Book launch: Exploring the Legacy of the 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition
Andrew Sayers, Shane Mortimer, Martin Thomas, Anne McGrath, Professor Mandy Thomas and Margo Neale, 17 June 2011
ANDREW SAYERS: I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and pay my respects to your elders past and present, Shane. I am Andrew Sayers and I am the National Director of the National Museum of Australia. I would like to welcome you to the National Museum of Australia and the launch of this fabulous publication Exploring the legacy of the 1948 Arnhem Land expedition. I think everyone is amazed that this is an eBook. I think eBook used to be code for something that wasn’t quite a book but the mould has been broken - this really is a book. I have had the most enjoyable time reading it. It’s quite fantastic. It is a wonderful tribute to a lot of people and also to our partnerships.
The National Museum has been deeply committed for some time to the idea of developing meaningful partnerships. It makes perfect sense that the National Museum here on this peninsula sticking out into the lake adjacent to the Australian National University should have a series of natural partnerships with our national university. In fact, in the Museum’s strategic priorities for the next few years, we want to develop the range of partnerships even further. A part of that is also to make use of the extraordinary intellectual resource we have here in the Museum and in Canberra. That is also one of the focuses of our strategic priorities and I think this book is a great testament to that in action.
One of the other things we are very committed to doing at the Museum is to try to use and understand the collection of the Museum to its fullest extent. It’s a marvellous collection that we have in the Museum. This particular publication and the symposium which it grew from (Barks, Birds and Billabongs Symposium) was an attempt to understand more about the context and the content of a significant part of the National Museum’s collection. Many of the projects that we have in the next few years are collection oriented, and I think that’s a very good thing. The other dimension that I think is relevant to the discussion of this particular publication is that it has an international reach and will do a great deal to enhance both the Museum’s reputation and the ANU’s reputation internationally. The international dimension is extremely significant in this marvellous publication.
I would just like to thank a few people. I would like to acknowledge Margo Neale and I would also like to acknowledge the other institutions who have supported the project with the National Museum in various ways. I would particularly like to acknowledge Howard Morphy, a great supporter of the Museum and colleague. AITSIS, the Australian Institute of Torres Strait Islander Studies, also had a major role in this symposium. I would like to thank Russ Taylor very much for that. I would like to acknowledge the National Library of Australia’s role in this partnership - Margie Burn, Kevin Bradley and Shelly Grant - and also the National Film and Sound Archive of which Anne Landrigin is the current acting CEO. It’s the best sort of collaboration between national cultural institutions. A lot of people think we don’t collaborate but a lot of people don’t realise that the national cultural institutions are talking all the time about collections, about ways of helping each other and about telling stories which are important to Australia.
Finally, I would also like to thank the Embassy of the United States of America who were hugely important in prosecuting this particular project. There is such a significant dimension of Australian and American collaboration that not only led to the expedition in 1948 but also continues so we are very thankful and appreciative of the support shown by the United States Embassy. I know that the current ambassador is one of the Museum’s greatest fans so that’s fabulous.
That is all I have to say in welcoming you to the National Museum, and I will hand back over to Margo.
MARGO NEALE: Thank you very much, Andrew. Andrew was once the new director and now he has passed the 12-month mark and made his mark, so as to speak, so he’s not so new, but he is truly a great advocate for all things Indigenous in the Museum - from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and participation, various sorts of engagements and programs. So watch this space.
I would like now to invite Ngambri elder Shane Mortimer, whose family connections to this area go back tens of thousands of years on his Aboriginal side. On his other side, you may be interested to know, he’s a descendant of James Ainslie, thus the suburb, who was a Scottish pastoralist and who was the first overseer of the property Duntroon, which was named after his not so minor castle in Scot land where he retreated after some 20 years or so here. I would like to allow Mr Mortimer to introduce himself in the most appropriate way. Thank you, Shane.
SHANE MORTIMER: Margo, let me first acknowledge you: in the last 30 years or more in this country Margo has been a great friend to the Ngambri people and has been very inclusive of our people in this land that is named after my family. Canberra derives its name from the Ngambri people. Ngambri was anglicised to ‘Kamberri’ by Joshua John Moore, the first land grab recipient in the area, and then Lady Denman, then wife of the governor, in 1913 proclaimed to be Canberra to be Canberra. That is where the name Canberra came from, in case you wondered. Margo, in acknowledgment of our friendship and the friendship of the Ngambri people, I would like you to accept this photograph.
It’s my pleasure to make you very welcome to Ngambri country today following on from Andrew Sayers’ words. Andrew, I take great comfort in your directorship of the Museum here on the Ngambri corroboree ground. I think in your good care it’s in good partnership with the Ngambri people, following on your theme of partnership. To Martin [Thomas] and also to Margo, congratulations on all the hard work that you have done in bringing this book to fruition with your editorialship.
