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The 1948 expedition

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The 1948 expedition

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

Contents

A watershed event

The American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land is often described as the 'last of the big expeditions'. Despite the hype (and there was plenty of that), exploration – at least in the terrestrial sense – was not its purpose. Rather, it was the frontier of knowledge that members of the Expedition hoped to penetrate. This involved co-ordinated study of both the natural environment and its Aboriginal inhabitants.

The expedition posed at a campsite at Gunbalanya (formerly Oenpelli), in 1948.
The Expedition posed at Gunbalanya (formerly Oenpelli), 1948.
Photograph by Frank M Setzler. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia,
nla.pic-an24297992.

Occurring in 1948 in the aftermath of World War II, the Arnhem Land Expedition was a watershed event, emblematic of broader transformations in Australia and beyond. Widely reported in the press and transmitted to the world through film, radio and print media, this 'friendly mission' was a public face to behind-the-scenes negotiations that would shape the trans-Pacific relationship for the remainder of the twentieth century.

The Expedition is also particularly significant in terms of the history of science, anthropology and the visual arts. This is due to the unique accomplishments of its participants and also to the Aboriginal people who shared their knowledge and provided practical support. It can also be attributed to the Expedition's timing, having occurred at a moment when the very purpose of scientific and environmental research was being reconsidered. This was a moment when old disciplinary boundaries were up for reconsideration and ecological thinking was on the ascendant.

Charles Pearcy Mountford and Groote Eylandt artists, 1948.
Charles P Mountford and Groote Eylandt artists, 1948. Photo attributed to Howell Walker. Courtesy of State Library of South Australia, PRG487/1/2/205/1. Out of cultural consideration, part of this image has been digitally obscured.

The interdisciplinary makeup of the Expedition was intended to encourage cross-pollination among the researchers, who returned from the Northern Territory with an array of data and new methodologies, as well as huge quantities of natural history specimens and Aboriginal artefacts, now held by major institutions in Australia and the United States.

Despite being one of the most significant scientific expeditions ever mounted in Australia, the Arnhem Land Expedition remains one of the least understood.

The participants

The Expedition was led by Charles P Mountford (1890–1976), a photographer and ethnologist based in Adelaide. Although his star has waned in recent decades, 'Monty', as he was known by friend and foe alike, was a well-known and at times controversial figure. Nevertheless, at a time when Aboriginal people had little voice in public culture, he became a leading spokesman on matters Aboriginal.

Frank M Setzler, from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, was appointed as the Expedition's deputy leader.

Frank M Setzler and Charles P Mountford upon arrival at Adelaide, November 1948.
Frank M Setzler and Charles P Mountford upon arrival at Adelaide, November 1948.
Photograph unattributed. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia,
nla.pic-an24313084.

Expedition participants were selected by the institutions that became stakeholders in the venture. In early 1948 these participants assembled for the first time and began the parade of receptions and send-offs that preceded their flight north to Darwin.

Expedition members aboard the RAAF Dakota aircraft travelling from Adelaide to Darwin, March 1948.
Expedition members aboard the RAAF Dakota aircraft travelling from Adelaide to Darwin, March 1948. Photograph by Raymond Specht. Courtesy of Raymond Specht.

In Australia, the main participating institutions were the Australian Museum in Sydney and the Institute of Anatomy in Canberra. In the United States, the two institutions involved were the National Geographic Society and the Smithsonian Institution.

Howell Walker photographing at Umbakumba, 1948.
Howell Walker photographing at Umbakumba, 1948. Photograph by Charles P Mountford. Courtesy of the State Library of South Australia, PRG487/1/2/209/1.

With some turnover in support staff occurring during the Expedition, its official membership eventually numbered 17. These individuals are listed as follows in the official pdf Records of the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land (PDF 4616kb) (Charles P Mountford (ed), Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1956-64, vol. 1, p. xi).

