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Lynne McCarthy

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

Lynne McCarthy

Dr Lynne McCarthy

Centre for Historical Research

National Museum of Australia


The 'exciting thing was the landscape': Raymond Specht, a botanist in the field

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This paper will explore the work of Raymond Louis Specht, expedition botanist on the 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition. The botanical collecting of the expedition will be examined from a dual perspective. I will consider the practical nature of undertaking field based plant ecology in the tropical environment of northern Australia and the creation of an extensive botanical collection during eight months in the field.

Ecology emerged as a discipline of science in the 1920s. Historically, the discipline has experienced great diversity and complexity in theory and practice. In the United States and Britain, the work of botanists dominated the formal science of ecology, especially during the first decades of the twentieth century. Early ecologists also generally followed a holistic philosophy with regard to understanding landscape. In Australia, ecology was initially seen as a science of exploration. I argue that Specht incorporated these approaches into his work during the Expedition, strengthened by his training in the Botany Department at the University of Adelaide in field studies of plant communities and physiology. Plant surveys were recognised as more than just a systematic collection of specimens (13,500 dried and pressed specimens in total). These surveys provided an opportunity for investigations into biogeographical patterns, and the ecology of plant communities in northern Australia.

Carpentaria acuminate, palm endemic to the Northern Territory.

Carpentaria acuminate, palm endemic to the Northern Territory.
Photo: Lynne McCarthy.

I argue that 'place' is centrally implicated in the work of the botanist as a field scientist on the Expedition. Arnhem Land, as a 'venue' for science, was a place familiar and yet foreign to a trained plant ecologist well versed in working in southern Australian field sites. The 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition required a translation and adaptation of this botanist's skills to work with tropical plants and landscapes not previously encountered.

The botanical collections from the Arnhem Land Expedition illuminate not only Specht's training in plant ecology, skill and dedication to field work, but also contribute to the development of the discipline of ecology within Australia and internationally.


Lynne McCarthy is a research fellow in the Centre for Historical Research at the National Museum of Australia. Her doctoral research in the Flinders Ranges, South Australia, developed from her training in the disciplines of environmental science and palaeoecology. This research reconstructed vegetation and climate histories of the Flinders Ranges over the last 10,000 years, based on the analysis of pollen and plant macrofossil material preserved in native stick-nest rat deposits. This work, analogous to well established research on packrat nest deposits in the United States, was a first for this type of palaeoecological study in semi-arid environments in South Australia.

Lynne joined the National Museum of Australia in 1999 as a curator in the People and the Environment section. This provided an opportunity for contributing a deep time perspective to the development of the Old New Land exhibit – the permanent gallery exploring environmental histories of Australia. Other curatorial work in the Museum has included the development of exhibits for another permanent gallery exhibition, Australian Journeys, and extensive work on the research and documentation of collections in the National Historical Collection. Prior to joining the Centre for Historical Research, Lynne also worked more broadly across the Museum, including work as an exhibitions coordinator, and senior curator in the field of environmental history.

Lynne's interest in the botany and ecology work from the 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition, stems from her passion for fieldwork, and the opportunity to explore the complexities of the scientific and cultural dimensions of plant ecology and landscape histories of tropical environments across Arnhem Land. In addition, the honour of working with eminent Australian plant ecologist Raymond Specht has proved invaluable in capturing personal insights of his experiences on the 1948 Expedition, and contributions to the development and practice of plant ecology in Australia.

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.