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

Dr Elizabeth Truswell, visitor in the School of Earth Sciences, Australian National University, 15 August 2014

MONICA LINDEMANN: My name is Monica Lindemann. I am the head of development here at the National Museum of Australia and I am very delighted to introduce a wonderful speaker today. Dr Elizabeth Truswell is a geologist and currently a visitor in the School of Earth Sciences at the Australian National University.

During her undergraduate studies at the University of Western Australia, she discovered the field of palynology which, for those of you who don’t know, is the study of fossil and living pollen grains and plant spores. This study combined her passion for botany with geology. After completing her science degree in 1962, Dr Truswell received a British Commonwealth scholarship and went to Cambridge University, where she was awarded a PhD in 1966.

In the early 1970s, Dr Truswell was a postdoctoral research scientist at Florida State University researching deep-sea drilling and how it relates to Antarctic floral history. Then in 1973 Dr Truswell moved to Canberra to take up a position with the Bureau of Mineral Resources, which is now Geoscience Australia, and this is where she worked until 1996.

Then in a very interesting career twist, since leaving Geoscience Australia, Dr Truswell returned to an earlier interest in art and in particular to an exploration of the intersection between art and science. She has exhibited works at the Canberra School of Arts. I would also mention that somewhere in there Dr Truswell had a beautiful baby girl, who is now working with children with a disability in a primary school in the Blue Mountains.

Before I welcome Dr Truswell to the stage, I did neglect to mention that this is a recorded event, so please be aware of that, and also to let you know there will be time for questions at the end but just wait for the microphone with your questions. Please join me in welcoming Dr Truswell. Thank you. [applause]

Dr ELIZABETH TRUSWELL: Thanks, Monica. Good morning and thank you for coming. I thought that, because I am speaking here at the National Museum of Australia, I would begin by showing you the only item that I have donated to the Museum collection, because it also offers a way of introducing you to the area of science that’s been my life.

This item is a chair [image shown]. It’s a very handsome chair. It’s a swivel chair with curved arms and back and very neatly turned wooden supports, and there’s a very comfortable leather cushion on it. The chair belonged to be one Dr Irene Crespin. Dr Crespin was a remarkable lady. She was the first Commonwealth palaeontologist. I rescued this chair from a dump at the back of the then Bureau of Mineral Resources, now Geoscience Australia. It seemed far too valuable and too historic to end up in the rubbish dump, so I presented it to the Museum.

It’s the chair that Dr Crespin used while sitting at her microscope where she examined these very tiny fossils, and they are foraminifera. [image shown] They are single-celled organisms that live in the sea, both in deep and shallow water. They are made of calcium carbonates and, as you can see, they are often very beautiful. The ones that are being shown here have been photographed with the scanning electron microscope, and Dr Crespin in her time would have been using a light microscope. But like a whole range of different kinds of fossils they are useful not only because they shed light on the life of the past but also can be used to establish the age of the rocks from which they are recovered. They can also tell us a great deal about past environments and past climates. Now not only this group of fossils but many fossils are increasingly used to give us a kind of baseline where we can measure the changes that are happening in the world today, both in the general climate and in the climate of the oceans.

Dr Crespin graduated from Melbourne University in 1919. She was a contemporary and a friend of such luminaries as Bob Menzies and Sir Keith Hancock. Her first appointment was to the then Department of Home Affairs in Melbourne. She came to Canberra in 1936 to set up a laboratory here in the organisation that was then to become the Bureau of Mineral Resources. That was established in 1946 with the purpose of looking at Australia’s mineral and energy resources immediately after the Second World War.

Irene, as I knew her in her latter years, was a pioneer of science. She was well ahead of her time; she travelled widely; and she made contacts with scientists right around the world. She was very adventurous. At one time she allowed herself to be lowered in a bucket down a well in Victoria so she could take samples from the rocks as she went down.

