An investigation of collections of Aboriginal artefacts and natural history specimens in Australian institutions, collected by Dr Herbert Basedow
David Kaus, National Museum of Australia, 2 July 2009
CAROLYN FORSTER: I would like to welcome you all this evening and acknowledge the Indigenous people whose land we are on tonight. Tonight David Kaus is going to speak to us about the work that he has done with the Fellowship. David is a senior curator at the National Museum of Australia and has worked for the Museum since October 1984. David is our inaugural Friends Foundation Fellowship recipient with his proposal ‘An investigation of collections of Aboriginal artefacts and natural history specimens in Australian institutions collected by Dr Herbert Basedow’. David has been researching Basedow for some time. David’s main research concern in his proposal was that the full extent of Basedow’s collections have never been investigated and only limited work had been undertaken on Basedow as a collector and how he fits into the bigger picture of scientific collecting in Australia.
The National Museum holds over 1000 Aboriginal artefacts collected on expeditions in central and northern Australia between 1903 and 1928. At least three other Australian museums hold Aboriginal artefacts, two of which also hold natural history specimens, fauna and geology: the Australian Museum, Museum Victoria and the South Australian Museum. In addition, the University of Adelaide holds some geological specimens and two herbaria - the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney and CSIRO Canberra - hold plant specimens collected by Basedow. Information to hand indicates Basedow collected up to 2000 artefacts as well as several hundred natural history specimens.
With the support of the Friends Fellowship, David hoped to be able to determine the full extent of Basedow’s collections held in other institutions, to assess their documentation, to relate them back to Basedow’s expeditions and his activities as a scientist, and to examine the results to see what they can tell us about the National Museum’s collection. To contribute to this he will produce a catalogue of Basedow’s collection, which will be wonderful resource. All research is a journey, and David is here tonight to talk about Basedow, the collections and where the Fellowship journey has led and continues to lead him, because it’s a very big subject that you have tackled. Thank you very much for coming to speak to us tonight. Thank you all for coming.
DAVID KAUS: Thanks, Carolyn. I too would like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal. Before I start, I would like to point out a couple of important visitors: my wife Margaret up the back. This is the first talk of this kind that Margaret has come to. I would also like to welcome Kim Akerman. A lot of you I am sure have heard of Kim. He was a senior curator here for a couple of years in the late 1990s and, amongst other things, he knows more about Aboriginal material culture than anybody else alive.
After that introduction, I have a few modifications to some of the figures that will come out. I would like to thank the Friends for giving me this opportunity. I have worked with museum collections for almost 30 years and always had an interest for pretty much of all that time in the collections, especially those that are held here in the National Museum. I have always thought you have these collections, you know who the collector was but you don’t really know that much about them. When you start digging you find out that, particularly with the earlier collectors, a lot of them were collecting more than just Aboriginal artefacts.
If you look into the history of the Museum, you will see a lot of the collections came from the old Institute of Anatomy and only the Aboriginal components or the Indigenous - sometimes there is a little bit of Torres Strait material or Pacific Islander artefacts - also came with those collections. In addition to Basedow, even within the Museum’s collection, there are people like George Horne who kept birds, Stan Mitchell who collected rocks and minerals and probably other things as well and Bob Wishart was really big into microscopic examination of things. Who else is there? Anyway, there are others.
I have known for a long time that Basedow was collecting material other than Aboriginal artefacts but it is only with this Fellowship from the Friends that I have been able to examine the extent of those collections. I have to report that I cannot report, and probably never will be able to report, on the full extent of those collections. As I go through this presentation, some of the reasons behind that will come out.
Portrait of Herbert Basedow about 1920. Unknown photographer.
A little bit about Herbert Basedow to start with. He was born in Adelaide in 1881. His parents were German. They had both emigrated from Germany. Herbert was the last child of Martin, his father, in his second marriage. He undertook schooling in both Adelaide and Germany - a bit of primary school education in Germany. He did a science degree at the University of Adelaide majoring in geology but did a lot of other important subjects like chemistry, assaying and surveying. A lot of these came in handy for him later on.
In 1907 he went to Germany to study at various German universities until 1910. This is probably his first controversy. There are a number of people who don’t - even at the time and even some people today - accept the qualifications that he got. He achieved a PhD in geology and postgraduate qualifications in medicine in all that short time. He did get some credit for some of the work he had done in Adelaide. But anyway, I don’t want to go into that. He was a politician in the state parliament from 1927 until 1930. He was re-elected in 1933 but died before parliament sat. He also stood in 1924 and 1930 but was unsuccessful. He died in Adelaide in 1933.
Basedow near present-day Granite Downs station South Australia, 1903. NMA.
Just a couple more highlights of Basedow’s life: the collections that I am talking about tonight were made on several trips into central and northern Australia between 1900 and 1928. Here he is on a camel on the 1903 expedition into north-west South Australia [link to image on web]. A lot of the trips were extended expeditions, including this one, where they were away for about nine months. Between 1903 and 1911 he held various government positions. He was curator at the Technological Museum and catalogued their mineral collection in 1906. He worked for the geology department or the mines department in 1910 and 1911.
He was also the first Chief Protector of Aborigines and Chief Medical Officer in the Northern Territory when it was taken over by the Commonwealth in 1911. That is another controversial period, because he resigned after only being in Darwin for about six weeks. Depending on what you read you get different explanations, but basically he was dissatisfied with the working conditions. He wasn’t an easy person to get on with. So I suspect that if you bring those things to meet somewhere and you will get the truth.
After he returned to Adelaide he was a locum doctor for various people, including JC Verco, another professional who was a naturalist and very big on marine molluscs. Basedow had been on a few dredging trips with him before he went to Europe. In 1913 he set up his own medical practice combined with a consulting geological consultancy.
