Skip to content

Libby Robin, Jay Arthur, Allan Whiting, Diana James and Tom Griffiths, 8 February 2013

LIBBY ROBIN: Welcome to this session ‘Museums, Mike and More’. I wanted to start with where Philip left off this morning where he was talking about tethering archaeology to museums and saying how important it was for archaeology. I think the contrary. It is also very important for museums too. The time depth that archaeology gives us makes our great history museum here so much greater. Even more than a discipline, archaeology gives a deep time sense of our Australian selves, particularly as people, inhabiting the driest inhabited continent on the planet. Deserts are a focal point of our identity, but this cultural knowledge is well-tempered in this Museum with the scientific and methodological precision of the research traditions of Mike’s style of archaeology.

Mike also can show us how to use inter-disciplinarity and cultural things as well, of course. Reflecting on knowledge of desert places in detail, Mike spoke in one of the earlier films today about how you get things from being in a place, going down. It’s proved a way to speak to knowledge of other places and the place of Australia itself in the history of the world. We can compare our deserts and the way our people live in them with other deserts and the way other people live in them - and that film was a fantastic example of that - but the idea that we are all adapting to changing circumstances, living with variability, these are skills for living, wherever our special places may be.

For this session, we have four reflections from people who are moving us out of the archaeological digging to see the ripples in the wider landscape of museums and expeditions in anthropology and history. We’re going to have the four reflections together and then open up the floor for comments. I want you to think if there are ways in which these reflections stimulate your own reflections. For that reason, I’m going to introduce the four speakers all at once at the start, and then we’ll just go through the four reflections.

The first speaker is Jay Arthur, who’s now senior curator in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Program here at the Museum. She and I together both worked in the 1990s in Mike’s team on Tangled Destinies, which was the first exhibition on land and people in the first opening of this Museum in 2001.

Allan Whiting has expeditioned in the Simpson Desert and Lake Callabonna with Mike, and he’s also the editor of Outback Travel Australia. He will have his card here if you’re interested.

Diana James is an anthropologist working at the Australian National University, and she’s the manager of the Alive with the Dreaming! Songlines Project, which she manages for the Museum, the university and nine Aboriginal corporations. She’ll talk about anthropology and Mike and Mike is part of that Songlines team too, of course.

The final speaker in the group is Tom Griffiths, who is a WK Hancock Professor of History at ANU and who has collaborated with Mike for a decade and a half in developing the field of environmental history. We’ll start with Jay.

JAY ARTHUR: Hello. Libby said I’m talking about Mike as a fellow curator and in five minutes I do Mike as a curator. I called it Mike’s gift. In 1999, I was the recipient of one of those very small research grants that bounce around academia like a bull: Do you want it? Oh no, they might want it. And I ended up catching it. It was a research project working for four weeks on the Perth water supply and somehow through that I ended up at the time of the National Museum when the curatorial pool was expanding as it moved towards the opening. So I found myself working with Mike and the team in the People and the Environment section working on the gallery Tangled Destinies, also sometimes rudely called ‘Dangling Testicles’. [laughter] And now a little more ordinary called Old New Land.

In thinking about that experience, I wrote down the beginning of a journey but then I thought: how cliché. I can’t say that. But looking back it did really feel like a physical journey. We were following Mike’s map as he plotted the conceptual and imaginative occupation of the Australian continent, tracking this conceptual occupation through the stories that are told in that gallery. I went and had a walk through there this morning and, as I walked through, I just remembered what an adventure it was for all of us as we tried to tell these stories led by this dedicated, passionate, rigorous lead curator - a man with so much creativity but also great attention to detail. As I remember, my folders used to drive him crazy because I always put the hole-punch in slightly crooked so none of the pages were the same. None of the pages in my folders ever lined up. But I’m an artist, what do you expect?[laughter]

I remember those discussions with the designers, who of course came from America, and at one point one of the designers said, ‘When you’re talking about the environment, why do you always talk about rabbits?’ [laughter] I didn’t know quite where to begin. Or when one of the designers was giving us an idea of the lake which, as he drew it, is surrounded by bright, dark green. The whole palette of Australia was quite difficult to convey to those designers, as we remember.

