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Exploring the Legacy of the 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition

Exploring the Legacy of the 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition

Martin Thomas
Margo Neale
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: ANU Press
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  • Book Info
    Exploring the Legacy of the 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition
    Book Description:

    In 1948 a collection of scientists, anthropologists and photographers journeyed to northern Australia for a seven-month tour of research and discovery—now regarded as 'the last of the big expeditions'. The American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land was front-page news at the time, but 60 years later it is virtually unknown. This lapse into obscurity was due partly to the fraught politics of Australian anthropology and animus towards its leader, the Adelaide-based writer-photographer Charles Mountford. Promoted as a 'friendly mission' that would foster good relations between Australia and its most powerful wartime ally, the Expedition was sponsored by National Geographic, the Smithsonian Institution and the Australian Government. An unlikely cocktail of science, diplomacy and popular geography, the Arnhem Land Expedition put the Aboriginal cultures of the vast Arnhem Land reserve on an international stage.

    eISBN: 978-1-921666-45-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-x)
    Andrew Sayers

    This publication is one enduring result of the first major event dedicated to exploring and re-evaluating the legacy of the 1948 American–Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land. The symposium Barks, Birds & Billabongs was organised and hosted by the National Museum of Australia in November 2009.

    The National Museum was ideally placed to undertake this collaborative venture. Initially, the Australian Institute of Anatomy, which had sent a team of biomedical researchers on the Expedition, had custodianship of the Commonwealth’s share of the Arnhem Land Expedition collection. In 1984, some 270 ethnographic objects from this collection were transferred to the National...

  4. Prologue
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    Sally K. May, Margo Neale and Martin Thomas

    The triumphs and travails of the American–Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land were front-page news back in 1948. In the decade that followed, the release of the official film productions, the widespread display of art, craft and scientific collections in museums and galleries, and high-level coverage in National Geographic ensured that a global audience numbering millions of people was exposed to aspects of the Arnhem Land venture. From this high point, its profile inevitably diminished with the passing of the years, to the extent that the Expedition became known for the most part only by specialists. Scholars in fields...

  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  6. 1. Expedition as Time Capsule: Introducing the American–Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land
    (pp. 1-30)
    Martin Thomas

    Nineteen Forty-Eight brought little of the quietude that a war-weary world might have wished for. The chill winds of the Cold War were blowing; the great postwar migrations had begun. The time line on the ‘1948’ page of Wikipedia conveys something of the temper of this formative year—or at least a perception of it, collectively created by contributors to that intellectual common. Burma and Ceylon gain independence. Israel becomes a nation-state. Gandhi begins the year with a hunger strike to protest the violence resulting from the Partition of India. In late January, he is assassinated. The Treaty of Brussels,...

  7. Part I. Engagements with Aboriginal Cultures

    • 2. Inside Mountford’s Tent: Paint, politics and paperwork
      (pp. 33-54)
      Philip Jones

      Photographs of Charles Mountford suggest few of those qualities of refinement and discerning judgment generally associated with internationally known art historians or ethnographers. Indeed, Mountford’s bluff demeanour and his utter lack of pretension better match the careers he transcended—those of the farmer, the tram conductor and the telegraph technician. His own nickname, ‘Monty’, seemed to confirm his place outside the academy, reflecting the style of his more popular publications, such as Brown Men and Red Sand (1948). Indeed in later life, Mountford was characterised more than once as a bumbling, opportunistic amateur with a tin ear, hardly capable of...

    • 3. Nation Building or Cold War: Political settings for the Arnhem Land Expedition
      (pp. 55-72)
      Kim Beazley

      Frank M. Setzler, the Deputy Leader of the Arnhem Land Expedition and its senior American, described in his diary the Expedition’s chief Australian political patron, Arthur Calwell, after their first meeting:

      Met Mr Arthur Calwell, Minister of Immigration and Information, who is a most delightful politician with a sharp tongue, quick wit, and keen mind. He has red hair and talks out of the side of his mouth. He has cousins and has visited them here in the US (Pennsylvania).¹

      In a sentence, Setzler captured the attributes that would take Calwell to the leadership of the Australian Labor Party (ALP),...