Over his lifetime he wrote over 50 articles mainly in anthropology, quite a few in geology and a few in natural history. That is him mending clothes on the 1916 trip to the Kimberley [image shown].
Having a brief look at the collection, there are several components to the collection. Objects - there are both artefacts, natural history specimens and geological specimens. There are photographs and there are papers. They extend across several fields – anthropology and natural sciences. They are also held in several institutions right across the country from Sydney to Perth and there is material overseas. Carol Cooper did a survey of overseas collections back in the late 1980s, published in 1989, in which there is a couple of collections mentioned.
But there must be some in Germany as well. His family had strong ties to Germany even during his generation. He certainly after the 1903 trip sent the 600 or so plant specimens that he collected to a botanist called Diels in Germany. But we don’t know if they survived the bombing of the Second World War.
I wanted to take a minute out to say what would Basedow think about the way we look at the so-called Basedow collection. I don’t think he would have any problems with the artefacts and the specimens that he collected as being collection material. But today this Museum holds over 2000 photographs, which we consider to be part of the Basedow collection here. The Mitchell Library has a large collection of papers which they refer to as the Basedow collection. The point I am trying to make is that what we might see as collection material today might not be the same as what people were looking at in the past or they might not see their working material as part of a collection.
Looking in a bit more detail at the Basedow collection, I have a table that has as current figures as I can make them.
Key to table:
Aboriginal artefacts - probably close to 2000.
There is a small number of Pacific items, most of them are held here. There are two or three in Sydney and a couple in Melbourne. Then we start getting a bit more hazy about what is where.
As a geologist he collected a lot of rocks and fossils and minerals. I will talk a bit about his possible motivations a bit later on. Just for now I will talk about what is in the collection itself. These specimens are in the Australian Museum, the South Australian Museum, the Tate Museum, which is at the University of Adelaide, and Museum Victoria.
There are animal specimens, particularly invertebrates but some vertebrates in the Australian Museum, Queensland Museum, South Australian Museum and Museum Victoria. When I say the Queensland Museum there is one insect and that’s it.
So you can see the figures and our knowledge about the holdings is quite different from what I originally understood it to be.
All the mainland state herbaria hold collections, as does the national herbarium here in Canberra. Kew Gardens has about 600 plants and, as I said before, we don’t know whether the German specimens have survived or not. When I put in my proposal I didn’t understand that herbaria exchange or send out duplicate specimens. All the natural history material and geological material is stored by species, mineral type or whatever, which I will talk about a bit later. With the herbaria it’s the specimen that is important. The collection details and so on are still important but they are way down the scale. If Basedow collected five specimens of something and they ended up in Adelaide, they might have sent them on to who knows where.
Looking in a bit more detail, the institutions across the top [of the table] are the Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, the Australian Museum, the Berndt Museum in Perth at the University of Western Australia, the National Museum of Australia, the South Australian Museum, the Tate Museum and Museum Victoria.
The figures are incomplete. Probably the Aboriginal artefacts are the most complete. The reason why I have 1350 objects up there as opposed to the ‘up to 2000’ I talk about is that in at least two collections we have original lists but we can’t match all the objects up to those lists. I haven’t gone through those and tried to work it out, because sometimes on the list it might say ‘78 spears’ and then ‘some shields’ or ‘a few shields’ or ‘a dozen shields’ or ‘approximately’. So even from those lists we can’t get a definite figure.
When you start talking about photographs, it is fine here at the Museum – or it is almost fine - because we can count the negatives and work out with certainty that 99.9 per cent of them are Basedow’s. There is a couple which are questionable. When you start talking about lantern slides and prints, you need to start knowing about other collections and what other photographers were taking to recognise them. With the negatives, at least with the Basedow collection he used so many different types of cameras that you can match them to an expedition and date them, so you can get the documentation that way. But with prints and lantern slides you don’t have that. They might come in different sizes and shapes but they are still standard. They don’t correlate with the technology. So we can’t tell from the prints. I can go and look at prints and I can recognise Spencer’s photographs or Foelsche’s photographs but there are a whole lot of others that I can’t recognise. We need to look at these total figures as a minimum figure.
When you start talking about the natural history material, these are minimum figures. I have been through all the registers in the Australian Museum over the last two weeks and they list everything that was acquired at different periods from Basedow. They have this column that says ‘number of specimens’. Sometimes it means the number of specimens under that name; sometimes it means a lot of specimens, like as in a group, and then you don’t know - there is no way of tracing back how many specimens that means. That just goes to show there are different ways of looking at the collections as well. Certainly in the Indigenous field we look at the total number of objects. When you are dealing with the natural history collections it is the species and it’s a lot. Up to a point anyway it doesn’t matter whether there is one or more specimens. Obviously it does for statistical purposes and things like that, but when it comes to an acquisition, it’s the number and a specimen.
Looking at the plants - so far I have records of 1435 plants. However, again it comes down to a question of how do we count them. On some expeditions at least he made multiple sets or he collected enough material of particular species to make multiple sets. For example, in 1916 there are three sets: one in Adelaide, one in Sydney, and one at Kew Gardens. Other institutions hold 1916 material, and that is because various herbaria have sent them there. Even though I was looking at Australian collections, I was looking at specimens that have been sent back by Kew because they were duplicates.
And also a lot of the specimens have Basedow numbers [image shown] and a lot of the specimens are labelled. This one is actually a type specimen of Helichrysum basedowii from the Adelaide Herbarium. I am going to talk a bit about that sort of thing as well. This particular specimen was collected in 1926 - I think in the Musgrave Ranges from memory. The way this specimen is presented, that is the Adelaide herbarium way of mounting specimens. I will show you how I think Basedow sent all his specimens on to the various herbaria a bit later.
