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A tribute to Dr Mike Smith AM

Andrew Sayers and Mark O'Connor, 8 February 2013

PETER STANLEY: Ladies and gentlemen, colleagues and friends – and I think I can truly say we are all friends here today because, as some of the Museum’s folk have been saying, ‘Any friend of Mike’s is a friend of ours.’ My name is Peter Stanley and I have the great good fortune to head the Research Centre that Mike inspired the Museum to set up in 2007.

Good morning and allow me to offer my welcome to this gathering ‘The Compleat Archaeologist: A tribute to the career and achievements of Dr Mike Smith AM’, as he has been since Australia Day so congratulations, Mike. [applause] That won’t be the first round of applause in today’s sessions.

This is, we think, a unique conference – not Mike’s idea but Mike’s inspiration – in that it will place Mike’s achievements in the context of the development of that extraordinary field: Australian desert archaeology. This is not, as Mike has suggested I say, a traditional Festschrift, neither is it a valedictory nor a farewell nor a launch of his book because, sadly, advance copies have not arrived from New York. But there will be a book launch on 22 March, which you will be invited to.

Rather, today is a chance to acknowledge who Mike is, what he has done and, more importantly, who he has done it with over the course of his career – and many of you are here today.

Can I also remind you that on the Museum’s website we have a wall where people can post anecdotes, reflections and photographs in order to celebrate Mike’s career and your involvement in it. Please go to The Complete Archaeologist page on the website [add link].

Today’s event is being run very efficiently by three people, and I am not one of them: Anne Faris, Heidi Pritchard and Alex Kidd.

I should also tell you that parts of today’s program are being streamed live to an audience mostly of archaeologists at the University of Western Australia, and we will greet them in due course.

It is my privilege today to MC the proceedings. My very great pleasure, as my first duty, is to introduce Andrew Sayers, the Director of the National Museum of Australia, who will formally welcome you to the Museum and offer some opening remarks. Thank you.

ANDREW SAYERS: Thank you very much, Peter, and welcome everybody. I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the country on which the National Museum stands, the Ngunnawal people, and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

Mike Smith and I have a couple of things in common. The first one is that we were both born in England and both arrived on ships in Australia at age six. He came in 1961 on the Sitmar line boat and I arrived in 1964 on a P&O boat. I still remember vividly my arrival in Adelaide, although we were headed for Sydney, because it was actually the same moment that the Beatles were appearing on the balcony of the Adelaide Town Hall.

Mike has retained some of his English accent but he has not retained an English passport. I guess I have retained some of my English accent and I have not retained my English passport. We are both thorough Australianists through and through, and Mike has contributed enormously to our understanding of this country.

Mike and I share an enjoyment of the company of camels, so beautifully depicted in Jo’s portrait of Mike, and we enjoy in common a love of the desert. My understanding of the desert can only be described as superficial but Mike’s, on the other hand – and this is where we diverge – is very deep and very profound. It is today that I think we will have an opportunity to understand some of the profundity of Mike’s understanding of the desert and what he has contributed to our understanding of the Australian desert.

Last year Mike gave me the typescript of his book The archaeology of Australian deserts, as Peter mentioned, shortly to appear and Mike with his characteristic modesty described it as a synthetic work. But I had it next to my bed for three months as I worked my way through it and it is an extraordinarily impressive volume. It isn’t simply a synthetic work. It sets into context Mike’s contributions from his own fieldwork and sets it in an extraordinarily broad and exciting story. It is a great book. It is a fantastic contribution to the understanding of desert archaeology in Australia. I feel privileged to have been able to read it in draft.

Today is the sort of occasion which is the National Museum at its best, where we have an opportunity to really engage with an understanding of Australia in a very deep way. A couple of years ago we paid tribute to the work of Bob Edwards in this very theatre on his 80th birthday. That was a great day and interestingly many of the speakers at the tribute to Bob Edwards are in fact speaking here today. What was marvellous about that day and I think what is marvellous about this day is it really gives an opportunity for us over the course of a day to really understand the complexity and the multi-faceted nature of careers and interests.

It is fantastic that today is so multi-disciplinary, so cross-cultural – poetry and art mix beautifully with an investigation of archaeology and science. I think what we can really achieve at the National Museum is to open up subjects to the most multi-disciplinary scrutiny and to do what we can to render discipline boundaries meaningless.

