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Aboriginal History Volume 36, 2012

Exploring the Legacy of the 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition edited by Martin Thomas and Margo Neale, 471 pp, ANU E Press, Australian National University, Canberra, 2011, ISBN 9781921666445, $39.95.

In 2009 ‘Barks, Birds and Billabongs’, a symposium, was organised and hosted by the National Museum of Australia in Canberra to explore the historical consequences of ‘The American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land’ in 1948. The title of the book under review might more aptly refer to ‘legacies’ rather than ‘legacy’ even though the qualifying verb ‘exploring’ implies that its gifts are manifold. The book is based on a collection of papers presented at the symposium organised to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the 1948 expedition to Arnhem Land, and is itself a worthy legacy of the expedition. Discussion of the expedition as well as its results had already been well served by publications of two of the symposium’s steering committee: a book about the expedition by Sally May and an article in this journal by Martin Thomas, which could also count as legacies. May and Thomas contributed chapters to the present book. In the prologue, the symposium steering committee, Sally May, Margo Neale, and Martin Thomas, say:

We hoped to encourage an understanding of the Expedition and its era, and we wanted to grapple with the many facets of its legacy. Some of these – such as the preservation of wonderful paintings and artefacts – are a source of wonder and pleasure for contemporary Arnhem Landers. Others – such as the removal of human remains – have caused argument and grief. These and many other issues were put on the agenda because we believed that a continuation of the original transnational and cross-cultural conversation was urgently required. This book is a continuation of that dialogue, involving 24 of the scholars who contributed to the original conversation (p. xii).

The 1948 expedition received a great deal of publicity at the time and it is salutary to consider the reasons for the ensuing diminution of interest in it and its results despite the fact that a number of intervening anniversary celebrations had been occasions for the participants to engage in nostalgic recollections of the expedition as adventure. The 60th was intended to be the occasion for analysis of its historical and scientific significance as well as celebration; as Thomas puts it (p. 26), the organisers and the contributors pursued ‘the tripartite objective of celebrating, evaluating and collaborating’ and achieved a ‘truly seismic distinction between public events that was Barks, Birds & Billabongs in 2009 and the private anniversaries of previous years’. Thomas attributes the seismic distinction ‘to the substantial representation from the main Aboriginal communities visited by the Expedition’. Their participation was surely an indication of one reason for the diminution of interest in the expedition itself: ‘much of what it pioneered became commonplace’ (Thomas 2010: 164). In the ensuing years as research was conducted in Arnhem Land it increasingly involved the active collaboration of local Aboriginal people and their increasing assertion of ownership of research results. The symposium itself was both indicator and harbinger of that collaboration and ownership claim.

The book’s collection begins with an overview of the ‘Expedition as Time Capsule: Introducing the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land’ (Thomas pp. 1–32), and the book’s editors have arranged the following chapters by identifying common themes of the papers presented at the symposium, while acknowledging that the categories are overlapping: eight chapters focus on ‘Engagement with Australian Cultures’, six on ‘Collectors and Collections’, and five on ‘Aboriginal Engagement with the Expedition’. The Time Capsule chapter includes the story of the expedition’s collaboration between two of the United States’ most prestigious research institutions (the National Geographic Society and the Smithsonian Institution) and the Australian government and its purpose in contemporary context. Its objective was not geographic exploration but ‘the frontier of knowledge that members of the Expedition hoped to penetrate … in the aftermath of the World War II [it was] emblematic of broader transformations in Australia and beyond’ (Thomas 2010: 143):

In terms of diplomatic objectives, it reflected the desire of Ben Chifley’s Labor Government, then in its last days, to shore up the relationship with the United States through an overt display of collaboration between the two nations. Widely reported in the press, and transmitted to the world through film, radio and print media, this ’friendly mission’ was a public face to behind-the-scenes negotiations that would shape the trans-Pacific relationship for the remainder of the twentieth century.

Kim Beazley (pp. 55–72) argues that the pro-American sentiment of Australia’s major political parties is indicated by the domestic support for the expedition as they adjust to a post-war climate of decolonisation and the demise of Britain as a global power. In addition, as Thomas argues (2010: 143), the United States ‘had a long history of using cultural, scientific, and educational programs to pursue its strategic and political interests in foreign nations’.

Although after the Second World War the idea of an expedition through Arnhem Land was already anachronistic (and Thomas says that by the time the final volume of the four-volume report of the Records of the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land (1956–64) was published, ‘the whole project had attained something of a sepia hue’ (p. 2)), the editors of the book ‘propose that the fusion of nineteenth and twentieth-century modes of thinking greatly adds to the interest, complexity and ultimate significance of this event’.