I am going to quickly run through some examples of all of the different types of material that he collected, starting with the Aboriginal artefacts. On the top left we have a wooden bowl [image shown] from the Luritja people in the Western Desert. This might be one that he refers to in his journal in 1903. It is in the South Australian Museum.
The spear on the right is in the collection here. He talks about his spear and illustrates it in his journal. Even though the barbs are missing, you can see the stain from the sinew at the front. You can see where the barb at the back was and you can also see the little loop that was tied on to the rear barb.
I am going to read three quotes tonight just to give a bit of background information about Basedow and the way he collected. The first one relates to the spear. This is from his 1903 diary which was published in 1915:
Among the belongings of the natives camped around the station I found a type of spear which is new to me. It is made of one piece of heavy wood (Acacia aneura) [so mulga] straight, and slightly over seven feet in length. The throwing end is, however, fractured, so that originally it must have been longer. The greater part of the shaft is circular in section, tapering slightly towards the throwing end; but the head end consists of a flat blade, about a foot long, with two sharp edges and a point. The new feature about the spear is that at three and six inches, respectively, from the point, on the same flat side of the blade, a pointed wooden barb has been tied (at an angle of about 30 degrees) with kangaroo sinews. Plain heavy spears without barbs, and light spears with only one barb, are common throughout central Australia, but I have never found this type of before. I have secured the specimen from the owner, who is an Aluridja man on a visit to Todmorden.
That is Todmorden station north-west of Oodnadatta. Because this was published so much later and Basedow effectively rewrote the diary for publication, it’s a bit hard to know 12 years later how he recorded the information originally. I will talk a bit about that later too. The other object is an ornament collected in the Kimberley in 1916. [image shown] I don’t think it is horse hair but it could be. I forgot to check what that is beforehand.
Minerals [image shown] - the one on the top left is from Germany. This is from the Harz Mountains, and he did attend a university near the Harz Mountains so he probably had field trips where he may have collected this. It’s a bit hard to know when, because he made two trips to Germany. He could have collected it as a primary school student. He was collecting stuff quite early. But we don’t know. All of these specimens are in the Tate Museum. Their register, if you like, is a simple entry of specimen name, place and from whom acquired, if they know. It looks to me like it was filled out a long time after things were acquired, or certainly the earlier materials were acquired. Where the information came from I don’t know. There are virtually no original labels with any of the specimens in the Tate Museum. A few of the fossils do have labels but not much else.
On the top right-hand side is molybdenite, a mineral that he collected south-west of Darwin in 1905. I will come back to that trip a bit later on. The one on the bottom left is wolfram from King Sound in the Kimberley. The reason he went up to the Kimberley was to investigate a tungsten mineral deposit that a syndicate of Adelaide businessmen wanted investigated as their contribution to the war effort, because this was in 1916. But he did a lot of other travelling and investigating other mines and deposits and so on. The other specimen is sulfur from Sicily. How he got that, I have no idea. Part of the problem is getting records of where people went. I have been working on Basedow for probably 25 years. I have seen no record of him going to Melanesia. So how he got Pacific artefacts, I don’t know. There was a big trade going on at this time too so it is quite possible someone gave them to him.
Fossils [image shown] - the top left is probably better regarded as a sub-fossil, it is not particularly old, probably post-Pleistocene. Kim might know because it is from the Forrest River. The three shells at the top right are brachiopods, a type of marine shell. They are all type specimens that he collected, again in the Kimberley just near Kimberley Downs station. The bottom left are belemnites. They are animals like squids that had an internal hard bit. That is what you see there. That is what gets preserved. They are actually from Europe - with his original label above. And that is how I recognised them. In some museums I was told where things might be and left to my own devices. These specimens are unregistered but, because his label was left with them, I was able to recognise them as his collection.
Then the other three shells on the bottom are from what are called raised beaches. I don’t know if they are still called that. They are a geomorphological feature on the beach where sand dunes get raised up and the shells of the time get preserved in those. Again they are not very old, but one of his first papers was on raised beaches at Hindmarsh Island and that is where these specimens came from. So I think we can reasonably assume they were collected about 1901. He exhibited specimens he collected on the raised beach at Hindmarsh Island at the Royal Society of South Australia, and I think we can assume that these are those specimens.
Mammals - there are very few mammals in his collection, and I think that is pretty understandable. They have to be prepared fairly well straight away. So you have to eviscerate them, you have to get the brain out, you have to salt them and you have to cart them around. In total he collected two bats, including this one which is a type specimen [image shown]. The wallaby is a one of the nail-tailed wallabies where they have a little bit of keratinous material at the end of the tail. That is the skull that goes with that specimen.
Birds [image shown] - the one on the top is a Gouldian finch. When he was up in the Kimberley he collected some fledglings and took them back to Adelaide, and after they died he gave them to the South Australian Museum. On the bottom left there are some Cape Barren geese chicks, and on the bottom right some Cape Barren geese eggs. He bred Cape Barren geese at his house. These chicks must have died there. There are a few newspaper reports talking about him breeding them. He must have been part of a network because he would give them away and whether people gave him birds in exchange, I really don’t know.
On the top right we have a bird – it is a tit anyway. In the letter that I found only on Tuesday he described collecting these two specimens. They are a pair so there is the male and female - unfortunately one has lost its head. He collected the birds; he collected the nest; and he collected the eggs - so the whole set if you like. Unfortunately, the nest has been destroyed and I couldn’t see any nest or eggs in Sydney because they are all offsite. That is a nice little set. In fact, they were displayed in 1905, which is when he gave them to the museum.