    • 4. A Robinson Crusoe in Arnhem Land: Howell Walker, National Geographic and the Arnhem Land Expedition of 1948
      (pp. 73-86)
      Mark Collins Jenkins

      That cultured accent, that refined deportment, and those Cary Grant good looks that suggested a citizen of the world belonged to a correspondent named Harrison Howell Walker, who happened to be travelling in California on a National Geographic magazine assignment. Yet the newspaperman’s reaction was scarcely unique, for Walker left the same impression on nearly everyone he met. In December 1953, for instance, he and a Geographic colleague were covering the royal visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Fiji and Tonga. In Fiji, the members of the press were all shacked up in one large tent. One morning, Eliot Elisofon...

    • 5. Birds on the Wire: Wild sound, informal speech and the emergence of the radio documentary
      (pp. 87-112)
      Tony MacGregor

      On 18 January 1949, on the Australian Walkabout program, the national service of the Australian Broadcasting Commission (now Corporation; ABC) broadcast a radio documentary feature on the American–Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land. The title might have lacked imagination—it was called ‘Expedition to Arnhem Land’—but it marked a critical moment in Australian media history, and an informed audition of this all-but-forgotten ‘text’ allows us to hear something of the way in which the Expedition was culturally located in postwar Australia.¹ Most importantly (for this writer), it allows us to see and hear how a significant cultural actor...

    • 6. From Kunnanj, Fish Creek, to Mumeka, Mann River: Hunter-gatherer tradition and transformation in Western Arnhem Land, 1948–2009
      (pp. 113-134)
      Jon Altman

      Research undertaken along Fish Creek in 1948 has provided a baseline for an unusual long-term data set on utilisation of wildlife across Western Arnhem Land in the tropical savanna by people who speak a number of commonly understood dialects across the regional pan-dialectical language Bininj Gunwok.¹ The title of this chapter refers to two camping localities on fresh waterways in this region. The first, Kunnanj, is on Fish Creek about 20 km north-east of Gunbalanya (formerly Oenpelli); the second is at Mumeka on the Mann River some 50 km south-west of Maningrida. The two places are about 100 km apart....

    • 7. Making a Sea Change: Rock art, archaeology and the enduring legacy of Frederick McCarthy’s research on Groote Eylandt
      (pp. 135-156)
      Anne Clarke and Ursula Frederick

      The 1948 American–Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land was an astounding initiative, not only because of the scale, logistics and multidisciplinary scope of its vision, but also because it was a kind of historical re-enactment—a project that performed the investigative urges of an earlier era in modern times. Like the explorers who mapped the continent in the previous century, the Expedition scholars sought to discover and progress knowledge about a particular region in an effort to better grasp a bigger picture of our world. One respect in which the Arnhem Land Expedition differed from past exploratory ventures is...

    • 8. Ecology and the Arnhem Land Expedition: Raymond Specht, a botanist in the field
      (pp. 157-170)
      Lynne McCarthy

      This chapter explores the work of Raymond Specht, botanist on the 1948 American–Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land. In this chapter, I examine Specht’s botanical collecting from two related perspectives. First, I consider the practical challenges of undertaking field-based plant ecology in the tropical environment of northern Australia, and second, I discuss Specht’s ecological surveys (presenting a brief history of the development of ecology as a discipline) and his creation of an extensive botanical collection during eight months working in the field. The botanical collections from the Expedition illuminate Specht’s training in plant ecology, and his skill, dedication and...

    • 9. Piecing the History Together: An overview of the 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition
      (pp. 171-188)
      Sally K. May

      Friday, 2 February 1945 was a defining day in the life of Charles Mountford. The South Australian ethnographer stood nervously in front of a room packed to capacity with enthusiastic members of the National Geographic Society. They had come to be entertained with stories of the exotic Indigenous people of Australia by the adventurer who had ‘captured’ them in photographs and moving pictures. A handful of people in the audience that day had the power to further Mountford’s ethnological collecting and research ambitions. Members of the National Geographic Society Research Committee approached Mountford and suggested he submit a proposal for...

