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Robyn McKenzie

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

Robyn McKenzie

Robyn McKenzie

PhD candidate

Research School of Humanities

Australian National University


Forget the barks! Bring on the string figures!
The String Figures of Yirrkala: Activating a legacy

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In the estimate of Fred McCarthy the most significant contribution to the field of anthropology made possible by the American–Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land, second only to the archaeological survey, was the collection he made of string figures from Yirrkala.

Djappari Mununggirritj and Dhangal Gurruwiwi making 'Tortoise', Women's Resource Centre, Yirrkala, 14 January 2009.
Djappari Mununggirritj and Dhangal Gurruwiwi making 'Tortoise', Women's Resource Centre, Yirrkala, 14 January 2009. Photo: Robyn McKenzie.

String figures are patterns made with a loop of string on the hands. Anthropologists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century collected string figures from Indigenous peoples in various parts of the world by mounting the final 'designs' on card. In this way they turned an ephemeral, process and performance-based cultural practice into a fixed two-dimensional form. They also wrote painstakingly detailed notes on their often complex method of construction. By these means, at Yirrkala during the 1948 Expedition, McCarthy made the largest collection of its kind in the world — that is, string figures collected at a single time and place, from a single community.

The 193 mounted string figures now housed in the Australian Museum in Sydney, are artefacts of cross-cultural exchange. This collection of strange and beautiful objects is at once a peculiar and achingly pathetic attempt to capture the intangible culture of the 'other', and a vital and potent legacy deserving reconnection with its originating community and other Indigenous and non-Indigenous audiences.

This paper examines the narrative of McCarthy's collecting process, in relation to the larger project of the Arnhem Land Expedition and its participants, including his Yolngu informants. It considers the nature of the collection (in concert with ancillary material, such as films, photographs, field diaries, and published texts), looking at problems of definition, description, interpretation and analysis, in dialogue with its objects of study. In conclusion it tells the story of my first fieldwork experience in December/January 2008–09 developing understandings taken from the responses made by contemporary Yolngu to the promptings of the collection.

Ngarrawu Mununggurr and unidentified child making 'Tortoise', Yirrkala Beach Camp, 7 September 1948.
Ngarrawu Mununggurr and unidentified child making 'Tortoise', Yirrkala Beach Camp, 7 September 1948. (AMS 353 Fred McCarthy Field Trip Photographs.)
Photo: Courtesy Australian Museum, Sydney.


Robyn McKenzie is a PhD candidate in interdisciplinary cross-cultural research at the Research School of Humanities, The Australian National University. Having trained as an art historian in the Fine Arts Department at the University of Melbourne (at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels), she has taught in academic art history departments but predominantly in history/theory units in art schools. In this environment an early focus on avant-garde modernisms was superseded by an interest in the neo-avant-garde conceptual art movements of the 1960s and 1970s and their influence on contemporary art making and criticism.

In 1988 she programmed a significant lecture and forum series, The Present and Recent Past of Australian Art & Criticism, held in Melbourne (under the auspices of 200 Gertrude Street). Through the later 1980s and 1990s Robyn published extensively in contemporary art magazines (both local and international) and exhibition catalogues. From 1995 to 1997 she was art critic for The Age newspaper in Melbourne, and from 1996-2002, she was editor of LIKE, Art Magazine. She has also practised as a curator. Her most recent exhibition, A Bird in the Hand: Paintings by Tony Clark and John Wolseley was held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Contemporary Project Space in 2006-07.

Robyn's PhD study on 'The string figures of Yirrkala' marks a departure from, but also continues aspects of, her previous research and professional interests in the visual arts, now in dialogue with the field of anthropology: history, theory and practice. A major objective of her research, focused on the Australian Museum collection made by McCarthy during the Arnhem Land Expedition, will be realised through an exhibition. Working in collaboration with the Yirrkala community, her aim is to re-animate the links between the collection and the intangible heritage of knowledge, practice and belief systems that it reflects, thinking through the ways in which contemporary audiences might read and interact with the collection today. In 2008 she received an Australian Museum Postgraduate Award allowing her to work closely with the collection and the Museum's expert staff.

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.