She was very resourceful in other ways in getting hold of material to work on. It’s said that she was able to persuade ships’ captains to drop their anchors in a particular place on the sea floor so she could have the scrapings off the anchor to build up her own knowledge of what was going on on the sea floor. That was a far cry, a very different way of obtaining samples from the sea floor from the present sophisticated and highly technical arrangements for drilling in the sea floor, and I will talk about that later.

I have dwelt on Dr Crespin firstly because we hold here in the Museum these records of her work and, secondly, because I, too, am a palaeontologist. I spent a great deal of my working life in what’s now Geoscience Australia and I worked with micro fossils but mine are of a different kind entirely. I work with the pollen of living and fossil plants. The word ‘pollen’ was applied from about the 1940s and it comes from the Greek paluno, which means dust. It’s applied to both living and fossil pollen.

Palynology, the study of pollen, is very useful. In my case, I have used it for looking at the vegetation of the past and also for tracking the evolutionary history of particular groups of plants, particularly those in the Australian vegetation. And because pollen has been changing through time, it’s been evolving, you can also use it to establish the age of the rock that is recovered from. And, of course, because plants are so dependent on climate it can be used to give us a past picture of climates - and also of course it’s very beautiful.

Pollen is very tough stuff. It has to be because it transmits the male genetic material carrying it to the female parts of the plant. It’s transported by wind in some cases or by insects, by birds, by a range of other animals to get it onto the female part of the plant.

In the fossil record, all that you find are the walls of the pollen. The interior contents are gone but the walls are very tough. They are made of a complex protein and so they are preserved. Pollen accumulates by being washed into lakes and rivers accumulating on the bottom and also on the sea floor and eventually it gets covered by more sediments, by silt, that may become consolidated to form a hard rock. It has to be extracted from the rock by using very nasty acids and they don’t affect the pollen walls at all.

But if you really want to see how much pollen can be produced, you need to walk through Reid when those great cypress trees are flowering and you will see that there will be a yellow rim around puddles and along the gutters and you could almost shovel it up. That’s because they are wind pollinated, and wind pollinated plants produce a lot of pollen. That’s a wonderful example. It’s very varied in its structure. That is the pollen of one of the wattles where all the cells sort of cling together and they don’t move apart.

Here is one of an extremely ancient pollen grain extracted from rocks about 250 million years old. You can see it has a pair of sacks at the each end of the grain, and they serve to orient the grain or to help it be transported through the air.

When I was working for the Bureau of Mineral Resources, much of my day to day work was using palynology as a tool to establish the age and environment of parts of the sedimentary basins in Australia, the basins that were examined for minerals, for petroleum and for coal. Now there is also a lot more emphasis on using that area and using what we know in the study of groundwater to support our cities and agriculture.

But I have always had another interest, and that was more biological than geological. This interest has my roots in the PhD I did, that I was lucky enough to do at Cambridge University in England. My thesis there was concerned with the story of the flowering plants. When did the flowering plants come into the record? When did they come and displace the less well developed plants like the conifers and the ferns? At some time in the age of the dinosaurs the flowering plants came to dominate the world’s vegetation.

The parts of the geological section that I was looking at in England were just those parts where we began to see the flowering plants pollen coming in, and the thesis area that I worked on was the south coast of England. It was a very beautiful area. I would work there climbing around on the cliffs and taking samples that I then take back to the lab in Cambridge and process for their pollen. They were lovely areas to work in. They are very picturesque and beautiful.

In the cliffs themselves there was a story not only of geological history but there were stories of human history. Some of the sections that I worked with   this Lulworth cove was one of the key points for me (image shown - had been described by early geologists who had published their work in the 1840s. There was a gentleman called Gideon Algernon Mantell. Mantell was a doctor very interested in geology. He had mapped all these sections and he was one of the first people who actually identified the fossils that eventually became the dinosaurs. I could work with his published notes and I could identify bed by bed as I worked up those cliffs using his information.

