Intercultural inquiry in a trans-national context:
Exploring the legacy of the 1948 American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land

Guardian's Paul Daley reviews Thomas and Bijon's Etched in Bone
ABC report on Etched in Bone
Recent ABC report involving the Project's Martin Thomas

The research is funded by two grants from the Australian Research Council: a Future Fellowship held by Martin Thomas (FT0992291) and a five-year Discovery Project (DP1096897), held in collaboration with University of Sydney ethnomusicologists Linda Barwick and Allan Marett, which funds other expenses and personnel including research associate Amanda Harris and doctoral student Reuben Brown.

The following description is adapted from our Discovery Project application.

The Arnhem Land project is motivated by five key questions:
(1) How do Western and Indigenous knowledge systems interact and inform each other?
(2) How do histories of intercultural research affect contemporary cultures?
(3) What does it mean for the discipline of history if the conventional activity of excavating and elucidating a past epoch is informed by a research practice that uses ethnographic techniques to explore the relationship between anthropological archives and the people they document?
(4) In what ways has Indigenous knowledge shaped AustraliaŐs national image, its engagement with modernity and its international relationships?
(5) How might historical research strengthen the social fabric of Aboriginal communities?

We will address these questions by investigating the genealogy, preparations, activities and legacies of the event known as the 1948 American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land (AASEAL). This expedition, a significant (if neglected) episode in the US-Australia relationship and in cross-cultural history, has been selected as a case study for several reasons.
(1) It resulted in the gathering of huge natural history and ethnological collections (extant in Australian and American institutions) including film, photographs and sound recordings that are of particular interest in Arnhem Land today.
(2) The interdisciplinary nature of the expedition, occurring at a watershed moment, makes it highly significant to intellectual, cultural and political history.
(3) The expedition was a collaboration between the Commonwealth of Australia, the Smithsonian Institution and the National Geographic Society. Studying it is a way of rekindling dialogue and collaboration between the original stakeholders, though now with the ambition of repatriating (rather than exporting) the intellectual property of Arnhem Land.
(4) The expedition, coloured by the intrigues, politics, hubris and humour that are common themes in the history of Western exploration, is a remarkable story that deserves to be told and analysed, being highly pertinent to the present moment.

In exploring the legacy of this expedition we will integrate methods and ideas developed in ThomasŐ work on landscape, anthropological and oral history and the long experience of Marett and Barwick as ethnomusicologists, fieldworkers and digital archivists. Relating the detail of what happened in Arnhem Land in 1948 is of course a major objective, but it is not an end in itself. We will situate the expedition in terms of its epoch by investigating the interrelated histories of the individuals and communities associated with it over a period of some 30 years, spotlighting the period 1935-64. This starting date is chosen because the expedition was unwittingly conceived that year, when expedition leader Charles P. Mountford made a formative journey to Central Australia. Movie footage shot there resulted in documentaries which in 1945-6 he screened in the US on lecture tours promoting Australia. Negotiations in Washington resulted in the National Geographic funding that seeded the expedition. 1964 marks the terminus of the AASEAL period because in that year the final report was published, and the project officially closed. The periodisation is conceived loosely but it has an inherent logic, being the time frame of a generation.

Working from this time-frame, the research will examine how aspects of Indigenous knowledge were incorporated into the national self-image that Australia presented to the world, and how elements from which this image was wrought can assume a new life in the making of contemporary cultures. Our intention is to initiate a collaborative research process in Arnhem Land that will constitute an intergenerational dialogue, based on the comparison and synthesis of two streams of data. The first stream is the archival evidence that we will excavate and return to its locality of origin in digital form. The second will be derived from consultative, community-based research that has been employed by all investigators in a variety of situations. We will work primarily in the communities where AASEAL conducted research: Groote Eylandt, Yirrkala, Oenpelli and Milingimbi. Prior to going to Arnhem Land, the Expedition studied briefly at Belyuen, so some research will occur in that community where Marett and Barwick have a long history of research. Owing to the subsequent movement and dispersal of people, it will be often necessary to work in areas outside the locations where the original data were recorded. For example, an important strand of the research will occur on Croker Island and Cobourg Peninsula, where Iwaidja people with connections to Cape Don and Oenpelli at the time of the Expeditions visit are now resident.

The project will have a range of outcomes including book and journal articles, productions for radio, a documentary film, and web-based resources such as interactive databases. Small audio or film projects, or shorter publications, designed to meet the internal needs of community stakeholders, will also be developed.

News & Events

  • Documentary Film Opening: Etched in Bone. Sydney launch at Hoyts Broadway on 9 April 2019 at 6pm. Booking details below

    Eight years in the making, Etched in Bone is a feature-length documentary that explores the enduring conflict between scientific and traditional forms of knowledge. It tells the story of Jacob Nayinggul, a charismatic elder from Arnhem Land, who is dealing with the theft of his ancestorsŐ bones by an anthropologist from the Smithsonian Institution in 1948. After years of obstruction from the Smithsonian, the bones were finally repatriated in 2010. At that juncture, Jacob Nayinggul needed to create a new form of ceremony that would restore the bones and the spirits of the stolen ancestors to their homeland. Etched in Bone was supported by Film Australia, the Andrew Mellon Foundation and an ARC grant on the 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition, held at PARADISEC.

