Aquariums and Human–Animal Relations at the Great Barrier Reef

Updated: Jul 23

by Ann Elias, excerpt from 'Aquariums and Human–Animal Relations at the Great Barrier Reef,' Queensland Review 28 , Special Issue 2: Between pride and despair: Stories of Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef and Wet Tropics Rainforests , December 2021 , pp. 98 - 113 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/qre.2022.6


In the early twentieth century, great delight in the unique tropical beauty of the Great Barrier Reef, coupled with an opportunistic spirit for commercial development, inspired the commission of eye-catching posters and advertisements by Australian tourist organisations. The aim of this article is to discuss a pictorial device that developed alongside the rise of modern tourist advertising images of Great Barrier Reef – a split-level viewpoint that approximates the effect of looking at the Reef through the glass sides of an aquarium. Building on my earlier research published in 2019 on wildlife photography and the construction of the Great Barrier Reef as a modern visual spectacle, and combining art history with environmental history, this article also turns to coloured advertising lithographs. It argues that split-level visualisations separate human from non-human and elevate the idea of human superiority. With the Great Barrier Reef facing unprecedented ecological pressures, the historical images at the centre of this article are instructive for understanding the deleterious effects of anthropogenic impact, as well as early twentieth-century attitudes towards human–non-human relations.


In the early stages of researching a book on the significance of the Great Barrier Reef to modern visual culture, I came across a provocative comment by photographer and explorer Frank Hurley (1885–1962). 1 Having peered over the side of a boat in 1921 to look at a submerged coral reef in North Queensland, Hurley felt mesmerised by the tropical underwater scene that unfolded before his eyes and described the effect as ‘much like looking into a glorified aquarium’. 2 I was struck by his comment’s domestication of the wild flora and fauna of the Great Barrier Reef and by the anthropocentric nature of the analogy of the sea to a human invention that miniaturises the sea and, in domestic contexts, puts animals on display as decorative objects.

It became apparent after further research that Hurley’s analogy of a coral reef to an aquarium was far from an isolated case. Celmara Pocock also notes an instance in 1935 when the Reef was described as ‘a marvellous aquarium. Now look at the exhibits: there’s a dogfish … a bêche-de-mer …’ 3 As my research into visual representations of the Great Barrier Reef progressed, three key themes began to emerge: exploitation of the Reef for tourism; nature as spectacle; and the visual objectification of marine animals. With this article, I return to these themes and to the metaphor of the Great Barrier Reef as an aquarium. But whereas my previous research focused on photography, this article concentrates on coloured lithographs produced for posters, mass production and tourist advertising. Having reached audiences worldwide they have been a significant influence on popular understandings of the Great Barrier Reef. Rather than focus on how the images sold Australia, which is how Michelle Hetherington has framed the visual propaganda of tourist posters, my intention is to relate them to societal attitudes to non-human animals. 4 In sum, I believe the images in this article reveal why the ethics of human–non-human relations is one of the pressing issues of our time. These images celebrate the remoteness and uniqueness of nature at the Reef, but also embody environmentally unfriendly attitudes to animals. Recently, political ecologist Jane Bennett challenged readers of Vibrant Matter: A Political ecology of Things to ‘picture an ontological field without any unequivocal demarcations between human, animal, vegetable, or mineral’. 5 The images in this article, however, encourage readers to do the opposite of Bennett’s suggestion by clearly demarcating the human realm from non-human realms. They are evidence of how the visual culture of the past can offer insights into attitudes that contemporary societies need to overcome if we are to slow the process of extinctions of animals at the Great Barrier Reef, including corals and fish.

At the centre of this discussion are four tourist advertisements (Figures 14), three of which are from the 1930s. I argue that they exhibit an extractive mentality and an anthropocentric mindset that can be linked to a failure of care for the Reef and its animals. As W.J.T. Mitchell argues, visual images — whether scientific illustrations, paintings from fine art, or colour lithographs used for tourism — are ‘symbolic constructions … that interpose an ideological veil between us and the real world’. 6 They mediate knowledge and are never self-evident, but rather are puzzles to analyse and deconstruct. How has the visual practice of advertising impacted the Great Barrier Reef? Through examples, I argue that modern advertisements separated ‘nature’ from ‘culture’ and privileged human life and human activity.

The discussion concentrates on a specific pictorial device that emerged in the 1930s in travel advertisements for the Reef. In this article, it is defined as a ‘split-level viewpoint’. This viewpoint approximates the effect of looking at the Reef as if through the glass sides of an aquarium, and of seeing in one pictorial frame a view below water as well as one above. The split-level view simulates an imagined fish-eye viewpoint from below, yet it is never suggested that the viewing position is an immersed one; rather, it is suggested that the viewpoint is located outside the picture, in air, like the eye of a viewer on land observing an aquarium from behind glass.

I relate this form of visualisation to its grounding in a biopolitical hierarchy: the modern ontological divide between human and animal. Randy Malamud argues that animals are malleable to whatever image and identity people want to make of them.7 The split-level perspective produces a heightened sensation that marine animals and people are alien to each other and exist in realms that are separate and distinct, rather than living in a multi-species planetary context. It highlights Judith Hamera’s point in Parlor Ponds that aquarium viewpoints encourage the cultural viewpoint of a distanced position from the animals of the underwater.8 It produces the idea that animals are symbolically far away from the viewer despite being very close.

The article begins with an account of the rise of the Great Barrier Reef as an iconic geography perceived to have significant potential for exploitation and tourism. It then turns to Figures 1 and 2 to discuss the spectacle of the optics of tourist images of the Reef and specifically the split-level viewpoint and its relation to aquarium modes of seeing. 9 A section follows that interrogates the symbolic value of the split-level viewpoint and proposes that fear of the animal Other undergirds a predilection for the distancing effect of an aquarium. The discussion then turns to Figures 3 and 4, arguing that a connection between the visual strategy of radically exposing the bodies of marine animals to the gaze of the viewer and a history of exploitation and diminished care for the marine animals of the Reef existed in an era that thought the riches of the seas were boundless.

1 See Ann Elias, Coral empire: Underwater oceans, colonial tropics, visual modernity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019).

2 Frank Hurley, ‘The wondrous sea floor’, The Richmond River Herald and Northern Districts Advertiser, 11 February 1921, 3.

3 Celmara Pocock, ‘Romancing the Reef: History, heritage and the hyper-real’, unpublished PhD thesis, James Cook University (2003), p. 240.

4 See Michelle Hetherington, James Northfield and the art of selling Australia (Canberra: National Library of Australia, 2006).

5 Jane Bennett, Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), p. 116.

Image: Figure 1. Percy Trompf, ‘The Marine Wonders of the Great Barrier Coral Reef’ (Queensland Government Tourist Bureau), 1933, 100 × 63.8 cm, Queensland State Archive

Ann Elias is Professor, History and Theory of Contemporary Global Art, in the Department of Art History at the University of Sydney.

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