Reptiles and amphibians [image shown] - on the left we have some eggs preserved in some preservative from Happy Valley in Adelaide. Up in the top right there is a few small lizards. On the right there is a dragon from Commonwealth Hill in South Australia collected in 1917; the next one across is the burrowing lizard from the Kimberley collected in 1916; and the other one is a gecko collected on one of those trips - I can’t remember which one. Below that are three different species of frogs collected in the Kimberley in 1916.
Fish [image shown] - the one on the left is an eel. I am going to read you another quote now. This was collected on the Robinson River north-east of Derby in Western Australia in 1916, and using the language of the time:
Whilst at work, the ‘boys’ [ie the Aboriginal men assisting on the boat they were travelling on] caught a sea eel, which had left the water and was wriggling in the mud. One of them cautiously handed it to me and said, ‘This one name Kulingell, him no more sulky bugger.’ I did not altogether grasp the latter part of his statement, but upon investigation ascertained that he meant the eel was non-venomous. When I placed the captive in a bottle it became very wild and attempted to bite. It was subsequently determined by the Australian Museum Zoologist to be Gymnothorax woodwardi.
I am going to talk a bit about who collected what in his collection a little bit later, so bear that specimen in mind. There is two other fish from the Kimberley trip. There are only ten fish that I know of that he collected. It’s the same with all the vertebrates - there are not very many.
Insects - invertebrates in general are a completely different story. There are hundreds of insects. In 1903 alone he collected 462 or something - a huge number. Some of them were named after him. The one down the bottom [image shown] was originally Periplaneta basedowi. The generic name has been changed. I am still trying to get my head around the name changes of animals. It is quite complicated.
The stick insect above that was collected in 1916, and on the right there is a jar of termites. I included that because when he was up there he actually sectioned a termite mound, and presumably that is when he collected these termites. He talks about how there was a crowd of Aboriginal people watching him, wondering what the devil was he doing.
Crustaceans, mainly crabs and mostly wet specimens - but this group of four dry specimens may originally have been wet specimens. So preserved in preservative, probably formaldehyde, and dried out at the museum but we don’t know - again collected in 1916. The 1916 trip is probably the one that has the broadest range of material that is documented as coming from the particular expedition and there is quite a lot of resource material to go with it. So I have been focusing a bit on that.
Molluscs were another big group that he collected hundreds, if not thousands. [Image shown] again a new species on the top left named after Basedow, Thersites basedowi, a cone shell on the right, some fresh water molluscs. The two on the left are from 1903, and the two on the right from 1916. I don’t know if you can see particularly well, but that scale is in centimetres so the shell is quite small and several of them have hermit crabs in them.
Plants [image shown] - you can see Basedow’s label there. That is from Balmaningarra, so Kimberley Downs station. The other one is from Arnhem Land, one of two sets in Adelaide. That one was identified by a man called Ray Specht who was the botanist on the 1948 Arnhem Land expedition, the American-Australian expedition. He is still alive and he will be here at the end of the year for our symposium [More info on the Barks, Birds and Billabongs symposium]. He has been helping me to sort out the Basedow 1928 plants because he wrote an article about it for the volumes for that  expedition. Just remember too that that label on the left is in blue. That must seem a bit silly [but it will become clear later on].
A few photographs just to show the range of subjects, and the one on the bottom right is a lantern slide. These are all from the Museum collection. We don’t have the negative for the one on the right, but all the others are copied from original negatives.
And also papers which are very broad ranging in their scope and their coverage from material that Basedow has written. [Image shown] The one on the bottom right is his meteorological recordings of the 1903 expedition. If he had only continued to do what he did on that trip, the whole collection would probably be a lot better documented. He kept a book recording all the photographs he took. He recorded daily weather conditions, sketched a lot of rock art and kept a diary. He must have kept other notebooks, but I haven’t found anything else like that for any other expedition. On the left from the State Library of South Australia there are six volumes of which five are newspaper cuttings, and most of those are about Basedow. He was very well regarded in Adelaide and very popular and very reported in the press.
Map showing the routes of the main trips on which Basedow made collections. Map: Thylacine.
Just looking at where and when Basedow collected, this is the map you might remember from A Different Time exhibition last year [download PDF map]. These show the routes of the main expeditions. I won’t go through them, but we basically have this area of central Australia covered, the Kimberley up here, Victoria River there, this sort of region in 1905, and then Arnhem Land was his last expedition in 1928. He did have one planned for 1930 or 1931 to look for Lasseter’s gold but it doesn’t seem to have come off.
There is a bit more. This is where it starts getting a bit hazy. In 1903 and 1905 Basedow was a member of two government expeditions. The first one was a prospecting expedition in north-west South Australia and south-western Northern Territory, which actually was part of the Northern Territory in those days, where they were looking for mineral deposits. They had four ‘prospectors’ as they were called on that expedition. The other three to the best of my knowledge had no training. Their prospecting knowledge was from their knowledge gained being out there prospecting probably for gold - for their own benefit no doubt. But Basedow had graduated the year before in geology so he was a qualified geologist. He was very well regarded by both Ralph Tate and Harry Brown. Tate was the foundation professor of natural history at the University of Adelaide and Brown was the government geologist. Brown facilitated Basedow’s participation in this expedition. Larry Wells, who was the leader, allowed Basedow to use his spare time to engage in anthropology and natural history collecting and so on. It probably helped that Wells was interested and seemed to have a liking for Basedow as well.
In 1905 they were doing a geological exploration from Port Essington to the Victoria River, mostly around the coast but inland around the Victoria River and Katherine, and also Melville Island. One of the mineral specimens we saw before was from that trip. There is a group of fossils in the South Australian Museum. It is all type material. Just in case there is anybody here who doesn’t understand, you have what is called a holotype, which is the specimen from which a species is described. You have other specimens which may have been collected at the same time are also types but have different names. It is quite complex for someone who is not familiar with that sort of thing.
