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Launch of Collecting Cultures, a book about the 1948 expedition

Craddock Morton, 18 November 2009

CRADDOCK MORTON: Now look, I must say that in launching the book my comments are quite impressionistic. I’ve only had the book since yesterday afternoon, so I haven’t really had time to give it the attention that it clearly deserves. It does deserve a deeper and more considered read, and I am confident that this will be taken up in future reviews. But anyway, I’ll do my best.

Now I don’t know whether any of you remember John Stone. He used to be the Secretary of the Treasury and he was also, for some time, the Leader of the National Party in the Senate. John was a strange man; charming, but strange. I remember him telling the Parliament once that he used to lay in bed at night, next to his wife, reading her excerpts from the Public Accounts Committee reports. [laughter] I thought to myself, ‘There is a strong woman [laughter] – or alternatively, a deaf one.’ [laughter]

But anyway, I have to say that last night, I was lying in bed, next to my wife, reading the book. We started to talk about this sort of thing, but we didn’t get past the cover. We talked, first of all, about the wonderful photo and all the sorts of things you can get out of the photo. And then – and this is for the over 50s, I think – then we got on to the title. We talked about how academics love to use the gerund in a title. But the gerund in this title, ‘collecting’, is very appropriate. It is entirely appropriate because it implies continuity.

Continuity is a very important element in this book, and in the story of the 1948 expedition. I think it was William Faulkner who said, ‘The past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.’ That is particularly true, in relation to the expedition. It comes out very well in this book because, of course, we are still discovering aspects of the expedition. We will continue to do so. I think the book provides us with some very useful ways of being able to take that forward.

The gerund also implies, I think, the impossibility of the whole task. What exactly were these people doing in this act of collecting? What culture were they collecting? Were they collecting different cultures? Were they collecting what they liked? Were they jealously guarding their own patches of interest? This all comes out in the book, and it comes out very, very well.

The third aspect the gerund conveys is, I think, one of irony. The collecting wasn’t aimed at making a collection. From the outset, the various protagonists had their own plans about splitting the acquisitions up. It has never been a collection. It may become a collection now, as we start to use the wonders of the web to start talking about creating a portal where we can have access to the complete collection. But, certainly, the irony of collecting cultures is very much a part of the book, as you will see when you read it.

I think the book works on a number of different levels. First of all, it has to be said, it’s a ripping yarn. Remember, this is 1948. Seventeen people are going into a remote area. What they are doing is not really what their masters have decided that they are going to do. And this is something that Sally brings out in the book, and something that Kim Beazley spoke about yesterday. How they survived and did their job makes fascinating reading. At times it is almost ‘Conrad-ian’. At other times, it is more like Gilligan’s Island. [laughter] But it’s a fascinating picture of people at a time – and Sally reminds us – this is a time when apartheid was just being introduced in South Africa. It’s a time when the Berlin Wall was going up. It’s a time when the state of Israel was being created. And here is something that is happening in Australia, which is also of world significance. It is happening with a very small group of people in an area which, at the time and probably still, most Australians don’t know very well at all. So as a ripping yarn, as you read about the expedition and the trials and travails they faced and the way they overcome them, I think Sally conveys that extremely well.

You can also read it, I think, as a meditation on the human condition or rather on human frailty. This is particularly so, I think, in the reflection on the principal actors [Charles Percy] Mountford, [Frederick D] McCarthy, Gerry [Gerald] Blitner, and [Frank M] Setzler. And like all good authors, Sally leaves you to make up your own mind about the participants. I went through the book feeling a wave of conflicting emotions about Mountford, for example, who clearly is the key figure. What an excellent portrait of Mountford it is; a man who could have walked out of or into the pages of a Patrick White novel.

Going back to John Stone, I wonder what Mountford said to Mrs Mountford when he turned in for the night… [laughter] …as the situation sort of developed? I imagine their conversations would have been particularly interesting as the expedition went on and Mountford unraveled a bit. Mountford, in that sense, reminds me a little bit of Captain Cook on his third voyage. His health declines. Problems get harder and harder. Paranoia sets in. Things start to unravel. And, particularly after the attempt to replace him as a leader of the expedition, the whole atmospherics – the whole approach to his task – changes. This is very dramatic reading and I think Sally captures it very well indeed.

The third way it can be read, and an important way, is as a case study in the history of Australian anthropology.

When I was growing up, being a cricket fan, there always used to be a very important game on the cricket calendar in England. It was the Gentleman versus Players game. It basically put the idle rich and those who had nothing better to do, who also could play cricket quite well, against the professionals who had to play it for a living. There was always a great deal of interest in the result, and a great deal of feeling in Australia, I think, of total support for the players rather than the gentlemen.