Working in Mike’s team was a lot of fun as well as being really creative and an intellectually exciting experience. There were also many arguments we had about what we thought should best go in. I was really keen on having a Chinese, wire-netting, pig-carrying basket and I argued long and hard for that. But as you see, there’s no Chinese, wire-netting, pig-carrying basket in The Old New Land, and I only have a very small pig-sized grudge which I hold. [laughter]

After I left the Museum when the curatorial pool was reduced again, I went off and did freelance curating, and then worked at the National Archives. Then in 2007 I was fortunate enough to come back to the Museum and I work in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander program.

Back to my title, which is ‘Mike’s gift’. We were not only fortunate enough for all of us to be educated in curatorship by a teacher so dedicated, so intellectually rigorous and so generous, but for him the gift was to make us always see clearly the idea that animated the stuff. There’s so much stuff in exhibitions, so many objects, paperwork, cases, organisation, loans.

He made us see clearly that exhibitions are as much a scholarly and intellectual activity as a book or any other item of scholarship. He enabled us to see that an exhibition is as much a physical rendition of an idea as a work of art. He taught us always to be listening to that conceptual note that you wanted to strike, to turn back to that clear direction, that animating idea.

Mike’s gift to me, and many other curators who worked with him, have lit my career ever since. I don’t think I’ve necessarily used up my five minutes, but it doesn’t take necessarily very long to say something very important. So thanks, Mike.

ALLAN WHITING: ‘What is a humble journalist doing in this exalted academic community?’ I ask myself, a man who writes about four-wheel drives and deserts and has a pathological fear of socks. [laughter] It all started when I discovered that museums didn’t have a bottomless pit of money to get out into remote areas. A chance meeting between Mike and a mate of mine saw us down here for a meeting, and we discussed where Mike would like to go with June. Where would Mike like to go? Think of the most remote place in the Simpson Desert - Geosurveys Hill - that’s where Mike wanted to go. So I convinced Land Rover to lend us some vehicles and Cooper gave us some tyres, and my mate who’d started the ball rolling got a field truck out.

We loaded the truck up with fuel and headed out through some territory. Mike said, ‘We have permits for this area, don’t we?’ I said, ‘You didn’t ask me that question.’ It was only for a very short distance, but it saved us a lot of grief, and I know some of the fellows out there anyhow.

We got our way to Geosurveys Hill after we had dismissed the truck because it blew all the spare tyres. So we hid the fuel in the bush, hoping we’d be able to get back there before we ran out. But the trip had to go on. So there we were, my mates, our video crew and two archaeologists. We didn’t know anything about archaeologists - what they ate. [laughter] I hadn’t met Giles or I’d have known!

The only thing we knew about them was they would know how to dig a hole. So we went to Geosurveys Hill. I was a little excited because it is, as I understand, the largest silt creek outcrop in the Simpson Desert. Is that correct, Mike? He’s nodding. That’s good. So I thought, ‘Well we’re here, let’s go home,’ a bit like Giles focused on the evening meal. It didn’t happen. This wasn’t the main attraction. Mike said, ‘Oh, it’s a quarry. They used it to make grindstones, but the real interest is over a few dunes.’ The dunes are about 20 metres high. ‘Can we go over there?’ says Mike. ‘Yeah, of course. Not a problem. Not our vehicles’ So we found this clay pen ,which looked like any other clay pen to us, but Mike and June were so excited. They said, ‘Look at that.’ It looked like a bloody claypan to us. But we were soon instructed in claypans and their significance, especially when they’ve got lots of stones lined up on them. That was a really interesting trip for us and we started to learn. Before then I thought Pleistocene was something you rubbed in your sister’s hair. [laughter] We learnt plenty on that trip.