These are official expedition collections in which Basedow collected. As you can see, [image shown] these were all mounted on board but there is only one of them that says was collected by Brown, Lionel G and Basedow, the three geologists who were on this trip. Brown asks Robert Etheridge, who described these fossils, to name one after Basedow and one after Lionel G as recognition of their involvement in the expedition. This one is Nuculana basedowi, another brachiopod, another shell.
Spears collected on Bathurst Island, 1911. Photo by Herbert Basedow, NMA.
Also in 1911 when he was chief protector and chief medical officer he made a quick trip to Melville and Bathurst Islands before he left the Territory and made a quite important smallish collection of artefacts, including this group of spears [image shown]. Remember in Captivating and Curious we had a display of his spears. All of those spears are actually in the collection and we have located all of them.
The boundary between what we can see as the Basedow collection and his involvement in official collections can be a little bit hazy. When I write this up, I am going to include both. How I actually define them and whether I discuss them separately - I am not really sure how to deal with that just yet. I still need to think about that one a bit more.
Did he collect on all these trips? The answer is maybe. There is certainly material from most of them. In 1923 he went to central Australia with the Governor of South Australia, Sir Tom Bridges, but I haven’t found anything other than photographs and a map, which he would probably have done afterwards, for that expedition. There are newspaper cuttings but there is no diary; there are no artefacts that I can say were collected on that trip; there are no natural history specimens in institutions acquired around that time - so he may not have. They travelled in three cars. They would have been hard pushed for space. So if he did collect anything, it can’t have been much.
That is the other bat specimen he collected from Bunbury in Western Australia, collected in 1900  [image shown]. That is one of two surviving specimens from that trip. The other one is a mineral in Sydney, which I didn’t get to see. Whether there is other material, it is probably unlikely because there is a letter saying ‘you can have this mineral,’ and it doesn’t say anything about anything else.
Did Basedow collect everything in his collection? No, but he probably did collect most of it. We don’t have any evidence for that, but there are a couple of interesting comments throughout his journals which show that he didn’t. Aboriginal assistants often gave him things. That eel that we saw is an example, and there are other descriptions in that journal of them going ashore and the men straight away going off collecting things because they enjoyed doing it. Apparently, they also enjoyed watching things die in the formalin. They would go in a jar and they would be writhing around and apparently that was good fun. But other assistants also collected shells and different other things on different expeditions. Some are documented - who knows?
Frank Feast, who you might also remember From a Different Time, went with Basedow on four expeditions in 1920, 1922, 1926 and 1928 and he did some collecting. I interviewed him in the late 1980s. For somebody who is versed in collections and interested in Basedow, it was something I didn’t really talk to him about. But there is one interesting quote which I am going to read:
Frank Feast: Oh yes there’d be medicines and also, from my point of view, there was many, many pickle bottles. Because on that trip I done all the specimen collecting.
There is a couple of interesting things there for my study. One is formalin, because nowhere have I seen what Basedow says he preserves specimens in. He talks a couple of times about taking specimen jars and preservatives, but that is about as detailed as he gets. You could reasonably expect at that time it would be formalin. But transporting a lot of glass jars, formalin and other collecting material would require a lot of space. It is an interesting question which may link into how much he collected or why he didn’t collect more and maybe why he collected some of the things that he collected.
All of the reptiles and the frogs, for example, are all whole specimens. So that means on the trips where they come from - 1903 and 1916 in particular - he had to have some kind of preservative in jars with him. That gives you an indication of the kind of luggage he is taking from Adelaide to say central Australia or Darwin, even before he gets into the field. He must have had some knowledge on animal preservation because he is preparing bird skins, and that means getting the whole skin off without damaging it. But also to get the brain out you actually cut the back of the skull off to get the brain out. Apparently you don’t keep that bit of the skull.
This photo is fairly uncommon showing Basedow doing some collecting [image shown]. They are actually looking for Aboriginal remains on Murnpeowie station in 1919. That is Basedow with his pith helmet. That is his brother Erwin and his wife Nell. They only got married a couple of months before they went on this trip. On this particular occasion the side of the grave kept collapsing so they didn’t get their specimens.
Basedow collecting plants, Marraki station NT. Photo Frank Feast. NMA.
What sort of collector was Basedow? He was largely an opportunistic collector. He didn’t or couldn’t make systematic collections. He wasn’t going out in the field like some people to collect all the insects or all the Aboriginal artefacts. He seems to have been acquiring what he came across and what opportunity allowed. There is a newspaper story reporting a letter that he sent just before he got back from Germany in 1910 saying he wanted to put his medical training and scientific training to continue expedition work, which is largely what he did. Most of the expeditions were for geological purposes, so he had to fit in his natural history stuff and his anthropology around what he was being paid to do.
He was pretty much always on the go travelling, so time was an issue. Sometimes he was at a place for a few days and you will see more material from those places. If you are changing camp every day and collecting, plants have to be dried, animals have to be skinned, you have to take notes, you are writing a diary – so it doesn’t really allow for a lot of time to collect some of the more difficult things. Some things like mollusc shells you can just pick up and put in a bag - they are fine. But when you have whole animals or you are skinning things, then it starts becoming more of a time factor. Certainly in the natural history material there is an emphasis on the easy to handle. That is why you have fewer vertebrates and a lot of invertebrates in the natural history material.
That is probably why you don’t have a huge range of Aboriginal artefacts. Between 70 and 80 per cent of them are men’s weapons. Now that is not unusual for collections in those days. They are the higher profile things. Certainly by the 1920s when he was doing a lot of the collecting, there were a lot of people going through collecting artefacts, and Aboriginal people would say, they know what people want and they will make them and have them ready.
