Exploring the Legacy of the 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition

Exploring the Legacy of the 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition

Edited by: Martin Thomas, Margo Neale

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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.


ISBN (print):
ISBN (online):
Publication date:
Jun 2011
ANU Press
Arts & Humanities: Cultural Studies, History; Social Sciences: Indigenous Studies, Politics & International Studies
Australia; North America: United States

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  1. Expedition as Time Capsule: Introducing the American–Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land (PDF, 387KB)Martin Thomas doi

Part I. Engagements with Aboriginal Cultures

  1. Inside Mountford’s Tent: Paint, politics and paperwork (PDF, 404KB)Philip Jones doi
  2. Nation Building or Cold War: Political settings for the Arnhem Land Expedition (PDF, 167KB)Kim Beazley doi
  3. A Robinson Crusoe in Arnhem Land: Howell Walker, National Geographic and the Arnhem Land Expedition of 1948 (PDF, 185KB)Mark Collins Jenkins doi
  4. Birds on the Wire: Wild sound, informal speech and the emergence of the radio documentary (PDF, 360KB)Tony MacGregor doi
  5. From Kunnanj, Fish Creek, to Mumeka, Mann River: Hunter-gatherer tradition and transformation in Western Arnhem Land, 1948–2009 (PDF, 601KB)Jon Altman doi
  6. Making a Sea Change: Rock art, archaeology and the enduring legacy of Frederick McCarthy’s research on Groote Eylandt (PDF, 332KB)Anne Clarke and Ursula Frederick doi
  7. Ecology and the Arnhem Land Expedition: Raymond Specht, a botanist in the field (PDF, 242KB)Lynne McCarthy doi
  8. Piecing the History Together: An overview of the 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition (PDF, 378KB)Sally K. May doi

Part II. Collectors and Collections

  1. The String Figures of Yirrkala: Examination of a legacy (PDF, 454KB)Robyn McKenzie doi
  2. The Forgotten Collection: Baskets reveal histories (PDF, 430KB)Louise Hamby doi
  3. Hidden for Sixty Years: The motion pictures of the American–Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land (PDF, 179KB)Joshua Harris doi
  4. The Responsibilities of Leadership: The records of Charles P. Mountford (PDF, 269KB)Denise Chapman and Suzy Russell doi
  5. Beneath the Billabongs: The scientific legacy of Robert Rush Miller (PDF, 841KB)Gifford Hubbs Miller and Robert Charles Cashner doi
  6. An Insider’s Perspective: Raymond Louis Specht’s oral history (PDF, 310KB)Edited and introduced by Margo Daly doi

Part III. Aboriginal Engagements with the Expedition

  1. The American Clever Man (Marrkijbu Burdan Merika) (PDF, 245KB)Bruce Birch doi
  2. Missing the Revolution! Negotiating disclosure on the pre-Macassans (Bayini) in North-East Arnhem Land (PDF, 252KB)Ian S. McIntosh doi
  3. Aural Snapshots of Musical Life: The 1948 recordings (PDF, 806KB)Linda Barwick and Allan Marett doi
  4. Unpacking the Testimony of Gerald Blitner: Cross-cultural brokerage and the Arnhem Land Expedition (PDF, 1.3MB)Martin Thomas doi
  5. The Forbidden Gaze: The 1948 Wubarr ceremony performed for the American–Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land (PDF, 231KB)Murray Garde doi
  6. Epilogue: Sifting the silence (PDF, 334KB)Margo Neale doi

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