Part One of the book ‘positions the Expedition narrative in the context of Western structures, institutions and field of knowledge … making a compelling argument about the interest of Westerners in Australia’s Aboriginal cultures, and how the engagements resulting from that interest affected modernity in the post-war era’ (p. 27). South Australian Charles Mountford was the leader of the 17-member Expedition and American archaeologist Frank Setzler was deputy leader; two members were volunteers (one was the Territory character Bill Harney); 12 were Australians and five were Americans, one was female (not counting the leader’s wife). The participants represented a mix of professional scientists and writer-photographers. Margaret McArthur was a professional scientist and although Bessie Mountford’s presence was ostensibly that of wife and her contributions were under-recognised because ‘traditionally deemed women’s labour’. She was a former public servant and skilled typist and bookkeeper, and the ‘meticulous Expedition archives, recording everything from emergencies to birthday greetings, were largely her doing’ (Thomas 2010: 153).

Philip Jones (pp. 33–54) describes Mountford’s background including his participation in Board of Anthropological Research expeditions that went north from Adelaide in the 1930s which introduced him to expedition experience. This was his introduction to the living cultures of Aboriginal art that preoccupied him for the rest of his life. Jones’ account of the expedition’s difficulties is more sympathetic to Mountford than to others. As noted, Kim Beazley (pp. 55–72) describes the political setting of the Expedition and includes the remarkable and highly confessional correspondence between Calwell, Minister in the Chifley Government and major supporter of the Expedition, and Setzler, which lasted long after the cold war. Mark Collins Jenkins (pp. 73–86), formerly a historian for the National Geographic Society, gives a portrait of Harrison Howell Walker, the Expedition’s chief photographer, something of the National Geographic gentleman image and the National Geographic’s golden age. Tony MacGregor (pp. 87–112) provides an ‘evaluation of Colin Simpson as a broadcaster and writer, whose world view was significantly altered by his stay in Arnhem Land’. Jon Altman’s (pp. 113–134) description of the transformations in hunter-gatherer subsistence from the time of Margaret McArthur’s study at Fish River in 1948 to his own on the Mann River in 2009 exemplifies the Expedition’s effects on the discipline of anthropology: Margaret McArthur’s paper ‘The Food Quest and the Time Factor’ published in Volume 2 of the records, was perhaps the Expedition’s most enduring impact on anthropological theory when it was taken up by Marshall Sahlins to support his notion of the ‘original affluent society’. The Expedition’s effect on the discipline of archaeology is shown by Clarke and Frederickson (pp. 135–156) as they explain how the Expedition’s legacy informed McCarthy’s approach to fieldwork over a sustained period. Lynne McCarthy’s (pp. 157–169) interview of Expedition botanist Raymond Specht indicates the significance of the developing ecological approach of botanists. Sally May’s (pp. 171–190) chapter, the last of the first section, summarises the Expedition’s origins, bases, and activities.

The second part of the book is on collectors and their collections, which range from archival films and papers through baskets and fibre objects, string figures, botanical specimens, and fish. Collection of bark paintings was a major concern of Mountford and archaeologist Expedition member Fred McCarthy and is dealt with passim. Robyn McKenzie (pp. 191–212) focuses on the remarkable string figures that McCarthy collected at Yirrkala, by ‘his estimate one-fifth of all “known” string figures in the world at the time’ (p. 191), and includes comparisons based on her own research on string figures at Yirrkala in 2009. Louise Hamby (pp. 213–239) writes on baskets and other fibre objects as revealing ‘histories of their makers and their uses’. She observes that ‘the collected items represented a slice of life from a material culture point of view. They are representative of the materials available to their makers in 1948, which include fabric and wool, not just bark fibre and pandanus’ (p. 237). Joshua Harris (pp. 239–251) reports on the existence and recent curation of the films that Howell Walker took during 1948, ‘a modern-day success story in film archiving’ (p. 250). Denise Chapman and Suzy Russell (pp. 253–254) report on Mountford’s papers before, during and after the Expedition contained in the The Mountford-Sheard Collection of the State Library of South Australia. Gifford Hubbs Miller and Robert Charles Cashner (pp. 271–282) describe the tenacious collecting of Robert Rush Miller, who gathered more than 30,000 fish specimens. Margo Daly (pp. 283–310) titles her edited oral history of Raymond Specht ‘An Insider’s Perspective’; it contains Specht’s recall of his training and early background and his observations of members of the Expedition and interactions with local Aboriginal people as well as descriptions of his collecting and classifying procedures.

The third part of the book is on Aboriginal engagements with the Expedition, and focuses on the Expedition’s effects on the communities it visited. Bruce Birch (pp. 312–336), a linguist, provides an intriguing account of an ‘American clever man’ recorded in Iwaidja, which was without doubt inspired by David Johnson, the Smithsonian mammologist who walked from Cape Don to Oenpelli without a guide. Ian McIntosh (pp. 337–354) cites Ronald Berndt quoting Burramarra, a Yolngu clan leader at Elcho Island, as authority for the role of screening Expedition film at Elcho Island on the subsequent public display of sacred objects that came to be known in the anthropological literature as an adjustment movement (Berndt 1962). From there McIntosh segues to accounts that Burrumarra gave him of Bayini, said to be pre-Maccassan visitors to north-eastern Arnhem Land. Linda Barwick and Allan Marett (pp. 355–376) use fine-grained analyses of Simpson’s song recordings from Oenpelli and Delissaville to illustrate how people were coping with the new social environments of missions and pastoral stations, where many were dislocated from ancestral country. The result of innovation and collaboration between people from a number of different language groups provided connections to traditional country that were preserved in song, while ‘ongoing attachments to their current residence were also fostered’ (p. 29). Martin Thomas (pp. 377–402) interviewed Gerald Blitner, the only living Aborginal person who had a direct involvement with the Expedition, a few months before he died. Thomas refers to Blitner’s ‘penetrating observations of the Expedition’ and ‘traces in his life story how encounters with Fred Gray, Mountford and other outsiders helped in the development of a political style that empowered him in his later negotiations with the Balanda world’. Murray Garde’s (pp. 403–422) study of the Expedition’s recording of the Wubarr, a male initiation rite indigenous to Western Arnhem Land, echoes Blitner’s concerns about ‘the interface of the esoteric world of Aboriginal religion and the putatively open culture of scientific investigation’. Garde describes the offence caused by screenings of Expedition films, as happened at Gunblanya before a mixed audience without prior consultation. But he also paints a more sanguine picture of the Expedition’s documentation of culturally restricted material when it is repatriated in a consultative manner.

Margo Neale (pp. 423–436) has titled the Epilogue, ‘Sifting the Silence’, a reference to the symposium’s aim to encourage participation by members of communities that had been visited by the Expedition:

The centrality of Indigenous voices … during this symposium provided a partial … rectification of the marginalisation of Indigenous perspectives six decades ago … Already collections from the Arnhem Land Expedition were being rediscovered: film footage at the Smithsonian Institution; painting on paper at the State Library of South Australia archived among manuscripts; orphaned objects at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra; as well as Indigenous accounts of the Expedition, previously unheard outside the community (p. 425).

Concerning the human subjects of the Expedition’s study, she says that they or their descendants

have now become beneficiaries of it in ways that were explored at the symposium. With the rise of knowledge centres in Arnhem Land communities, there has been a transfer of knowledge to the people whose culture and environment were the subjects of study. Images of objects collected in 1948 were received – not as relics of the past, but in a way that saw their reanimation as part of a continuing and changing contemporary culture. Attitudinal changes in research protocols, in social context, in the nature of history telling, and issue of who owns the past, were re-examined (p. 425).

Some 25 Arnhem Landers, representing each of the Expedition’s major sites, participated in the symposium and conducted panels dealing with repatriation. It was their decision to show footage of Setzler’s collection of human remains from burial sites at Arrkuluk in Western Arnhem Land so that people at the symposium could see what actually happened and understand Aboriginal people’s distress and their need to have their old people returned to country (p. 425).

Nearly all the bones were exported to the United States, where they were accessioned into the collection of the Smithsonian’s US National Museum. Bone collecting was never mooted in the build-up to the Expedition, although an agreement was reached that two-thirds of all specimens collected should remain in Australia. In 2008, the Smithsonian returned this proportion of its holdings of Arnhem Land human remains, and, in July 2010, in the wake of the Barks, Birds & Billabongs symposium, the rest of the human remains were released to three traditional owners from Arnhem Land (pp. 21–22).


Berndt, Ronald M 1962, An Adjustment Movement in Arnhem Land, Mouton, Paris.

May, Sally K 2009, Collecting Cultures: Myth, Politics, and Collaboration in the 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition, AltaMira Press, Lanham, Maryland.

Thomas, Martin 2010, ‘A short history of the Arnhem Land Expedition’, Aboriginal History 34: 143–170.

Nancy Williams

University of Queensland

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