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Louise Hamby

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Barks, Birds & Billabongs: Exploring the Legacy of the 1948 American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land. 16-20 November 2009.

Louise Hamby

Dr Louise Hamby

Postdoctoral Fellow

Research School of Humanities

Australian National University


The forgotten collection: Baskets reveal histories

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Many examples of Aboriginal material culture were collected for the Arnhem Land Expedition, particularly bark paintings, as they were the passion of the leader Charles Mountford. As a result, other items collected, such as baskets and bags, were not given much consideration. The fibre objects were collected from Aboriginal women and men at all the camps at Gunbalanya (formerly Oenpelli), Groote Eylandt, and Yirrkala. They were also collected from the island of Milingimbi, visited only by Frank Setzler and Frederick McCarthy.

Basket. Object P387539.3, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. Photo: Louise Hamby.

This paper aims to analyse as a group the dispersed objects currently held in the Australian Museum, the South Australian Museum, the National Museum of Australia and the National Museum of Natural History, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

The nature of this dispersal may illuminate bias towards particular objects or may show an equal division between form, technique and function of the items. This investigation will provide a snapshot of styles and forms being made in the mid-twentieth century in Arnhem Land for public viewing, keeping in mind that these items were being purchased by team members and may not have been totally representative of objects in the everyday and ceremonial life of the communities.

Many collectors visited parts of Arnhem Land prior to the Arnhem Land Expedition. These collections provide a basis for comparison that researchers now can make with the material collected by Mountford's team of scientists. These comparisons also include perspectives from Milingimbi artists currently producing fibre work and others familiar with objects from 60 years ago.

In order to give some perspective to this historical trajectory, fibre works from Milingimbi, all of which were obtained by Setzler and McCarthy, will be given a closer examination. Collections starting from 1924 with Hubert Wilkins followed by Lloyd Warner, Donald Thomson, TT Webb, Harold Shepherdson and Edgar Wells are utilised to document the changes in styles and materials. The compositional nature of the objects may reflect the thinking and motivation of both the buyers and the sellers of the items.

Family scene on the beach at Milingimbi
Family scene on the beach at Milingimbi with Miningal twining a mat and Ngulurra working on a basket. Also included in this image are Milwuyun and Muntjingu Gaykamangu, Lunpupuy, Malumba, Litngawuy and Djakla. Identifications by Joe Neperranga Gumbula. Photo: courtesy National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Frank Setzler Photographs, Photo Lot 36, Image 12.


Louise Hamby is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Museums and Collections Graduate Program at the Research School of Humanities at the Australian National University in Canberra. She received an MFA degree from the University of Georgia in textiles. Containers of Power, her PhD from the School of Archaeology and Anthropology from the Australian National University focussed on fibre container forms from north-east Arnhem Land. Her previous position was an ARC Postdoctoral Fellow — Industry working with Museum Victoria on the project, Anthropological and Aboriginal perspectives on the Donald Thomson Collection: material culture, collecting and identity.

Material culture, particularly fibre forms and body wear from Arnhem Land, is the main content of her work. The interconnections between historical and contemporary forms are part of on-going research with Aboriginal people from the region. This often involves working with dispersed collections of different types. She has curated and co-curated several exhibitions including Art on a String: Aboriginal Threaded Objects from the Central Desert and Arnhem Land, Woven Forms: Contemporary Basketmaking in Australia and Twined Together: Kunmadj Njalehnjaleken. Most recently she has co-convened Selling Yarns 2: Innovation for Sustainability at the National Museum of Australia that focussed on innovative Indigenous craft and design practices, the relevance of mentorship, networking and skills development. Louise's expertise in historical Aboriginal material culture led to her recent consultancy for costume and set design for the Baz Luhrmann film Australia.

Her current ARC discovery grant, Contexts of Collection, examines the role of Indigenous people in the formation of collections from Arnhem Land. The collection from the Arnhem Land Expedition plays an integral part in mid-century relationships between collectors, institutions and the makers of the objects. From this expedition she has examined the fibre collections at the Smithsonian, South Australian Museum, Australian Museum and the National Museum of Australia. Discussions with Aboriginal individuals about the works bring new dimensions to the collection.

Dr Louise Hamby - ANU, Research School of Humanities:

Note: The views expressed in speakers' abstracts are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Museum of Australia.