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Early curatorial career at the South Australian Museum

Dr Philip Jones, South Australian Museum, 22 March 2011

PETER STANLEY: It is now my pleasure to introduce Philip Jones. Philip is almost literally Bob’s successor as a curator at the South Australian Museum. He is the inheritor of collections that Bob curated and indeed created. Philip is a distinguished author. He was awarded the Prime Minister’s prize for that wonderful book Ochre and Rust and has been the National Museum’s Director’s Fellow for this year, and as Director’s Fellow Philip has largely programmed today’s tribute. It is my great pleasure to introduce my colleague Philip Jones.

PHILIP JONES: Peter, thank you very much and thank you, Neil, for throwing a little light on South Australia at the end of your presentation which was extremely generous to Australian cultural institutions as well as to Bob. I wanted to begin with this run of footage in order to make a simple point [film played]. My simple point is that Bob, through his experience in South Australia and particularly at the South Australian Museum but specifically working with Aboriginal people in the field, had come to a basic realisation that human culture, not just Aboriginal culture or Australian culture, could be rendered tangible. Having rendered it tangible in some way, either through the distillation of collections in museums or even through publications and films, it would be possible and should be the obligation to bring this material before the public. This is something that Bob learnt very early on, probably in the South Australian Museum, if not even earlier in the fields and orchards of the Marion district in South Australia in the Sturt Creek where he came across Aboriginal stone tools and noticed and realised what they were before all of that legacy was swept away by development in South Australia.

In the mid-1970s, Bob’s career took off literally when, as Neil has said, he began visiting the world and bringing the world to Australia. Before that in 1973 he had left Adelaide and become the deputy principal of the Institute of Aboriginal Studies as it then was, before moving to the Aboriginal Arts Board as its founding director in 1975. Thereafter he becomes almost undetectable by the radar. I don’t know of a taller poppy in Australian cultural life who has avoided the lawn mower. He was always a moving target in a way - not even a target - partly because of his self-effacement, but partly also] because of this team approach that Neil has underlined, the idea that you actually did pass the ownership of the ideas that you developed to the team, to the extent that they lived and breathed without you.

I want to make the point that this lift-off, if you like, in the mid-1970s was prefigured by a paradigm shift. This is a little bit analytical for today and it may not be supportable, but I want to make the proposition based on two things: firstly, [by] looking at Bob’s time in the South Australian Museum. He arrived there in 1965 in his mid-30s having had a career that we will hear about from Dick Richards a little later as a fruiterer and green-grocer, if you like, an orchardist and a man of the land. In the museum in South Australia he found himself rubbing shoulders with other tall poppies in the South Australian cultural sphere: TD Campbell, or Draper Campbell as he was known; Charles Mountford; Norman Tindale was still on the scene; and Ted Strehlow was in the precinct if not actually in the museum - these were big names and big egos.

The museum itself was in a parlous condition and remained in that condition for several years. One of the mainstays of the group was another self-effacing individual Harold Cooper. Mr Cooper, as Bob refers to him even now, was an amateur stone tool collector. Through Cooper and Campbell in particular, Bob familiarised himself with the whole suite of Aboriginal stone tool technology and then went out into the field looking for it and documenting it.

Through his association with Charles Mountford he also went into the field looking for and documenting rock art, and particularly in the first instance concentrating on rock engravings. Mountford had done pioneering work in this in northern South Australia, and Bob extended the reach of these expeditions into central Australia and northern Australia. During this period he developed what he probably saw as the scope of his ambition, which was to attempt to map the distribution and the antiquity of rock engravings in Australia. This gave him the tools, the wherewithal, to do the sort of field-work that brought him into contact with Aboriginal people in a series of field trips through the late 1960s. The footage that was shown earlier was from Arnhem Land in the late 1960s.

I believe it was through this fieldwork and the exposure to the traditional owners of country that he was working in that Bob reached a realisation relating to what could be done with cultural material, particularly in Australia. He began with site recording and working with a group of traditional owners who had rights in areas such as Mount Singleton and the Cleland Hills, the Yuendemu district, Warlpiri and Pintupi people and later Pitjantjtatjara people when he went further south to the Officer Creek region near Ernabella. It was at that latter area in July 1969 that Bob found himself drawn in to closer relationships with these people. He was recording a little bit of mythology. He was being invited to ceremony going through the night and then working with those same people documenting rock art during the day.

On one particular occasion he had brought some film with him of some footage that had been taken in Western Australia in the goldfields and some tapes that had been made there of ceremony recorded with Aboriginal people. He had the opportunity to play these tapes to the old men who were there on the Officer Creek in May 1969. They immediately recognised the songs and began singing with them and told him that they knew the lines of story that came through Ooldea up to Indulkinna into this country. Bob was able to tell them that this particular site where the recording had been made was under threat through the mining of stone for Perth homes. The people immediately realised that here was somebody who could actually make representations on their behalf to government and asked Bob to write a letter to the government to prevent this desecration of an important site.

