Skip to content
  • Open today 9am–5pm
  • Free general admission

Paper presented by David Kaus, Senior Curator, National Museum of Australia
Collecting for a Nation symposium, National Museum of Australia, 21 March 2006

DAVID KAUS: I’ll be talking about the history of the National Museum of Australia’s Indigenous collections before they came to the Museum. In fact, there had been ethnographic collections destined for a national museum in Australia for well over half a century, before the National Museum of Australia came into existence in 1980.

When I started working with these collections at the Australian Institute of Anatomy in 1979, they were generally referred to as the National Ethnographic collection, or far less frequently, the Commonwealth Ethnographic Collection. It was housed in the basement of the Australian Institute of Anatomy building, which now comprises the core of the National Film and Sound Archive. The National Ethnographic Collection was derived from four sources: first, the Institute of Anatomy collections acquired by the Commonwealth and destined for a national museum. These collections were acquired between the 1920s - we don’t actually have acquisition dates for the earliest collections - and the 1970s, first by Sir Colin MacKenzie. The Institute of Anatomy continued to receive collections after his retirement in 1937. The second is the University of Sydney. In 1956 the University of Sydney took the decision to send its collections to the Institute of Anatomy on permanent loan, and they arrived at the Institute in February 1957. Third, the Australian National University’s collections were stored at the Institute of Anatomy from the 1950s and returned in the 1990s. And the final group, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, now known as the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS). At first until about 1966, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies collections were stored at its premises in Braddon but, as space became short, their collections were moved to the Institute of Anatomy, and collections acquired subsequently were also housed there.

All four groups included both Australian and Pacific material with a total number of approximately 20,000 organic items. There was a roughly 60:40 split in favour of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collections. I’ll just be referring to them as Aboriginal collections because there was virtually no Torres Strait material in the collections at that time. In addition there are 80,000-odd Australian stone implements which comprise the bulk of the stone tools held by the National Museum today. With only one or two exceptions, they were all surface collected. This part of the collection is fairly representative geographically and in terms of tool types. It is likely any further acquisitions will be limited and restricted to filling in so-called gaps. As the Museum is not a designated repository, material from excavations is not deposited here.

The National Museum did not acquire all of the collections that were at the Institute of Anatomy. In the early 1980s, the department responsible for the Museum at the time, Home Affairs, sought to establish the ownership of the various components of the National Ethnographic collection. As a result, some parts of the collection were returned to the organisations from which they had been received. What this meant was that the Museum only took possession of those collections that were to become part of the National Historical Collection. This included both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and Pacific collections. The former were moved to the Mitchell repository in 1987 when the building was only a year or two old. Those Pacific collections that the Museum retained were moved to this Mitchell storage facility two years later. While the University of Sydney Aboriginal collections were amongst those moved to the repository in 1987, formal title to them was not transferred until 1989. The university transferred its Pacific collections to the Australian Museum in Sydney and all of the Australian National University collections were returned to the university.

As far as the Pacific collections retained by the National Museum are concerned - I’m only going to speak briefly about the Pacific collections - they comprise a mix of Pacific-only collections, so collections with only Pacific material in them, and components of other collections where the collector collected other things, predominantly Aboriginal artefacts. Looking now at the collections that were transferred to the National Museum, there were in the order of 280 collections. These comprised around approximately 150 individual and 25 institutional collectors. The reason for this apparent discrepancy is that some collectors are represented by multiple collections. Just over 70 per cent of the collections comprise organic artefacts only, and a further quarter are collections of stone implements. The remainder, a little fewer than four per cent, comprise both organic and stone items.

A few collections, mainly from the latter group, also include Pacific items, and there are only a handful of collections that comprise Pacific material only. Amongst these are two significant collections made in New Guinea, and Sylvia Schaffarczyk will talk about the most significant of these, the Official Papuan, or Sir Hubert Murray, collection. The remaining Pacific collections were mainly derived from amateur collectors and in one sense form a very eclectic group of artefacts. While there is little geographic cohesiveness, there is a bias towards Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. My impression of this part of the collection is that there is a broader range of object types than for the Aboriginal collections, but this is something I have yet to test. Something else I need to further investigate is my suspicion that the majority of the Pacific artefacts were acquired as part of the secondary artefact market; that is, the collectors did not acquire them from the producing communities but from dealers, other collectors and so on.

