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Barks, Birds & Billabongs: Exploring the Legacy of the 1948 American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land. 16-20 November 2009.
Paul Michael Taylor
Director, Asian Cultural History Program,
Historic perspectives on the Smithsonian's participation in the Arnhem Land Expedition: Transformations of the expeditionary enterprise
Listen to the audio (paper read by Martin Thomas)
This paper offers some historic context for the Smithsonian Institution's participation in the Arnhem Land Expedition, especially by examining Smithsonian participation in light of prior Smithsonian forms of partnerships, involvements, and sponsorships of domestic and international scientific expeditions.
Since its establishment by Act of Congress in 1846, the Smithsonian Institution has grown to become the world's largest museum complex, including 19 museums, nine research centers, and the National Zoo. Though considered America's national museum, the collecting mission was from the beginning worldwide in scope.
An early history of Smithsonian expeditions (by True and Goode, 1897) was undertaken as part of the Smithsonian's 50th anniversary celebration. It emphasised the broad original mandate for scientific exploration and collecting (including ethnological research), but also noted the Smithsonian's chronic inability to fund entire expeditions, leading to the importance of Smithsonian's partnerships with other United States government agencies in geological and biological surveys, coast and river/lake explorations, surveys for cross-country railroad routes, etc.
Many other more recent studies have emphasised the role of individual collectors and explorers, whose collections were later donated or sold to the Smithsonian. Certainly the pre-eminent example of a self-financed Smithsonian donor–collector (though never a Smithsonian staff member) would be William Louis Abbott (1860–1936). His lifelong collecting expeditions resulted in vast ethnographic and zoological collections from East Africa, South and Central Asia, South-east Asia and the Caribbean. By 1926, when Matthew Stirling tried to lead his 'Stirling New Guinea Expedition' (later the 'Dutch and American Expedition to New Guinea'), the unexpected requirements of the Dutch East Indies government substantially changed the expedition.
These examples, along with the Arnhem Land Expedition, illustrate that the transformations in museum expeditions (at least, their ethnographic components) have over time followed a pathway similar to the transformations in museum exhibitions, especially in view of the changing triad of hierarchical relationships between  the collectors (or collecting institutions) themselves,  the people whose cultural products and records were collected, and  the collection's or expedition's audience or spectatorship.
Recognising that we are still far from the end of that path, this paper concludes by looking at some other attempts to make expedition source materials available to — and include within our shared memory the perspectives of — the descendants of those encountered on expeditions of the past.
Paul Michael Taylor, a research anthropologist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, is director of that museum's Asian Cultural History Program, and serves as curator of Asian, European, and Middle Eastern Ethnology. He has written seven books and numerous scholarly articles on the ethnography, ethnobiology, languages, and art (or material culture) of Asia, especially Indonesia. He has also curated 18 museum exhibitions (including five on-line virtual exhibitions), and served as the director of Ethnographic Film Development for Essential TV (Overseas) Ltd, producing 12 documentary anthropological films. During his studies of rural social, ecological, and poverty-alleviation issues, and his work on documentary films, he lived for over four years in small tribal or rural villages of South-east Asia. The recipient of numerous international grants and awards, he has served on the board of directors of the Association for Asian Studies, and has been a longtime member of the Smithsonian's Asian-Pacific American Heritage Committee. He has worked closely with many individuals and community organisations to establish 'Heritage' projects at the Smithsonian. Each such project, including the Smithsonian's Korean, Philippine, Thai, Taiwanese, Sikh, and other heritage projects, has hosted regular performances, lectures, exhibitions, and other public programs.
He recently published a web-based, peer-reviewed, multimedia edition of source materials and critical interpretations of a historic 1926 joint Smithsonian-Dutch expedition to western New Guinea (Papua, Indonesia). The publication, By Aeroplane to Pygmyland: Revisiting the 1926 Dutch and American Expedition to New Guinea, looks at the 1926 expedition from today's perspective, through interpretive essays by Taylor, and includes photographs, film footage, and previously unpublished diaries from the expedition, in a searchable, annotated format (see: www.sil.si.edu/expeditions/1926). He is now preparing another online publication of the edited field notes and correspondence of Smithsonian scientist WL Abbott (1860-1936). Aside from his Smithsonian position, Paul Taylor serves as senior consultant for Social and Resettlement Issues for the World Bank Inspection Panel, and has participated in investigations of social and environmental safeguards on development projects in China, Paraguay/Argentina, and Cambodia.
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.