The other aspect of it that has lovely human history down there and a bit more colourful is that it was a great part of the coast for the pirates. Most of the cliff sections have their names taken from pirates who worked there. There is one called the Blackgang Chime, and I worked up the Blackgang Chime. It was lovely.

I came back to Australia after finishing my PhD and I was offered quickly offered a position in Perth, which is where I had grown up, to work with a petroleum exploration company. They employed palynologists, people like me, to date the rocks they were drilling through in the search for oil in the north west of Western Australia. It was pretty routine sort of work, and I found it fairly flat, I suppose, after Cambridge and doing research. So I was soon looking for something where there was a bit more of a research component, where there was more freedom, I suppose, to follow the roots that I wanted to go.

I was soon offered a postdoctoral position in the US at Florida State University in Tallahassee. They have there an Antarctic Research Facility where they store cores from around the continent of Antarctica, but I was always intrigued that this Antarctic Research Facility had palm trees over the door. It was quite lovely. While I was there I was invited to be part of a team that was investigating the geology of the sea floor around Antarctica. This was part of a major international program that was looking into things like the history of the present icecap around Antarctica - how long has it been there. What about the environments in the seas around Antarctica, how have they been changing? There is a major current that flows right around Antarctica now, one of the biggest currents in the world’s oceans, and that connects all the oceans in the world and has a major effect on climate. What is the history of that current? These sorts of questions can be answered, at least in part, by looking at sediments that have accumulated on the sea floor around the Antarctic.

I jumped at the chance of being a part of this, because it seemed to me that it would give me the opportunity to look at pollen that must have been washed off the continent that would give us some clues as to the vegetation that existed there prior to the ice cap. The research was carried out under the aegis of a very large international program, the Deep Sea Drilling Program. It’s a program that has now been running for 40 years and has had various manifestations. It’s probably one of the biggest science programs ever. As a matter of fact, it was set up just at the time when the Americans were becoming interested in getting a man on the moon. So there was a sort of tempo around for big science projects, and that was when the deep sea program was set up.

It was first set up as a purely American program and then it became international. It remains international now; Australia is a contributor to it. The program now runs two ships, both of which are equipped to drill holes in the sea floor. There is no commercial interest whatsoever. If it looks like they might strike oil anywhere, they just have to get out. At the present the Japanese have developed one ship and the Americans another.

But the ship that I sailed on was the first of their drill ships. It was a pioneer in the program and it was known as the Glomar Challenger. Now ‘glomar’ stands for Global Marine. That’s the company that built the ship. The ‘challenger’ in its title reflects HMS Challenger. Here again I constantly find that you keep coming up against this human history and human stories of the people who have been there before.

The original Challenger set sail from Portsmouth in England in 1872 and for the next four years it voyaged around the world sampling and dredging the ocean floor and measuring the water chemistry. It was the very first oceanographic expedition that was set up. It was the first expedition that was mounted by the Royal Society of London to understand the science of the sea. In a sense this first Challenger is a kind of spiritual ancestor to the Deep Sea Drilling Program (DSDP). That’s really the background to it.

The present program has drill holes in all of the world’s oceans. The holes run into thousands now, and they have contributed largely to our understanding of plate tectonics, volcanos, and of past climate change, including periods of very rapid climate change, and of course to understanding things like earthquake zones. That’s the background to the science program.

What was my interest in it as a pollen person? Well, it’s been known for a long time that Antarctica for much of its history has borne a very substantial vegetation, and it was a vegetation very similar to that of the other Gondwana continents. Antarctica has always been sitting there over the South Pole but nonetheless it was vegetated. Until recently most of the evidence we had for that vegetation came from macro fossils - not from pollen but from leaves and stems that were found in the very limited outcrops on the continent.