The mode of transport was another factor. I want to read another quote from Frank Feast - pretty much putting me in my place – regarding 1928 when they went through Arnhem Land on horseback, no buggies, no wagons, just horses. Basedow did have a packhorse that he could carry things in, but packs on a horse don’t allow you to collect too much. However, he still collected at least two sets of 208 plants and a few Aboriginal artefacts but there doesn’t seem to be terribly much else from that expedition. I can’t remember if this was continuing from the last quote - we must have been talking about the 1928 expedition itself:
David Kaus: What collecting was done on the expedition?
He also said the same thing about the 1926 trip. Donald Mackay, who sponsored that expedition and went on it, shared a small buggy in which they stored the scientific equipment, radio transmitter and so on. They also had camels and camels can carry a bit more. You need to have transport to be able to carry a lot of this material. When you are travelling in remote areas, you are limited to what you can take in addition to essential stuff like food. In central Australia I think it was eight camels alone just carried water. So the mode of transport was definitely a factor.
Some of the things we have to hypothesise about is how he recorded what he collected. Here we go back to the original labels that came in with specimens and artefacts to various institutions. Certainly with some of the plants they were after the time because he wrote the labels on bits of newspaper, which I will show you in a minute, and some of them were dated after the expedition. So he was obviously referring back to a list. I find it hard to believe that you can remember the details of hundreds of specimens months after you got back from the expedition so he must have had a list. It makes sense. It is logical that you would have a list that you would record as you are doing your collecting, but I haven’t been able to find any anywhere. In the Australian Museum there is a list of some molluscs that he deposited there on one occasion. I only got a copy of that yesterday so I can’t actually tell you what’s in it. It is very brief. I would say it would have the name of the specimen and where it was collected, and that is pretty much it. They were brief entries.
Do we know what Basedow’s motivations were? It is not really articulated anywhere. There are a couple of comments after he got back reported in the press that he was forwarding his collections on to specialists for description. It seems that he was keen to further science and knowledge, and as a scientist that would make sense. We are also talking about the early twentieth century. There is still stuff out there we don’t know about today, so you can imagine what it was like 80 to 100 years ago. There was still a lot to be discovered. I am sure that was one of his main motivations.
Certainly for Aboriginal artefacts he was acquiring material evidence of a people that he believed were heading for extinction. He was a product of his time. He always believed that Aboriginal people would become extinct, like most if not all of his contemporaries. Even people in anthropology up to the 1960s were saying the same thing. The same with the geological material, he was acquiring material evidence of the research that he was undertaking or the purpose of the field trip. So if he was exploring oil deposits in various places, he would bring back specimens of that. And presumably he would show that to whoever was funding the trip and had sent him off. That is pretty much all I could say, although they are pretty big motivations.
What do we know about his collecting technique? Again not very much. There is the odd reference in diaries, both his diaries and sometimes we have diaries from other people who went on his expeditions or travelled with him. There was a fellow called Richard Grenfell Thomas, another geologist. In fact, Basedow was awarded the Tate medal for geology in 1904 and Richard Grenfell Thomas, who went on this trip as an 18-year-old, was awarded the Tate medal in the 1920s. This medal was given out by the University of Adelaide for achievement in geology. Thomas was also an amateur naturalist and doing a lot of collecting, so he was making a lot of observations and occasionally talks about Basedow collecting different things. But none of them really talk about recording the information, how the specimens were dealt with or anything like that.
So we have to turn to what is generally known about collecting practices of that time. With the plants, for example, talking to Ray Specht, he said that he would have taken a whole lot of newspapers so you could put it in and that would have helped dry out the plants - maybe put them by the fire at night which would speed up the process presumably. We have already talked about preservatives and skinning animals and so on. Again - not a lot of information available.
We actually know more about how he dealt with the artefacts after he got back to Adelaide. [Image shown] This is various surviving labels which are not, as far as I can tell, original field labels and I will show you why shortly. On the whole, the information is better for plants because they mostly have Basedow’s label with them. Some parts of the rest of the material have good documentation, particularly the 1916 Aboriginal artefacts and a lot of the specimens in the Australian Museum collected on that trip as well, again because they have Basedow labels with them.
In other collections, including the National Museum’s collection, it is very sporadic what has original information that can be linked back to Basedow. If you remember that photograph of the spears that I showed you, we know they were collected in 1911 on Bathurst Island because they were published and that documentation comes with it. Otherwise we would have to attribute them to Melville and Bathurst Islands based on the form of them. Tiwi material culture is very distinctive and, given that he only went there once, it is pretty obvious that he collected those artefacts on that trip. However we do have that documentary evidence to go with it.
But when you start talking about central Australia where the material culture is much more widespread and where he travelled much more frequently, in most cases it is impossible to tie particular artefacts to particular trips, which means we can only give them a date range and a geographical range. Some parts like across the Nullarbor and Cooper Creek are a bit more distinctive and can be attributed to expeditions. As far as I can tell there is no way of locating that information - but you can always hope.
Talking about the plants, the two big collections in Australia are in Adelaide and Sydney. When I went to Adelaide, as we saw before, there were those big sheets with all the labels glued to them and specimens attached. Some of the labels are herbaria labels. People go through when they are studying them and, if the specimen is not identified or if the name has changed or if it’s a wrong identification, they put another label on. That’s why there are so many labels on some specimens.
