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Barks, Birds and Billabongs symposium

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Barks, Birds & Billabongs: Exploring the legacy of the 1948 American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land

AN INTERNATIONAL SYMPOSIUM: 16–20 November 2009, National Museum of Australia, Canberra

About the Symposium

In 2009 six decades had passed since the 1948 American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land. So it was a fitting moment for celebration, re-evaluation and renewed collaboration between the individuals, institutions and countries touched by this formative research venture.

The Research Centre at the National Museum of Australia hosted Barks, Birds & Billabongs: Exploring the legacy of the 1948 American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land. This international symposium investigated the Expedition's significant and often controversial legacy. The symposium was organised around three core themes: Histories, Legacies and Continuity & Change. Particular emphasis was placed on Indigenous perspectives.

Representatives of Indigenous communities from Arnhem Land (including Yirrkala, Groote Eylandt, Gunbalanya and Milingimbi) participated throughout the symposium. Indigenous participants were also given opportunities to reconnect with collections held by the Museum and other cultural institutions in Canberra. The two key American institutions involved in the original Expedition – the National Geographic Society and the Smithsonian Institution – were also represented at this interdisciplinary event.

A number of special interest group workshops were held on the final day of the symposium. These workshops brought together experts from around Australia and the United States of America in fields such as bark painting research and conservation, film archiving, digital repatriation and the natural sciences.

Several free public events were held in conjunction with the symposium. A national competition open to secondary school students in years 11 and 12 was also run in conjunction with the symposium and with the support of the Embassy of the United States of America, Principals Australia, the Dare to Lead program and the Fulbright Commission.

Online archive

Use the navigation on the right-hand side starting with The 1948 Expedition to explore more about the symposium online.


pdfDownload an overview of the Symposium (PDF 2.7mb)

Symposium proceedings

Cover of Exploring the Legacy of the 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition ebook

The book of the symposium proceedings Exploring the Legacy of the 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition was published by ANU E Press in June 2011.

In 1948 a collection of scientists, anthropologists and photographers journeyed to northern Australia for a seven-month tour of research and discovery - now regarded as ‘the last of the big expeditions’.

The American–Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land was front-page news at the time, but 60 years later it is virtually unknown. This lapse into obscurity was due partly to the fraught politics of Australian anthropology and animus towards its leader, the Adelaide-based writer-photographer Charles Mountford.

Promoted as a ‘friendly mission’ that would foster good relations between Australia and its most powerful wartime ally, the Expedition was sponsored by National Geographic, the Smithsonian Institution and the Australian Government. An unlikely cocktail of science, diplomacy and popular geography, the Arnhem Land Expedition put the Aboriginal cultures of the vast Arnhem Land reserve on an international stage.

Audio on demand

Most conference papers are also available as audio on demand.

audio_w15 Listen to Barks, Birds & Billabongs

Further information

Further information on the Arnhem Land Expedition and relevant collections (held at the National Museum of Australia and at other institutions throughout Australia and the United States of America) will also be made available through this website. As one of the long-term outcomes of the symposium the Museum intends to develop an online resource which includes a portal to collections associated with the 1948 Expedition located in institutions around the world.

We would welcome any additional information relating to the Expedition, associated collections, the Expedition members and their descendants.