Aboriginal history News and Reviews

Barks, Birds and Billabongs: legacy of the 1948 American-Australian scientific expedition to Arnhem Land

The National Museum of Australia are hosting a symposium exploring the legacy of the 1948  American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land, northern Australia. Archaeologists and anthropologists may be familiar with some of the early research carried out during this expedition by McCarthy, Mountford and others though a much broader range of research was undertaken. The following quote is from Wikipedia, which suprisingly has some well referenced and seemingly accurate information on the expedition:

In February 1948, a team of Australian and American researchers and support staff came together in northern Australia to begin, what was then, one of the largest scientific expeditions ever to have taken place in this country—the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land (also known as the Arnhem Land Expedition). Today it remains one of the most significant, most ambitious and least understood expeditions ever mounted[1]. Seventeen men and women journeyed across the remote region known as Arnhem Land in northern Australia for nine months. From varying disciplinary perspectives, and under the guidance of expedition leader Charles Mountford, they investigated the Indigenous populations and the environment of Arnhem Land. In addition to an ethnographer, archaeologist, photographer, and filmmaker, the expedition included a botanist, a mammalogist, an ichthyologist, an ornithologist, and a team of medical and nutritional scientists. Their first base camp was Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Three months later they moved to Yirrkala on the Gove Peninsula and three months following that to Oenpelli (now Gunbalanya) in west Arnhem Land[2]. The journey involved the collaboration of different sponsors and partners (among them the National Geographic Society, the Smithsonian Institution, and various agencies of the Commonwealth of Australia). In the wake of the expedition came volumes of scientific publications, kilometres of film, thousands of photographs, tens of thousands of scientific specimens, and a vast array of artefacts and paintings from across Arnhem Land. The legacy of the 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition is vast, complex, and, at times, contentious.[3]

Details on the symposium can be found on the NMA website, but in summary:

Six decades have passed since the 1948 American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land. So it is a fitting moment for celebration, re-evaluation and renewed collaboration between the individuals, institutions and countries touched by this formative research venture.

In 2009 the Centre for Historical Research at the National Museum of Australia will be hosting Barks, Birds & Billabongs: Exploring the legacy of the 1948 American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land, an international symposium that will investigate the Expedition’s significant and often controversial legacy.

This symposium will be organised around three core themes: Histories, Legacies and Continuity & Change. Particular emphasis will be placed on Indigenous perspectives.

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