1948 Arnhem Land Project

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

The research project 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 1948 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 Australia’s national image, its engagement with modernity and its international relationships?
  5. How might historical research strengthen the social fabric of Aboriginal communities?

We 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.
    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 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. Working from this time-frame, the research examines 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.

In 2015 Project members organised the Image-Music-Text Symposium to discuss project results with other scholars in history, anthropology, digital humanities and the arts.






Other significant outcomes to date

PhD Thesis

Brown, Reuben. “Following in their footsteps: the Aboriginal song tradition of kun-borrk andmanyardi and its role in western Arnhem Land society.” University of Sydney, due for submission May 2015.


Marett, Allan, Barwick, Linda, & Ford, Lysbeth. (2013). For the Sake of a Song: Wangga Songmen and their Repertories. Sydney: Sydney University Press.

Edited books

Harris, Amanda (Ed.), (2014). Circulating Cultures: Exchanges of Australian Indigenous Music, Dance and Media, Canberra, Australia: ANU Press.

Thomas, Martin. (Ed.), (2014). Expedition into Empire: Exploratory Journeys and the Making of the Modern World. New York and London: Routledge.

Thomas, Martin, & Margo Neale (Eds.), (2011). Exploring the Legacy of the 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition. Canberra: ANU E Press in association with the National Museum of Australia.

Book chapters

Barwick, Linda, & Marett, Allan. (2011). Aural snapshots of musical life: Simpson’s 1948 recordings. In M. Thomas & M. Neale (Eds.), Exploring the legacy of the Arnhem Land expedition in 1948: science, diplomacy and Aboriginal studies in a trans-national context(pp. 355-375). Canberra: ANU E Press.

Barwick, Linda, O’Keeffe, Isabel, & Singer, Ruth. (2013). Dilemmas in interpretation: contemporary perspectives on Berndt’s Goulburn Island song documentation. In J. Stanton (Ed.), Little paintings, big stories: gossip songs of Western Arnhem Land (pp. 46-71). Nedlands, W.A.: University of Western Australia Berndt Museum of Anthropology.

Brown, Reuben. (2014). The role of songs in connecting the living and the dead: A funeral ceremony for Na-kodjok in Western Arnhem Land. In Amanda Harris (Ed.), Circulating Cultures: Exchanges of Australian Indigenous Music, Dance and Media, (pp. 169-201). Canberra, Australia: ANU Press.

Ford, Payi Linda, Barwick, Linda, & Marett, Allan. (2014). Mirrwana and wurrkama: applying an Indigenous Knowledge framework to collaborative research on ceremonies. In K. Barney (Ed.), Collaborative Ethnomusicology (pp. 43–62). Melbourne: Lyrebird Press.

Harris, Amanda. (2014). Archival Objects and the Circulation of Culture. In Amanda Harris (Eds.), Circulating Cultures: Exchanges of Australian Indigenous Music, Dance and Media, (pp. 1-16). Canberra, Australia: ANU Press.

—– (2014). Hearing Aboriginal Music Making in Non-Indigenous Accounts of the Bush from the Mid-Twentieth Century. In Amanda Harris (Eds.), Circulating Cultures: Exchanges of Australian Indigenous Music, Dance and Media, (pp. 73-97). Canberra, Australia: ANU Press.

Thomas, Martin. (2014a). ‘What is an Expedition? An Introduction’ in Expedition into Empire, pp. 1-24.

—– (2014b). ‘The Expedition as a Cultural Form: On the structure of exploratory journeys as revealed by the Australian explorations of Ludwig Leichhardt’ in Expedition into Empire, pp. 65-87.

—– (2014c). ‘Turning Subjects into Objects and Objects into Subjects: Collecting Human Remains on the 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition’ in Amanda Harris (ed.), Circulating Cultures: Indigenous Music, Dance and Media across Genres in Australia, (Canberra: ANU Press), pp. 129-166.

—– (2014d), ‘Bones as a Bridge Between Worlds: Responding with ceremony to the repatriation of Aboriginal human remains from the United States to Australia’ in Kate Darian-Smith and Penelope Edmonds (eds), Conciliation on Colonial Frontiers: Conflict, Performance, and Commemoration in Australia and the Pacific Rim (London: Routledge), pp. 150-164.

—– (2013). ‘Anthropology and the British Empire’ in Robert Aldrich and Kirsten McKenzie (eds), The Routledge History of Western Empires (London and New York: Routledge), 2013, pp. 255-69.

—– (2011a). ‘Expedition as Time Capsule: Introducing the American–Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land’ in Exploring the Legacy of the 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition, pp. 1-30 (see edited books, above).

—– (2011b). ‘Unpacking the testimony of Gerald Blitner: An Indigenous perspective on the Arnhem Land Expedition’ in Exploring the Legacy of the 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition, pp. 377-401 (see edited books, above).

Journal articles

Barwick, Linda, Laughren, Mary, & Turpin, Myfany. (2013). Sustaining Women’s Yawulyu/Awelye: Some Practitioners’ and Learners’ Perspectives. Musicology Australia, 35(2), 191-220.

Harris, Amanda. (2014). Chaperoned into Arnhem Land: Margaret McArthur and the Politics of Nutrition and Fieldwork in 1948. Lilith: A Feminist History Journal, 20, 62-75.

Thomas, Martin. (2013). ‘“Because it’s Your Country”: The Repatriation of Human Remains from the Smithsonian Institution to an Aboriginal Community in West Arnhem Land’, Life Writing, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14484528.2013.853382 (2013), 21 pp. (Peer-reviewed republication of my (non-peer reviewed) Calibre Prize essay, published in Australian Book Review, No. 350, April 2013, pp. 26-37. https://www.australianbookreview.com.au/programs/98-april-2013-no-350/1400.

—– (2010). ‘A Short History of the Arnhem Land Expedition’, Aboriginal History, vol. 34, 2010, pp. 143-70. http://epress.anu.edu.au/ah34_citation.html