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Bob Edwards: museums and archaeology

John Mulvaney, Mike Smith, Dick Kimber, Nic Peterson, Robin Hirst and Dr Philip Jones, 22 March 2011

PHILIP JONES: We are getting a sense of who this fellow is that we are talking about today, and where he has come from. From now on we are adopting a faceted approach one by one - not forensically, but in the spirit of friends. We will be turning our attention to various aspects of Bob’s contribution. I would like to begin this panel - which will be looking mainly at Bob’s impact in the field of archaeology, anthropology, museums generally and museum management - with Dick Kimber, who is well known to many of you, I am sure, as an historian and long-time resident of Alice Springs who has spent decades travelling with senior Pintubi and Warlpiri men. He met Bob Edwards during the early years of the Western Desert painting movement and did a lot to ensure that a representative collection of this material was available for museums and major collections, but Dick’s first encounter with Bob was in the museum in South Australia. Over to you, Dick.

DICK KIMBER: Thank you very much, Philip, and welcome to everyone here. It is very nice to hear Dick Richards. We were in the surf club together. I can remember sitting up on top of the hill with a lightning storm around us a long time ago. It was very nice to hear those comments about Bob’s background too. It was a lovely area. It had a CWA and almond blossom tours, as I remember, when I first got there.

Going back to Bob, I met him first in 1965, as I recall, through old Mr Cooper. Everyone called him Mr Cooper - Harold Cooper was his name. He was a wonderful old bachelor. I think he decided he was going to get married once and then someone said he wouldn’t be able to do his survey work around the hills or sail around the coast and he decided he better stick with being a single bloke. But whatever the case, he was a wonderful old character and he taught me about stone tools. It was through that that he introduced me to Bob up in the South Australian Museum. Bob, I think he probably learnt a control process over a random sort of bloke like I was, because I had started to collect stone tools all over the place, which was then the done thing. It isn’t now but it was at that time. Old Harold had taught me that you have to put the place name and the date of it and things like this on the side that you aren’t going to display, if it’s going into a museum. I am sure old Harold learnt through both Norman Tindale and Bob to do that sort of thing.

When I met Bob he said, ‘Look, we’re flat stony mothers broke in the museum’ – it’s pretty much the same now, I suppose – ‘but can you help us out a bit if we get a call in?’ The first call they got was a farmer down in Weningi who said he had found a skeleton eroding from the sand on his farm. Bob said, ‘Could you go down there and do a little report on it.’ So I did that and did my best to do a little sketch of the remnants. They were very fragmented. Bob said, ‘Can you make that into a report?’ so I did. Bob then put the South Australian Museum note on it and wrote to the farmer and said, ‘Dear sir, thank you very much for your interest. We appreciate that. Can you put a few star pickets and a bit of wire around it to protect the skeleton.’ Bob was encouraging the public to become interested in Aboriginal cultural wealth.

You had Harold Cooper and myself. Harold was called a honorary ethnographer. I think Bob had invented the term but it gave you a sense of being worth while to the museum. Old Harold was in his 80s then. He would be sorting all the stone artefacts at the museum and made notes in big, old handwriting. He was a wonderful old character.

Then after I had done a few more trips, Bob made me an honorary ethnographer. I was very proud to be associated with the museum in that way but also with old Harold Cooper. Furthermore, there was Darby Damijima. Darby was a middle-aged Warlpiri man at that time who had come down to the museum. I think he had been down for health problems initially. But he came along and Bob gave him a dust jacket. I remember Bob got him to get some spinifex gum to fix something there, which allowed Bob to get a record of the bending technique, as I recall. But also Darby was that pleased with that jacket, which gave him a sense of being there.

I digress a bit to a football game. Darby loved this jacket. He became a football umpire out at Yuendumu. He had only ever played Aboriginal football so he didn’t understand the rules that well but he loved being the goal umpire. He would be down there in his white dust jacket. There was this tight game. It was the grand final at the Yuendumu sports weekend. Yuendeu must win in these sorts of situations. The ball went over the tops of the fullback and full forward and bounced through to the goals. Darby was looking at it and got the flags ready, and it bounced over the line and then bounced out again. He stopped and thought what on earth do I do now? So he didn’t wave the flags. The fullback who had been racing back in despair just kicked it in and went up the field. There was only one umpire, who had been umpiring all weekend and was umpiring from the middle of the ground, waved play on because Darby didn’t wave his flag, so the wrong team won. At that stage the umpire was a man called David Owen-Smith who had a very English voice and he said, ‘We will not resort to spears today,’ knowing that they had spears all around the oval. The entire Yuendumu football team was chasing Shane Wolf off the field and Shane was running for his life. He had run all weekend umpiring. He managed to get in the car and I said, ‘Just sit there calmly, don’t show you’re scared.’ He was terrified.

In the end I remember talking to old Darby about the reason for this decision where he said, ‘Well, that football, he got a law. That law of the football, he bounced that way and he bounced that way. That’s the law of the football.’ That was an excuse for Darby, and everyone agreed that he was right more or less.

I was really impressed when Bob came back and talked about the Ingaladdi, the work with John Mulvaney where he got these well-dated engravings. My memory is that Bob said something like, ‘John might be interested in these and threw it up on the bench.’ It might have been a slight exaggeration but whatever the case he was highly impressed with that. Then with Cleland Hills, I was highly amused with Bob having gone out there. I was lucky myself to get there first with a camel team, with one of the camels dying on the way. A mate of mine was out there and he rodeoed it to the ground like he was a normal western hero. I think what I am saying partly is that Bob gave me introductions to vast numbers of ideas that I could follow up on. These included meeting Jimmy Jungarii who was a key figure in one of the films. The image I can see here is in Cleland Hills is a fabulous one to go and see. These sorts of experiences were good – wonderful for me.