The most famous of these fossil plants from Antarctica were the ones that were collected on Scott’s fatal expedition. They were collected on the Beardmore Glacier, and this was after the party had reached the South Pole and discovered the Norwegian flag left there by Amundsen. They were pretty dejected, really at the end of their tether mentally and physically, and they were heading back to a depot which would have saved them. They took a day to collect fossils as they went down the Beardmore Glacier. These fossils were subsequently identified as glossopteris. The story of them – well, the fossils were found in the tents with the bodies of the polar party. They were taken back to London. Their story was published in 1914, and it was then realised how Antarctica was kind of a key part of Gondwana land so that a major contribution to science came out of that rather unfortunate expedition.

The gentleman who retrieved the fossils and insisted on their being kept as Edward Wilson. He was the artist, the scientist and the physician to the party and a very remarkable man. But my interest wasn’t in this part of the vegetation story. What I was trying to do was get a picture of the vegetation that immediately preceded the present icecap that covers Antarctica before it was finally extinguished by increasing cold. What was it like? Was it a tundra or whatever? The answer to this seemed likely to be found in the pollen records.

We have known from dredges off Antarctica that the sediments out there are pretty well full of pollen, but most of it has been scrambled up by the glaciers and it’s very hard to unravel the history of the vegetation from that. What we needed was a section or sections drilled below the surface before the ice became this dominant activity, and the drilling program developed by the international DSDP seemed to offer the best opportunity of getting at this picture.

So I applied to join this first cruise in Antarctic waters. But the powers that be didn’t want a palynologist, they thought it was too difficult to extract this pollen at sea, which was probably quite right, so they said, ‘Come along but be a sedimentologist instead.’ So I had to be an instant expert in the sediments that accumulate on the sea floor. These are mostly sediments that come from the tiny organisms that live at the surface and then drift down, and they have a lovely record of climate change. Anyway because this particular cruise was due to leave from Fremantle, I went back to my old alma mater, the University of Western Australia, to update myself as a sedimentologist. Eventually I got to join the ship at Fremantle, and that was a very exciting departure. I will just show you a few shots around the ship [images shown].

When I went aboard I was introduced to my dozen or so fellow scientists who came from institutes all around the world and to the drillers. These were muscly young men who had previously worked on drill ships in the Gulf of Mexico - and boy, could they eat. It was fantastic. I was shown the very well equipped labs. That’s me on deck.

What happens in this drilling activity is that a bit is lowered to the sea floor through a series of nine metre drill cores - and here’s one steel core on deck. They are screwed one on top of the other until you have a long core, and the drilling then pushes the sediment up through these metal cores. There they are stacked all ready to go on the bow of the ship.

In the best tradition of Antarctic explorers I kept a diary. I will read you a few of those little bits as I go along.

We left Fremantle on 20 December 1972 and, quite amazingly, it was precisely 100 years after the original Challenger, the first scientific expedition, left Portsmouth, Britain – actually it was 21 December they left Britain in 1872. That was amazing. My diary for that first day reads:

The ship left Fremantle in a warm dusk. I grew up mostly in Perth, so the local landscape was a familiar one. It had been strange and exciting to feel the throb of the ship as it moved down the harbour, past the rocky goynes and then turned hard left. This was nothing in front of us then but a huge expansion of ocean, and the coast of Antarctica.

The first hole they drilled on the Naturalist Plateau. [image shown] You can see off south western Australia there is a little blocky bit of geology that sticks up there. The hashed areas are the higher parts of the sea floor, and you can see that south east Indian ridge is high and that’s where new sea floor is being generated that’s actually pushing Australia away from Antarctica. We travelled right down to the Antarctic coast, and then around eventually ending up in the Ross Sea where we drilled a number of holes.