Mike and June spent hours putting little coloured flags on these stones out across this claypan. Why? It looked fine the way it was. If they want a Macca’s here, do it. Anyway, all these little flags. Our video bloke, who is a bit of a wag, came into camp that night – he had gone for a walk - and he said, ‘Mike, did you put all those flags on that claypan?’ Mike said, ‘Yes.’ Stan said, ‘Well, they’re all wrong, so I moved them.’ [laughter]

That trip must have been successful because we kept communicating. Then the next thing Mike wanted to do was go and look for something called a diprotodon. So I thought: how difficult can that be? Lake Callabonna is a salt lake. It’ll be as dry as a chip, we can walk around, it’s dead flat, we’ll be able to drive the vehicles - fine. Two inches of rain three days before we got there, and that’s when I realized that archaeology wasn’t such an easy game, because we tramped around this bloody lake and you took a foot forward and six inches back in the old money on this slimy stuff. Anyhow, he found what he wanted – a little thing about this long. I mean, a diprotodon is a big beast. I did that much research. We were so disappointed, but he was like a schoolboy. He thought it was terrific.

Then we journeyed up from Lake Callabonna and we went into the Santos oilfields where there’s a place called Narcoonowie, which I’d never heard of, but Mike was excited about that one too and June was excited about that one. We arrive at this place, and it’s a grindstone quarry. Sandstone dirt, you guys are all familiar with this stuff, but to us it was somewhat of a mystery. It was bizarre because there was this grindstone quarry, thousands of years of Aboriginal visitation perhaps, and on the top of the dune was a pump jack, red and black with Santos splattered all over it. And that was pumping oil to fuel all their exploration vehicles, so it was quite a bizarre scene.

Santos workers came, and they had no idea what we were doing. They’d been briefed that there were a bunch of weirdoes down there, but they didn’t know exactly what it was all about. We saw them pull up in the ute and they were doing some maintenance on the pump jack. They couldn’t help themselves, they wandered down the hill. I wrote that up in a magazine article, and it’s now on our website as well I’d like to read where I saw Mike with the common touch. The eyes aren’t what they used to be. Too much sandy blight, I think. The story was called ‘A pile of old rocks’ and the intro goes:

‘When we do regular Outback trips with our archaeological mates - I’m putting a bit of class on myself there - it never ceases to amaze us how they see things we don’t. On this excursion into the Strzelecki Desert, we helped them locate what looked like a pile of old rocks, but it turned out to be something quite different.’

Then there was a photograph of the workers coming down the slope.

‘Ow are yez goin’?’ was the greeting from a pair of Santos field workers who descended the dune from the oil-well pump they were checking out.

‘We’re fine’ came back the chorused reply. [There were eight of us - I think weren’t there? - all your slaves, Mike and June.]

‘What are yez doin’?’

Over to Mike. No one was going to answer this one.

‘We’re surveying this ancient grindstone quarry,’ answered Dr Mike Smith [with a slightly English twang], senior archaeologist with the National Museum and the bloke in charge of the two-day operation.

‘Grindstone what?’

‘It’s an ancient Aboriginal grindstone quarry,’ Mike Smith informed them and, despite a tight schedule to record as much data as possible, took the two blokes on a short tour of the site.

‘Hundreds, perhaps thousands of years ago, this rare outcrop of white Eyre-formation sandstone –

[did I get that right? Thank you, Mike]

was discovered by the local tribes, who set to work excavating the area, in search of stone slabs that were suitable for making grindstones,’ Mike pointed out.

‘They dug out the pieces of stone, choosing ones that had flattish faces and then trimmed them to size.

’The pieces they didn’t want were thrown to the outer ridge of each excavation area, making the ring-like edges you see today.

’The pieces that made good seed-grinding stones were used by the tribes to create bush flour and were also traded with other tribes that didn’t have the luxury of a grindstone quarry in their back yards.’

I’m halfway there, I reckon. It’s not an honours degree yet, but I’m working on it. [laughter]

‘Strewth’, said one of the Santos workers. ‘We reckoned it was an alien spaceship landing site!’

Looking around at the close-set, overlapping rings of stone blocks, it was easy to fantasise a spaceship blasting off, leaving its rocket exhaust patterns in the dune valley floor.