When I got to the Alice, Bob said, ‘Look, there are fabulous lots of artefacts up here still for sale everywhere,’ in what they call the boomerang shops, the tourist shops. He said, ‘If you see any good stuff that is well documented, can you send it down.’ I would send him a telegram and say, ‘There is some good stuff here. There are some fabulous - not fabulous but unusual - fakes here.’ He said, ‘Send them down too because we need the curators to know about the fakes.’

I must say that most of the things I bought were very good quality which the South Australian Museum could have or Bob could give to another museum overseas or interstate. I will list a few of the artefacts that I can recall. One was a fake boomerang design where a white bloke in town was buying boomerangs, putting an Aboriginal design on it, which would double the price when it sold again. So I sent that down. Another white bloke used to get kangaroo bones from his work on an Aboriginal community. He would chew up a bit of toffee, put it on the end and sell it as a pointing bone. So I sent them and said to Bob, ‘You better be careful of the toffee because you might get ants.’ There was another one where a bloke had picked up a bit of stone from the side of the road, got a stick, split it and put a bit of bitumen around and said, ‘Here we have a stone axe.’ So I was sending down these. The last one I will mention was the back of an old, pearly-white looking mirror. An Aboriginal bloke got it and burnt a little pattern on it and sold it as a pearl shell. So Bob managed to get all these items sent down as well as some top-quality stuff.

I know we are going to run out of time but I will finish with one more. My memory – Jenny Isaacs might correct me on this – is that I was walking around the streets with Bob and he nominated a particular house in the main street to be purchased for the Aboriginal arts and craft industry to raise the prices there. That was purchased and a bloke-called Roy, who was a very nice bloke, got to work with a sledgehammer and made it into an arts centre. Then Roy had to go buying things and Bob had said, ‘If you want to lift the interest and the price, we want to make sure we get quality stuff.’ Roy went down to Indulkena and he said to the old blokes there, ‘I will buy every spear you can make in a week’. Then I travelled down with him the next weekend. Roy went in to this little tin shed and staggered out backwards like a cartoon character and he couldn’t stop laughing. He said, ‘Have a look at this’ - there were 500 spears. Every Tecoma branch in the country had been cut down and Roy promised $5 each. The going price for a spear then was spear $1. Roy had to pay up and these fellows were all grinning like Cheshire cats. But then Bob had to deal with that. There were many other issues like that he dealt with. I think there were four car roll-overs at one stage, Bob.

I will finish with this last one. The last car one I remember was an assistant who had never driven before. He went out to Papunya and he rolled the car on his first little night excursion up at the T junction. I raced out with another good mate, we saw the car and mainly checked out if he was all right. So I wrote to Bob and said, ‘Dear Bob, sorry, the car’s rolled over again. Everything is all right. This assistant is okay.’ But I didn’t know the assistant was also writing one and said, ‘Dear Bob, I am sorry I rolled the car. I’d had a few beers. I had never driven before. I was high as a kite and I am sorry I pranged the car.’ I understand Bob actually got a bit angry at that time. Good memories to have and thank you for the times, Bob, and everyone else here. [applause]

PHILIP JONES: Thank you, that was classic Dick Kimber. Now we will move on to Nic Peterson. He is professor of anthropology at the Australian National University. He has a long experience in Central Australia particularly around Yuendumu with Warlpiri people, which is where he met Bob first in the late 1960s. Over to you, Nic.

NIC PETERSON: I am going to talk about something that actually didn’t happen but, if it had happened, it would have been damaging to both our careers and taken them off the rails possibly. I met Bob through photography. I was employed by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, as it then was, as the ethnographer for their ethnographic film unit. Our remit was to go out and film men’s secret restricted ceremonies, because the institute believed - rightly in a way - they were disappearing and not being held as frequently as they were and they wanted a record of these ceremonies.

We got to know about these ceremonies in various ways. In 1966 Draper Campbell, who was an important patron of Bob’s, approached the Institute to film two men’s increase [this is right ie. to ensure the particular species concerned is prolific] ceremonies at Yuendumu. As a bit of a green horn in outback Australia, I had never been to Yuendumu before, I arrived there a few weeks before the film unit to find out a bit beyond what I had read about Warlpiri culture. We filmed two of these men’s ceremonies. They were wonderful films. It was a very different period [then].

I want to pick up on something that Philip said, and that is this period of transition was a little bit earlier than Philip realises. In 1966 - this may seem a bit appalling for the rest of you - the care that anthropologists and others were taking about secret sacred material was very different from what it is today. Remote Australia was very remote. None of the Aboriginal people who lived in remote communities ever came south - or very rarely indeed. All this changed once [Gough] Whitlam got in and that barrier was breached completely and many Aboriginal people from remote Australia regularly were seen in settled Australia. There was always the feeling that these films we made could be used for teaching. We were aware that they shouldn’t be on television. We had reassured Aboriginal people they wouldn’t be on television or shown in schools, which is what I was instructed to say on behalf of the Institute of Aboriginal Studies, but they could be shown in universities and people were aware there were women at universities as well as men.

Anyway it was in that climate that Bob was making a wonderful photographic record of both these ceremonies. I first got Bob into trouble because, during the two weeks I had been there, I was asked by Aboriginal people to buy a whole lot of sacred boards [ie sacred objects] not for myself but for the Institute of Aboriginal studies. I did that and I gave half of them to Bob for the South Australian Museum. When he got back to the South Australian Museum, the Northern Territory wrote a very fierce letter and said to him, ‘You have exported these objects without a permit,’ so he bundled them up and sent them back to Alice Springs, and within a couple of weeks they came back with a stamp of approval from the Northern Territory. That was a really minor thing.