But the first hole on the Naturalist Plateau was interesting because it was the first time that all these scientists had been brought together. We were not particularly confident about the roles that we had, and this was something of a test run. The sense of anticipation was absolutely palpable. My diary from there reads:

… of this feisty team of scientists, nobody seems the least bit confident about their ability to do their assigned job, and I found that refreshing. We wait a whole morning before the first core comes up   folk occupied this time of tension with another peek down the microscope or with hassling over all possible contingencies. But our introduction to the drilling goes smoothly enough … no doubt we will get used to the 18 hour days and the pressure during the actual drilling.An entourage of albatrosses has followed us for the last two days   half a dozen of them on average, I think they are Wanderers. They swoop and glide just behind us, then briefly settle in the wake to pick up scraps   giant but elegant scavengers. There is one I can’t identify

I’d taken a few books with me. I had taken Edward Wilson’s diaries from his Antarctic expedition. I had also taken his magnificent Birds of Antarctica. Wilson was a marvellous artist, amongst other things.

So we progressed south, stopping and positioning the ship every few days at selected sites. In between these sites there was a frenzy of activity, cutting and sampling core, recording it, being covered in wet mud at 3 o’clock in the morning. A couple more extracts from the diary will give you the flavour of the way one had to work at that time. There was always a sense of anticipation before one came to the next drill site. But ours was a very curious situation, as the diary for 31 December reads:

We are slow in approaching our next hole. Stayed up to watch us come on site around midnight. Strange to be making such a concerted effort to arrive, watching depth recorders, seismic records, satellite navigation   all directed to this place we are steaming for, then to have it all come together and actually arrive with a distinct feeling of relief   at this unmarked spot in the dark grey ocean. We’re here! We’re here! But there is no crowds, no road signs, no station platform   but we’re here! The sea flat and grey, and snowflakes in the air.

After we sighted the first icebergs they became a real hazard to drilling operations. Again I read from the diary:

Site 4 was an iceberg saga. When we came on site, the sea was dead calm but there was a cluster of bergs lurking to port – one enormous one on the horizon some sixteen miles away was the chief hazard … on a slow but steady track towards our spot. Our situation must be a unique one in navigational history - our being stationary on account of being tied to the seafloor by a long steel string, and thus in danger of having an iceberg run into us … very different from the Titanic!

Anyway that hole was very difficult. We pushed it down pretty quickly - in about half a day - watching the icebergs that were heading for us. The captain eventually said, ‘We have to pull out of here and go.’ So at about 4 a.m. we went to bed, and the crew did the rest. At that point we steamed for about a mile and a half out of the iceberg’s track dragging nearly three miles of steel pipe under us on the bottom just above the sea floor.

So we progressed south and, as always, we seemed to be in the path of explorers, people who had been there before. At one point we crossed the track of Captain Cook in his second voyage of 1772 in the Resolution where he was seeking the fabled Great South Land. He circumnavigated Antarctica, although he never saw it. In his own words he said, ‘I have now made a circuit of the Southern Ocean in such a manner as not to leave the least room for the possibility of there being a continent, unless very near the pole…’

Again I didn’t realise until recently the coincidence of the dates. We were there in January 1973. We crossed the path that Cook had taken in the early part of 1773. I have yet to establish exactly that precise date, but that’s just an interesting point.

We moved into the Ross Sea and drilled holes north of the great ice barrier but at that time the sea was shallow, the bottom was full of pebbles and boulders dropped by the developing ice, the going was very hard and there was no more time for diary keeping.

I couldn’t achieve my aim then on that cruise of getting a pollen record that might have told the vegetation story, but I got involved in other parts of the story in how long the ice cap had been there - and that was interesting. When we put to sea people thought that present ice cap was about two million years old. We knocked it back to something like 25 million years, and that was pretty dramatic.

But I have kept up work on Antarctic material getting it from the same program and getting with from other colleagues. It wasn’t until the year 2000 that a core was drilled very close to Antarctic that gave us a wonderful pollen record. With a colleague I worked on that material and we published the story in 2009 and we called that story Polar forests on the edge of extinction.

