Arnhem Land Investigations

Earlier this (northern) summer, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC completed the repatriation of the last set of Indigenous remains that has been in their collections for over sixty years, following up a process that had begun in 2008.  The Smithsonian was the first US collection to have undertaken such a return.

Sally May Collection CulturesThe remains were collected during the famous 1948 American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land, which was led by Charles Mountford.  It included more than a dozen researchers not only from the Smithsonian but also the Australian Museum in Sydney and the South Australian Museum, and was sponsored by various Commonwealth agencies and the National Geographic Society.  The researchers spent nine months in Arnhem Land, divided into three roughly equal sojourns on Groote Eylandt, at Yirrkala, and near Gunbalanya (Oenpelli).  In her recent history of the expedition, Collecting Cultures: myth, politics, and collaboration in the 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition (Altamira Press, 2010), author Sally K. May describes it as “one of the largest sceintific expeditions ever to have taken place in [Australia]” and notes that “it remains one of the most significant, most ambitious, and least understood expeditions ever mounted” (p. 1).  May, a lecturer in Heritage, Museums, and Material Culture in the Research School of Humanities at the Australian National University, has contributed greatly making to the Arnhem Land expedition better understood by assembling profiles of the participants, examining motivations for the studies, and compiling inventories of the materials collecting during that momentous year.

Although Paddy Cahill had established himself as a buffalo hunter in the west near Gunbalanya in the early decades of the twentieth century, and the Methodist mission at Yirrkala and Fred Gray and the Church Mission Society near Umbakumba had provided loci of contact between Yolngu and balanda to the east since the 1930s, Arnhem Land was still largely unknown territory to most Australians–and indeed the world at large–when the Expedition was undertaken.

And while human remains excavated and removed may make headlines these days, they represented only a small part of the material collected by the expedition.  Researchers included a botanist, a mammalogist, an ornithologist, and an ichthyologist who documented the diverse flora and fauna of the region.  Mountford himself was obsessed with the art of the Arnhem Landers  and commissioned hundreds of paintings on bark which later were distributed among Australia’s museums as well as to the Smithsonian’s collections.


Naminapu Maymuru-White, Stan Florek, Robyn McKenzie and Djarpirr Mununggurr during visit to the Museum, inspecting and reflecting on the collection of string figures from Yirrkala, 13 November 2009. © Australian Museum

Margaret McArthur, the sole woman among the seventeen researchers, undertook extensive studies of Indigenous nutrition, spending days on end accompanying women who gathered the bulk of the food for their family groups.  Anthropologist Fred McCarthy examined a broad range of cultural practices and artifact manufacture.  He gathered a fascinating collection of string figures (think of the cat’s cradle) at Yirrkala and brought back 193 mounted examples to the Australian Museum, where they remain the subject of research even today.

May’s book is especially interesting when detailing the professional and academic rivalries among the expedition’s members.  Mountford and McCarthy’s relationship is fascinating, highly competitive and almost always on the verge of fractious.  Not only did they represent seemingly competing institutions (the South Australian Museum and the Australian Museum respectively) but Mountford’s determination to dictate the scope and course of the investigations despite his lack of formal training clearly rankled the academic McCarthy.  But by and large, the scientists seem to have focused on the objects of their research and buried potential points of friction in a devotion to study and collection: the field of inquiry was broad and rich enough for all to engage with in a way they found rewarding.

Collecting Cultures provides a solid and entertaining examination of the story of the Arnhem Land Expedition, whose recent 60th anniversary was the occasion of much renewed interest in early explorations of Indigenous Australian culture.  Much that was written by the expedition’s members sounds today tainted by a fascination with “the primitive” and “the savage.”  It’s hard to read Mountford’s contributions to the National Geographic Magazine (for example “Exploring Stone Age Arnhem Land” (v. 96, no. 6, 1949, pp. 745-82) without flinching.  But May manages to make clear the enthusiasm and perhaps even the respect that members of the research party felt for the cultures they immersed themselves in.  As Margo Neale points out in the video news story below, Mountford “got” Aboriginal art as art all those decades ago and the body of work he collected is in many ways as historically important to the study of art as the pioneering collections of Baldwin Spencer at the start of the century.

If May’s monograph is something of a retrospective for the Arnhem Land Expedition, a nearly contemporaneous account of it can be found in Colin Simpson’s Adam in Ochre (Angus & Robertson, 1951).  Simpson was a journalist with the ABC who wrote globe-spanning travel documentaries.  He joined the Arnhem Land Expedition during their months at Gunbalanya and spent a good deal of time crashing around with the legendary Bill Harney.  His account of their time with the Expedition is full of dramatic escapades, many of them involving buffaloes and crocodiles.  It is classic Outback adventure, full of mystery, wonder, and excitement.