Bob’s [still] photographs were absolutely wonderful so we decided that we would write a booklet - not a major book - to go with the film on Ruguri, the emu cave. It was a spectacular ceremony with a wonderful [ground] painting. Bob can correct me, but I think this was the beginning of Bob’s understanding that many of these heritage sites that he was seeing as an archaeologist in fact were part of a living religion. He was just getting to grips with that in that period.

Fortunately, both of us were reasonably inefficient at writing this article. Although we started in 1966, it was only in 1969 that we got it completed. And that was our saving, because early in 1969 Richard Gould published a book – Yiwarra, I think the name is, which some of you may know. That caused a huge problem because a school girl from Warburton mission went to Perth and saw her aunt on the cover, just a portrait of her, so naturally opened the book and looked through the book. There were a whole lot of secret sacred photographs in it. This had a crisis effect because Western Australia then closed Western Australia to any anthropologist or archaeological research. John Mulvaney, [chair of the Institute at that time] who may talk about this, called a very important meeting about access to the field, which laid the foundation for much more ethically aware research behaviour and the whole basis for working around the secret and sacred in Aboriginal Australia. Bob was asked to draw up some of the first guidelines for the Institute about the restricted materials and how to deal with them.

If we had been more diligent and if we had got the book off the ground, we would have been in trouble like Dick Gould because in a way Dick Gould did suffer. He never managed to do fieldwork in Australia again and he went off and worked elsewhere.

Subsequently I visited Bob on a number of occasions. In the past when you flew from Canberra to the Northern Territory, you could get off anywhere you liked without extra cost and you could switch between TAA and Ansett without any trouble. So I often stayed with Bob and Kath and experienced their wonderful hospitality. Their house was full of books - I have an interest in books as well - and I learnt a few things about buying multiple copies. There were five copies of [Plomley’s] Friendly Mission, if I remember correctly. Bob always had lots of copies of many books. He was very generous to us younger field workers at that stage because the South Australian Museum was stopped from blowing away by storms by the weight of the off-prints of all the articles in the basement. And those articles still exist - they have all been shipped out to a book dealer in Beulah Park. His shop is still anchored down by a huge wonderful stock of offerings. If you are interested, you should go and visit him.

Also one other thing is that Bob was very generous around photography. He had a wonderful technician who developed and printed his photographs. I used to send all my black and white negatives down there and get them done at the very highest quality and wonderful blow-ups. If any of you have been to my office, you will have seen one of them hanging on the wall. Thank you, Bob. [applause]

PHILIP JONES: Staying in Central Australia, we will turn to Mike Smith who is a pioneering desert archaeologist who has done a lot of work in the Centre in the arid zone. But he began his work also in South Australia on the lower Murray where Norman Tindale had pioneered archaeology at the South Australian Museum in 1929. Mike, in Central Australia, was inspired by Bob Edwards’ discovery of a rock shelter with archaeological potential at the Cleland Hills and I believe Mike will speak a bit about that.

MIKE SMITH: Yes, I confess I am a South Australian and I think Adelaide people generally look north to the desert for adventure, inspiration and opportunity. A person’s life can be like an archaeological site, and you can see this with Bob’s life. In the top, rich layer you have the AEA remains, rich food remains, exotic trade goods; deeper down you have museums and cultural institutions; and somewhere around the middle of the sequence you have a layer of Bob as archaeologist. This is my Bob and this is the layer I want to talk about and make three brief passes over it.

I first met Bob as a school boy archaeologist at the South Australian Museum in 1970 or 1971. But I want to jump forward to the early 1980s - imagine me as a government field archaeologist based in Alice Springs and doing what I think is the first archaeological survey of the region, working out gradually further and further away from town looking for stratified sequences, somewhere I can find a build-up of deposit that will represent an archive of Aboriginal occupation in the region.

I am based in the Residency, some of you might know it, in the centre of Alice Springs in Parsons Street. I was in the residency by myself. I had a four-wheel drive vehicle, not much else. In the drawer there were some enigmatic site cards, no background information, just an extract from some report. One spoke of a large cave near Mt Winter in the Cleland Hills 200 feet long and 60 feet high which shows signs of human occupation going back through great periods of time. I had to find this site. Where was it? There were no clues on the site card as to what I was looking at. It could have been an old Institute site card. It looked like perhaps it was an extract from a newspaper article. There was a cryptic reference to Edwards.

I wrote to Bob, but he was busy and I didn’t get a reply. I didn’t know where the site was, except somewhere near Mt Winter. I knew Bob had been out into the Cleland Hills, of which Mt Winter is part, to look at a famous engraving site at the northern end of the range. I spoke to my Luritja mates at Haasts Bluff. They half knew of the site but couldn’t give me a name, and without a name I couldn’t get a land council permit. It was very difficult to do open, free range survey work out that far west, 350 kilometres west of Alice, but eventually I got out there - with Dick (as it turned out).

We knew the rock shelter had to be somewhere on the escarpment. Dick walked one way and I walked the other way looking at shadows trying to make them into overhangs, looking at the ground looking for stone artefacts that might give us a clue to a focal point for Aboriginal use, walking up the creek lines looking for rock holes. And eventually there it was at Puritjarra, the very big rock shelter you will see on the screen, a big opera house type rock shelter. I did three seasons of work there. Really it’s the Australian equivalent of one of the great palaeolithic sites of south-western France, a 35,000 year old sequence, a rich record of human occupation in the heart of a continent. Eventually my archival research caught up with my dirt archaeology, and to my surprise I found that Bob had already dug the site.