Name Role Institutional Affiliation
Charles P Mountford Leader, Ethnologist and Film Director Honorary Associate Curator in Ethnology, South Australian Museum, Adelaide
Frank M Setzler Deputy Leader and Archaeologist Head Curator
Department of Anthropology, Smithsonian Institution, Washington
Herbert G Deignan Ornithologist Associate Curator of Birds, Smithsonian Institution, Washington
David H Johnson Mammalogist Curator of Mammals, Smithsonian Institution, Washington
Robert R Miller Icthyologist Associate Curator of Fishes, Smithsonian Institution, Washington
Raymond L Specht Botanist Lecturer, Department of Botany, University of Adelaide*
Frederick D McCarthy Anthropologist Department of Anthropology, Australian Museum, Sydney
Harrison Howell Walker Photographer and Staff Writer National Geographic Society, Washington
Bessie I Mountford Honorary Secretary NA
William E Harney Guide and Liaison Officer NA
Peter Bassett-Smith Cine-Photographer NA
Keith Cordon Transport Officer NA
John E Bray Cook and Honorary Entomologist NA
Reginald Hollow Cook NA
Brian Billington Medical Officer Institute of Anatomy, Canberra
Margaret McArthur Nutritionist Institute of Anatomy, Canberra
Kelvin Hodges Biochemist Institute of Anatomy, Canberra

* Specht held this position in 1956 when this volume of the Records was published.

This list in itself reveals a great deal about the Expedition and its milieu. Broken down by nationality, the team consisted of 12 Australians and 5 Americans. In terms of the fields of knowledge represented, the mix of trained scientists and writer/photographer/filmmakers set the tone for the range of outcomes – academic and popular – that was a distinctive trait of the Expedition. The gender imbalance is also significant.

Peter Bassett-Smith using his 16mm camera, 1948.
Peter Bassett-Smith using his 16mm camera, 1948. Photograph by Charles P Mountford. Courtesy of the State Library of South Australia, PRG487/1/2/208/2.
John Bray with insects specimens, 1948.
John Bray with insect specimens, 1948. Photograph by Charles P Mountford. Courtesy of the State Library of South Australia, PRG487/1/2/202/2.

 

The official list of personnel only hints at the range of people actually involved in the Expedition, which spent seven months in Arnhem Land, commencing in early April 1948.

Some of the individuals who supported or visited them along the way are now regarded as iconic figures in Australian history, including Bill Harney, Fred Gray, Eric Jolliffe and Colin Simpson.

Helped by Indigenous guides and communities, the Expedition's participants investigated the people and the environment of the region from their various disciplinary perspectives.

The Expedition had three principal bases in Arnhem Land. Their first base was Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria. They later moved to Yirrkala on the Gove Peninsula and then to Gunbalanya (formerly Oenpelli) in west Arnhem Land.

There were also secondary research trips to places such Delissaville (now Belyuen), Milingimbi Island, Port Bradshaw, Roper River and the islands off Groote Eylandt.

Map of Arnhem Land, Northern Territory
Map of Arnhem Land, Northern Territory.
Taken originally from a National Geographic Society transparency, this map was digitalised for the internet and reproduced with kind permission from the National Library of Australia as part of the Robert Rush Miller collection from the late 1940s. nla.pic-vn4515195

A complex legacy

The legacy of the 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition is vast, complex and at times contentious.

The Expedition's interaction with Aboriginal communities is of particular interest both to descendants living in the communities and to present-day researchers. It is, however, difficult to assess the ways in which the Aboriginal communities responded to the visitation of scientists in 1948.

Charles P Mountford, Bill Harney and five Aboriginal men (unidentified) crossing the East Alligator River, 1948.
Charles P Mountford, Bill Harney and five Aboriginal men (unidentified) crossing the East Alligator River, 1948. Photograph unattributed. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn3705202.

In its favour, the Expedition arrived with a definite interest in the people and their way of life. This was definitely not the case with many of the Balanda – as white people are known throughout Arnhem Land – whom they typically encountered. The researchers upheld the art, ceremonies and traditional way of life as valid and important. In this they differed markedly from the missionaries on Groote and at Oenpelli who were bitterly determined to stamp out 'heathen' customs.

