I heard some fantastic news this week.
Professor Howard Morphy of the ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences has been named as the 2013 Huxley Memorial Medallist by the Royal Anthropological Institute.
The international award is the highest honour bestowed by the prestigious British institute. The award was established in 1900 in memory of Thomas Henry Huxley – the celebrated English biologist and advocate of Darwinian evolution theory – and is awarded annually to an internationally renowned anthropologist.
Professor Morphy, Director of the Research School of Humanities and the Arts says he views the honour as recognition of the importance of his field – the anthropology of art.
“I was somewhat stunned to hear that I had been awarded the Huxley Medal. In particular, it was also a shock to realise that I had reached the age that is a partial qualification!” he said.
“The award straddles the range of anthropology, from biological anthropology through social anthropology to archaeology and material culture. The fact that I have been awarded it is a reflection of the increasing importance of the anthropology of art, material culture and visual anthropology to the discipline – these are areas where I have made my major contribution.”
As the 2013 Medallist, Professor Morphy will deliver the Huxley Memorial Lecture in Manchester, England in August and a second lecture at the British Museum in November next year. He will speak about his lifetime’s work, which has earned him a reputation as one of the leading authorities on Aboriginal art, land rights and cultural heritage.
“I began as an anthropologist working on museum collections of artefacts from the Lake Eyre region of Central Australia, before beginning a lifetime of field research with the Yolngu people of Eastern Arnhem Land, carried out jointly with my wife, Frances Morphy, who is a linguistic anthropologist at ANU,” he said.
“My present research is a collaborative project with the National Museum of Australia and the British Museum, working with Indigenous communities to develop an exhibition of the British Museum’s most significant Australian collections.” (From the ANU website)
Howard is in some pretty distinguished company. Over the years since the Award’s inception other winners have included Sir James George Frazer (author of The Golden Bough and advisor to the early anthropological investigations of Baldwin Spencer and Frank Gillen), A. C. Haddon (who conducted important work on the culture of the Torres Strait Islands), Sir Arthur Evans, A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (A. P. Elkin’s predecessor at the University of Sydney’s Anthropology program in the 1920s), E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Clifford Geertz, Pierre Bourdieu, Jane Goodall, and Peter J. Ucko (who, as Principal of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies in 1972, appointed the first Indigenous Australians to its Council and who edited Form in Indigenous Art: schematisation in the art of Aboriginal Australia and prehistoric Europe in which Howard published one of his earliest studies of Yolngu painting from Yirrkala).
To quote again from the ANU website (where you can also find an extensive bibliography of Howard’s publications):
Howard Morphy (BSc, MPhil London, PhD ANU, FASSA, FAHA, CIHA) is Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Research School of Humanities and the Arts at the Australian National University. Prior to returning to the Australian National University in 1997, he held the chair in Anthropology at University College London. Before that he spent ten years as a curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford. He is an anthropologist of art and visual anthropologist having co-edited two of the main source books in the respective fields The Anthropology of Art: a Reader (2006, Blackwell’s, with Morgan Perkins) and Rethinking Visual Anthropology (1997, Yale University Press, with Marcus Banks). He has written extensively on Australian Aboriginal art with a monograph of Yolngu art, Ancestral Connections (Chicago 1991), a general survey Aboriginal Art (Phaidon, 1998) and most recently Becoming Art: Exploring Cross-Cultural Categories (Berg, 2007). He has also produced a pioneering multimedia biography The Art of Narritjin Maymuru with Pip Deveson and Katie Hayne (ANU epress 2005). He has conducted extensive fieldwork with the Yolngu people of Northern Australia, and collaborated on many films with Ian Dunlop of Film Australia and has curated many exhibitions including Yingapungapu at the National Museum of Australia. With Frances Morphy he helped prepare the Blue Mud Bay Native Title Claim which as a result of the 2008 High Court judgement recognised Indigenous ownership of the waters over the intertidal zone under the Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act. His involvement in e-research and in the development of museum exhibitions reflects his determination to make humanities research as accessible as possible to wider publics and to close the distance between the research process and research outcomes. In 2008 he was one of the organising committee of the major CIHA conference in Melbourne Crossing Cultures: conflict, migration, convergence.
He is president elect of the Council for Museum Anthropology of the American Anthropological Association. He is a member of the Kluge-Ruhe Advisory Council, University of Virginia, USA.
Seven years ago I had the privilege of meeting Howard at an event sponsored by the Kluge-Ruhe and have subsequently had the pleasure of renewing his and Frances’s acquaintance several time both here in America and in Australia. What all of the information above fails to convey adequately is Howard’s warmth, generosity, and good humor. Early on Howard gave me what is probably the most important and useful piece of advice I’ve ever received about writing this blog; characteristically, he delivered it as a compliment. I treasure not only his friendship but that of many people to whom he has introduced me over the years.
This coming fall (northern hemisphere time), Howard and Frances will be in residence at Dartmouth College, where Howard is the recipient of the prestigious Montgomery Fellowship in connection with the opening of the Hood Museum of Art’s exhibition of Aboriginal Australian art in September, Crossing Cultures. He will be teaching an undergraduate seminar and, on October 19, will deliver the Kenneth and Harle Montgomery Endowment Lecture, ”The Djan’kawu Sisters at Yalangbara: Material Expressions of Ancestral Agency.”
The decision of the RAI to award Howard the Huxley Medal is no doubt a reflection of the growing recognition of the importance of the anthropology of art, but it is no less a reflection of the importance of Howard’s contributions to many disciplines and, indeed, to Yolngu themselves. Please join me in congratulating and celebrating Howard on this internationally momentous occasion.