Thanks, Mike, for the knowledge and the fun. [applause]

DIANA JAMES: I’m very pleased to be here. But unlike everybody else, I don’t have great yarns to tell of previous trips to the desert with Mike – they are yet to come. I’m going to tell you about the journey that has brought me into conversation with Mike Smith and the imagination, the poetry and the science that have gone into planning our trip together into the desert with June and with senior Aboriginal people on the APY lands which is due to commence after Easter. I have called it ‘Eyes of the earth’ Recently in a conversation over coffee, Mike described his archaeological scoping trips to the desert as ‘seeking the eyes of the earth’. He was referring to the waterholes.

His poetic phrase conjured for me an image of a sentient earth looking up at the sky, the trees, the rocks, the birds, the goannas and humans that come to drink from its precious water. Waterholes in the desert are glistening blue dots in a brown land. Metaphorically, they appear to be eyes looking outward and lenses through which to look into the earth. My imagination played with the image of the scientist Mike peering through the lens of a waterhole, and the spirit of Wanampi, the water snake, looking back at him, both assessing the other. I don’t think Mike realised I was daydreaming.

Anyway, Mike is one of those rare scientists who might enter into a conversation with a Wanampi, the mythic guardian of the desert waterholes. Mike is prepared to climb out of his excavation pit, both literally and metaphorically, to engage with other ways of knowing country. To peel back the layers of the desert skin, Mike has fostered many ongoing conversations with history, ecology, geomorphology, Indigenous knowledge and art. With a poetic eye and a wry sense of humour, Mike continually challenges himself to look outside the trench.

Can a recidivist archaeologist learn to see the Central Australian landscape through an artist’s eye? This is the question Mike posed to himself when travelling with artist Mandy Martin and environmental historian Libby Robin to Puritjarra in western Central Australia in 2004. Their collaborative purpose was to explore artistic and scientific readings of that archaeological landscape. It was a journey with friends to the heartland of Mike’s long love of the deserts. His previous excavations in the Puritjarra Rock Shelter, as we’ve already heard, dramatically extended the archaeological timeline of the Central Australian deserts back some 35,000 years into the last Ice Age.

The 2004 expedition was for Mike an opportunity to share the desert landscape as he sees it - as an historical document to be understood, interpreted, decoded. Having dug deep into the ancient strata of time at Puritjarra, he now wanted to expand his appreciation of the intangible cultural strata of this remarkable place, its beauty and power expressed in the art of the present. The resulting book of this journey, Strata: Deserts Past, Present and Future, weaves the stratigraphy of place from the warp and weft of human and environmental strands in the archaeological record and seamlessly incorporates the strong visual threads of Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists’ responses to Puritjarra country.

Reading Strata is what inspired me to ask Mike if he would like to be involved in another interdisciplinary research project in the Western Desert, one that would involve journeys led by traditional custodians along two of their songlines. Although Mike and I have both worked in the deserts of Central and Western Australia since the 1980s, our paths had not crossed until recently. It was in 2010 when our conversations about the songlines project began.

I was keen for Mike to lead the archaeological research component of the project because of his obvious expertise, and perhaps even more because of his passion for understanding all aspects of deserts. I thought his ears might be open to the songs of the desert and the complexity of Indigenous knowledge conveyed in these mnemonic records of place.

If waterholes are the eyes of the earth, what are the ears of the earth? Does the earth listen to the songs of the first peoples of these vast deserts and respond by bringing rain to parched ground, replenishing green foods and increasing the animal herds? Do these songs record a history of climate change, migration of peoples, and the introduction of new foods and technologies that correlate to the archaeological record?

Mike is prepared to listen to Indigenous song cycles and consider how these may expand his interpretation of the archaeological landscape. I’m looking forward to journeying in the desert with Mike, an exceptional scientist whose eyes look into the earth while his ears are open to the many voices of the desert. Thank you. [applause]

TOM GRIFFITHS: Australian history, as a discipline and as a national narrative, has been revolutionised in our lifetimes. The chief agents of change have been, I think, archaeology and environmental history.

We began today with John Mulvaney who, in the 1950s and 1960s, brought professional archaeology and radiocarbon dating to bear on Australian earth. Remember that John wrote that ‘No segment of the history of Homo sapiens had been so escalated since Darwin took time off the Mosaic standard.’ When John was digging at Fromm’s Landing in the late 1950s, some scholarly Australians were still arguing that Aboriginal people had been in this continent for just a few thousand years, and some asserted an even briefer presence. There was also an assumption that Aboriginal culture had been unchanging and that environmental impact had been minimal.