But in the Sydney collection there are a number of specimens that look like this [image shown] - they are in Adelaide newspapers because some of them have the top and we know it’s the Advertiser or the Register, and there is Basedow’s handwritten label glued on in this case. So remember I asked you to remember that label written in blue pencil. That is because, as far as I can tell, it was taken off one of these sheets. For the 1903 expedition there is quite a lot of these. This is from 1920 and there is one from 1919. I think that is pretty good evidence that, when he was preparing plants to send off, he was individually wrapping them in folded newspaper and labelling them separately. With the plants, the other reason I wanted you to remember the blue label is that the Adelaide 1916 specimens are in blue and the Sydney specimens are written in red. The few that I have seen of the same species with the same number have the same information. That tells me either he intended to collect more than one set before he went out or he collected enough material to make up multiple sets. Obviously we don’t know.
This is one of the specimens from Kew Gardens [image shown]. You can go on to the Kew Gardens website and see a lot of Australian specimens. They have data and a lot of them have images. Apart from the fact that this is another species named after Basedow, Pennisetum basedowii, this label says, ‘Dr Herbert Basedow’s Australian explorations’ and it records species, locality, date and remarks. At some point he had these printed up and used them. How broadly - don’t really know. There are plants from 1916 and 1928 in Kew with these labels. No Australian specimen that I have seen has that label on it. I was looking in a cupboard here one day and I found nine labels that hadn’t been used. That is the closest thing, other than artefacts, to Basedow’s collecting that we hold here in the National Museum.
Some of the difficulties that were encountered in my research - not everything goes smoothly. Like I said before, most of the Indigenous collections are data based. So of the Basedow material that is known in collections we can pretty much locate. Natural history collections are a different kettle of fish. They are huge. Some of them are millions of specimens. And databasing of those is happening. But when you have, say, 1.5 million insects and you have databased ten per cent, you can start understanding the magnitude of the problem of trying to locate all the specimens that were collected by one person. So basically you can’t do it. You can’t go through rooms with drawers like this and look through everything. I should have put the photos of the insects in. The labels are tiny under the specimen. What they do with insects is because the dry specimens are pinned, and there might be 100 or more in a box, they pin every label that they have under the specimen, and understandably the collection managers don’t want to go through everything looking for specimens. So unless you have a name and a geographical region, which is the way these things are organised, it’s very difficult to locate things. Some collection managers are more enthusiastic, shall we say, about helping you than others. Most of them were really great and gave me a lot of time. But when collections are stored like that, it is hard enough finding the right drawer let alone the right specimens. Basedow’s two examples of this species are in there somewhere or maybe those ones [image shown].
The other problem we encountered was that everything that goes in the database goes in under its scientific name at that time. Probably in 99 per cent of cases they are current names, but the specimens that were collected before 1930 quite often had different names doesn’t get recorded - it does get recorded but I don’t think it is in the database. So if a name has changed and the collection manager or whoever is doing the search for me don’t know the change - you can’t be a specialist and have that knowledge in everything, although some of them were getting pretty close - you can’t trace them without a lot of work.
If he collected 150 different species of insects, then you can see it’s a big job. Once I started understanding this, I realised there was no way that I was ever going to work out the full extent of his collection. Come back in 100 years and I reckon we probably could. So I changed the way I approached the project, and that was to get a broad understanding of what he collected and try to get an idea within different species of how many specimens he was collecting. Even when a number of specimens were acquired and entered under a name, somebody coming through later would say, ‘Oh no, you have four species here.’ So then they would get taken out and re-registered. So you might have numbers in one area but, unless they tell you how many specimens were taken out and re-registered, then your figures are going to be higher than what they really are anyway.
The other thing that I had to start rethinking was just how important is quantity. That comes back to the way I have looked at collections in the past. I have always looked at how many artefacts someone has collected because I have mainly worked on Indigenous collections, and that has always been a question of interest. Even when I talk to colleagues it’s a question of interest, but natural history scientists are interested in species and places - and the numbers and other things come later, if at all.
I looked a little bit broader than just what he collected in the sense of new species that Basedow collected. There are at least 20 but I suspect there is more. I only found out this week that that new species of bat was a type specimen and I didn’t know that he was involved in collecting that. The Internet is a wonderful resource when you go to the right sites, and I have located a lot of species that are either named after him or that he collected type specimens of through various institutional and government websites dealing with flora and fauna. I suspect the figure is going to be higher than that by the time I have worked it out. Most of them, but not all of them, were named in his lifetime. There were scientists after Basedow died who recognised his achievements, and one species was named after him in the 1930s or 1940s in recognition of his contributions to the sciences.
Pandanus basedowii, Arnhem Land NT, 1928. Photo by Herbert Basedow. NMA.
He did have knowledge which enabled him to identify new species, and that was partly gained through the teachings of Ralph Tate, I suspect, who again was another all-round scientist and collector. But the only concrete example of that is this plant Pandanus basedowii, which he recognised as soon as he saw it that it was a new species. Most pandanus grow along water courses. This one is actually in the dry escarpment country in Arnhem Land. There is only one other species of pandanus - I am pretty sure - that also grows in dry country and that is in Queensland. In his diary Basedow mentions why he thinks it’s a new species because it’s similar to another genus of plants but he also mentions some of the differences. This is a photograph of the species that he took in 1928 in Arnhem Land [photograph shown]. This photograph was reproduced in the original description by Charles Wright of Kew Gardens who named it after Basedow as Pandanus basedowii.
Early in Basedow’s career he was naming new species of fossils and some marine invertebrates. These are nudibranchs or sea slug. Of the several species of nudibranchs that he described in 1905 with Charles Hedley, only one of the names is still regarded as being the same as when Basedow described it. With some of the others the genus has changed or the entire name has changed. In one case they didn’t recognise that they had collected a juvenile specimen of another species. They named it whatever they named it – I can’t remember now - and somebody coming along later recognised it as being a juvenile specimen, so that name is no longer valid. I included this image [shown] because that paper has a number of colour illustrations all by Basedow. This is quite a nice one, I think. This is one of the species though that is no longer regarded as being valid. With the fossils, some were described with Ralph Tate. There is a paper where Basedow describes some species, Tate describes some and they describe one or two together. That is probably another indication of the regard that Basedow was held in by Tate, working with him and mentoring him, I guess, very early in his career.