I believe it was from this point that Bob realised that the only way to record and document Aboriginal sites properly and to extend this approach to heritage management as a whole was in a total partnership, honest and complete, with the Aboriginal owners of the sites and the material. It was this paradigm shift that distinguished him from possibly the Draper Campbells, Charles Mountfords and Harold Coopers who had essentially adopted a traditional museological approach to culture; that is, an expert-driven approach, scooping up the material, bringing it in and processing it. I think Bob realised from this point on that, no, there had to be a further element. It was this and the UNESCO seminar or conference that he organised in Adelaide in 1971, which brought people together from all over the country concerned with preservation of Aboriginal art, that equipped him for making the next shift in his career.

In the meantime he had also been looking more closely at the museum he was a part of and had inherited the collection, which was a remarkable collection and still is, I think, the finest Aboriginal collection in the world. But the Norman Tindale years, which had brought a lot of it into the museum, had been very focused simply on collecting and not on actually doing a great deal with it in the museum context. The museum itself was a sort of place [where] you were advised, if you wanted to visit it, to bring a torch in the mid-1960s. It was really in a bad way.

Bob’s approach to heritage became applied to the museum itself in a way and he knew the space had to be saved. Before long you had the sort of networking skills that Neil has been talking about applied to the dilemma of the South Australian Museum itself. He did this in a number of subtle ways. I won’t go into the details. Maybe we can cover some of that a little later. One of them was introducing the notion to the people of Adelaide more generally that they were living in an Aboriginal cultural landscape.

The Tjilbruki legend or mythology of the Fleurieu Peninsula on which Adelaide is sited was something that few people had even heard of in the mid-1970s, but Bob brought it to the attention of a key journalist in Adelaide who basically turned it into a public campaign for a trail of sites and localities to be marked along the Adelaide coastline. This began to introduce the idea to the fringes of settled Australia that there was not necessarily an inner continent and an outer continent in terms of Aboriginal contact, there was a continuity and an inter-penetration of realms and that it was part of the heritage of the people living in the cities - not only their European heritage but their Aboriginal heritage as well. This along with various projects like preserving the canoe trees along the River Murray - and Bob made a film of that – and further work on the engravings and paintings in the Adelaide area as well as further north all swung attention on to this subject, to the degree that finally after the UNESCO conference and Bob’s own extraordinary fellowship which took him to rock art sites throughout Europe and other cultural monuments through Europe, he built up the experience to be the one selected eventually for the report into the redevelopment of the South Australian Museum in the mid-1970s, after he had left the museum as a curator. The Edwards report is something which deserves a conference on its own, I suppose. It was never fully implemented largely because of the collapse of the State Bank. But the first parts were, and the main elements still make a lot of sense.

His years in the Aboriginal Arts Board in which he ensured that a group of Aboriginal traditional owners for the key areas of concern, Arnhem Land and Central Australia in particular, had the opportunity to visit Sydney in particular, where a lot of the meetings were held, and start to form policy in Aboriginal cultural affairs rather than simply be the recipients of it. This was something which was entirely new. The Aboriginal Arts Board was a new organisation and therefore the brief was open, and Bob essentially occupied that space and formed and shaped a new cultural institution, if you like, in those years - all based on this notion that Aboriginal culture could not be something simply hunted and gathered by Europeans and served up to the broader populace; it had to come about through this dynamic interaction that was continuing with the traditional owners. This is something that he pushed through with surprising ease. If we look back on it now in this period of the 1970s, we had just had the Whitlam years, and the Pigott report had just come out, that John Mulvaney will be speaking about later.

I can see then that his being equipped to move offshore, as Neil was discussing, is something that he was greatly strengthened by these insights he had on fieldwork with Aboriginal people during the earlier period. In that way it is possible to follow a thread through his career with this idea that culture could be rendered tangible - even intangible cultural heritage; it could be brought to the people.

I have a role in this conference which is to facilitate other people rather than dwelling on the subject too much myself. I would like to pass over now to our director, Dr Suzanne Miller, who has a little moment to make a presentation to Bob that he may not be ready for, but I hope he enjoys. Thank you very much [applause]

SUZANNE MILLER: Thank you, Philip, and good morning ladies and gentlemen. I am aware that I stand between all of us and morning tea so I will be brief. Almost four years ago when I came to this vast continent to the west of French Oceania, I arrived in Australia knowing much about the reputation of Australian museums but having come as a curator from a European museum very much knowledgeable about the formidable reputation of one particular Australian. You can’t grow up as a curator in Europe without knowing the name Robert Edwards, which strikes a certain amount of awe and cautiousness amongst his colleagues overseas. So when I arrived, it was with some trepidation I was going to meet for the first time at my first board meeting Robert Edwards.

You can imagine in some ways my surprise when the person I was confronted with was not someone with an equally formidable character but a true gentleman, someone with extraordinary depth and breadth of expertise and knowledge but someone who was also extraordinarily generous in sharing that expertise and knowledge amongst his colleagues, amongst his peers and amongst those of us who held him in awe.

It is a great pleasure for me to be able - on behalf of the board of the South Australian Museum, on behalf of your colleagues past and present, on behalf of your peers and all of us today - to present for you Bob the honorary position of curator emeritus from the South Australian Museum in recognition of your extraordinary contribution to anthropology, to museums in general, and in creating a quite extraordinary landscape of international cooperation between museums and galleries. Thank you very much, Bob. [applause]

Date published: 28 April 2011