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Mark Jenkins

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

Mark Jenkins

Mark Jenkins

Writer, editor and historian

(Formerly writer and historian for the National Geographic Society)


'A Robinson Crusoe in Arnhem Land ...': Howell Walker, National Geographic, and the 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition

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He may have been the National Geographic's 'parfit gentil Knight,' as one Chaucerian-minded colleague dubbed him, but when Howell Walker strolled back into the camp of the 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition after having been 'lost' for days in the stormy Gulf of Carpentaria, he became its 'intrepedist' explorer as well. Both gentleman and adventurer, Walker was an epitome of the Geographic's foreign editorial staff, those dexterous individuals who, as representatives of a non-partisan scientific and educational organisation, were in journalism but not of it. Unaided, each could write articles, take still pictures, and make a 16mm motion picture while wandering about the world always following the high road.

No examination of the legacies of the 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition would be complete without looking at the role played by its primary American sponsor and that sponsor's intrepid representative. Founded in 1888 to 'increase and diffuse geographic knowledge,' the National Geographic Society by the 1940s had become a dignified, almost hallowed, and thoroughly American institution, for its famous oak-and-laurel trimmed magazine was sent every month to well over a million members, 90 per cent of whom lived in the United States. The 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition offers a case study in how the society of that era went about its business, how it construed its mission as both a sponsor of science and a populariser of 'humanised' geography; and the centrality of photography and image-making in its activities. Howell Walker, the Society's roving writer-photographer, strayed through Arnhem Land constrained by the demands of popular Kodachrome travelogues, the emerging discipline of photojournalism, and American preconceptions about what constituted the exotic - particularly the Aboriginal - 'Other.'


Mark Collins Jenkins is a writer, editor, and historian who, for many years, was on the staff of the National Geographic Society. His books include the recently-published The Book of Marvels: An Explorer's Miscellany (2009); Odysseys and Photographs: Four National Geographic Fieldmen (2008); Worlds to Explore: Classic Tales of Travel and Adventure from National Geographic (2006); High Adventure: The Story of the National Geographic Society (2004); and the forthcoming The Image Collection, to be published in the fall of 2009.

Jenkins has also written for Society products ranging from the Genographic Project, an attempt to map prehistoric migrations via traces left in the genetic code, to articles for the Society's award-winning website. During his 22 years as an historian with the Society's Archives, Jenkins was creator, editor, and principal writer of an electronic encyclopedia of Society history comprising over 1,200 entries. He also helped establish an oral history program and served as one of the curators of the museum exhibit, Latitudes, Lenses, and Lore: The World of Luis Marden (November 2000-March 2001). Alongside his colleagues he was profiled in the "Behind the Scenes" section of the February 2002 National Geographic.

A graduate of St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Virginia, Jenkins studied at Washington and Lee University, where he was awarded a bachelor's degree in English. After receiving a master's degree from the University of Virginia, he joined the Geographic staff in 1987. Presently living in Fredericksburg, Virginia, he is a former trustee of the Historic Fredericksburg Foundation, where he helped start its long-running oral history program and edited the Journal of Fredericksburg History.

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.