To see how this came about – you are never the first as a field archaeologist - we need to do another pass over this archaeological layer. So we go back in time to around 1965 and 1966 when Bob is starting to develop his work on prehistoric rock engravings, first of all in the Flinders Ranges, then in the Olary region in South Australia and gradually he’s extending further north. There was an eccentric character called Michael Terry, a prospector and very colourful character. He wore a side-arm and fancied himself a bit. He had been out to the Cleland Hills quite a lot and he found some engravings that he thought were the remains of a lost civilisation, Phoenicians - or something non-Aboriginal. He badgered Vincent Megaw, he badgered the Institute of Aboriginal Studies and eventually Bob was despatched to sort it out in 1967. So he did this fabulous trip to the engraving site. You will see the engraved faces on the image loop.

But that wasn’t enough. Bob wanted to institute a much more systematic survey of rock art and archaeological sites in Central Australia, and somewhere along the line he managed to convince The Australian newspaper to fund it - another example of his charm and his fundraising abilities. So in 1969, for ten weeks, he engaged in this mammoth journey through Central Australia into the Tanami, into the area west of Alice Springs, into the Anangu Pitjantjatjarra lands right across to Blackstone Range, 11,000 kilometres, recording many rock engraving sites and rock art sites that have barely been visited since.

It’s a journey that would be very difficult to do even today - logistically difficult. He did it in a Land Rover. Anyone who has ever had a Land Rover knows that these vehicles have personality problems, much easier in a Toyota. On one of these trips inevitably the Land Rover broke down, overheated, had fuel problems, the radiator got blocked with spinifex. On this trip in the Cleland Hills he had Timmy Tjukadai with him from Haasts Bluff and Timmy went for a walk. He knew of this cave. He found Puritjarra. Bob went to have a look, recognised its potential, made very explicit notes about its potential to sort out the prehistory of Central Australia, but of course the expedition had to move on.

Bob subsequently serialised that trip in a whole series of articles in The Australian. Probably that was the pay-off, the quid pro quo for the newspaper. These are very interesting reading, very elegant field notes, but no-one ever went back to Puritjarra. Bob got sucked into work on the rock art in the Alligator Rivers region as part of the Alligator Rivers Environmentalal Fact Finding Study, the lead-up to the establishment of Kakadu National Park. Most other archaeologists were fully engaged with Mungo, Arnhem Land, Devil’s Lair and the Nullarbor plain. There was really no-one to follow up his discovery at Puritjarra, and it dropped entirely out of our corporate memory until I independently found it.

The third pass through this layer - Bob’s work on the prehistoric rock engravings is part of a long South Australian tradition. Basedow in 1904 worked on the rock engravings. Then you had CP Mountford, and Bob worked with Mountford amongst other sites on the famous crocodile engraving at Panaramitee and he extended this work to Central Australia.

I will briefly summarise why I think this work is so important. Along the way he did what was really the first systematic archaeological survey of central Australia. At this time (1969 and 67), Dick Gould was starting to dig at Pututjarpa in 1967, and Eugene Stockton, a Catholic priest, was digging at Santa Teresa at Kerringke rock hole in 1969. But Bob’s work really was the only broad-ranging survey. It was the first quantitative analysis of ancient desert rock engravings, the first person to approach it in a way where you count the frequencies of motifs and look at the structure of the art. He promoted the idea that rock engravings and rock paintings were significant field monuments worth preserving. He produced an invaluable photographic record of the rock art sites of the region and he also promoted the idea that these very old looking desert rock engravings, deeply weathered, were part of an ancient pan-continental artistic tradition, perhaps an Ice Age tradition, that had fragmented over time and that somehow the engravings were remnants of an ancient Aboriginal social landscape. We probably wouldn’t assess the engravings as quite so old now. My own work suggests these desert engravings are probably around 8,000 years rather than 20,000 years but it’s a very powerful idea and it’s been very influential in archaeology.

Also in terms of his own rock art research Bob sits squarely between the earlier work of Fred McCarthy and CP Mountford, and the shift to modern research with Leslie Maynard, Mike Morwood and Andre Rosenfeld - and June Ross who has really been the inheritor of Bob’s work in Central Australia - and Jo McDonald.

Just to finish off, while Bob initially saw the rock engravings as an ancient art lost to the present, a remnant of a distant prehistoric period, his later championing of the Papunya Tula art movement shows that he wasn’t locked into an antiquarian perspective. In a sense we get a picture of Bob, like many field workers, being transformed by the encounter with the desert and with Aboriginal people in the region. [applause]

PHILIP JONES: We shift perspective by moving forward a bit into the museum world. We will probably end on that note, too, with John. We will begin first with Robin Hirst from the Museum of Victoria or Museum Victoria as bearing witness, I guess, to Bob’s first big museum job as Director of Museum Victoria over a five-year period. Over to you, Robin.

ROBIN HIRST: At the outset, what a pleasure it is to be here today with this distinguished audience to pay tribute to you, Bob. My name is Robin Hirst and I am Director of Collections, Research and Exhibitions with Museum Victoria. I started at the Museum in 1981. I preceded Bob by three years. I am a humble infra-red astrophysicist by training who came to the museum to do an interesting job and they kept giving me interesting jobs – and Bob was all part of that.

Bob was the first director of the new Museum of Victoria. This is an interesting segment of his life. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. I am going to start at the end, come back to the beginning and finish off with the middle, as modern film-makers tend to do.

