blandowski named the ugliest new fish that he found after the most grotesque members of the Philosophical Society in their September 1857 meeting. The learned of the society did not react well to the joke or to the Aboriginal classification of fish that he also presented and had all his new ichthyologic research ripped from the pages of their published proceedings.


Allen, H. (ed.), Australia: William Blandowski’s lllustrated Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia, Canberra, ACT: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2010.

Blandowski, Wilhelm von, ‘Sitzungsberichte der Berliner geographischer Gesellschaft’, pp. 95–6, (accessed 22 February 2013).

Blandowski, W., ‘Personal Observations Made in an Excursion towards the Central Parts of Victoria, including Mount Macedon, McIvor, and the Black Ranges’, Transactions of the Philosophical Society of Victoria, including the Papers and Proceedings of the Society, for the Past Year, ending in July 1 (1855): pp. 50–74.

Blandowski, W., ‘The Primary Upheaval of the Land around Melbourne and the Recent Origin of the Gypsum or Sulphate of Lime’, in Personal Observations in Victoria, Melbourne, VIC: Goodhugh & Trembath, 1855.

Blandowski, W., ‘Recent Discoveries in Natural History on the Lower Murray’, Transactions of the Philosophical Institute of Victoria, from September to December, 1857, inclusive 2/2 (1858): pp. 124–37.

Blandowski, W., Australia Terra Cognita, 1855. ID=846745 (accessed 7 November 2013).

Blandowski, W., Australien in 142 Photographischen Abbildungen, 1862, at: (accessed 7 November 2013).

Blandowski, W., ‘Ueber die Ureinwohner Australiens’, Sitzungs-Berichte der naturewissenschaftlichen Gesellschaft Isis zu Dresden 10–12 (1861): pp. 101–10.

Blandowski, W., MfN collections, (accessed 7 November 2013).

Butler, Roger, Printed Images in Colonial Australia 1801–1901, Canberra, ACT: National Gallery of Australia, 2007.

Carroll, Khadija Zinnenburg, Imaging Nation: The Resilience of Indigenous Australian Art and its Colonial Representation, PhD Thesis, Harvard University, 2009.

Carroll, Khadija Zinnenburg, Art in the Time of Colony, London: Ashgate Press, 2014.

Darragh, W., ‘William Blandowski: A Frustrated Life’, Proceedings and Transactions of the Royal Society of Victoria: William Blandowski and his Contribution to Nineteenth-Century Science and Art in Australia, ed. Harry Allen and Elizabeth Weldon, 121/1 (2009): pp. 11–60.

Drayton, R., Nature’s Government: Science, Imperial Britain, and the ‘Improvement’ of the World, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Edmonds, Fran with Maree Clarke, Sort of Like Reading a Map: A Community Report on the Survival of Aboriginal Art in Southeastern Australia since 1834, at: (accessed 15 April 2013).

Jodlinski, Leszek, ‘“And I Still See Their Faces …”: Wilhelm von Blandowski’s Photographs from the Collection of [sic] Museum in Gleiwitz’, in ed. Harry Allen and Elizabeth Weldon, 121/1 (2009): pp. 155–71.

Landsberg, H. and Marie Landsberg, ‘Wilhelm von Blandowski’s Inheritance in Berlin’, Proceedings and Transactions of the Royal Society of Victoria, in ed. Harry Allen and Elizabeth Weldon, 121/1 (2009): pp. 172–93.

Mützel, G., Zoolyrische Ergüsse, Berlin, von Denicke, 1880.

Pullin, R. Eugene von Guérard: Nature Revealed, Melbourne, VIC: National Gallery of Victoria, 2011.

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