I would like to very quickly perform a simple dusting ceremony on behalf of my people. This is an ochre ceremony that is very ancient, and I acknowledge in doing this my ancestors and the elders past and present of this land. There is a very good reason for this: you simply toss the dirt or the ochre into the air and it rises; and, as it falls, so too do our differences and we are united as one. In my Bogala language I say to you: Indigenous language spoken - welcome to Ngambri country. Thank you. [applause]
MARGO NEALE: Thank you very much, Shane, for that inspiring and genuine welcome to country. I would also like to say that at the National Museum of Australia we plan to reinstitute a right of reply to a welcome, which Shane describes as an edification process. That’s a very big word but I am sure it means lots that encompasses both the past, present and future. In terms of the past, as a longstanding member of this community, and I have known Shane Mortimer in various ways over those years, we have been part of sharing this space on this country. As a Ngambri elder he is strong in culture, being on the land of his ancestors, but he is forging ahead as a future. He has taken responsibility on a range of issues for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, including he is very heavy into land rights and native title in the ACT - so watch your back yards. But you are far too enlightened to worry about that. It’s all leasehold, don’t forget. I have already secured mine. I have put my name on the native title claim.
It’s really great to see you all here. It’s a great response to our invitation. A really good trick is always put ‘places limited’ on the invitation because we had a full house two weeks in advance - that is based on my own experience of not answering these things quickly enough. However, we have lost a few people along the way. There is a dreaded lurgy hovering around and as you know there is something rather dreadful happening over at the Diamante (fire at the hotel), which is pretty dreadful. I have been fielding a few calls from people who have been held up by the police blocks on the way.
I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge some important elders and distinguished scholars. I am not doing it alphabetically, I am ordering it kind of by age, which is a little dangerous because I am taking a few wild guesses here. Never mind, if your name is mentioned you should be reasonably happy. Amongst our elders here tonight, as far as I can see, is Emeritus Professor John Mulvaney who I am always delighted to see coming to these events. He is inextinguishable. Then there is Ian and Rosemary Dunlop who may or may not have made it. I think the lurgy might have got them, but in any event I would like you to hear me acknowledge them. They have been great warriors for Indigenous issues and history along the way. Then I know Betty Meehan is here, who similarly has had a long history with our mob in various ways, Isobel McBride, and the younger of the set that I can see to mention here is Howard Morphy.
The scenes that you see behind me are from the Barks, Birds and Billabongs International Symposium organised by the Museum in November 2009 that commemorated the 1948 expedition - of course you all know that because that’s why you are all here - and in turn generated this book. I hasten to add that it’s not a conference proceedings. The book contains very well developed chapters by 20 important scholars that reflect the synergies between the papers at the conference. They were worked on afterwards. They also reflect the degree of Indigenous participation at that symposium given that the whole symposium was about the legacy, much of which is directed towards the true legatees of this whole exercise.
In the symposium I wanted to capture something of the collaborative spirit of the 1948 expedition 60 years on, which hopefully has carried over into the book. So in the launch I similarly want to give you a little sense of the times, although this is footage from the conference. But for those who were here early - and we will play it again later – you would have heard a soundscape that was recorded in 1948 at the Red Lily Lagoon, which is near current-day Gunbalunya, and recorded by Ray Giles for Colin Simpson of Adam and Ochre fame for documentaries in 1948. This is called ‘actuality’. I call it a very new and pioneering thing to include actual sounds from real places.
The footage you saw earlier is also original footage from the 1948 expedition across the three Arnhem Land bases and was filmed by the National Geographic Society, who was also a partner in this symposium.
The multiple voices, which you will hear tonight, is similarly designed to echo in some small way the multiple voices that characterised the expedition, the symposium and the book. Each of those aspects is across disciplines, across countries, across cultures and across institutions, some of which Andrew has already mentioned, as well as internationally the Smithsonian and the National Geographic Society who were part of the original expedition 60 years ago.
I would also like to thank ANU E Press - I don’t know whether Duncan Beard is here, because I think a lurgy got him – to Nic Peterson and any other member of the board who may be here with you, it was a delight to work with you. I would also acknowledge our very own NMA Press because it’s a co-publishing venture. I want to thank the my colleagues at the NMA and beyond for their support and assistance, particularly the Centre for Historical Research with the leader of the gang here, Peter Stanley, who did a very wise thing and let me have my head. He was not troubled by anything, it just happened and I am sure he will support that.
Last but not least is my deepest gratitude to my trusty assistants, particularly those who were on the ride from beginning to end in various ways: Rowena [Dickins-Morrison] and Sonja [Balaga], and also at different parts along the way came Katherine Aigner and Rebecca Richards, who is also here.
Our major sponsor for this event is FaHCSIA, and they are represented here tonight by Kerrie Tim. She heads up the Indigenous leadership and engagement group and was instrumental in making the most important thing possible, which was to bring down the biggest mob of Arnhem Landers, 25 or more, give or take a few, to attend the symposium. And I have to tell you that it took no convincing at all. I didn’t even get to open my information pack. I had sent her home with it but she had already said yes. This works very well with what FaHCSIA do in this area.