This was the last annual report [annual report held up] in which Bob wrote the director’s report on. He was talking about the future because at this stage he had secured a commitment by the Victorian government for a new museum. He says:

The dry and dusty institutions of the past to which reluctant school children were dutifully marched have given away to dynamic centres of learning and experience which offer fresh insight into the nature of human society, a delicate balance of ecology, the lives and habitats of insects, birds, mammals and fishes, the wonders of scientific and technological achievement etc.

This was Bob’s vision for Museum Victoria. To keep the government straight, he went on to say:

The government’s far-sighted commitment into the redevelopment of Museum of Victoria would bring us to the forefront of this new era ensuring that the dedicated groundwork that has been laid will result in the full flowering of one of the great museums of the world.

So, Bob, I want to give you a report. In the last financial year, Melbourne Museum, the headquarters of Museum Victoria, which you had envisioned back in your time, had over one million visitors all ticketed - we know who they are - and it won the Victorian tourism award for the major attraction. Scienceworks, one of the museums that you envisioned as a multi-campus museum, had over half a million visitors and itself was a winner in the tourist attraction category.

The Immigration Museum has won so many awards that it is now in the hall of fame. It attracted another 123,000 visitors. You will be pleased to know that 300,000 school children visited those museums. We have hosted major exhibitions - recently Pompei, Star Wars, Titanic (which has set the new Australian record for visitation), and Tutankamhmun opens in April. In terms of research, we are key contributors to all sorts of scientific journals including Nature and Science. We have a dozen ARC linkage projects and we have 30 PhD students working in the museum. We are exporting our planetarium shows and our technology and we have won numerous awards from the American Association of Museums related to our exhibitions.

So, Bob, the school children are not reluctant any more to be marched through the museum, and we are recognised nationally and internationally for our research and for our public engagement.

All I can say is: I am sorry it took so long!

Let’s go back to when Bob started at the museum. In 1983 the Victorian government decided to put two museums together. There was the natural history museum, the National Museum, and there was the Science Museum which dealt with technology. They existed under one roof in Swanston Street. Two governments - the Liberal government and then the Labor government - thought it was a good idea to combine these two museums. Similar ideas have been floated in Sydney recently, you will recall. Those two museums had each existed for well over a century and each had its own culture deeply embedded. One was about research and taxonomy; the other one was much about collecting and public engagement.

Both councils were opposed to this amalgamation and most of the staff, I would say, were not enamoured with the idea at the time. So in rode Bob - he didn’t ride in; he strode in. We had never seen a suit like Bob’s in the museum before. He cut a fine figure. But Bob being a team player decided he needed to recruit his executive team. I am reminded of John Sturge’s famous film The Magnificent Seven, which you might recall was a remake of the Seventh Samurai where a Mexican village had to go out and recruit this group to help defend it. There were only five of them but they were a very interesting bunch of characters that you managed to recruit. There was Jim Bowler who is a renowned natural historian, Boyce Pizzey who came out of heritage, Andrew Reeves who is here today, a labour historian and great master plotter, and we had John Chessells, and John Chessells’ first wife is here today. I said to her, ‘What did John do before he came to us?’ She said, ‘I don’t really know!’ He came out of Canberra and he had worked as an adviser. I remember that I sat on the panel with Bob when we recruited him. Bob said, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘Look, I think he’s worth the risk.’ Bob said, ‘He’s a wild man,’ and he did prove to be ‘a wild man’. But we also had the steady hand of John Zolis who was looking after the finances. We had this group of really interesting and passionate people working with Bob. I am not sure whether Anne Watson would be here today. You might remember Anne who kept control. She was like the palace guard, in a way, and used to protect Bob from unwanted interruptions.

Bob was a master at playing the politics. He understood that he needed to lift the profile of the museum. So he got the Myer Foundation to provide some sort of funding for a report by Arnold Hancock, who was at the time the chair of the State Bank, a well-respected figure. In November 1986 that report came up with the first idea of a multiple site museum, and included in that were a series of things that Bob had in his sights, one of which was Spotswood where Scienceworks is now. Bob achieved that while he was there. Another one, strangely enough, was the Royal Exhibition Building in Carlton. So there were five in group one and there is another 11 in the remaining group. We are steadily picking down your list, Bob, adding to the enterprise.

What did Bob do? He raised the profile through this report; he endlessly talked it up – Bob, the advocate. He had the capacity to tell the same story over and over again, and I was amazed because he told it with the same passion to everyone that he talked to. He had the endless capacity to write and acknowledge the people that had helped him. He had Kath sitting in the office every Sunday typing up the letters and getting them out there from the previous week. He had this endless capacity to remain pleasant even under fire. He also introduced something new to the museum and that was prawns. Anne Watson used to shuffle off to the Victoria Market and bring back things for lunch because we had no catering or anything similar at the museum in those days. So Bob used to provide these lunches where he could schmoose the politicians and where Anne was not only part of the palace guard but she was actually the caterer as well. So it was an interesting time for us to watch.

Bob also brought in the blockbuster The Gold of the Pharoahs and some of the other exhibitions included Civilisation, Devils, Drugs and Doctors, and Ancient Macedonia, because the more he could bring in, the more chance he had of getting politicians to open them, engage with them and talk about his vision.

I know a lot about this because my office was right next door to Bob’s so I got to see quite a bit of him. Also in those days there was a staff representative on the executive management team. Bob was clearly the master of that executive management team. But my office was right next to Bob’s. It was also at the time of Halley’s comet. I was running the Planetarian and we had endless crowds there, which I think were great for Bob, because every time he brought anybody in, they had to make their way through those crowds. So the popularity of the museum could not be denied.

Bob was also an early adopter. He produced the first fax in the museum because they were very early days for this technology. Nobody knew where the other one was, but it seemed to be sending messages to it! I can remember standing there being amazed at these plans for exhibitions coming off this particular machine.

