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Image Sorting mother-of-pearl shells, Broome, c1953

TLF ID R3465

This is a black-and-white photograph measuring 18.7 cm x 24.5 cm, showing three Malay or Indonesian men grading and sorting mother-of-pearl shells in Broome, Western Australia in about 1953. The photograph was taken by the famous Australian photographer Frank Hurley.

Educational details

Educational value
  • This asset depicts an aspect of Broome's highly successful pearling industry - European settlers in the 1880s started an industry based on diving for oysters, which became the source of some of the world's best pearls and mother-of-pearl; Indigenous people had long used the oyster shells in the area as implements and decorations.
  • It shows the shell of the 'Pinctada maxima' (silver-lipped or gold-lipped) oyster - it is the largest oyster in the world (weighing up to 5 kilograms) that is capable of producing pearls; until the late 1950s, 'Pinctada maxima' was primarily harvested for its huge shell (ranging from 15 to 30 centimetres in diameter), whose lustrous nacre (mother-of-pearl) interior was used to produce a wide variety of objects such as buttons, combs, mirrors and jewellery, and as inlays to furniture, gun handles and other handcrafted objects.
  • It shows an aspect of Broome's mother-of-pearl industry just a few years before it collapsed - in the 1950s, mother-of-pearl had reached record sale prices (up to £600 per ton); however, in 1958, the cheap and hardy plastic button was invented in the USA, resulting in the collapse of demand for mother-of-pearl.
  • It illustrates the widespread use of Asian workers in Broome's pearling industry - a wide variety of peoples from Japan, China, Malaya, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, among others, flocked to Broome to find lucrative work, and there was much rivalry between the groups; the most successful were the Japanese, who were so daring and skillful that they overtook the Malays as the preferred divers.
  • It is an example of the work of Australian photographer and adventurer James Francis ('Frank') Hurley (1885-1962) - a prolific photographer, Hurley took part in six Antarctic expeditions, was an official war photographer in both world wars (he took some of the few colour photographs in the First World War), travelled widely in Australia, Papua New Guinea, Egypt and Palestine, and continued to break new ground in documentary photography throughout his life.
  • It illustrates the type of working clothes worn by Malays and Indonesians at the time - these workers are wearing turban-like headdresses made of cloth (called 'ikat kepala'), simple short-sleeved buttoned shirts, and long trousers with a cloth belt around the waist; such clothes are still seen in Malaysia and Indonesia today.
Year level

3; 4; 5; 6; 7; 8; 9; 10; 11; 12

Learning area
  • science
  • Science/Science understanding

    Other details

    • Content provider
    • Copyright holder
    • Organisation: National Library of Australia
    • Remarks: Reproduced courtesy of National Library of Australia
    • Author
    • Name: Frank Hurley
    • Remarks: photographer
    • Publisher
    • Date of contribution: 02 Sep 2013
    • Organisation: Education Services Australia
    • Address: Melbourne VIC 3000 Australia
    • URL:
    Access profile
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    Learning resource type
    • Image
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    Operating systems
    • MacOS - minimum version: 10.6
    • MS-Windows - minimum version: XP - maximum version: 7
    • © Education Services Australia Ltd and National Library of Australia, 2013, except where indicated under Acknowledgements