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86/1786-2 Model, 'Sydney Harbour Bridge', shell / fabric, made by Mavis Longbottom and Lola Ryan, La Perouse, Australia, 1986. Click to enlarge.

Shellwork Sydney Harbour Bridge, Mavis Longbottom and Lola Ryan, La Perouse, 1986

Made in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, 1986.
Women from La Perouse have made shellwork for sale to Europeans for over a century. The craft, which continues today, was introduced by missionaries. Records show that by the 1880s Aboriginal women were selling shell baskets at Circular Quay and La Perouse. Today, women decorate a variety of contemporary tourist icons, including the Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge. Although not a traditional Indigenous art form, the skill of shellworking has often been handed down from mother to daughter to granddaughter.

Sisters Mavis Longbottom and Lola Ryan began making and selling shellwork together since they were children. Their family sold shell wares at the Royal Easter Show and Paddy's Markets during the 1920s. Mrs Longbottom described the work as 'a very hard business. We used to have to go to Kurnell in the ferry and walk from there to Cronulla to get the shells. My father used to carry sugar bags full of shells back to Kurnell'.

"I suppose I'd be 16 when I started making shellwork. I got started because there was money in it and in those Depression years every little counted. I reckon that you have to be a bit artistic to do shellwork, if not I don't think you could make it; to match all your shells and get the colour into it you've got to be an artist. Now and again somebody will come along and ask us to make something like a box or a Sydney Harbour Bridge for Mother's Day or birthdays, well then we'll make it. Other than that we don't go out of our way trying to make a sale, it's a bit too hard to sell." (Mavis Longbottom 1987, REF:

This model and other related objects were made at the home of Mrs Longbottom and Mrs Ryan from shells gathered locally at Yarra Beach on Botany Bay and other nearby locations on the New South Wales coast. The objects are a significant record of the manner in which members of the La Perouse Aboriginal community have used art and craft activities to generate income since the late 1800s, often adapting traditional motifs or techniques for this new market. The Museum holds a number of items relating to the La Perouse Aboriginal community. This community was the first to be confronted with European invasion and material within this collection assists in documenting the social and cultural history of the region and its people.


Object No.


Object Statement

Model, 'Sydney Harbour Bridge', shell / fabric, made by Mavis Longbottom and Lola Ryan, La Perouse, Australia, 1986

Physical Description

A Harbour Bridge miniature, made of stiff cardboard and covered in covered in pink corduroy and decorated with shells arranged in different patterns around the image of the the bridge. There are various types of shells clustered in an abstract design to create a decorative facade.


No marks



120 mm


48 mm




In the 1880s La Perouse became a regular camp site for displaced South Coast Aborigines. Some of these people had been expelled from the city of Sydney to the north; others had travelled north from traditional lands alienated by farming and grazing. Initially their occupation of this northern headland of Botany Bay was deemed illegal, however their camp was officially recognised as an Aboriginal Reserve in 1895. The establishment of a nearby Methodist Mission - soon to become the headquarters for the United Aborigines Mission - may well have influenced this decision.

Although La Perouse at this time was still beyond the southern perimeter of suburban development, it was already a popular seaside resort for the white inhabitants of Sydney. The Joseph Banks Hotel, with its renowned pleasure gardens and menagerie, was built there in the 1830s. By the 1880s the establishment was reaching its peak of popularity.

With very few other means of income and provision, the Aboriginal community of La Perouse were quick to engage with this new developing tourism market. They sold shell artefacts, shields, boomerangs and other items, and demonstrated boomerang throwing to the day trippers. What developed was a 'transitional culture' of production with traditional skills being employed to create 'non-traditional' artefacts for the new market. The production of souvenirs, such as decorated boomerangs, nulla nullas and shields, intricately designed shellwork patterns on cardboard baby slippers, jewellery boxes and other items grew in the 20th century with the establishment of a tram line to La Perouse in 1902, making the La Perouse Indigenous community one of the first to be involved with the tourism industry at the time.

The shells used to make this object were gathered locally at Yarra Beach on Botany Bay and other locations at nearby coast of New South Wales. Objects were made at home of Mrs Longbottom and Mrs Lola Ryan.

Cite this Object


Shellwork Sydney Harbour Bridge, Mavis Longbottom and Lola Ryan, La Perouse, 1986 2020, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, accessed 11 August 2020, <>


{{cite web |url= |title=Shellwork Sydney Harbour Bridge, Mavis Longbottom and Lola Ryan, La Perouse, 1986 |author=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences |access-date=11 August 2020 |publisher=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, Australia}}

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