Anyway back in Australia at the Bureau of Mineral Resources my own career path moved, as seems inevitable, from science into administration. While much of the time there was preoccupied with internal matters like budgets and other staffing matters, I did have a chance to be involved in much broader issues. I was involved with UNESCO in programs that were allowing young Australian scientists to take part in projects with people from developing countries. I was appointed to the management board of a couple of the cooperative research centres which bring together academia, government and industry. One of those was one on Antarctica, which seemed inevitable, and the focus of the other one was on Australia’s coastal zone and that was particularly rewarding.

But for the last seven years of my employment with the government I was trying to shift the focus away a bit from minerals and energy towards the geological application of more environmental issues - linking geology with soils and particularly how could we bring together the geological record and focus it on our present concerns about climate change. But then, as often happens, the crunch came and the funding for those programs was dramatically cut. So I had the option of going back to do some fairly routine work or quitting my job and taking a different tack. It took me about five minutes to decide on what I was going to do.

Since childhood I have had a love of drawing and painting. Over the years I have pursued a lot of evening classes. I think I was incredibly fortunate at that time to have two offers, both from the ANU. The School of Art accepted my portfolio so I could do a degree in visual arts there, but at the same time the Research School of Earth Sciences offered me a spot as a visiting fellow so I took that up too. What I was doing was not all that unusual; I was working both in the arts and sciences, and increasingly we do find artists working in scientific institutions. I think that the enormous amount of interest there is in the relationship between the arts and sciences is very gratifying. This is one of my own drawings that I have just put up while I talk.

Not only is there a great deal being written about the way the arts and science interrelate, it is almost a discipline on its own now exploring what the relationship is between the two. That explores things like what are the motivations for arts and sciences? Why do people do either of those?

Both science and art seem to be involved with the way we perceive the world and the way we find our way through the world. Some people explain art by looking to neuroscience and looking at the way the brain responds to images; some people take a more evolutionary view. They look at some of the things we admire in art. For instance, they claim that we like particular landscapes because they echo the landscapes that humans may have evolved in in the savannahs of Africa. Others look at it from the point of evolutionary biology: what is this aesthetic sense that both artists and scientists have and does that have some kind of evolutionary significance? When did it develop and did it give us some sort of advantage as humans evolved?

As you probably know, scientists are actually more comfortable with the word ‘beauty’ than are a lot of contemporary artists. The earth sciences offer a lot to the arts, especially to the visual arts. As a palaeontologist, I have spent a lot of time working with things like looking at the concept of time. When you are deciphering earth history you are dealing with that all the time and you are dealing in time with numbers that you just can’t get your head around. Geologists use millions of years as a kind of currency tossed around in the tearoom but if you really try and think about that, it’s very difficult and inevitably one is building a picture of the past on fragments. We never have the whole picture.

How do you translate this view of the world into an art practice? How can one grapple with the issues? Firstly, if you look at landscape, and behind it you can see another landscape. With respect to Antarctica, if I look at the present Antarctic I am very much aware of the vegetation that existed there before the present icecap formed. How do you express that in an art form? This is part of my honours work where I decided to do it in terms of a series of panels showing one landscape behind the other.

Then expressing time - it’s very difficult to express time in visual arts. Time has different manifestations. It can be linear or it can be cyclic. The cycles of time are obviously reflected in the seasons that we have, that we enjoy. So to express this I drew again on the forest and I was dealing with fossil woods that had been described from Antarctic, looking at the tree rings in those woods. What happens when you look at cross sections of wood? You get big cells formed in spring and summer and then, as the growth shuts down or recedes heading towards winter, it may completely shut down. So I built a series of works that I called ‘winter wood’ and I abstracted them as much as I could have reality, but essentially they were reflecting this seasonality and the cycles of time. That was the kind of work that I did. They were based on fossil woods from the Cretaceous of Antarctica.

