Candace Richards, Assistant Curator of the Nicholson Collection at the Chau Chak Wing Museum, shares the story behind an incredible photographic archive of Greece at the turn of the 20th century
Three years ago, the Nicholson Collection at the University of Sydney launched a new crowdsourcing project to help research and catalogue the 1800 glass plate negatives of the William J Woodhouse photographic archive, taken around the turn of the 20th century, in mainland Greece and New South Wales, Australia. The responses we received went above and beyond the call for assistance and have transformed the archive from being a photographic record of sites and monuments to a conduit between community groups and academic research, between Greece past and present.
Woodhouse the Photographer
Woodhouse’s photography began during his time as the Newtown scholar of the British School at Athens (BSA) in 1892, after finishing his undergraduate training in Classics at Edinburgh. During his tenure at the BSA his research focussed on the then understudied regions of Aetolia and Acrania, on the Western coast of mainland Greece. He systematically catalogued the visible monuments of antiquity and attempted to locate key ancient historical events and places in real geographical terms. This approach closely followed the work of antiquity topographers, Colonel W.M. Leake and M. Bazin, pioneers of what would become archaeological survey. In Woodhouse’s project, he liberally photographed monuments, and sites, publishing just 60-odd of the several hundred he took, in his first book Aetolia, It’s Geography, Topography and antiquities (1897).
The photographic equipment he used was state of the art for its day, consisting of boxes and boxes of prepared large format glass plates and heavy wooden cameras with tripods. None of this would have been easy to carry, even when employing guides and donkeys through the mountainous terrain of central Greece.
In 1901 Woodhouse and his entire family, including his parents, sisters, wife and children, migrated to Australia, where he had been appointed Chair of Greek at the University of Sydney. Two years later, Woodhouse was appointed Honorary Curator of the Nicholson Museum, which allowed Woodhouse several further trips to his beloved Greece, in 1908, 1921 and 1935, in order to acquire new artefacts and plaster casts for the teaching of Greek history. These trips offered new opportunities for Woodhouse to photograph the landscape, sites and monuments of ancient Greece as well as the villages, people and joie de vivre he experienced throughout his travels.
In 1937, Woodhouse died of cancer, aged 71. In his last public lecture titled Some impressions of Greece he remarked “I carry in my mind what perhaps no one else in Australia has, a series of pictures of Greece in her different stages of growth covering half a century of her existence.” However, thanks to his prolific travel photography between 1890 and 1935, Woodhouse captured in ‘film’ the Greece he saw, at the beginning of its industrialisation and on the precipice of an archaeological revolution across the country.
Cataloguing the archive
Woodhouse’s photographic archive was donated to the museum by his daughter Liska in 1984, after narrowly escaping a house fire. It was stored for over 25 years in the loft space above the Nicholson’s curator office, until the collection was formerly registered in 2007 and examined by Rowan Conroy as part of his PhD research Archaeologies of the Present: Rephotographing the William John Woodhouse Photographic Archive submitted to Sydney College of the Arts, the University of Sydney in 2011. While Conroy’s work revealed the photographic significance of the collection, geo-locating many of the images as part of his own photographic work, over 1000 images remained uncatalogued.
In 2017 the entire archive was uploaded to Flickr and the public invited to assist in the cataloguing of the collection, verifying locations and contributing their own interpretations of the images and scenes of daily life in early 20th century Greece. The collection is free from copyright and available under a creative commons licence, allowing anyone to use the images in their own research or photography projects. To date over 600 comments have been received on over 500 of the images, with the collection continuing to spread into new archaeological research, online photography hubs and community history projects. It is this reception of the archive that has led to the most interesting and diverse connections between Greece, past and present.
Reception of the Archive
The archaeological significance of the archive lies in the fact that Woodhouse captured many of the landscapes and regional sites before significant archaeological exploration took place. Contributors to the Flickr project have included several archaeologists and specialists who have been able to tease out this significance in their own projects.
The Mazi Archaeological Project has been intensively surveying and mapping areas of the Mazi plain in northwest Attica, including detailed diachronic research of the area and the Eleutherai fortress, since 2014. Assistant Professor Sarah Murray from University of Toronto discovered this revealing image of the interior of the fortress through the Flickr project:
“We were very excited to find it because it shows that the interior of the fortress was actually cultivated as agricultural land at the turn of the century. We absolutely would never have guessed that the interior of the Eleutherai fortress was ever under cultivation if it were not for the photo. Understanding the history of human intervention in an archaeological site is crucial for interpreting its surface assemblages, so this information is really important for our research”
Similar identifications have been made by Dr Bjorn Loven, Director of the Zea Harbour Project and at the Danish Institute at Athens, in his research on the Ancient Harbours of Piraeus. In this image of Tower M-T1 at Mikrolimano, Loven is able to obtain data regarding the structure of the tower that has now been either obliterated or overbuilt – as presented on the project’s Facebook page (posted 27 December 2019).
Outside archaeological research, the reception of the archive taps into a range of interests from architects to community historians and train enthusiasts:
“In NM2007.45.2 you see a typical house/tower of the Pelion region in Greece. It is located in the area of Hagios Georgios which is part of Ano Volo, just outside the current city of Volos, Greece. These houses were built in 18th and early 19th century. They were built with the main purpose to protect the owners from bandits. There is a single heavy entrance door and only small windows in the 1st and 2nd floor to allow for guns to be fired but not to provide entry. The main windows are at the top floor away from the reach of the attackers. Few of these kind of houses survive even today (but not the one that is shown in the photo).” – Antonios Zavaliangos, Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Drexel University.
While many individuals have contributed directly to the Flickr project, the archive has also been taken up outside of the museum run pages and included in community projects and Facebook groups. Liza Koutsapli manages the Facebook community page Liza’s Photographic Archive of Greece – Φωτογραφικά άλμπουμ της Ελλάδας with over 28,414 followers to date. In her archive Liza curates images of Greece throughout history with albums focussing on individual places such as Athens or Thessaloniki, time periods and photographers – including an album dedicated to the Woodhouse archive.
Liza was born in Heathcote, Victoria and immigrated with her family to Greece in the early 1970s at the age of 10, and curates the online photographic archive as a hobby:
“It’s a game or challenge of words and names. Sometimes it takes me two or three days to find an interesting topic. When I copy photos, I place information with it regarding the date and the photographer… I then add the pictures to albums in order to not lose or misplace them in the timeline of my page. It brings me happiness when visitors to my page react to my posts. Many acknowledge their villages, how they were then, others name their relatives and also that they moved by what they find on the postings.” – Liza Koutsapli.
The interest in the Woodhouse archive by those outside the museum and archaeological sector has been the most gratifying aspect of the Flickr project. Allowing community groups and the general public access to the collection alongside scholarly research is essential for archives of this nature. In doing so the photographs, shared on a variety of accessible platforms, foster meaningful connections to the past and support different ways of seeing, interpreting and learning from history… and hopefully, through the act of sharing them, all of us experiencing just a little of the joie de vivre held in Woodhouse’s memories of Greece.
Candace Richards is the Assistant Curator of the Nicholson Collection, Chau Chak Wing Museum at the University of Sydney. The Woodhouse Archive will contribute to a new exhibition highlighting Greek heritage and culture, opening in the new Chau Chak Wing Museum, November 2020.