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The Australian National University

Dr Martin Thomas

Associate Professor Martin Thomas

Associate Professor of History

Room 2125, Coombs Building
Fellows Rd, Australian National University
Phone: 6125 4282


BA (Hons), Sydney
PhD, University of Technology, Sydney

Biography and interests

I joined the School of History as an ARC Future Fellow in 2010, having come to the ANU from the University of Sydney where I was a Research Fellow. My research is in the field of Australian and trans-national cultural history, as revealed through perceptions of place, representations of landscape and narratives of cross-cultural encounter. I have a background as a radio documentary maker for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and have been an oral history interviewer for the National Library of Australia for more than a decade. My recent publications concern the history of exploration and expeditions, especially as they relate to anthropology and popular entertainment. I have worked extensively in Arnhem Land in northern Australia where I have been interpreting archival film and sound recordings with traditional owners. Since 2015 I have been part of a team from ANU and the University of Western Australia studying the history of the magic lantern in Australia.

Current projects
Heritage in the limelight: The magic lantern in Australia and the world

The project aims to discover and analyse the large number of glass magic lantern slides that remain under-utilised in public collections. An interdisciplinary team of researchers aims to apply their knowledge to this neglected resource in order to understand how diverse audiences affectively experienced these powerful forms of early media, and to develop ways for today’s Australians to re-experience their magic, invigorating and expanding our cultural heritage. International scholarship has recently begun to show that lantern slide shows were a ubiquitous, globalised, and formative cultural experience. From the crucial Australian perspective we will explore the international reach and diversity of this globalised modernist apparatus.
Funded by Australian Research Council (DP160102509)

Indigeneity in an Expanded Field: Integrative Graduate Humanities Education and Research Training (IGHERT)
The IGHERT project, on the pilot theme of ‘Indigeneity in an Expanded Field’, involves a set of structured research investigations and cross-institutional collaborations aimed at piloting new models of post-graduate training. I am the ANU’s Principal Investigator on the project, collaborating with colleagues from the Universities of California (Santa Cruz), Wisconsin (Milwaukee) and Giessen.   Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

Current Teaching (2015-16)
HIST2233 ‘How the Camera Changed History: A Century of Photography and Cinema’.

HIST2234 ‘The Reach of History: Presenting the Past in the Public Domain’.

HIST2231 ‘Exploration: Columbus to the Moon’.

Areas of postgraduate supervision

• Aboriginal and contact history, especially of southeast and northern Australia.
• History of ethnography, anthropology and other forms of cross-cultural inquiry.
• History of museums and collecting practices, including the collection or repatriation of human remains.
• Historical approaches to photography, filmmaking and sound recording.
• Critical approaches to the history of expeditions and exploration in the modern epoch
• Landscape/environmental history.
• