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Scholarship and research

Scholarship and research, consistent with the Museum's core themes of land, nation and people, underpin all National Museum exhibitions and programs with a strong emphasis on collaboration with academic and cultural institutions. The Museum also nurtures a portfolio of informal relationships with organisations, community groups and individuals.

Principal achievements during the year included:

23° South: Archaeology and Environmental History of the Southern Deserts

The largest international scientific conference on desert archaeology ever held in Australia was jointly sponsored by the Museum, the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research in New York, UNESCO, the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom and the Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University.

The purpose of this conference, held in January 2003, was to explore how climate change and human settlement have impacted on the great deserts of the southern hemisphere, and focused on the Australian deserts, the Namib and Kalahari deserts of southern Africa, and the Puna and Atacama deserts of South America, the last being the driest desert in the world. All are connected by the Tropic of Capricorn at 23 degrees south. The conference was also a landmark in the Museum's ongoing research for a major international exhibition in 2004 on these themes.

The conference was attended by 90 delegates from 16 countries including South Africa, Chile, United Kingdom, Switzerland and the United States and brought together, for the first time, leading international desert researchers from three continents, including:

  • Professor Andrew Smith from the Department of Archaeology, University of Cape Town, South Africa

  • Dr Jill Kinahan from the Namibia Archaeological Trust, Windhoek, Namibia

  • Dr John Kinahan from Quaternary Research Services, Windhoek, Namibia

  • Mr Alec Campbell, the former Director of the National Museum of Botswana, Gaborone, Botswana

  • Dr Maria Isabel Hernandez Llosas from the National University of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The conference also included an inter-congress of the World Archaeological Congress and the final symposium of UNESCO's IGCP413 program, Understanding Future Dryland Change from Past Dynamics. This was the first time the peak world body for archaeologists had ever held its congress in Australia and its location at the Museum was significant recognition of its status.

The 23° South Conference is one of those fantastic meetings that occur very rarely It was an inspired concept to bring together specialists from three continents and from such a range of disciplines.

Australian conference participant

The conference was an important milestone in the development of desert research world-wide, as it represented the first time that archaeologists and Quaternarists working in the deserts of southern Africa, Australia and South America had met as a group.

Australian Research Council Linkage Research Grants

The Museum's partnership in five Australian Research Council Linkage research projects which commenced last year continued. Still in their early stages of development, these projects cover a diversity of topics including the conservation of national heritage collections, development of communication strategies for rural communities, multicultural displays in AsiaPacific museums, managing the volunteer workforce, and documentation of Papua New Guinean ethnographic collections.

The Museum was awarded another linkage grant in 2002-2003 in collaboration with the Australian National University and the Australian Bureau of Meteorology. This project will research the history of Australian weather.

Details of all Australian Research Council Linkage projects are in Appendix 9.

Other collaborative research

Co-understanding of Place, People and Water in Central Australia, is a project funded by the Commonwealth Land and Water Resources Research and Development Corporation and conducted by Museum archaeologist Dr Mike Smith, environmental historian Dr Libby Robin and artist Mandy Martin. This project, which is expected to be completed in the second half of 2004, will involve close collaboration with the Ikuntji (Haasts Bluff) community in central Australia.

A major archaeological field project in the Lake Amadeus Basin, central Australia, funded by a research grant from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies and led by Dr June Ross from the University of New England and Museum archaeologist, Dr Mike Smith, will test current ideas about late Pleistocene and early Holocene Aboriginal settlement in the central Australian desert.

With financial assistance from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Museum curator David Kaus, is documenting the manufacture and uses of Indigenous artefact production by Roy Barker, an Aboriginal man from Lightning Ridge in New South Wales. Barker grew up on the Aboriginal station at Brewarrina and learnt about artefacts from elders there. This project will ensure that Barker's knowledge is preserved for the future and will cover the full production process from the gathering of raw materials to the manufacturing of objects including boomerangs, spearthrowers, shields, digging sticks, and hafted stone implements. The outcome of this project will also enhance future Museum exhibitions and other programs.

Professional activities of staff

Many staff made significant contributions to the Museum through their specific fields of professional expertise during the year, publishing and presenting a wide range of research papers at seminars and forums.

  • Some of the significant contributions during the year included: Nicki Smith's 'Dimensional change of Australian Aboriginal bark paintings using non-destructive monitoring techniques' published in the British journal, Conservation Science
  • Mike Smith's 'The use of mineral magnetic parameters to characterise archaeological ochres' published in the Journal of Archaeological Science
  • Michael Westaway's 'Faunal taphonomy and biostratigraphy at Ngandong, Java, Indonesia and its implications for the late survival of Homo erectus', co-written with T Jacob, F Aziz, H Otsuka and H Baba and published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology
  • Dawn Casey and Margo Neale's 'Intellectual property rights: ownership and access' presented at a seminar held at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
  • Michael Pickering's 'Modelling huntergatherer settlement patterns: an Australian case study' published by Archaeopress.

Further details of professional activities by Museum staff are detailed in Appendix 10.