Posted on: August 12, 2020 Posted by: belle Comments: 0
The fireplace of the Melbourne Savage Club

I was partway through a lecture on iconic Melbourne architecture when the topic of Melbourne’s Savage Club entered the conversation. I nearly fell off my chair.

How in 2020 – the future – did we still have an establishment that proudly pins the badge of ‘Savage’ next to Indigenous artefacts from several continents? I was sure I was mistaken and that perhaps the lecture was referencing a club from a different era – nope. COVID restrictions aside, The Savage Club is open to members 9am-6pm Monday to Friday on Bank Place Melbourne.


A sample of the artefacts on display at the Melbourne Savage Club

However – I didn’t spend all that money on a degree to be sucked in with first impressions so I did a little digging. The Melbourne Club takes it’s name from the London club of the same name.

I should also clarify that when I mention ‘Club’ it is the traditional style of Gentlemen’s social club popular in the 18th and 19th Centuries. I don’t really have a problem with single-gender clubs as such, just more a disappointment in the general lack of women’s or mixed gender clubs. You’re allowed to set your own treehouse rules, I just wish someone would build me one.

The Savage Club in London was established in 1857 when a group of intellectuals gathered at the invitation of George Augustus Sala. The Sydney chapter of the club gives the most detailed account of the name being chosen. To honour the literary and creative pursuits of the members they decided to name themselves after a poet, and rather than label themselves with something pretentious they decided on the unassuming (occasional misfit) Richard Savage. The common thread across all the clubs is that it is a space for intellectuals, generally from the creative arts of Literature, Visual Arts, Music and Drama (also Science and Law so they don’t feel left-out).

Savage Club menu from 1095
Although the original London club seems to now be the picture of respect the evidence of a racist past is easy to find.

From what I can see from the pages of most of the international chapters the focus of the club’s activities is much the same as all gentlemen’s clubs: excellent food and entertainment followed by in increasing amount of whiskey and a decreasing quality of conversation. All this wholesome advertising may be subterfuge as there are hints of exoticism, such as the London’s newsletter being referred to as ‘The Drumbeat’ or their continual reference to bohemianism (which is really just a gentrified term in the same lexicon as ‘Gypsy’), but due to the general secrecy it’s hard to pinpoint more examples.

However the tradition British concept of subtlety has been lost on the Melbourne Chapter who proudly boast this image as their logo:

There can be no denying with this chapter that, even without the use of the ‘Savage’ name, they look at ethnography with a clearly imperialist eye. Artefacts and paintings of indigenous peoples line the walls, and the bar located near the billiards room is called ‘The Third World’. Although the Melbourne chapter was formed in 1894 the current premises was not purchased until 1923 and it certainly feels as though the décor has not been dramatically updated since then.

I think my key take-away is that this organisation could easily come vaulting into the present with a quick cultural spring-clean. Changing the logo would again sperate the name from the ethnographic artefacts and return it to the literary sphere. Rolls Royce, BMW, Levi’s Jeans, Apple Computers and Microsoft have all had dramatic logo changes through the lives of their businesses and still maintain strong brand loyalty.

As for the artefacts, anthropology is genuinely fascinating so I don’t necessarily think they need to be removed but, as outlined in an article by the Oceanic Art Society about the collection, many of the items cannot be traced to an ethical origin which raises some ethical questions. As for those with a clear provenance, I don’t know enough about the individual items on display and the cultures behind them to say if they are being treated with respect.

A stone axe acquired in the Mt. Hagen area by the legendary gold-prospector and explorer Michael J Leahy when he made his famous expedition into the Highlands of New Guinea in 1933. This revealed that the region was home to the most densely settled and numerous peoples in the whole of Melanesia. The axe was donated by Mick Leahy’s brother Jim.

The key problem for these artefacts is in the blending of the European lens with indigenous cultures. If you were to decorate (with respect of course) exclusively with first-nations cultures you could make an argument for their display as a study in cultural anthropology – a completely valid science and aligns nicely with the stated motives of the club. But to introduce British elements such as the busts of English figures and the European portraits brings the conversation to the point of overlap of those two cultures and demonstrates only one side of that history. If your aim is for historical analysis: you are deliberately ignoring the atrocities committed just outside the frame; or if you are decorating simply for aesthetics, you’re denying the cultural importance of those items. Neither is an acceptable idea in this era.

But. I am also just a white person and my opinion can only be shaped by my white perspective. My dream would actually be for the Savage Club of Melbourne to welcome a raft of new members from a diverse spectrum including indigenous people from a variety of countries and cultures. Bringing diverse perspectives to the table next time the decorators are hired will likely solve a lot of issues.

This move would also serve a dual benefit as it’s my understanding that the pursuit of fascinating stories of diverse cultures shared over many glasses of fine whiskey is entirely the point of the club anyway.