  8. Part II. Collectors and Collections

    • 10. The String Figures of Yirrkala: Examination of a legacy
      (pp. 191-212)
      Robyn McKenzie

      When the 1948 American–Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land was all but over and the party was taking stock in Darwin, Howell Walker, the National Geographic Society writer-photographer, asked each participant to respond to two questions: ‘What did they consider the most significant contribution to their field that the Expedition had made possible?’; and ‘What would their respective home institutions consider the most valuable work done by the Expedition?’

      Frederick McCarthy, one of three ethnographic researchers on the Expedition (alongside Frank Setzler from the Smithsonian Institution and Charles Mountford, the Expedition leader), not surprisingly stated that the ‘collection of...

    • 11. The Forgotten Collection: Baskets reveal histories
      (pp. 213-238)
      Louise Hamby

      The legacy of the 1948 American–Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land continues to be enhanced by analysis of the collections assembled by members of this unique enterprise. The assemblage of fibre objects—part of the bigger material culture collection—is, however, mainly forgotten. Due to the passion of the leader, Charles Mountford, much is known about the bark paintings but very little information has been published concerning fibre items. These pieces are made from fibres primarily from natural materials and are either worn on the body or used as containers. They can be for ceremonial or everyday use. Aboriginal...

    • 12. Hidden for Sixty Years: The motion pictures of the American–Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land
      (pp. 239-252)
      Joshua Harris

      These words, spoken by Frank M. Setzler, opened his lecture and report on the Arnhem Land Expedition at Constitution Hall in Washington, DC, on Friday evening, 13 January 1950. The lecture’s centrepiece were the sights and sounds recorded during 10 months in the field—a meticulously edited film taken from hours of raw footage shot by photographer Howell Walker as the representative of the National Geographic Society (NGS).

      In early 2007, all that was known to us in the National Geographic Society Film Archives was the existence of the ‘mere three thousand feet’ of film from Setzler’s lecture (roughly 75...

    • 13. The Responsibilities of Leadership: The records of Charles P. Mountford
      (pp. 253-270)
      Denise Chapman and Suzy Russell

      In 1948 Charles P. Mountford led the American–Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land—one of the largest and most comprehensive scientific expeditions ever undertaken in Australia. A part-time ethnographer, Mountford worked consistently through the late 1930s into the early 1960s (something that was often possible only whilst on leave from his paid employment).

      The Mountford-Sheard Collection of the State Library of South Australia (PRG 1218) holds the wealth of material gathered by Mountford throughout his career. Indeed, the Arnhem Land Expedition was the catalyst for the collection to be organised and donated. Like many of the Expedition members, Mountford...

    • 14. Beneath the Billabongs: The scientific legacy of Robert Rush Miller
      (pp. 271-282)
      Gifford Hubbs Miller and Robert Charles Cashner

      Robert ‘Bob’ Rush Miller was born in the state of Colorado on 23 April 1916, but he grew up in California, where from an early age he became interested in hot, dry places, and spent long hours in the desert southwest of the United States. Although his father, Ralph Gifford Miller, was a lawyer, as dictated by his own father, Ralph was more interested in natural history and took his sons on many backcountry trips, always wanting to go ‘where the foot of man has never trod’. Bob was intrigued by the geology of the desert, and initially planned to...

    • 15. An Insider’s Perspective: Raymond Louis Specht’s oral history
      (pp. 283-310)

      In 1948, at the age of twenty-three, Raymond Specht became the second-youngest member of the American–Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land. He studied the botany, plant ecology and ethno-botany of Aboriginal communities, later collating this information to become part of the published four-volume report on the Arnhem Land Expedition.

      Prior to his selection as an Expedition member, Specht attended Adelaide Teachers’ College to train as a science teacher while concurrently completing his Bachelor of Science with Honours at the University of Adelaide. Professor Joseph Garnett Wood, head of the Botany Department and an international leading figure in plant biochemistry,...

