The census of 1911 could not provide accurate figures for Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population. Urban-dwellers and those in the employment of white people were counted, but those beyond easy reach of the census collector were not.
At this time Australia’s Indigenous peoples lived in diverse ways: some in missions and settlements, but many on their own lands and all seeking to maintain their culture and language.
Writing in 1913, the Australian Statistician, GH Knibbs, lamented the dearth of information about what he described as a ‘remarkable and rapidly-disappearing race’:
Practically all that has been done to increase our knowledge of them, their laws, habits, customs, and languages, has been the result of more or less spasmodic and intermittent effort on the part of enthusiasts either in private life or in the public service.
Sharing the belief that time was running out, professional ethnographers, such as Walter Baldwin Spencer and Herbert Basedow, and amateurs, such as Edmund Milne, were compelled to build large collections of Indigenous cultural material.