Bob, you did have a vision and you got government commitment. Sure the particular project that you got them to commit to fell over, but another one replaced it because you had created a momentum that had to be met and every vacuum had to be filled. So we have moved on and we have built on that. I will acknowledge the work of Dr Patrick Greene, the current CEO, who over the last few years has done amazing things in the museum.

Bob, the time that you were at Museum Victoria was absolutely pivotal in the development of the museum. You caused the spark, and others have tended the flame. This flame now illuminates the lives of millions of people each year. Bob, I salute you; Museum Victoria salutes you; the museum community salutes you. [applause]

PHILIP JONES: Many thanks, Robin. The last piece of jigsaw to be put into this little pattern that we are developing here is from John Mulvaney. Probably of all the people in the room, John may well be Bob’s oldest friend. In some ways they have followed each other’s careers, even though on some occasions they have been on opposite sides of the world they have been on complementary projects particularly relating to heritage, archaeology and museums. I would like to introduce John Mulvaney who probably needs no introduction. I think he has just brought out his autobiography in case you need to check anything.

JOHN MULVANEY: I am delighted to be able to participate here to pay tribute to Bob, who has been a friend and great academic assistant to me and a schemer too – very great help in schemes. I think I can claim the oldest contact, because young Bob Edwards was brought out to my excavation at Fromm’s Landing on the Murray River and I think 1956 was the year. From then on, we have had a very close association in many ways. One of them that perhaps Robin left out in his tribute was that Bob even got the Queen to his Melbourne museum. It wasn’t a very successful visit, I felt, but that wasn’t Bob’s fault.

One of the things that I would add to the comments about his work in the South Australian Museum is that, during the period when he was a curator, he initiated contact with the elders of northern South Australian people and negotiated what I suppose we call a keeping place in the basement of the museum where these elders had the key to come and inspect their material. I think that was the first attempt in Australia to acknowledge that there were secret sacred objects of importance to Aboriginal people where they could have the right to see them and the knowledge that other people would not be permitted because they were in this locked area. Bob’s influence on me has been very strong. I have been advocating ever since the need for keeping places where Aboriginal people have things in trust but not destroyed and not reburied. However, that’s by the way, but Bob has been a very important influence in that.

In 1966, Bob received a grant from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal studies to do something that I am sure he as a South Australian felt proud to be doing, and that was following in the steps of the explorer Stuart, who I am sure is one of his heroes. He moved from South Australia to the top end of the Northern Territory photographing rock art sites across the whole territory, and that is a tremendously important archive. I am indebted to Bob, like so many others in Australia, for the use of his photographs of that trip and photographs of other times. Unlike the present legalistic system where one has to have copyrights and triplicate certificates for the use of anything, Bob just says ‘use them’ and that’s all. He doesn’t receive payment. He gladly allows it. That is so unlike the present situation that I thought I should emphasise it. I have been the beneficiary certainly.

Included in that visit to my excavation at the site which I call Ingaladdi on Willaroo station south-west of Katherine, Bob arrived from the South Australian Museum and joined our party there. The film you were looking at previously of Bob photographing sites, he was photographing the art at that site but not on that trip – was it? Did you go back there again? No. I didn’t know you had a movie camera. Who was taking the movie. Why aren’t I in it? One of the important things Bob brought with him was a big jar of lollies which were going to be given to Aboriginal children, but Bob and I ate the lot, I think.

The child-like contact took place in 1968 in the summer vacation when Bob’s family and my family swapped houses. Bob took over my house here in Canberra, and the day after he arrived the hot water system burst so his entire time here was without hot water; meanwhile we enjoyed his house in Adelaide.

More seriously, Bob came to Canberra as the deputy principal of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, as it was then known. One of the very significant things where we did work together was when the Whitlam government appointed the Hope inquiry into the national estate, which seems to be overlooked in cultural studies these days. It was to my mind one of the greatest landmarks in Australian cultural history that the Federal Government would appoint a committee to look into Aboriginal places, post-contact European places and the environment all in one report – it was unprecedented the inter-relationship between them.

I was on the executive of the Aboriginal institute, and Bob and I were the people who spoke to the Hope inquiry when they visited the institute. I think they spent a whole afternoon with us, with Bob particularly emphasising the significance of Aboriginal places that couldn’t be just a dot on a map like a house but had to be the environs. That was a major step towards trying to get the appreciation of governments that Aboriginal places were more than a cave, for example.

Then around the same time I was appointed on the Alligator Rivers region environment fact-finding study, which was a curious title and it was a curious idea that you could find facts and nothing but the facts. The facts, of course, were envisaged by people who thought all right, Aborigines, we must cover them; we must document their sites; we don’t need to document their social life or what the impact of mining uranium in the Kakadu park might have on the society but we want to know the facts other than the social facts. Bob was in charge of documenting the rock art region. Others had been documenting it, but on my count Bob documented 300 Aboriginal sites and produced the report on it, which was subsequently published and was one of the first major studies of rock art of that region. And subsequently of course Kakadu was put on the world heritage list.

Other people will talk about Bob’s work in the development of Papunya art in the western desert. But I do remember that when he was chair of the Aboriginal Arts Board, he was landed with dozens of these marvellous paintings now worth thousands of dollars but nobody wanted them and he had to get rid of them, and he was trying to get people to buy them. He is owed a tremendous amount of credit for his efforts which have paid off ten fold, of course. I know my department at the university acquired a few of these works of art.