Australia, of course, has a settler history of resistance to the intimations of Aboriginal antiquity and adaptability. There was reluctance among colonists to acknowledge the depth of belonging of a people whose continent they had usurped. But from the 1960s, archaeology dramatically opened up a vast Australian vista of the human past.

In a brilliant 1996 essay called ‘Deep Nation’, archaeologist Denis Byrne meditated on what it means for a settler nation to embrace as its own the past of a culture it once rejected as a savage anachronism. Byrne analysed the way the discourse of depth, which is such an appropriate and seductive metaphor, sometimes inadvertently led to archaeology’s disconnection from the living Aboriginal present and to an essentialism of a timeless, traditional Aboriginal past.

Denis Byrne argued that, if archaeology were to cease concerning itself with the nation’s desire for depth, it might rise, as it were, to the surface. By ‘surface,’ Byrne meant that relatively horizontal post-1788 terrain, where ‘duration is measured in terms of generations rather than millennia’. Such practice, he argued, would cease to locate real Aboriginality in the pre-colonial past and would refuse the obsession with cultural purity. Writing in the mid-1990s, Byrne didn’t foresee perhaps how quickly this apparent binary might be transcended, and how effectively the depths and the surface might be united in one remarkable vision.

Mike Smith’s career and oeuvre help us to think through these challenging and exciting dilemmas of our generation. His reflective practice offers us an enabling window onto archaeology in the period of escalating human timescales and resurgent Aboriginal politics. Known affectionately at the National Museum as ‘Dr Deep Time’, and we know how enamoured he is of stratigraphy, Mike has also sifted the surface sands of his beloved deserts with meticulous historical care. He finishes his great book The Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts with a cultural history of the last millennium. In his book Peopling the Cleland Hills, which is displayed just over here on the table, he gives us a remarkable modern history of a frontier drawn from documents, memories and conversations in place.

He believes it’s important to retain a feeling for the contemporary cultural landscape that swirls around the sites he studies. So he uses Puritjarra as a place from which to view the modern social exchange and disruption generated across Kukatja country by the European invasion. Although his focus in Peopling the Cleland Hills is on the last century and a half, tens of thousands of years of human history are implied in his gaze. Rather than following large-scale events themselves, pursuing them off stage as it were, Mike in that book keeps us grounded in place at Puritjarra, and we see the events flicker past or we feel the ripple of their distant impact. There’s a kind of Aboriginal patience, I think, in this earthed archaeological view - in this Ice Age inheritance, in this steady embedded watchfulness upon particular country. We can sense in that book, more explicitly than in any other of Mike’s work, how intimately and even spiritually he’s come to identify with the desert and its modern people. This is surely a source of the powerful poetic vision that illuminates his science.

As a student of Mulvaney’s, Mike is both archaeologist and cultural historian. He sees archaeology as ultimately a humanities discipline. Mike aims to give us not just ancient dates but a history of deep time. He works from the ancient past forwards and also from the ethnographic and historical present backwards, and what he produces is a complex, contoured human history of social and environmental change. Thus he demolishes absolutely the timeless metaphor that stalks ancient Australia. And he believes that a nuanced history ultimately conveys depth better than dates.

He has written The Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts for several audiences, I think: for the world’s archaeological community, for his fellow Australians, and especially for the people who welcome him in their desert country. I’d like to finish with Mike’s own words. In a recent National Library interview, Mike had this to say to his Aboriginal friends:

This is a rich history. It’s something that sits next to the Dreaming. It doesn’t displace it, it doesn’t replace it, but it’s a rich history here, it’s something to be proud of. … It’s been my privilege to work on this history, but in a sense it has also been my gift.


LIBBY ROBIN: We’ve got about 15 minutes left. There are a lot of really great people sitting out here who have been sitting patiently all day. I wondered if some of the people who can reflect on archaeology beyond its trench and out in the wider landscape, or from within, want to say something, this is an opportunity.