Now I am going to show you three 2-minute video voices. These are special messages from three participants who couldn’t be here and I think what they have to say is very worth while. The first one is Kim Beazley, and you can read what he has to say in chapter 3 of the book called ‘Nation building or cold war’.
KIM BEAZLEY: Already this symposium on the Arnhem Land expedition has had a substantial diplomatic effect, and this book now containing the developed theses that were produced by many scientists and those engaged with the various disciplines associated with reporting on the expedition will simply strengthen what has already been a very good diplomatic effect.
In my time as ambassador in the United States, having participated in the original symposium, it was enormously pleasing to see the impact on the Smithsonian of the issue of whether or not Aboriginal remains should be returned - an issue which has had no progress for a lengthy period of time has suddenly been transformed, and it has transformed as a direct result of the symposium that we held.
I think what this book will do when it hits the United States, and probably even further afield, will be to operate at several levels. At one level it will enhance Australian and American scientific cooperation. It is such a good compendium of what was such an enormously significant expedition - situating it in its time but also situating it in terms of its scientific impact. That will be one layer.
At another layer it will have a very substantial impact on the way in which the rest of the world sees Indigenous Australia and Indigenous Australian issues. Already our Indigenous community is powerfully influential globally. Every piece of reporting on interactions between our Indigenous community and further afield enhances, builds and contributes to that very important facet of Australia’s external diplomacy and appearances.
This is a truly significant book launching of a truly significant piece of work, building on a very significant conference, which of course was a reiteration, a remembrance and a commemoration of what was an absolutely crucial scientific expedition in its day and an absolutely critical part of the origins of the Australian-American relationship.
MARGO NEALE: Thank you, Kim. Another person who was given the opportunity to take a couple of minutes to send a message was Joy Williams Malwagag from Croker Island. Now Croker Island, as you may know, was not one of the three camps but it had a really intriguing involvement, which you can read about in chapter 16. It’s all about the American clever man. We have a fabulous little doco they made especially for the opening. Joy decided that she would like to use this opportunity for this particular gathering in Canberra to not speak particularly about the symposium but to say something that is really close to her heart. This is Joy Williams Malwagag.
JOY WILLIAMS MALWAGAG: (Indigenous language spoken)
Introduction shown on screen: Joy Williams Malwagag made a joint presentation with Sabine Hoeng on the ‘Croker Island Artists’ at the Birds Barks and Billabongs Symposium in Canberra in 2009. Unfortunately, Joy is not well enough to attend this launch in person. However, she wishes you all well, and would like to take this opportunity to share the following thoughts with those in attendance today.
English translation: I used to teach the children in their language when they were little. We used to talk to them in Iwaidja all the time. Now, when the indigenous staff at the school try to teach in their own language, they can’t. The government doesn’t want that. We’d like to know why. We just want to be able to teach in our own languages - Iwaidja. Kunwinjku. Kunbarlang. What else? Gurrgoni, Kunabidji, Nakara. What’s that all about? Why don’t the government want that? We just want to know.
Text on screen: In 2009 the Northern Territory implemented a policy which further marginalised the use of indigenous languages in schools by requiring that English be used exclusively as the language of instruction for the first four hours of every school day. Thus children are expected to learn in a foreign language, while their teachers require no training in ESL.
English translation: Like now, when we call to our children, ‘Children, Come on, let’s go!’ they turn to us and say ‘Where?’ in English. They don’t say, ‘Nganduka?’, as we say in Iwaidja. Or when we say to them, ‘Children, could you bring that over here for me?’ ‘What you want?’ they ask us. They speak to us in English. We ask them: ‘Why don’t you speak your own language?’ The language the old people gave to us. The language spoken by our ancestors. That’s your own language. But they just keep on speaking English.
I don’t what the government are doing. They always change direction. The government. Every year it’s something different. Just like what – the sea. Or like when the wind changes. That’s what the government does. They don’t want us to speak in our own language. Not at all. I don’t know why they don’t like our languages. I don’t get it. We don’t understand.
Text on screen: Australia’s indigenous languages are a vanishing national treasure. For more information on Iwaidja and other highly endangered languages of Northwestern Arnhem Land, visit http://www.iwaidja.org
MARGO NEALE: I am sure you will agree it’s very moving.
The third and last one we have for you tonight - there were more but we thought three might do you - is Professor Ian McIntosh, who is at Indiana University. His chapter is chapter 17 called ‘Missing the revolution’ and it deals with Macassans. It is fantastic and contains some very revealing material. He’s one of the few people to talk about this point, which you will read about in chapter 17. Here is Ian Mackintosh.