Was Basedow the only broad-ranging collector of his time? No. A lot of people were collecting broadly across this time across different fields. I mentioned at the beginning some of the collectors in the national collection who were collecting more than just the Indigenous artefacts which are held here. Some were as broadly focused as Basedow; some just collected narrowly in geology; some might have collected minerals and rocks; some might have collected fossils as well; some collected animals and artefacts. There is a whole range of what people were doing at the time.
With plants I didn’t look in any registers or anything so I don’t know as much about plants, but I know that people like Tate, Baldwin Spencer, Roth and a lot of other eminent people were collecting right across, including plants as well. Again, these people come from a range of backgrounds. Science in those days was partaken of by not just scientists but a lot of people. People on the land who had an interest in natural history would collect and quite often send material to their state museums or they made up their own collections and kept them. There are other doctors like Basedow and Verco, but probably right across the field of different employment you would find people of different backgrounds.
Has this research helped to better document the National Museum’s collection? Just by way of background, the Museum has a large collection of Aboriginal artefacts and photographs from Basedow, and only parts of this collection can be considered to be well documented. When the collection was being prepared to come to Canberra after Basedow died, Norman Tindale at the South Australian Museum processed the collection for the Commonwealth who bought the collection, and he wrote his attribution of usually a place on the artefact, like he did with artefacts in the South Australian Museum. It is pretty clear that not many of the artefacts that came here had labels, because they all have these general attributions - central Australia, maybe northern central Australia and sometimes Cooper Creek or something a bit more specific. Then there is the material that we can document through various processes like the publications or those few things that do have original labels on them. One thing I did find out was that some specimens Basedow labelled in pencil. I have found some on some National Museum objects but I will have to go through a lot more to see if it’s more widespread.
The main benefit is that broader contextural information about what Basedow was doing. Even though some of it is conjectural, there is still a lot of factual information that gives us a good background to what Basedow was doing. That is all.
QUESTION: My name is Tom Campbell. I came here to the Museum in December 1983 as one of the first five or six. It was in about this time of the year in 1984 that the Museum’s council was told that it was being given responsibility for the Australian Institute of Anatomy collection over in the old Institute of Anatomy building, what is now the Film and Sound Archive. I was detailed off as the general factotum to make the people over there welcome, make them feel part of the museum family. I went across and met a delightful lady called Noel Keith. She said, ‘I have a colleague downstairs,’ and downstairs I was taken into the bowels of the institute and was introduced to this intense young man called David, who promptly took me into a tight room where there were drawers and drawers of rocks. He was starting to get enthusiastic about rocks. I now know that they were Basedow and other collections.
It’s been a long time since then. The institute collection at that stage had so much Aboriginal material and ethnographic material and there was a big Pacific collection, et cetera. A lot of that has subsequently been separated off and gone back to the University of Sydney and other places that belonged to them.
It’s frightening to say that David has been around for 35 years inside the National Museum. Our first registrar, a fellow called Geoff O’Donnell, came down here from the Australian Museum in Sydney. I am just so glad that he didn’t know how many insects were in that collection, because around 1986 we were busily trying to persuade the government of the day that we had a big collection and we had just acquired a printing press out of Echuca. So Geoff actually counted every piece of type from out of there and put that in - we have a collection of 100,000 objects or something – and it was all because of these individual type faces. Thank God he didn’t know about all the insects. But it’s a wonderful thing. It’s lovely to see the result of this young man’s time and effort over 35 years. Just a related little single issue: it is so wonderful to see the father of a lot of this industry, John Mulvaney, sitting here. I am thrilled to see him here as well. So well done David.
CAROLYN FORSTER: The thing I wanted to mention too is tonight we are going to announce our fellowship for this coming year and I am delighted to say that Carol Cooper is the awardee. It is always difficult to decide who is going to get a fellowship like this, but we are delighted that it’s Carol. Congratulations Carol.
Carol Cooper has been the manager of registration with responsibility for managing the intellectual and physical control of the National Historical Collection at the National Museum since 1998. For 2009 Carol is a research fellow at the Centre for Historical Research and is involved in researching the visual culture of nineteenth century Aboriginal south-east Australia, development of the Narritjin Barak painting expedition/exhibition with Howard Morphy at the Australian National University, liaison with the Moriarty family for the acquisition of the Balarinji archive and the John Moriarty personal collection by the Museum, the co-curator of the ‘colonial Melbourne’ historical module for Creating a Country, which we are all looking forward to, oral history research with the Maple Brown family from the Centre for Historical Research materials history project.
Carol’s Foundation Fellowship proposes involving her concluding significant research that she has initiated on the drawings of nineteenth-century Aboriginal artist William Barak. The fellowship will allow her to travel to selected European museums to undertake detailed study of the earliest Barak drawings to finalise her research and make definitive statements about the subject matter of the drawings. The major outcome will be a publication presenting the stories told by Barak art, illustrating the works held within both Australian and overseas collections. Indigenous community involvement and liaison would strengthen existing relations with Barak’s descendants and the wider Melbourne Koori community. It is the hope of both Carol and the Friends that this book will be published by NMA Press. The material presented in the book has the potential to make an interesting and attractive website project. Carol, thank you. We will all look forward to your work when you have had an opportunity to go ahead with that.
Thank you all for coming. If you would like to ask David some questions, please feel free to do that. Thank you once again for coming, and we look forward to seeing you again at a Friends function. Good night.
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Date published: 29 July 2009