How do you bring these two languages of art and science together? Again, drawing on my Antarctic experience, I did a work that now hangs in the lecture theatre in the Research School of Earth Sciences. That’s a drawing about four metres long [image shown]. The way I made that one was just by photocopying a scientific paper of mine, then tearing it all up, sticking it back together and drawing on top of it with this kind of forest image. It was quite cathartic to tear up your own scientific paper; it was great fun.

Then again there is this issue of the fragmentary nature of our understanding. I have focused on this in a number of ways. Some years ago I decided that I liked working with natural media and I liked working with local ochres. You can find a lot of local ochres around Canberra and charcoal. The first exhibition I had in Canberra was at the ANCA Gallery in 2005 and it was all about different kinds of fossils. The technique I used is to use heavy paper, wet it with a slurry of ochre, then draw on it with a charcoal, and then the charcoal flows around and makes interesting patterns. This was a series of works that I did then [image shown]. This little trilobites were abundant in the world seas for a lot of geological record. Sometimes I used text with them.

I also had another exhibition at the CSIRO Discovery Centre, and it went right back to my PhD work. Now people have a lovely record of the early flowering plants, tiny little fossil flowers. I haven’t worked with them myself but I drew on other people’s photographs and used ochre, cutting back into that, to come up with a series of these little fossil flowers.

While there is a lot of my own art that is informed by my science background there is another area of it. [Image shown] That’s just something I had done as an experiment in print making using fossil pollen.

I had an exhibition at the Kalgoorlie Regional Gallery. I was born in Kalgoorlie and spent my very early years there. I discovered that they have an absolutely wonderful art gallery. I organised to have an exhibition there that was a logistic nightmare getting work across. My family has a very long history of living there. The sense of place I think is important. When I go back there, it is still the red earth and the wonderful local trees that move me.

I organised this exhibition in the Kalgoorlie gallery and I drew on the landscape around there. I drew on looking at the great pit that now encompasses all the mines that are there, mines that my father had worked in. I did a series relating to the pit, again just working with charcoal and ochre. That is more of that sequence [image shown] and then just the local landscape. There is a wonderful horizontality in it, and the great pipeline there kind of sets the scene [image shown]. That is the pipeline that the engineer CY O’Connor is famous more that transported water to the goldfields in 1900 from dams near Perth.

But the local landscape has other things to offer. Every time I fly over there I am intrigued by the salt lakes that actually occupy old drainage channels in the landscape. The different colours reflect the fact that they have different chemistry in them, but I love the way the fluid shapes of the lakes contrast with the rigid geometry of the fence lines and the pastoral areas. That was another series with a sense of place.

Finally, a sense of place can also be felt from where one lives now. I have spent 30 years in Canberra, and it obviously resonates with me. I had been travelling in Italy a couple of years ago seeing some wonderful Renaissance art, thinking that when I came back my whole art practice would be changed, and nothing happened. The epiphany just didn’t happen.

So I just started drawing from where I parked my car in the morning, and that was near Sullivans Creek. I did a series of charcoal drawings reflecting on Sullivans Creek that was exhibited at the art school here. I invited a colleague of mine, the late Richard Barwick, who was a great photographer, to photograph the creek in all its moods and to join me in that exhibition. That was the Sullivans Creek show.

My current work is also related to a sense of place. My father was a surveyor. He worked in the Kimberleys and actually worked on the first site for what is now the Ord River Dam. I hadn’t been there until a couple of years ago, and then I took a trip around the Kimberley coast in a small boat. What really resonated with me were these marvellous sandstone cliffs that all bear a white line which is the high tide mark. Below that white line, which is a salty line, the rocks are dark; they are full of organisms, shells, anemones etc; and above that the cliffs are barren. This is an exhibition in progress. It’s going to be held next year at the Belconnen Arts Centre and I have simply called it ‘Tide line’. That’s where I am at now. Thanks very much. [applause]

FRANCES BALDWIN: Thank you very much, Elizabeth, for that absolutely fascinating talk. What a life you have held. I am going to open up for questions now. I had a question first: have you been back to the Antarctic since 1972?