  9. Part III. Aboriginal Engagements with the Expedition

    • 16. The American Clever Man (Marrkijbu Burdan Merika)
      (pp. 313-336)
      Bruce Birch

      At the time the first recording of the story of the ‘American Clever Man’ was made, none of those present realised that the central character in the story was based on David H. Johnson, mammalogist with the 1948 American–Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land.² In fact, the text remained untranscribed and only dimly grasped until early 2009, when art historian Sabine Hoeng made the link to Johnson. Hoeng (who coordinates a bilingual Iwaidja–English publishing project based on Croker Island) had recorded a brief reference to the same story in October 2008, and, when Archie Brown brought up the...

    • 17. Missing the Revolution! Negotiating disclosure on the pre-Macassans (Bayini) in North-East Arnhem Land
      (pp. 337-354)
      Ian S. McIntosh

      By their own admission, members of Charles Mountford’s 1948 American–Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land were motivated by a search for the primitive. It is no surprise, then, that the published records show a singular lack of awareness of the sorts of debate raging within Aboriginal circles at that time. For example, so-called missionised Yolngu (as the Aboriginal people of North-East Arnhem Land are known) were engaged in a major discussion about whether Christianity was an expression of the Dreaming and thus culturally mandated or whether God gave Yolngu the Dreaming as some missionaries insisted.

      While the Expedition’s point...

    • 18. Aural Snapshots of Musical Life: The 1948 recordings
      (pp. 355-376)
      Linda Barwick and Allan Marett

      In the original proposal for the 1948 American–Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land made by Charles Mountford to the National Geographic Society, the fourth proposed study area (after bark painting, body painting and general ethnology) was ‘music in secular and ceremonial life’, with the note: ‘the recording of Aboriginal songs if equipment is available.’¹ As it turned out, with the involvement of the Smithsonian Institution and the Australian Commonwealth Government, the majority of personnel on the Arnhem Land Expedition came from scientific disciplines, rather than the humanities (see May, this volume). Although Mountford himself did significant research on bark...

    • 19. Unpacking the Testimony of Gerald Blitner: Cross-cultural brokerage and the Arnhem Land Expedition
      (pp. 377-402)
      Martin Thomas

      The story begins at Umbakumba on the east coast of Groote Eylandt, the first base for the 1948 American–Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land. The party arrived there early in April 1948 and stayed three months. The position in the modern atlas of Umbakumba—an Aboriginal camping place for millennia—dates from the 1930s when it became a refuelling base for the Qantas Empire Airways flying boats that travelled the long-haul route between Sydney, Singapore and the south of England. Since World War II, Umbakumba had grown and morphed to the extent that officials in Darwin had come to...

    • 20. The Forbidden Gaze: The 1948 Wubarr ceremony performed for the American–Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land
      (pp. 403-422)
      Murray Garde

      Anthropology in Australia in the early twentieth century was dealing very much with the exploration and description of the unknown. The political and cultural underpinnings of the European project to colonise and document unknown peoples and places across the globe tell us as much about Western views of science and cultural development as they do about its colonial subjects of investigation. The unknown was in a process of being revealed, rationalised, classified and collected. In his preface to Charles Mountford’s Records of the American–Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land, the Australian Minister of State for Information, Arthur Calwell, described...

  10. 21. Epilogue: Sifting the silence
    (pp. 423-436)
    Margo Neale

    It is now more than 60 years since the American–Australian Scientific Expedition team embarked upon their pioneering adventure into Arnhem Land—a region that was still recorded on some maps at the time as ‘largely unexplored’. Mounting this 17-person, seven-month odyssey in the postwar period, with 47 tonnes of equipment and provisions, was a herculean effort. Despite this—and the enormous media and scientific attention and support it received at the time—very little is known of this Expedition today. Few, if any, efforts had been made in the intervening six decades to revisit and re-evaluate its significance. It...

  11. Contributors
    (pp. 437-452)
  12. Index
    (pp. 453-472)