Looking for a moment at the Institute of Anatomy building itself, there were two galleries for exhibitions; the extensions running perpendicular to the access of the entry and offices of the building. Originally these both had anatomical displays. As I understand it, one gallery was changed to display ethnographic material, both Aboriginal and Pacific, in the early 1960s. Also as I understand it, these displays were started by Elizabeth Nadel but the bulk of the development work was done by Helen Groger-Wurm, an Austrian born and trained anthropologist. However, some Pacific material went on display as early as 1954. Once the exhibitions were installed there was not a lot of change to them before the Institute of Anatomy closed its doors in 1984.

In the two or three years prior to its closing during the time I worked at the Institute of Anatomy, we changed parts of the case dealing with ceremonial matters to remove inappropriate photographs and we changed one of the three cases dealing with bark paintings to one on rock art. The exhibitions were on the ground level. The basements below them were used for storage. The collections were mostly stored on movable trolleys made on site, apart from the stone implements which were in two rooms on their own, largely stored on metal shelving or in the packing crates or cardboard boxes in which they arrived. Early in the 1980s, I moved the Pacific collections from their room in the basement where the Aboriginal collections were stored to the opposite basement and created a locked room for secret and sacred objects, which until then had been stored in bundles in plastic bags along with other objects.

This is a good place to make a brief reference to the curation of the collections while at the Institute of Anatomy. I’m not pointing fingers here, but these comments are largely restricted to the Institute of Anatomy and University of Sydney collections. They effectively do not apply to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies collections and do not extend to the collections that the Museum has acquired independently of these other components. A result of sometimes poor curation at the Institute of Anatomy is that disassociation of documentation with objects resulted in several thousand now not having any collector information at all. I have been able to place many back into their collections. For example, the Basedow collection went from just over 100 items in the early 1980s to 1100 or so in 1985. In some cases I removed objects incorrectly placed in various collections. This is a factor that always has to be taken into account when studying the relevant collections, not to mention the collections management problems this has created.

Going back to the collections, all four components comprise a mix of collections made by professional and amateur collectors. This is a good time to pause and present you with some definitions to clarify some of the terms I am going to use, and have used. When I refer to ‘professional collectors’, I’ve used the Oxford dictionary I have at home, which defines professional as ‘of belonging to, or connected with a profession’, with ‘profession’ being ‘a vocation or calling especially one that involves some branch of advanced learning or science’, in this case ethnography and anthropology. The ‘belonging to’ or ‘connected with’ part of the definition is important because the nature of anthropology changed over time with increasing professionalism of the discipline. Thus, I regard Herbert Basedow, who was practising prior to the founding of the first chair of anthropology in Australia in 1926, as a professional because he had a postgraduate degree in anthropology awarded in 1910 and because he published widely on Aboriginal cultures between 1904 and 1935. Later collectors are easier to slot in here because they held or hold paid positions in their discipline. Now turning to ‘amateur’, the definition I am using is ‘one who practices a thing, especially an art or game, only as a pastime’. The National Ethnographic Collection had many amateur collectors represented, and they were collecting from the late nineteenth century right up to the 1970s. While some may have written about Indigenous cultures, their collecting and other related activities were undertaken in addition to their employment; that is, as a hobby.

Two other definitions I will explain concern the nature of primary and secondary collecting. Primary is the first collector either directly from Indigenous people or, in the case of stone implements, from a site, and usually from the surface of the ground in the case of the National Ethnographic collection. Secondary refers to objects acquired from people other than Indigenous people; that is, other collectors, dealers, second-hand shops, etc. I will also use the term ‘compound’ until I can think of something better to describe those collectors who were a mix of both secondary and primary collectors. Quite often those people, particularly the amateurs, collected the organic material as secondary collectors, whereas they might have collected the stone tools as primary collectors. Of course that’s not a hard and fast rule but it is a majority who fall into that category.