QUESTION: I’m not an archaeologist or a professional in any of these fields that I’ve seen here today, but I’m very curious about the camel trains, if it’s permitted to ask questions about that. I believe they’re very temperamental animals in the sense that they won’t get up when you want them to. Do you take somebody along to manage the animals, feed them and water them?

LIBBY ROBIN:  Jo, would you like to take that or would Andrew? [laughter]

JO: We do take someone along to handle the camels, because they’re horrible. [laughter] We’re very lucky to survive the trips actually. Mike tried to be a cameleer for a while but failed, unfortunately. He established quite a good relationship with a couple of particular camels but ignored the rest of the animals and caused quite a bit of trouble.

LIBBY ROBIN: Jo, I think perhaps you might need to pass the microphone to Mike to defend the camels at this point. [laughs]

JO:  No, I’m not giving this up. Are you kidding?

LIBBY ROBIN:  I’m just worried about the camels here.

JO:  The person that is our camel controller basically, that manages to make sure that we walk out with arms and legs, is this man. Teeth - yeah, they can bite your head off. This is Andrew Harper who soothes the savage beast.

ANDREW HARPER:  You talking about Mike or the camels? Some of you probably don’t know that among the great list of letters behind Mike’s name - the growing list - is also that of cameleer with Australian Desert Expeditions. Mike first is a director of Australian Desert Expeditions, I should add, as well, one of our board members. Mike first worked with camels in 2005 and survived the spitting, the biting, the kicking and what have you - and that was just from me. But he actually earnt his stripes on a trip in 2010 from Mount Knuckey in the Northern Territory across to Cravens Peak. There was myself, Jo and Greg, another cameleer, and John Wilkinson, another cameleer. We were one person short. I went over to Smith’s camp and I said, ‘Right, Smith? You’re on deck.’ He jumped at the chance, because it was only 200kms or so over 12 days. It wasn’t very far.

But unbeknownst to me, I thought he’d be working with the camels, tying ropes and helping to load, but most of the time he was off bloody well digging for stuff. But we did find a stone quarry on that trip, didn’t we Mike? It was very interesting. He did have the tendency to keep digging up the camp oven at night round the campfire. But he earnt his stripes as cameleer with Australian Desert Expeditions well and truly. He’s a very valued member of our team and a very valued board member of the company. But to answer your question about the camels, they are a delight to work with - as is Mike - they don’t kick, bite or spit or anything like that. No, they’re very pleasant.

MIKE SMITH: I do have to defend the camels. They’re very charismatic animals. Just a delight to work with. Some of them have a real sense of humour, a bit of a larrikin nature. They’ll pin you down when you try to undo their hobbles. Occasionally, someone might swing a kick at you, but only because you’ve crowded them.

There are one or two camels that are just oafs. Colson was a particularly notorious camel and Sultan - not a very good camel particularly, until you really got to know him. But the camels really had their own personality, and after a while I think you became part of their herd in the sense that, of an evening, some camels would be tied up but others would be left to feed, hobbled. They’d each have a bell, so in the night as you lay in your swag you’d hear the tinkle of the camel bells as the camels fed. You’d hear that moment when they suddenly realised they were too far from camp, from their mates, and they’d come hurrying back. You’d hear this bell getting closer and closer. You’d lay on the ground in your swag and hope that a 200-kilogram camel had good eyes in the dark - and they do. They have very good eyesight. You’d find a camel then would come to rest, would lie down next to your swag, and that’d be like sleeping next to a waterworks all night. But there was a certain companionability about camels.

I think they’re slow revving and slow to make a decision, but they’re very charismatic animals. You can see on this portrait here that the two camels in the background have their own views on whether I should be the subject of this painting. [laughter]

DICK KIMBER: I’m sorry, I missed out a few bits earlier. I would not necessarily agree entirely with the camels, although Andrew is fabulous with them. It’s been lovely to go out with Andrew, Jo, Mike and many other people. But my own experience was to get drop-kicked about in peat byre. When called Lofty was named after a policeman who was 6 foot 10, but the policeman wasn’t a bully; Lofty was.