This is not, however, to deny that there were detrimental aspects to the Expedition. The medical researchers pricked and prodded their subjects. There was much that was intrusive and even more that was perplexing.

The fact that the Expedition brokered so many cooperative relationships at its three bases and on its many side trips suggests a basic willingness to share culture and participate in the education of the visitors. But in some respects the loyalty was tested. The most controversial aspect of the Expedition's work – certainly by today's standards – was Setzler's collection of human bones from mortuary caves and other sites. Nearly all ended up at the Smithsonian Institution, ostensibly on loan. In 2008, at the request of the Australian Government, the Smithsonian returned about two thirds of the remains to the communities from whence they came.

Fred McCarthy and Frank M Setzler shovelling and sifting cave deposits in front of picture gallery, Gunbalanya, October 1948.
Fred McCarthy and Frank M Setzler shovelling and sifting cave deposits in front of picture gallery, Gunbalanya, October 1948. Photograph unattributed. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24297736.

In addition to the many other aspects of its legacy significant to a diverse range of disciplines and fields, the Expedition is of enduring relevance to the people of Arnhem Land. Indeed, Aboriginal people in the region are now taking ownership of the documentation from the Expedition in various ways. This is one example of how consequences can defy intentions – when the Expedition was conceived, no one anticipated that the subjects of study might one day be beneficiaries of it.

The Museum would like to acknowledge Martin Thomas for his assistance developing this overview of the Arnhem Land Expedition.

Additional resources

Audio

Return to Arnhem Land
A documentary for radio by writer/producer Martin Thomas. This program has been reproduced and made available here with the permission of ABC Radio National.

Commissioned by Radio Eye through the ABC Radio Regional Production Fund, Return to Arnhem Land was broadcast on ABC Radio National 2/6/09, 6/6/09 and repeated 17/6/09.

http://www.abc.net.au/rn/radioeye/stories/2007/1928445.htm

http://www.abc.net.au/rn/360/

audio Download 'Return to Arnhem Land' audio (MP3 22mb) duration 46:07

Expedition to Arnhem Land by Colin Simpson
ABC Radio 1948 Walkabout feature

Writer: Colin Simpson, producer: John Thompson, sound recordist: Raymond Giles. First broadcast by the Australian Broadcasting Commission (now Corporation) on 30/11/1948. This program has been reproduced and made available here with the permission of ABC Radio National.

http://www.abc.net.au/rn/360/

WARNING: Some terms and expressions used by researchers to describe Aboriginal people and their culture 60 years ago may be offensive today.

audio  Download 'Expedition to Arnhem Land' audio (MP3 27mb) duration 57:46

Publications

pdf 'In the Wake of the Arnhem Land Expedition' by Martin Thomas, 2008 (PDF 683kb)

Originally published in Explore: the Australian Museum Magazine, 30(1): 8-11. Reproduced with permission from the Australian Museum (www.australianmuseum.net.au).

Dr Martin Thomas is an academic advisor on the symposium Steering Committee from the University of Sydney.

pdf 'Charles Mountford and the 'Bastard Barks': A Gift from the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arhem Land, 1948 Mountford Expedition Works' by Margo Neale, 1998 (PDF 4844kb)

Originally published in Lynne Seear and Julie Ewington (eds), Brought to Light: Australian Art 1850-1965, Queensland Art Gallery, 210-217. Reproduced courtesy of the Queensland Art Gallery.

Margo Neale is the symposium Project Director, a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Historical Research, Senior Curator and the Principal Advisor to the Director (Indigenous), National Museum of Australia.

pdf 'The Story of the Expedition', Charles P Mountford, 1956 (PDF 4616kb)

Originally published as the introduction to Charles P Mountford, 'Art, Myth and Symbolism', vol. 1 of the Records of the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land, Melbourne University Press, 1956-64. Reproduced with permission from the Mountford family.