Academic records documenting Indigenous communities recognised

7 February 2017

A vital resource of Australian academic work and engagement with Indigenous people, held by the University of Sydney, will be inscribed on the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Register.

A child's drawing of animals and people.

Drawing by a child from Forrest River Mission, 1927-1928 held as part of anthropologist A P Elkin’s papers.

Australia’s oldest collection of academic anthropology records documenting Aboriginal communities in Australia and Indigenous communities in the South Pacific region has been recognised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Australian Memory of the World (AMW) Register.

Promoting Australian documentary heritage with influence and world significance, the register contains noteworthy items such as the Australian Indigenous Languages Collection, the Endeavour journal of James Cook, convict records, World War 1 diaries and the Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures (PARADISEC) which is partly housed at the University.

On Thursday 9 February, a collection held by the University Archives and the University’s Macleay Museum will be inscribed to the register and celebrated at a ceremony at Canberra Museum and Gallery, along with other new additions.

A photo of anthropologist Ian Hogbin and research assistants in Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, 1930s.

Anthropologist Ian Hogbin and research assistants in Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, 1930s.

Anthropological Field Research and Teaching Records, University of Sydney, 1926-1956 presents a unique record of Indigenous life in Australia and the South Pacific region in the 20th century, Nyree Morrison, Senior Archivist, said.

“The University of Sydney was the first in Australia to establish a Department of Anthropology,” she said.

“Our early academics lived with Aboriginal and other Indigenous people in remote areas to record, study and understand their life and culture. Their personal archives – along with records of the Department and researchers funded by the Australian National Research Council (ANRC) – are contained in this collection.

“There is a wealth of material: field notes, genealogies, correspondence, photographs, audio-visual material, reports, secondary sources as well as significant objects such as bark paintings and pearl shell ornaments.

“The material reflects the slowly changing, long-held perceptions Europeans typically had of Aboriginal people and culture, and shows how the work of the Department influenced government policies and lead the way for the development of public programs for Aboriginal communities.

The historical and cultural significance of this collection is profound. The material remains in high demand today for Land Title claims, family research and native language revival activities, as well as by national and international academics for research purposes.
Nyree Morrison, Senior Archivist
A photo of a Kato’alu (ceremonial basket), mid 19th century, unknown maker, Tonga.

Kato’alu (ceremonial basket), mid 19th century, unknown maker, Tonga. Transferred to the Macleay Museum from the Department of Anthropology, 1970. 

David Ellis, Director of Museums and Cultural Engagement, thanked the Australian Memory of the World Program for the inscription of such historically important materials.

“The collection reveals some of the ways in which anthropology was communicated and taught at a time when the University provided training of cadets for Australian colonial administration in the Department of Home and Territories,” he said.

”As such it is a valuable resource for local communities and historians alike.”

A photo of the late Dr Joe Neparrnga Gumbula and his brother George Milaybuma Gaykamangu researching in the University of Sydney Archives.

The late Dr Joe Neparrnga Gumbula and his brother George Milaybuma Gaykamangu researching records from the north-eastern Arnhem Land communities of Milingimbi and Galiwin’ku in the University of Sydney Archives.

The University Archives and the Macleay Museum are already working with a number of communities directly, through Land Councils and current academics in the field in Australia and the Solomon Islands, to explore the University’s early Department of Anthropology collections for information on their language, community, connection to land and family. 

Material held by the University Archives may be accessed by the public by appointment, and is publicly searchable via the Online Archives Search facility.

The Macleay Museum recently closed as its collection will be incorporated into the new Chau Chak Wing Museum scheduled to open in 2018. Its catalogue can be searched online, enquiries to

Related articles