But leave that aside. I’m always reminded of this when I read this book, because clearly there is a ‘gentlemen and players’ element in Australian anthropology at the time. I understand that John Mulvaney spoke about this a bit yesterday. And what comes across is how bloody nasty it could get at times. It was a hard business. People didn’t like each other. It wasn’t just that gentlemen didn’t like players. Professionals didn’t like professionals. Everybody wanted to carve out their own patch. They wanted to protect their own institution. The consequences, I think, were profound and still are profound for collecting institutions and for Australian anthropology. I think that’s another thing that comes across very well.

That leads into one of the keys that Sally has in the book, which is about the myths and politics of collecting in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War; how the people viewed what they were collecting; how they built their biases into their collections; how these biases transferred to the cultural institutions in the eventual split-up of the material; and how this has subsequently affected those institutions, and whether they are museums or galleries, and whether they realise it or not.

The third element in this history of anthropology, at the time, that comes through to me is the prevalence and perniciousness of Social Darwinism, and its effect on the collectors and their subjects. If I can quote Sally:

It is hard to understand that even as recently as 1948, people still believed that Aboriginal Australians were a dying race. Yet it was not as simple as believing the peoples themselves were dying out. It was the cultural death of Aboriginal Australia that they anticipated and feared – the polluting of cultural beliefs and practices by outside influences.

And I think this element comes through in the book very, very well indeed.

The fourth way you can read the book – and I think an important way, a very important way – is as an important step in the process of providing justice to Aboriginal people, and allowing them to reclaim their rightful role in the expedition. As Sally once again puts it:

There was a clear lack of understanding relating to the impact of the expedition on the Aboriginal men and women, who are considered the subjects of this research. There is no evidence to suggest that any consideration was given to the implications of this expedition for Aboriginal communities.

Clearly, from the book, it is not that the information was not available. They only had to ask. Hear Gerry Blitner, for example. He remembers warning Mountford that the ceremonies were not play dances, and that he must appreciate the Aboriginal sense of it all. Clearly, this fell on deaf ears.

This book, and this conference too, I’m pleased to say, allows the Aboriginal voices to be heard. As such, it reopens the expedition, and this is, I think, very important. It also sends a clear message to us, as collecting institutions, that unless we fully involve the Aboriginal communities in the presentation of their collections and in the accompanying information, we are seriously distorting the history we are trying to tell.

I won’t dwell on the removal of human remains. It is an episode of shame and sadness for us all. But the research that led to this book, happily, has prompted the return of a good number of those remains. I was most gratified, yesterday, to hear Kim Beazley express an interest in seeing the return of the remainder of the collections from the Smithsonian, in his capacity as Ambassador Designate to the United States. [applause] And that is an enormous step forward I think. Well done. [applause]

The fifth way you can read the book – and I’m almost finished – you can read it as an exhortation to collecting institutions to have a better understanding of what they are doing. It’s always a good thing for collecting institutions to have. Sally May quotes Susan Pearce:

Objects have lives which – though finite – can be very much longer than our own. They have the power, in some sense, to carry the past into the present by virtue of their real relationship to past events.

Particularly, Aboriginal objects, I might add, as Howard Morphy, for example, has argued powerfully, and to me, very convincingly.

Now, quoting Susan Pearce again:

Museums have appropriated culture in many ways. All of our collections were made with political agendas, albeit unconscious ones, in mind and all bear the indelible marks of the contexts from which they arose, once we choose to look at them.

At the end of May, I think we’ve learned this. We know it well. A recent example where we’ve had to come to terms with this was a debate with our council about the Queenie McKenzie painting of the ‘Mistake Creek Massacre’ and what place that had in the museum. It’s an important area, and one that we should never forget.

As Sally reminds us, museums have an obligation to try and understand themselves, so that they can understand more clearly what messages they are giving and how these are received. We can’t be reminded too often, I believe, of this most important responsibility.

So let me conclude by saying that this is a terrific book. Sorry I haven’t been able to do it justice in the short period of time. The book is informed by a great deal of knowledge about which there has been a considerable amount of thought. Yet I think it wears its learning lightly, and it’s a pleasure to read.

Sally, among many other activities, is currently a lecturer of heritage, museums and material culture in the Research School of Humanities, at the Australian National University. As such, she is responsible for training the next generation of museum and gallery curators. It is a great comfort to know that they are in such good hands.

So now, finally, it gives me great pleasure to proclaim this book, Collecting Cultures: Myth, Politics and Collaboration in the 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition by Dr Sally K May, launched. And I am confident that it will go much better than, for example, the barge Phoenix. Thank you very much indeed.

Date published: 16 March 2010