    Bookings United States Studies Centre Also you can hear the filmmakers in conversation with Aaron Nyerges and Jakelin Troy at a Sydney Ideas event on 10 April: Sydney Ideas

  • New Edited Book: Expeditionary Anthropology Teamwork, Travel and the "Science of Man". Edited by Martin Thomas and Amanda Harris

    The origins of anthropology lie in expeditionary journeys. But since the rise of immersive fieldwork, usually by a sole investigator, the older tradition of team-based social research has been largely eclipsed. Expeditionary Anthropology argues that expeditions have much to tell us about anthropologists and the people they studied. The book charts the diversity of anthropological expeditions and analyzes the often passionate arguments they provoked. Drawing on recent developments in gender studies, indigenous studies, and the history of science, the book argues that even today, the "science of man" is deeply inscribed by its connections with expeditionary travel

    Available from Berghahn Books

  • Celebrating Ten Years of PARADISEC: Research, Records and Responsibility. Edited by Amanda Harris, Nick Thieberger and Linda Barwick

    Research, Records and Responsibility explores developments in collaborative archiving practice between archives and the communities they serve and represent, incorporating case studies of historical recordings, visual data and material culture. It brings together the work of Australian and international scholars commemorating ten years of PARADISEC, and reflects on the development of research and language archiving.

    Available from Sydney University Press

  • New Edited Book: Circulating Cultures: Exchanges of Australian Indigenous Music, Dance and Media. Edited by Amanda Harris

    Circulating Cultures is an edited book about the transformation of cultural materials through the Australian landscape. The book explores cultural circulation, exchange and transit, through events such as the geographical movement of song series across the Kimberley and Arnhem Land; the transformation of Australian Aboriginal dance in the hands of an American choreographer; and the indigenisation of symbolic meanings in heavy metal music. Circulating Cultures crosses disciplinary boundaries, with contributions from historians, musicologists, linguists and dance historians, to depict shifts of cultural materials through time, place and interventions from people. It looks at the way Indigenous and non-Indigenous performing arts have changed through intercultural influence and collaboration.

    Available from ANU Press

  • New Edited Book: Expedition into Empire: Exploratory Journeys and the Making of the Modern World. Edited by Martin Thomas

    Expeditionary journeys have shaped our world, but the expedition as a cultural form is rarely scrutinized. This book is the first major investigation of the conventions and social practices embedded in team-based exploration. In probing the politics of expedition making, this volume is itself a pioneering journey through the cultures of empire. With contributions from established and emerging scholars, Expedition into Empire plots the rise and transformation of expeditionary journeys from the eighteenth century until the present. Conceived as a series of spotlights on imperial travel and colonial expansion, it roves widely: from the metropolitan centers to the ends of the earth. This collection is both rigorous and accessible, containing lively case studies from writers long immersed in exploration, travel literature, and the dynamics of cross-cultural encounter.

    Available for free download from Routledge

  • PARADISEC collection inscribed on UNESCO's Memory of the World Australian Register

    PARADISEC's priceless collection of rare archival recordings of languages and musics of our region has been recognised as of international significance through inscription on UNESCO's Australian Memory of the World Register at a special awards ceremony in Adelaide on 14 May 2013. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO)'s Australian Memory of the World Register provides a selective list of Australia's documentary heritage, with the PARADISEC collection now sitting alongside such invaluable national documents as the Mabo Case transcripts and First Fleet journals.

    Read more: FASS media release

  • PARADISEC Sydney Honorary Associate Martin Thomas wins National Biography Award

    The story of how a son of Irish immigrants, R. H. Matthews, became one of Australia’s most significant early researchers of Aboriginal language, culture and history, has won the $25,000 National Biography Award, Australia’s richest prize for biographical writing and memoir, the State Library of NSW announced on Monday 14 May 2012.

    The Many Worlds of R. H. Mathews, In search of an Australian Anthropologist by historian Martin Thomas, has brought to light the largely forgotten but immensely important contribution Mathews made to anthropology and Australia’s cultural history in the nineteenth century.

    Read more: State Library of NSW Media
    Sydney Morning Herald

  • Film Screening, 24 Feb: In Language We Live - Voices of the World

    February 21st is UNESCO's International Mother Language Day, and to celebrate the world's indigenous languages, RNLD, PARADISEC and the Department of Linguistics will be hosting a free screening of In Language We Live - Voices of the World on the afternoon of the 24th to coincide with the final round of OzCLO.

    Location: Education Lecture Room 424
    Date: Wednesday, February 24, 3:30 pm.

  • PARADISEC archive approaches 5TB

    National Computational Infrastructure

    PARADISEC's archive, hosted by the National Computational Infrastructure in Canberra, is soon to approach 5TB. Read more to see the full details of PARADISEC's collection held at NCI.

  • PARADISEC Wins VeRSI Prize


    In the words of the judges: "PARADISEC is an outstanding application of ICT tools in the humanities and social sciences domain that harnesses the work of scholars to store and preserve endangered language and music materials from the Asia-Pacific region and creates an online resource to make these available."

    PARADISEC has been cited as an exemplary system for audiovisual archiving using digital mass storage systems by the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives and has also been included as an exemplary case study in the Australian Governmet's NCRIS Strategic Roadmap for Australian Research Infrastructure.

    PARADISEC features in the Strategic Roadmap for Australian Research Culture

    The Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures (PARADISEC) is an exemplary HASS capability project, undertaking digital conservation and provision of international access to research resources in audio, text and visual media on endangered cultural heritage in Indigenous Australia, the Pacific Island nations, and East and Southeast Asia. The project is known internationally for its development of low cost techniques for recording, accessioning, cataloguing and digitising complex cultural resources in digital media.... Read More (p.42)