The processes these definitions relate to are important in understanding how the make-up of the National Ethnographic collection came about. For example, some of its more notable characteristics include biases toward central and northern Australia and a high percentage of men’s weapons and tools, ceremonial objects and paintings. The geographical bias, I think, can largely be explained by notions of Aboriginality that were in force when our earlier collectors were active. It ties in with the relative lateness of the collections in the National Ethnographic collection when compared to many of the state collections. The earliest collections were not started until the late nineteenth century, and the majority after this. So by the time most of the early collectors were active, the prevailing perception seems to have been that ‘real’ Aboriginal people were those of unmixed descent whose lifestyle was more or less unaffected, or little affected, by white culture. So we are talking about people living in central and northern Australia effectively.

This concept of the ‘real’ was a genuine issue for collectors. In terms of collecting artefacts, two National Ethnographic collection collectors expressed - 40 years apart - their concern for being able to collect what they called ‘genuine artefacts’. About 1915 Edmund Milne in his unpublished notes on the Australian Aborigines wrote:

The shrinkage of the south-eastern Australian clans has been painfully, appallingly rapid and has been accompanied by an equally surprising disappearance of genuine tribal relics. This is hampering the student of today in a marked degree.

In an interview in 1961, Bob Wishart expressed similar views stating that ‘genuine wooden artefacts were those made with stone implements’. He actively sought out what he perceived to be artefacts that had been made in the old ways by stone artefacts and those that were used by people rather than those made for sale. Understanding the bias towards men’s weapons and tools in these collections is harder to interpret and requires explanations beyond the often-given reason that most collectors were men, but this isn’t something I will have time to go into here.

Before looking at how some of our collectors made their collections, I want to look briefly at the nature of collections made by professional and amateur collectors. Taking this into account, what can we see in the collections made by professionals and by amateurs? While all collections are eclectic, there are characteristics of the two groups that exhibit consistency overall. What I’m about to present is not a hard and fast rule. It is not that all amateurs did this and all professionals did this. But broadly speaking, talking about geographical distribution, professional collectors collected in restricted geographical areas, whereas the amateur collections are fairly unrestricted, and some collectors have artefacts from all over the country. Many amateur collectors also may include non-Australian components and may have even collected more broadly biological and geological non-Indigenous objects. I’m aware that some professional collectors did that in the early days as well.

In terms of the range of objects, professional collectors tend to have a broader range of objects or a better representation of objects; some amateur collectors have a fairly broad range of objects but the emphasis frequently tends to be on weapons and tools with less emphasis on women’s objects, ornaments and so on. In terms of documentation, the professional collectors usually have a higher level of documentation. That’s a relative thing, too, because people recorded a lot less information in the early twentieth century as opposed to the late twentieth century. I think people’s requirements for the information that they wanted were different. And this, of course, hampers us in the twenty-first century when we want to use some of the earlier collections.

There are other differences between professional and amateur collectors: the most obvious is that professional collectors collect as part of their work and publish aspects of their work, although - especially depending on what period we’re looking at - not necessarily on material culture. For example, many of the anthropologists who undertook fieldwork at the University of Sydney in the 1920s and 1930s were represented in the National Ethnographic collection and, while most were not particularly interested in material culture, they were expected to make material culture collections. They were issued with written fieldwork instructions, including advice on making and documenting material culture. Amateur collectors obviously spent time on their hobby outside of their work commitments and rarely published anything relating to Indigenous cultures, let alone material culture. Three notable National Ethnographic collection exceptions in this regard are Stan Mitchell, who published on stone implements, including a book; Catherine Langloh Parker, who published an ethnography of the Euahlayi people of north central New South Wales with valuable information on material culture, as well as several works on mythology; and George Horne, who co-authored with George Aiston in 1924 another ethnography titled Savage Life in Central Australia, which was an ethnography of the Lake Eyre groups - on the eastern side anyway. Horne also published on stone implements.