IAN MCINTOSH: Greetings from Indiana University in Indianapolis. I have two minutes to send my words of congratulations for a job well done to the whole National Museum of Australia team - Margo, Martin, Sonja - what an achievement. Your conference on the American-Australian expedition to Arnhem Land was a landmark event. What really stood out for me were two things: first was the strong Aboriginal participation in critiquing the expedition’s legacy in all its aspects; and second, the manner in which you worked so closely with conference participants. This was a first in my experience. I know of no other conference so dedicated to the spirit of collaboration.
Martin, for example, you sent me a number of documents relating to the expedition that I would not otherwise have had access to. These documents, as well as your review of my drafts and also an anonymous review by one of my peers, greatly informed my analysis of what was undoubtedly one of the most significant legacies of the expedition: the adjustment movement in Arnhem Land inspired by my friend and confidant the late David Burrumarra MBE. This was the sort of event that would have thrilled the Warramiri leader, given that the focus of his life’s work was on promoting Indigenous cultures and rights as the foundation of a just and equitable Australian society.
In his biography and related papers I wrote in considerable detail about the Mountford era and, given my close relationship to Burrumarra, I was invited to attend this conference. Unfortunately I could not be there in person but I was able to present my paper via video conference, which was an experience in itself. Margo and Martin, putting together this special volume is the icing on the cake, as they say. I look forward to see seeing it. Congratulations once again, and keep me posted on your next project. I think it’s time to have such an event on the legacy of the Macassans in north Australia, and we can bring in Islam and the legacy of Christian missions and so on. But whatever the topic, you can count me in. Thank you. [applause]
MARGO NEALE: So you can see he’s bringing yet another perspective to light which is not generally known. It is my pleasure now to introduce you to Dr Martin Thomas. Apart from being the co-editor and a fellow traveller over the past four years in various ways, currently he holds one of the prestigious ARC (Australian Research Council) futures fellowships and is based at the Australian Centre for Indigenous History at ANU in the history program. He is working on a definitive volume, or maybe even volumes, on the expedition. I was trying to think of what I could define him as - you know that expression and if I had done my research I could have tell you who said it – that he is a gentleman and a scholar. Anyone who knows Martin will know that’s him to a T. He’s so easy to work with. I think he would say the same about me, no trouble at all, no frisson at all. He’s just such a gentleman. Please welcome Martin.
MARTIN THOMAS: Thank you, Margo. It seems we have so many people talking about the book and I am not going to really say anything about it at all. Thank you all for coming through the travails of sickness, fire and cold that Canberra has thrown up for us tonight. Firstly, I would like to thank the contributors to the volume and to the symposium that preceded it but particularly to acknowledge the writers who are here tonight: Ursula Frederick, Robyn McKenzie, Louise Hamby and Margo Daly; and one very other important voice in the volume is Professor Raymond Specht, who is not only the subject of several chapters and contributed his oral history but is one of the two survivors of the 1948 Arnhem Land expedition. Thank you Ray. (Applause) Thank you for being one of the few people who could get through the volcanic cloud. He has come down from Brisbane. It stopped others from getting out but it didn’t stop Ray from getting in.
I would like to acknowledge some other guests here tonight who are family or descendants and representatives of people who were also directly involved in the expedition. Benjamin Lang, who is the grandson of Gerald Blitner, I would like to welcome you. Ian and Beth Marshal, who are representing Peter Bassett Smith, the cinephotographer on the Arnhem Land expedition, who is the second survivor. He celebrated his 100th birthday in January, and I think that in itself explains why he is not here tonight in person. He sent his delegates though. Terry Hanish, who I have not met but who is, I gather, the grandson of CP Mountford, the leader of the expedition. And Elaine Murphy, who is the daughter of Captain Walter Murphy, who was one of the camp commandants. Finally, I would like to acknowledge Andrew Bray, who is the son of expedition cook John Bray. Andrew and his wife Georgia are here tonight, a warm welcome. Andrew was flushed out by the publicity relating to the symposium and turned up, introduced himself and said, ‘I have something that might interest you: my father’s journal.’ So we do in fact have the cook’s diary of the Arnhem Land expedition and it’s quite a read. It does not disappoint, I can promise you.
Finally, I would like to thank my co-editor Margo for bringing this whole event to fruition. Again, you have acknowledged Katherine Aigner, Rowena Dickins-Morrison and Sonja Balaga who have worked very hard on this project. Generally beyond that, see the acknowledgments because I couldn’t begin to say thank you to everyone who has been involved. When I first met Margo and realised your position was principal adviser to the director, it sounded like an isolated thing, but what happened was the way Margo brought in the incredible talents and forces of the Museum and of the wider Canberra community into this project, as we have heard.