Mike has been at the National Museum for many years and was the brains behind the centre for research here at the National Museum. This afternoon we will have an opportunity to hear from Mike’s Museum colleagues about his contribution to the National Museum. I just wanted to say today that, from the point of view of the National Museum, Mike is an exemplary person to have working here at the Museum. The character of any museum is established by the enthusiasms, by the expertise, by the knowledge and by the experience of the people who make up the Museum – and Mike has all of those in abundance. He has played a central role in maintaining the Museum’s intellectual rigour.

There is a display case just outside the theatre here that you would have seen as you came in. Looking at the objects in that display case, just a few of the objects that represent Mike’s fieldwork, you get a real sense of the precision with which he approaches the subject and which is essential to archaeology. But, of course, precision is poetry. I think that Mike in his meticulous approach, in the depth of his scrutiny gives us all at the Museum an exemplar of the way in which our picture of culture, our picture of the past is broadly conceived but is made up of many, many meticulously observed details. It is that bringing together of the fine grain and the broad sense of the sweep of the past Deep Time and culture which Mike brings to the National Museum of Australia. So we are very lucky at the National Museum of Australia to have Mike here on our staff and to have had him contributing through the Centre of Research since its establishment. It really does give me a great pleasure to welcome everybody here today, and I am looking forward enormously to what is going to be a tremendously rewarding day for Mike and for all of us. Thank you. [applause]

PETER STANLEY: Thank you, Andrew. I am British born as well, so you might think that the Museum is run by an English mafia. Thank you, Andrew, for your support for this event and for the centre.

I have several apologies to convey from people who were to participate but for various reasons are absent. I want to acknowledge Douglas Multa from Haast’s Bluff, whom you will see on the screen later today; and Maria Isabel Hernandez Llosas from Argentina. To those who have made it here today, can I take the opportunity to point out that we have a busy program and we need to keep to time. I will be sitting here in the front and I will be glaring at speakers who go on for too long.

To be starting on a positive note and pick up a word that Andrew used, poetry, we would like to begin with poetry. One of Mike’s desires for this event was to include creative artists as well as his fellow archaeologists and museologists. As you will see and hear, their involvement will impart a very special tone to today’s tribute. It will begin with the words of Mark O’Connor, a poet who has an association with Mike and deserts going back at least a decade. You will see Mark’s words on the screen later today. So, friends, Mark O’Connor.

MARK O’CONNOR: Thanks, Peter. It is a privilege to speak here. When Peter Stanley contacted me, saying Mike Smith would like me to read one of my desert poems, he added that Mike would like it even better if I would write a new poem. I then talked to Mike, who told me he thought no poet had yet captured the poetry that is hidden in the basic tradecraft of modern archaeology. He challenged me to try, offering ideas and feedback, and this poem is the result. As you will detect, it contains numerous concepts and phrases for which I indebted to Mike.

Camped near the dig, mug in hand,
Out past the Tarn of Auber
(most unglacial of soaks)
In that three quarters of Oz
“Set aside for mystic poetry.”

Country where you count trees to a square kilometre
And trees count the water,
A world of spinifex pixels,

Baldwin Spencer saw a people stranded in time
Primitive, but not primordial,
Modern humans, who weren’t.

Tindale’s deep bed at Devon Downs had no dates;
But Mike from old fires and toe-bones helped make
A story with dates, and where possible names;
Traced it all forward
To where deep time meets memory, slides into history.
Motives become known; phonemes guessed.

Walking the land between rains
“Like a clock slowing down”,
Through its hushed-sand places where even to walk
Seems an act of reverence, part of
That endless fitting of bare feet to country,
He knew this high tropical plain
The height of a cloud above the coast.

So does the work end
In a book-choked study,
A time-travelling dream before dawn,
Coffee in hand,
Staffies snoring on your feet,
That becomes a vision, a linking hypothesis
That might take a century to prove?
Or in something pragmatic?
Perhaps a draft for a Minister, now it seems on-side,
About the First Peoples’ claim to lands
For a Constitution’s preamble?

… Well, we will go on searching.

[full text of poem not published here at the request of the author; please contact Mark O'Connor on mark@Australianpoet.com if anyone would like an electronic copy of the whole poem for their own interest]

Date published: 8 March 2013