Colin Simpson Adam in OchreBut Simpson doesn’t slight the science in his reportage, and he brings members of the team to life in a way that a historian cannot.  Smithsonian ornithologist Bert Deignan’s enthusiasm for kookaburras and brolgas may explain his unkempt appearance, and his late night taxidermy sessions reveal his passion for his work.  Smith’s chapter on Margaet McArthur’s is all too brief, but it covers her insights into the women’s lives on topics ranging from polygamy to calories and from cooking to children’s toys.

The rest of Adam in Ochre is given over to extended reports from other parts of Northern Australia, including the Tiwi Islands, where Simpson is fascinated by the ritual decor of the funerary customs.  There is also a exercise in fiction, a love story set in the Kakadu region that attempts to bundle a great deal of ethnographic observation into a narrative designed to humanize this alien culture and to make the reader recognize the common humanity hidden by the veil of unfamiliar social customs.

The best part of the whole book, though, is Simpson’s record of a funeral held at Delissaville, the Indigenous settlement on the Cox Peninsula across the bay from Darwin.  Simpson is scrupulous in recording its details, from the preparation of the ceremonial ground through the manifestations of emotion on the part of the participants.  He is balanced on the edge of wanting the fullest record possible while respecting the privacy of the mourners.  He relies on the interpretation of the white settlement superintendent to provide the reader not just with spectacle but with meaning.  It is not professional ethnography, but it is far more than inquisitive journalism.

In the concluding pages of this chapter, Simpson ponders the conundrum of how to preserve Aboriginal culture while pursuing “progress” and economic welfare for the Waugeit and their brethren across Australia.  Given that much of Adam in Ochre takes place in northern cattle country around 1950 when beef had central importance to the Australian export economy, it is not surprising that his meditations focus on the equally central importance of Aboriginal labor to that economy.  He avers, “Without the aboriginal stockman, and the aboriginal women for domestic help, the cattle industry could not function … at anything like its present production, nor could it hope to expand its production of beef for a meat-hungry world.”  Sympathetic to Indigenous desires, he nonetheless never questions that they must be subordinate to larger concerns.  He quotes Frank Moy, then the Directory of the Native Affairs Branch:

Until we can give the aboriginal something better than his traditional culture, it is better to allow him to retain his own form of religion.  We are all taught by precept what we should believe.  Until we can show the aboriginal, by education, what may be wrong–or, rather, contrary to our own beliefs–then let him believe in his own culture and the beliefs from which, from centuries of superstition, he still has behind him.

If you try to impose something on people without their knowing the whys and wherefores, you put them in a state of bewilderment; there’s a rather abstruse word for that state, ‘disphoria’.  It is better to allow the aboriginal to believe what he has been taught than have him suffer a state of disphoria (p. 183).

We might be tempted to think that, given the times, this is a rather enlightened point of view.  Although it echoes a contemporary concern for the preservation of traditional culture, from our 21st century vantage point, it is easy to see the naked self-interest in this sympathetic perspective.  We would do well to consider our own strivings for the betterment of Aboriginal people in its light.  When we call for better education, for improvements in health care, what are we asking the Aboriginal to give up?

The Arnhem Land Expedition sought to advance scientific knowledge for a fuller understanding of the world when it excavated burial sites as Gunbalanya.  Even today some can find a fair balance in the “contract” that removes human remains from their resting places in return for an advancement of learning.  Taken together, May’s Collecting Cultures and Simpson’s Adam in Ochre give us some clues to the cost of these well-intentioned expeditions.


Andrew-McMillanI have on more than one occasion written about the best introduction to the history of contact in the Top End I’ve ever encountered, Andrew McMillan’s An Intruder’s Guide to East Arnhem Land (republished in 2008 by Niblock Publishing).  In recent days I’ve been saddened to hear that Andrew has been confined to the intensive care unit of the Royal Darwin Hospital following unexpected complications from surgery, although he’s making progress towards recovery.  Bob Gosford has been posting regular updates on Andrew’s condition via Twitter, and has just summarized them on The Northern Myth.  Expressions of concern have been coming in so furiously that the hospital has stopped taking calls, but you can leave Andrew a message on his Facebook page, even if you aren’t his FB friend.

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1 Response to Arnhem Land Investigations

  1. Pingback: Arnhem Land Investigations | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye | Discover Museums

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