The spin-off from the Hope inquiry, which reported on the fixed places in Australia, was the Pigott inquiry on museums and national collections which dealt with the moveable objects across Australia. I might say that, as a member of the Pigott inquiry, we encountered tremendous resistance when we visited some of the states who didn’t think the federal government should be representing us at all and shouldn’t be interfering.

The then director of the art gallery in Melbourne, who probably had the richest art collection in Australia at the time, tried to prevent us visiting the place. Anyway, that’s by the way. It was one of the things that alerted me to the needs of conservation in Australia. He told us that they had a conservation lab. It was in the furthest basement. It had a part-time curator, a staff of one part time, and we knew that the gallery had only opened in 1968. But a bloom of dust was being blown through the air conditioning and was settling on all the paintings. When our chair asked him about this, he denied it and said there was nothing at all.

In the Pigott report we did stress conservation needs above of all others, and I am pleased to say that art galleries and museums did answer the call, including from the federal government. But in this regard Bob Edwards knew what the problems were in the South Australian Museum. We were shown things such as spears and axes which had been stored in the top attic of the museum where the heat is so intense that they had run so that spear heads and axe heads were the opposite to where they should have been because they had just melted and run. Thanks, Bob, for alerting us to all these things.

A final comment is the Pigott inquiry also took the three-sided view that the Hope inquiry took that if there is a national museum it should emphasise Aboriginal society, post-contact European society and the environment - and above all the interrelationship between these. Each one would be equal, and there would be showing the inter-relationship. It was decided that a special committee should be appointed to plan what the Aboriginal side should represent. I was appointed chairman because I was a member of the Pigott committee. Bob Edwards was one of the members of that planning committee which produced a separate report which is included within the Pigott report.

We made many recommendations, some of which were not followed. In that report we recommended that the national museum should be put on the hilltop where at the moment last weekend it was opened up to the community to see the forests which were being planted up there. Our concept was that it was a marvellous hill with a view over the lake and Canberra. The Aboriginal members of my committee said they didn’t want their Aboriginal museum to be looking down on European Canberra. So we proposed the design where the Aboriginal side was on the hilltop that faced out to the Brindabellas, and the post-contact European museum faced Canberra. There was lots of scope for the environment, and we wanted outside exhibitions that would try to differentiate between the different cultural groups within Australia.

Subsequently Yarramundi Reach at the end of the lake was decided and subsequently, of course, the Howard government decided on this site, reducing it from 80 hectares to 19 hectares and if you had to park this morning you will know what the result was. Unfortunately, the design of the museum disregarded the exterior display of Aboriginal society and certainly undervalued the inter-relationship between the three divisions.

I will close by acknowledging the contribution Bob has made to Australian museums in general, to thoughts about conservation and to thoughts about Aboriginal people within the landscape. The fact that a lot of these things haven’t come to pass is certainly not Bob’s fault. He certainly schemed enough. Thank you. [applause]

PHILIP JONES: Thank you all very much. We have covered enough ground to make reference to a number of tricky issues that faced Bob as he negotiated his way through all of these fields of interest. It may well be that some of you have thought of some questions, points, issues and other contributions. We have 15 minutes so why don’t we throw the floor open and take your questions to any of us here on the panel.

HOWARD MURPHY: If I can make a brief personal comment because, like many other people, I would not be here in the position I am if it wasn’t for Bob Edwards. I was writing a masters thesis at University College London in the early 1970s and I submitted it to my supervisor - things were different in those days – and he said, ‘This is no good. It’s all theoretical. You have to analyse something.’ In despair I went to the Royal Anthropological Institute and I found an ancient copy of the South Australian Museum magazine with an article on toas by [Sir Edward] Stirling and [Edgar R] Waite. I then wrote to Bob Edwards at the South Australian Museum that I found these objects extremely interesting. Bob Edwards then organised - for that photographer Nic was probably talking about - to send me 480 colour slides of the toas in the South Australian Museum together with all the documentation that [JG] Reuther had put together, together with photographs of [HJ] Hillier’s map. In my bedsit in London I was able to become totally absorbed in the toas of the Lake Eyre region in Central Australia thanks entirely to Bob Edwards. That is exactly the kind of person that Bob has been always, I suspect, in collaborating with people and using the resources at his disposal to help other people in their projects. I would like to thank Bob enormously because my life would have been completely different if it hadn’t been for him there and then. [applause]

LYN BEASLEY (NMA): I would like to comment a bit on some of the things that Robin had to say because I also worked with Bob at the Museum of Victoria. He was my first director. I wanted to elaborate on something Robin touched on briefly, and that is famous the Edwards charm. Bob was my first director and he set the bar very high. Bob not only charmed politicians and I do remember the Queen’s visit but he charmed his staff as well. That is an incredible plus for a director to be able to do because it means that your staff will work for you and do you want because they want to do it. That was one of the major pluses that Bob brought to his directorship at the Museum of Victoria. [applause]

HANK EBES: I am Hank Ebes from Melbourne. I would like to make public the fact that I got thrown out of the museum of Melbourne for spraying one of the printing presses with DDT because it had wood worm and the handle that makes the platen go down actually made it go up. It wasn’t put together all that well so twice I was evicted from the museum because the then director didn’t think it was terribly important. A couple of weeks later when I was running my print shop, this gentleman walked in and said, ‘Are you Mr Ebes?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘I am Bob Edwards. I’m the current director of the Museum of Victoria.’ I said, ‘Have you come to pursue me and throw me out again?’ He said, ‘No, I need an honorary curator.’ I didn’t realise that I was being conned into working for no money at all. I said, ‘Will I get a car space?’ Bob said, ‘Yes, because I don’t drive.’ The story goes on because not only did I get conned into going to borrow stuff from The Netherlands for an exhibition he had planned but he also converted me to Aboriginal art. I will always be very grateful for that, because it changed my life dramatically. Thank you, Bob. [applause]

JANIE ANDERSON (?): I would like to know more about the Edwards report from the 1970s that you found so extraordinary, Philip. It’s a question addressed to any of the panel, to you or even Bob.