I will say goodbye with one little update. I am very proud of the book. I think it’s a pretty fabulous object in its own right but it is a stepping stone. It’s about the legacy of the Arnhem Land expedition, and this keeps continuing well beyond the book. Only yesterday I heard from colleagues in Arnhem Land and, as you heard from Kim Beazley, that as a result of the symposium the Smithsonian agreed to release the rest of the human remains that had been taken in 1948 from its collection. I had the great honour of travelling with three delegates from Arnhem Land who went and collected those remains last year and took them back. They are just preparing a reburial ceremony at Oenpelli, also known as Gunbalanya, at the moment that is going to occur I believe on 19 July. An extraordinary process is going on there where Steve Webb, who was one of the speakers on our repatriation panel and a physical anthropologist, has been called up there. Steve is going through and sorting out all these bones that have come back and identifying them according to sex, meal and female. Then he is further arranging them, putting together those bones that belong to a single person. Then under the instructions of a very senior man there, Jacob Nayinmggul each of those person’s bones are being wrapped in paper bark. An incredible symbol of the way things have moved on since the expedition is initially these bones being taken in the cause of physical anthropology, and now Steve, a physical anthropologist, is there helping doing that essential work of identification so that they can now be returned to the ground. They will be buried in the earth but wrapped in paper bark, each one as an individual person, with that sense of individuality restored. It’s a kind of story that who knows where it’s going to end, but I would really like to thank the National Museum for being involved in this. Thank you. [applause]
MARGO NEALE: So you can see the legacy lives on. Thank you very much, Martin, for that insight. Even now every other week something happens. I didn’t show you footage by Josh Harris, an ex-National Geographic Society man, but it reminds us that miles of footage was found that no-one knew existed on this whole expedition. There is stuff turning up everywhere. Some of the beautiful bark Mountford paintings were done on paper but were in the South Australian Library. The South Australian Library recorded them under manuscripts, being on paper, so no-one even knew there were all these extra fabulous images. It has activated a whole range of research across a whole range of disciplines in lots of different countries and in archives who are now stimulated to do something with it.
On the vagaries of weather, as you can see from the invitation, the pro vice-chancellor Mandy Thomas is billed to launch this book. But what you don’t know is somewhere in between her boss, the VC, decided to dispatch her to the land of the long white cloud. So Ann McGrath filled the breach. Then a little while further this whimsical ash cloud hovered between Australia and New Zealand, and Professor Mandy Thomas couldn’t go. You are really lucky you have two launchers tonight: the last one is probably the real one and a supporting act - this is one for the books - and they will not disappoint you.
I will invite Professor Ann McGrath to say a few words. She has a very long association with the Museum, as long as we have lived in this capacity. Some may not know she was a senior curator at the National Museum in the opening years working on the original blockbusters that were here. Then she became the inaugural head of the Australian Centre for Indigenous History which she now heads up and has done amazing things. But probably the most telling of her many innovative achievements - I say this because it’s relevant to everything we have spoken about tonight - can be summed up in the honorary doctorate that she has just received from the Linnaeus University in Sweden for her amazing contribution to historical research in the fields of Indigenous projects and post-colonialism in new media.
What she has done and why the Museum could hook in in various ways is that she is following up the way blackfellas tell history, without using the discourse words, so looking at other ways of telling histories through art, IT, films and a whole range of things. I won’t steal her thunder any more because she will probably say something about that. She brazenly goes into areas that others fear to tread and often receives a few bruises on the way. Her integrity and courage to pioneer in locking into the way we tell our histories is really appreciated. Thank you, Ann.
ANN McGRATH: People often say it’s a hard act to follow, but I am not sure which act is the hardest to follow. What we have heard so far has been amazing. This book and this whole project is a hard act to follow as well. I would like to honour the traditional custodians and thank you for your wonderful welcome tonight. I am very pleased to speak on this occasion and I will be brief.
I am very proud of this wonderful book’s strong association with the Australian Centre for Indigenous history at the ANU. It is a great example of scholarship and also of the rich treasures that can be offered when the National Museum Press gets together with the ANU E Press. Martin Thomas is an ARC future fellow with our centre, as Margo has already told you. Martin is a very productive, imaginative and eloquent scholar, as you will find when you read the beautiful writing in the book. Of great assistance to PhD students, he is also a great model of scholarship. His research is innovative. It goes in fresh historical direction that include, for example, radio broadcasting, the kind of thing most historians generally ignore, and here he brings his own technical expertise and insight from actually being a practitioner in the field.
Margo Neale, well everybody knows who she is but she is sitting over there. She is actually an adjunct professor at the Australian Centre for Indigenous History. She has always facilitated and encouraged a strong collaboration of research between ANU and the National Museum of Australia.
We had one large Australian Research Council grant which was called ‘Unsettling histories: Indigenous modes of historical practice’, and wonderfully this actually created an association with the fantastic Emily Kngwarreye exhibition. Consequently I was fortunate enough to go to the openings in both Osaka and Tokyo, and they were hugely successful. I got a photo of Margo with the Princess and all that kind of thing. It was a huge hit. A lot of people don’t think of art as being associated with history. We have had a lot of great discussions about how Indigenous art is a very strong way of telling country, telling life story, telling history.