There were elements in common between our professional and amateur collectors as well; the most obvious is their shared interest in Indigenous cultures. Many were members of societies, sometimes together. For example, Roy Goddard, an amateur of Sydney, was a member of the Anthropological Society of New South Wales; in fact, he was a founding member. Early membership of this society was dominated by amateurs, and this remained the case until the discipline of anthropology became more prominent, after which the societies became more the domain of professionals. In Sydney, for example, if you take a look at the office bearers listed in the early issues of that society’s journal, Mankind, you can see a gradual ‘takeover’ by the professionals. From the local university, names like AP Elkin are amongst the earliest to appear. I was talking to Roy Goddard’s son a few years ago, and apparently this was quite an issue for Roy because he felt like he was being pushed out once the professional anthropologists started to move into the society. A number of professional collectors represented in the National Ethnographic collection were students at the University of Sydney.

Moving on to the collectors, naturally we know more about some more than others. Probably Australia’s first professional anthropologist that is represented is Herbert Basedow. He studied in Germany before 1910 but, before going there and afterwards, he undertook numerous field trips and it was on these trips that he would have acquired most of his collection. These were in central and northern Australia, so much more broad-ranging than other professional anthropologists.

Moving on to the University of Sydney collectors, it reads like a who’s who of early professional anthropology in this country. You’re looking at people like Lloyd Warner in the Milingimbi area, Ursula McConnel in Cape York, WEH Stanner in Daly River, Charles Hart on Melville and Bathurst Islands, AP Elkin in the Kimberley and Musgrave Ranges, Ronald Berndt in Arnhem Land, Gerhardt Laves in the Kimberley and Daly River, Ralph Piddington and Phyllis Kaberry in the Kimberley, and later on Mervyn Meggitt with the Warlpiri in central Australia.

The University of Sydney collections include some notable amateur collectors acquired during Elkins’ time as head of department. Prominent amongst these are two who published accounts of their experiences and knowledge. We’ve heard about Catherine Langloh Parker and another was Jesse Hammond in southern Western Australia.

If the amateurs collected as hobbies what were their professions? They were medical doctors like WELH Crowther, George Horne, Bob Wishart; an accountant, Roy Goddard; a deputy railways commissioner, Edmund Milne; other government employees; a metallurgist, Stan Mitchell; pastoralists JW Lindo, Catherine Langloh Parker, FG Goddard, George Murray Black; missionaries like Alf Dyer; mission employee Bruce Coaldrake; dealers like Dorothy Bennett and Jim Davidson; a patrol officer, Lou Parlette; and a filmmaker Ian Dunlop. There were also Aboriginal arts organisations represented from Yirrkala and Maningrida, as well as an overseas museum that returned Australian artefacts in 1968, the Salisbury and Wiltshire Museum in England, and there is also that joint American-Australian scientific expedition to Arnhem Land in 1948. There are many others whom I know little or nothing about. It’s relatively easy to find out information about professional collectors, but this is not always the case with amateurs. Most collectors represented in the National Ethnographic collection are long dead, which does not help, although I have spoken to descendents, many now quite elderly, who have been very helpful.

As well as the professional collectors out of Sydney University, other anthropologists are also represented. Probably the most significant of these was made by Helen Groger-Wurm on Mornington Island in 1960, and in Arnhem Land each year between 1965 and 1970. Other notable later anthropologists include Howard Morphy, who is at this symposium; Brian Hayden; Nancy Munn and Karel Kupka. Morphy and Kupka both collected art and have published in this area. Hayden undertook ethno-archaeological work in central Australia in 1969, studying stone tools with some of the last people with detailed knowledge of their manufacture and use. The stone implements used in the project and figured in his book formed part of the National Ethnographic collection.

I have only provided glimpses of some of the many collectors represented in the National Ethnographic collection. What we currently know about some are mere snippets, while the lives and collecting of others are known in more detail. Some have been researched by National Museum staff, while others have written their own stories. But many more remain to be discovered, and this kind of research is often difficult and time consuming. We can and should talk to those collectors who are still alive, but time is running out and we need to act quickly. We also need to talk to the descendants of the collectors who are deceased, because a lot of these descendants are elderly. Some of the people I have been dealing with are in their 80s. If we don’t do this work now, the people who had that direct link with those collectors will be gone and we won’t have that information.

Disclaimer and Copyright notice
This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy.
© National Museum of Australia 2007-19. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.

Date published: 13 September 2007

Return to Top