PHILIP JONES: Janie Anderson, thanks very much for the question. The Edwards report is an extraordinary document, because cultural institutions in colonial cities in Australia had more or less run under their own steam for a very long time on a shoestring - and some still do, I think. In Adelaide, the South Australian Museum had literally run on a shoestring, and people had become used to getting by. The collections that had come in, particularly Aboriginal collections from the hinterland of South Australia’s northern colony, which was the Northern Territory, during the key period of colonialism from the 1860s to 1911, this material had come in collection by collection often very well documented. But, of course, the facility and the capability of the museum to manage this material once it arrived was very limited and ultimately, as John Mulvaney pointed out, we did end up with storage in the attic literally in the attic. There was an issue not only for the museum but nor the visitors. It had reached the point where literally you did have to bring a torch into the museum to see the exhibits. I think there was even one salutary article suggesting that it would be better if you didn’t light a match. Nevertheless, that was the situation it was in.

From people working within the museum the dilemma was: how do you shift this? Do you wait until the place literally moulders away? I remember there was a cat – do you remember the cat, Bob? - that used to live in the foreign ethnology store out in the Armoury. It got into the store through a hole in the wall which was to the outer environment and went in for shelter at night, a little bit like the cats that lived in the breakwater at West Beach. Anyway the issue is: how do you get that message across? Being from that culture where you essentially ride with the punches and go with the flow, as the museum had done for well over a century, it is really difficult to move into a different paradigm where you are essentially either shaming the institution or the government that runs the museum or convincing them with this legendary charm. The museum hadn’t experienced that before.

But luckily through this period in the 1970s, the Dunstan years, we did have a more enlightened breed of politician coming through, and this was absolutely critical. There were people like Murray Hill, for example, certainly [Don] Dunstan himself and Len Amadeo who became the supremo of the arts for nearly a decade in South Australia. I don’t know the exact circumstances - and this hasn’t been written up; it’s probably going to be elicited from Bob at some stage – but it became apparent that something had to be done with the museum. There were a whole range of other problems as well. So the Edwards report became not just a report into how to get the museum up and running properly, but the idea that there could be an articulated solution to a whole range of issues which we now take for granted as being integrated such as conservation, the role of a history museum vis a vis a natural history museum, the inter-relationships within a museum come out of the British model, which was essentially a natural history museum with an ethnographic component. In a way the British Museum and the Museum of Mankind had had to deal with these similar issues.

Bob’s involvement with UNESCO and his trip to Europe in 1971, which must have been a remarkable experience where he was exposed not only to best practice of managing museums and cultural sites but also to the sort of people that could get these things happening and the lines of logic that you could use in terms of dealing with politicians, this all is brought to bear in the Edwards report. It’s a clearly written, jargon-free document that explains in plain English why it is that a set of cultural treasures of the stature of the ones that we had in South Australia needed better attention. The remarkable thing is that it was welcomed and initially accepted by both sides of politics as being a self-evident truth once it was revealed. The only problem is we had this massive train wreck about to happen which was the collapse of our State Bank. Unfortunately after we got through the first few phases - we built the science centre, the state conservation centre was built and we had this articulation of the institutions beginning to happen on North Terrace - it was nipped in the bud. But I believe there is at least one politician in this room who was heavily involved in the proceedings, John Bannon, and we will be hearing from him later on this.

ALAN SMITH: On the Edwards report, my first job in the cultural world was as a research assistant to Bob on the Edwards report back in 1980 when he was first starting up the Cultural Collections Council. All of you in the room who are friends of Bob know that friendship with Bob resolves around a lot of fine food and even finer wine. I had several chapters that I had responsibility for in the Edwards report, but the one that Bob took the most personal interest in was the one on the restaurants.

PHILIP JONES: That was Alan Smith, director of the State Library of South Australia.

SUZANNE MILLER: One final point on the Edwards report because it is still remarkably current: we were asked of a copy of it from our minister’s office just last December. For those of you from South Australia who know the Edwards report, it is many volumes thick, and each volume is roughly the size of a telephone directory. We sent through what we called the blue report to the Premier’s office and I got a phone call saying, ‘Sorry, perhaps we didn’t make ourselves clear, we just want the executive summary,’ and I said, ‘That is the executive summary.’ It is an incredibly current report still. Although it was done many years ago and was specific to the South Australian circumstances, it very much encompasses the ethos of what museums should and could be in a very modern world and particularly moving forward. So it’s an extraordinarily futuristic document even now.

PHILIP JONES: Thank you, Suzanne. This could be a good opportunity to move into lunch.

PETER STANLEY: Before I deliver my announcements, could I ask you all to thank the gentlemen to my left. [applause] It is lunchtime, but before we break I have one pleasant duty and that is that today is a day for recognition and acknowledgment. I would like to bring to your attention someone at the National Museum who has been very closely connected with Bob for many years. One of the great treasures of the National Museum’s collection is the Bob Edwards collection, which comprises books and papers and all sorts of material that reflects Bob’s interests and also his contributions to the world, has been created through a very warm and longstanding relationship between Bob and the Museum’s librarian Julie Philips. Yesterday, Julie retired after working here for 23 years. She is sitting in the middle of the theatre, and I would like to ask you to acknowledge and congratulate her for the work she has done for the Museum and for Bob over many years. Thanks, Julie. [applause].

Date published: 21 April 2011