Dr ELIZABETH TRUSWELL: Yes, I have, and I have also done one of these flyovers of the Antarctic, which was a wonderful experience. A friend of mine, who does it regularly and who has spent his life working in Antarctica, rang me one day and said, ‘What are you doing on Sunday?’ I said ‘nothing’. He said, ‘Would you like to come to Antarctica?’ We did a fantastic flyover. When you do that, it was a time before people were very concerned about airline security. We could actually wander up to the captain’s cabin. It was a 747 and he would just dip the wings and take it to wherever you wanted to see. It was wonderful.

QUESTION: I wonder if any steps are being taken to collect 747s in the course of the search for the missing Malaysian aircraft in the southern Indian Ocean?

Dr ELIZABETH TRUSWELL: That is very interesting, and actually I have just put together a little story that I have given to Robyn Williams [ABC Radio National The Science Show] and I hope he will broadcast it. In the region they are looking for that Malaysian aircraft, it is an area of the sea floor that we don’t have a huge amount of information about but we do have perhaps more than the press would let us know. In the centre of that region is the island complex of Kerguelen, which is administered by the French and which has an amazing history both in terms of the natural history of the place and in terms of the human history. I have put together a little story about Kerguelen and how it is the centre of the area they are now looking at but it has such a remarkable history of its own.

QUESTION: I was interested in your comments about trying to deal with the issue of time in visual art. You haven’t ever moved off conventional work to do perhaps sculptural stuff or an installation where you might have been able to layer more materials or something of that nature?

Dr ELIZABETH TRUSWELL: No, I haven’t. I have seen wonderful things that people do and I have seen a lot of works that is being done particularly with respect to Antarctica. There is a series of conferences that have been organised every two to three years looking at cultural aspects of Antarctica and a lot of that is to do with installation and with performance.

You would be familiar with the krill that the whales feed on around Antarctica. There is one Sydney artist who has done the most amazing animations of the krill and their life cycle. Not only are they fantastic animations and interesting in themselves but also the biologists have taken such an interest in these that they feel they are learning a lot from her animations. It’s a wonderful interplay between the art and the science.

QUESTION: You do a lot of drawing?

Dr ELIZABETH TRUSWELL: There is only so much you can encompass. I like to draw, and that’s where I sit.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. Yesterday there was quite an activity getting greater recognition for women in science where the Academy of Science hosted getting more entries into Wikipedia for women in science. Has your experience been that this has been a problem for you and for Dr Crespin? I must confess I was not aware of her work, and thank you for enlightening us about that.

Dr ELIZABETH TRUSWELL: I feel that there have been times when I have felt that women were disadvantaged. Even going back as an undergraduate at UWA where there were three or four women who went through at the same time and we actually had a professor who organised separate excursions for the women. He really had a thing about women in science, yet actually we all went on to do quite well.

When I was working in the government here and particularly when I had moved into administration, I suppose the thing that irked me and a lot of other women who have had senior positions in government is that too many decisions are made in the old boy network or by people who will gather for drinks at 5 o’clock, and with small children you just can’t do that. That is still prevalent.

But on the other hand most of my career was involved in laboratories. I didn’t do all that much work in the field - I did some - but it was not a problem. That activity that’s been organised by the Academy of Science is an interesting one. I don’t know much about wiki-bombs but there was a push a couple of years ago to have more women fellows recognised in the Academy of Science, and that’s been remarkably successful. For some years they have been electing 20 people a year as fellows and last year 11 of the 20 were women, so things are progressing.

MONICA LINDEMANN: Thank you. [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. Some older pages on the Museum website contain images and terms now considered outdated and inappropriate. They are a reflection of the time when the material was created and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Museum.

© National Museum of Australia 2007–24. 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