Then there was another Australian Research Council linkage grant with the National Museum and our centre called ‘Indigenous collectors and collecting’ with once again Margo as a partner investigator. It resulted in excellent training for a PhD student. She wrote a fantastic thesis but also she was trained in-house by the Museum in collections, in research, in running conferences and so many fantastic things. She did so well that she got rave reports and was recommended for a prize by her examiners. Not only that, she put her hat in the ring for a very prestigious postdoctoral scholarship at Gothenburg University in Sweden in a big new research workshop in heritage studies. Out of all the people in the world who applied, she was one of the three that were successful. So we really feel this is the kind of opportunity that only flowed because of this fantastic collaboration and her wonderful unique training that was clearly recognised by this very competitive European-funded process.
All of these projects are the kinds of projects that don’t end when the money stops: they continue and lead to other projects. Reading the book on the Arnhem Land expedition, it’s fascinating the way in which the authors each present a different window into the world of the history of this expedition and its Indigenous participants. Without going into any detail, because that will come soon, I loved the way Martin Thomas made such lovely observations about what it was like to be there that you almost feel you could walk around in the time of the expedition. The very posed-looking tableau on the cover gives you a great sense of what’s inside the book, because you do get a sense of the grit and even the fights and biffo that is going on between the different participants, the tensions, but it all ends up being a pretty positive happy ending.
Philip Jones’ chapter promises to get inside Mountford’s tent, and in many ways he does do that, reminding people of the difficulties of leading anything but perhaps also giving us courage that it might all be worth it. Then we have seen ANU’s previous chancellor Kim Beazley, now Australia’s ambassador to the US, who recognised the importance of this and also wrote an excellent article.
The cross-cultural insights into the ripples caused by the expedition come out clearly in the book. The conflicts that the expedition created within the Indigenous societies, within the expedition itself and between both are beautifully drawn. There is no censorship or trying to smooth over the rifts here. The role of people like Gerry Blitner come out so clearly and powerfully.
Margo’s witty conclusion touches on the experience of the symposium itself and issues of repatriation. But the whole project reveals a respectful revisiting of history and provides a respectful examination through visual, oral, three-dimensional plus the multidimensionalism of the participants and their descendants who also participate in the symposium.
The book shows its acknowledgment of the elders, both the scientific elders and the Indigenous knowledge custodians. Where participants are no longer living, the efforts that were made to bring the sons, daughters and descendants here to share their knowledge and to create a real tangible peopled connection is very impressive and something the National Museum has a track record of doing really well.
For example, there was a Blitner and a Harney at the symposium and many of the leading scientific elders, Australian and American, were there, and they all received the honours due to them and the respectful and fascinated audience hearing. They certainly felt honoured by the wonderful symposium. The symposium demonstrates yet again the power of the space of the National Museum of Australia to bring the nation together and to honour its history but also to bring that history to the attention of the wider world, especially in this case the US.
The book makes the achievement of the symposium so much more permanent and so much more google-able, as it’s an e-publication. Mandy Thomas is going to say a lot more than me about engaging with the book itself. But without giving anything away - there is nothing worse than people telling you about the ending of a book - finally I will say the book does end with a nice quote from Mountford that both Margo and Martin might well take on as their motto. While I won’t tell you what it is, it involves a dog, ideas and fleas. I therefore look forward to the editors’ next big ideas and our next fruitful collaboration. Thank you. [applause]
MARGO NEALE: Thank you very much, Ann. Now we are going to get to the main course, and that’s Professor Mandy Thomas who is the pro vice-chancellor - a woman of grace, gentleness and humility is what I decided to think up for you. She is very tough on the inside and being a woman in a male-dominant domain such as universities in general - I won’t say ANU in particular because actually there are too many of you here - is quite a remarkable achievement. There is no doubt she will have some amazing insights on the book which she has read cover to cover online. Thank you, Mandy.
MANDY THOMAS: Thank you very much. It’s now more than 60 years since the American-Australian scientific expedition launched their exploration into Arnhem Land. It was in 1948 that 15 men and two women set out on their seven-month excursion, adventure or odyssey into Arnhem Land with 47 tonnes of equipment and provisions. This superb book has revealed that the excursion remains one of the most important and ambitious expeditions and experiments ever mounted in Australia. The large global audience that were exposed to the Arnhem Land expedition through National Geographic increased the profile of Indigenous Australians and of Australia to the world. This volume explores why it was so important at the time - it was front-page news - and involved both politics and science, and why it continues to be of critical value today.
Firstly, what were the expedition’s aims? From this volume it’s clear that most of the people who went on the expedition were not fully aware of the wider political ramifications of their trip. The first aim of the trip, as outlined in a private letter between Mountford and the head of the National Geographic Society, was to establish a good neighbour policy and scientific cooperation between the United States of America and Australia. Another aim was to determine the food resources of land and sea as data for future military operations.