Another point I’d like to make is there was a time when Mike and I were out at Puritjarra and our sons were out there. So we had Ben and my son Steve, who was a year younger, out there. We had a great time out there. Mike taught me how to roll my swag. I could always roll my swag, but these new straps took about three weeks of teaching to get that right. I was all right with belts and ropes, but not the new sort which everyone uses now.

We were coming back, and Mike and I were in the front having a yarn and after about 30 miles, or 60 kilometres, in - ‘Oh, we have our sons on the back.’ He checked that and they were there sort of hanging on the ropes, having a great time on the back. It was really a good time.

Giles mentioned about the Vegemite and the fish, and Mike said there was no Vegemite. I think that was only because he forgot it. I remember I went on that tucker run and, when I got out there, I think Mike had said before that that I think we might have a bit of a rebellion here if I don’t get some here. So he got out with it and everybody was a bit happier after that. But lovely times and memories.

The last thing I’d like to say is Douglas Multa and I talked about him coming here. He was really looking forward to it. He’s very positive about Mike, and Mike had known his father. I’ve been lucky enough to know the grandfather and the brother. As a combination of all that, I’m sure that one of the things I’d always recommend is that Mike has never done anything without consulting people, agreeing that if they don’t want anything done, he would just leave it and let them think about it. He’s been very complimentary in every dealing he’s ever had with Aboriginal people. Another thing is he learnt to laugh a bit more with them, because they’ve got a great sense of humour too, so thank you.

LIBBY ROBIN:  I’m very interested that you have also learnt from Mike Smith how to roll the swag because I also learnt, and at Puritjarra, how to roll up Manik’s swag, which was on loan to me, and I was terrified. I share an office with Mike. Mike’s half of the office is incredibly tidy; mine’s a tip; there’s a line down the middle. This swag was on loan, and I thought, ‘How am I going to return it in the very neat shape it arrived?’ Because it fitted in an airline locker. It was amazing. You open it up and inside, there’s a little brush - to provide the brush to get rid of the sand before you roll it. I thought that was wonderful. And thank you for the swag, Manik.

We’ve probably got time for one more comment.

QUESTION:  I actually had a question for Mike. Is that permitted?

LIBBY ROBIN:  Of course. Everything’s permitted.

QUESTION:  We have heard several times today about Mike’s precocious interest in archaeology. Luckily that was a gamble that seems to have paid off. I was curious what makes a three year old or a six year old so interested in archaeology? What was the attraction?

MIKE SMITH:  I have no idea now. I was probably 10 or 12. Most kids of that age have a range of interests. I had three particular interests: I was interested in space and astronomy, with science fiction as the soft end of that. I had a telescope, but it was a low-powered job. I was interested in dinosaurs and paleontology, and at the popular end of that I had a large collection of live lizards that I kept as pets and would collect live food for them. And I was interested in archaeology and ancient history. I’m not quite sure why, but it might have been the ancient history end of it.

But at some point in time I do remember making a very conscious decision that archaeology was the most viable of the three options to pursue as a career. I think if I look back now, I wouldn’t say that. When there’s a Nobel Prize winner astronomer or fantastic paleontological discoveries around the country, a kid now would not choose archaeology, but I did.

I’ve never been sorry about the choice, because I think the combination of the forensic work, the lab work, of archaeology plus the fieldwork plus just the shear adventure of discovery really make it quite a special field. John Mulvaney used to say it was the best general education anyone could get because of the range of fields it involved and its inherent multidisciplinarity. They are still very strong, attractive features of archaeology - as you’ve seen today really.

JOHN BOLTON:  I’m a kid’s doctor and work in the Kimberley. I want to refer to something that Professor Griffith said and just take up that point with respect to the shift in understanding of deep time and history and advocate that people in humanities shouldn’t underestimate the power of what you do towards reconciliation. The aesthetic attraction and beauty of rock art, for example, or the other material that we’ve heard of is an immense attractor to people to actually shift their cognitive framework so they can actually view Aboriginal people in a different light, and therefore bring with it an affective change so they can actually consider being friendly with Aboriginal people and towards reconciliation. [applause]

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 2007–22. 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: 01 January 2018

Return to Top