• Getting Closer to Solving the Mystery

    July 5, 2013

It was a great pleasure to return to Port Lincoln recently during the About Time History Festival to attend a very special launch that saw a part solving of the Mission Photo mystery that had begun almost two years ago.

To recap, I visited Mill Cottage Museum for the first time in November 2011 and chanced upon a rare collection of mid-19th century daguerreotypes on display depicting Aboriginal men from the nearby Poonindie Mission dressed ‘as gentlemen’ in European clothes.  You can read more about the Mystery of the Mission photos here.

Since then there has been a flurry of activity relating to their identification and preservation.  More research has been done, and one of the images has been firmly identified as James Wanganeen, courtesy of an identical named portrait in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. Wanganeen was a Maraura man from the Upper Murray, who had been sent to the Poonindie Mission Station, in the early 1850s.  He was known to have been a kind of lay preacher, one of the well-respected members of the Mission, then managed by the Reverend Octavius Hammond, the father in law of Joseph Bishop, the original owner of Mill Cottage.   The photographs have sparked much interest resulting in numerous emails back and forth between both interstate and international academics and curators.  Last year I was fortunate enough to visit Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and see the James Wanganeen portrait that had been the vital clue in solving the mystery, as well as several other fascinating early South Australian photographs in the care of curator Dr Christopher Morton. Jane Lydon, formerly of Monash University and now University of Western Australia, has also shed much light on the subject, identifying and publishing material about other closely related daguerreotypes in UK collections.

At the beginning of this year six of the Mill Cottage images were preserved by Artlab Australia with the help of a South Australian History Fund grant; a new secure glass case for their display was built courtesy of a Historical Society of SA grant; and particularly exciting, another daguerreotype of the same vintage and subject matter has emerged in Port Lincoln and been presented to Mill Cottage.

However, the highlight for me was certainly attending the launch of the restored daguerreotypes in their new display case on 3 May.  Particularly moving was the that fact that it brought together for the first time Lynnette Wanganeen with her great, great grandfather James. Lynnette travelled from Adelaide to the Eyre Peninsula with friends and the event attracted much interest from local media. It was a pleasure to be able to share this moment as well as spend some time visiting the Poonindie Mission site afterwards.

The images continue to inspire interest, the latest being from Judy Annear, the Art Gallery of NSW’s Senior Curator of Photography, who is currently working on a major history of Australian photography exhibition and book for 2015.

So the buzz continues.  The identities of both the photographer and the other portraits are still to be discovered. I love a good mystery!

Photographs of the daguerreotypes after their preservation at Artlab can be seen here; and of the launch here; and the visit to Poonindie Mission here