Clearly international politics and propaganda played an important role in the expedition. The book explains that it is not certain how much the members of the expedition were aware of this, however, for what they had clearly in their mind was an investigation into the Indigenous people and the environment of Arnhem Land from numerous disciplinary perspectives. In addition to an ethnographer, archaeologist, photographer and film-maker, the expedition included a botanist, a mammologist, an aetiologist - a person who studies fish - an ornithologist, and a team of medical and nutritional scientists. They visited three base camps: Groote Island, Yirrkala and Oenpelli, now Gunbalanya.
It seems that the original organisers of the expedition believed that Arnhem Land’s cultures were fast disappearing and that somehow they needed to be captured in their pristine environment. This was clearly absurd, and the surprise with which expedition members found out that Aboriginal people in Arnhem Land clearly had a much greater insight into the issues at stake and the reasons for the expedition is now quite apparent. While it now appears that the expedition was the end of empire, a sort of historical re-enactment, as described by Anne Clarke and Ursula Frederick in their article in the book, it was partly so because of the very long time it took to get the chronicles of the expedition published. The fourth and final volume was not out in published form until 1964.
Why was the 1948 Arnhem Land expedition so important, so critical to the thinking of the period and signalling such a point of change in the thinking of the times? Firstly, as Martin Thomas points out, the concept of an expedition already seemed archaic. The sorts of ethical concerns that confront us today seem profoundly at odds with the meaning behind the 1948 expedition. As Thomas points out:
That is, the notion of an expedition was already anachronistic when the Arnhem Land expedition set forth but, by the time the published works were out, it seemed all but a distant memory. The logistical challenges of putting together the symposium and this book were immense. This is because the journey involved was by nature transnational and involved the collaboration of many different sponsors and partners in two countries - among them the National Geographic Society, the Smithsonian institution, and various agencies of the Commonwealth of Australia.
Out of the expedition came volumes of scientific publications, kilometres of film, thousands of photographs, tens of thousands of scientific specimens, and a vast array of artefacts and paintings from across Arnhem Land. At the same time, the politics of the period meant that Australia’s national security concerns were at stake. An understanding of Australia’s north was of great relevance to defence, along with managing the alliance between the US and Australia, as outlined by Kim Beazley in his chapter.
There was indeed path-breaking research undertaken as part of the expedition. One such research area was exemplified in Jon Altman’s chapter on the utilisation of wild life and food gathering techniques in Arnhem Land. He showed that the 1948 expedition research undertaken by Margaret McArthur and her colleagues was remarkable and provided a baseline which remains very useful today. The research indicated that in 1948 Aboriginal people could meet their dietary needs, consuming only naturally occurring foods with reasonably modest labour input. Altman also reveals how remarkably resilient the customary sector has remained over the 60-year period. I would like to acknowledge Betty Meehan in the audience tonight. Betty also did some extremely important work mentioned in the book on the utilisation of wild food in Arnhem Land.
Another great innovation of the expedition were the recordings of the rock art. Frederick McCarthy and Frank Setzler recorded rock art, described by Clarke and Frederick in this volume as the most detailed recording of Groote Island rock art published to date marking a definitive period in the development of rock art research in Australia.
Likewise, the presence of an archaeological team when Australian archaeology was in its infancy was extremely significant. The scale of the project was enormous and it’s never been repeated, mostly because of the change in archaeological methods and professional standards. It was thus both a relic of an earlier era of archaeology and a pioneer in its establishment of archaeology as a legitimate discipline representing a major sea change in the field. It was only in 1962, a few years later, that John Mulvaney announced the findings of Pleistocene dates in Kenneth Cave in Queensland.
In addition to more traditional ethnographic material that was collected, string figures were also collected by Frederick McCarthy, as outlined in the wonderful chapter by Robyn McKenzie. Likewise, Louise Hamby presents a chapter on the collection of fibre objects, mostly baskets, by the ethnographers as part of a larger material culture collection. She reveals there were more fibre objects than bark paintings that were collected.
Other fascinating aspects of the story are the discovery and preservation of the films of the expedition, which hopefully we will soon all have access to. Raymond Specht, the plant ecologist from South Australia and here tonight, also provided an extraordinary botanical collection from the expedition, including ecological surveys and vegetation maps. This comprehensive work is of vital use today and has created a botanical collection of national and international significance, as argued by Lyn McCarthy in her chapter in the volume. Thank you very much, Raymond. [applause]
Many of the fascinating aspects and contradictions of the expedition are drawn on in the book. To begin with, the anomalous although central figure of Charles Mountford. Charles Mountford was clearly a difficult person who almost lost the leadership of the group while the expedition was being enacted. His obsession with collecting Aboriginal art was, he said, because he wanted to save it from extinction. He has often been described as arrogant and ill-informed. Nevertheless, his volume on bark paintings remains one of the most detailed and accurate records of Aboriginal material culture ever produced. He was a man of many contradictions: at one moment being a very careful ethnographer; and at other moments being immune to the wider ethnographic material that was presented to him. An example of this is when he was organising the expedition to document a ritual and at the same time insisting that people involved get out of their trousers and into more traditional gear. As Denise Chapman and Suzy Russell show in their chapter on Mountford, while detractors may have questioned his scientific credibility, scholars have subsequently acknowledged that much of the work contributed to the popularisation of Aboriginal art both in Australia and overseas. Philip Jones argues that Mountford achieved more success than any other individual in promoting Aboriginal art, and his collection formed the basis of Aboriginal collections in Australian art museums.
Another chapter of note is Bruce Birch’s chapter on the way in which American David Johnson, a mammologist, was viewed by Aboriginal people at the time of the expedition as the ‘American clever man’. Birch reveals this story provides a rare insight into how Indigenous people of Arnhem Land tried to make sense of the alien culture that was thrust upon them, the result of the interaction of two distinct culturally-reinforced world views.
One of the controversial aspects of the expedition was the collection of human remains that you have heard of from the burial sites by Franz Setzler. The issue was finally resolved with the repatriation of the remains from the Smithsonian. This was only very recent and caused great concern, anger and sadness in Arnhem Land. Indeed, this book shows how much the world has changed in just 40 years. It gives examples of how the return and re-evaluation of the artefacts of the expedition have led to a re-interpretation of events and how the past has now attained a different value.
One example of this is Marrett and Barwick’s account of the way that dancer David Rankin has written recently subtly alluded to the past in his choice of movements in the dances he performs. This was no mere emulation of the past but rather a moment in which new meanings were generated. Indeed, the recordings that were made at the time of the expedition are now widely disseminated within the community, and there is a store of material that has huge value to contemporary society.
One of the most fascinating chapters is Martin Thomas’ piece on Gerald Blitner, one of the people hired by the expedition party, whose mother was Aboriginal and whose father was white. Martin was able to interview Gerald before he died in 2008. By hunting through all the wealth of material on the Arnhem Land expedition, Thomas was able to see the way that Gerald was overlooked or ignored by the expedition’s chroniclers of the period. He is able to show how race was one of the defining fault-lines of history of the research venture. This chapter is a stunning historiographical tour de force. Thomas analyses the huge mixture of media available: the 2000 pages of written reports, the film, audio and photographic records, the collections of fauna and flora, and all the telegrams and financial paperwork available, and the examination of Blitner’s testimonial in conversations with these collections. Thomas reveals a stunning lack of interest in mixed race people by the expedition. Even as a photographic subject, Blitner was kept outside the frame, except for one photograph where he’s totally obscured because of the lighting - perhaps even deliberately.
Finally, in the last chapter there is a very moving account of the community participation and the private anniversaries, which was such an important element of the symposium. Margo Neale suggests in this epilogue that an online research portal would now provide an obvious way forward to bring forth new mechanisms to keep the expedition alive and to address the dispersal of the collections and photographs to the people who were intimately involved and who are not represented directly in the book.
In spite of the enormous interest on the part of the media and the scientific attention that it drew, the American-Australian scientific expedition into Arnhem Land has only recently been re-evaluated for its significance by the authors of this book. The symposium that was held here at the National Museum of Australia in 2009 helped to bring into centrality the Indigenous perspectives that were marginalised 60 years ago. Margo Neale recounts a very moving reunion of Indigenous and non-Indigenous descendants and the two surviving expeditioners that were held prior to the symposium. Here many stories were recounted of the expedition, and histories were shared. In spite of what was often called ‘journalistic treasure hunting’, as described by Murray Garde in his chapter on recording ceremony, there is now the possibility of the return of this important culture information to the communities which are reacquainting themselves with this material. This book has re-animated and re-evaluated the expedition and is an enduring record of time past and of how the past becomes integrated into the present.
By examining the nature of the impact of the Arnhem Land expedition we can see that the conflicted views about Aboriginal futures that exist today were already there in 1948. But this work has only just begun. As Thomas points out in his introduction, the book itself creates tensions. The amount of scholarship available on the expedition is not yet aligned with the unprecedented scale and the importance of the expedition itself. Clearly, our full understanding of the significance of the expedition is just beginning to emerge. This splendid book has taken us on the first steps of a fascinating and important journey for contemporary Australia. Congratulations to Martin and Margo and to all the authors of this truly marvellous book. Thank you. [applause]
MARGO NEALE: Thank you very much, Mandy. That was a paper we should pop into the book. It was so insightful, you put so much thought and energy into it. We do appreciate that. I know it’s been quite a long journey but I don’t think it’s been uneventful or unpleasant. You are released from your seats now, and once again thank you everyone very much for coming. It’s really appreciated. There are so many amazing people in this room. It’s all about quality not quantity. You have heard so many people referenced here in relation to their book, their research, their pasts and lineage. By the way Terry Hanish actually lives in Queanbeyan - this is Mountford’s grandson. We found him in Queanbeyan. He and his mates have this fabulous flag from the expedition just in a garage at his brother’s place. Thank you very much and please help yourself to the drinks and I hope you enjoy the book. [applause]
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Date published: 12 August 2011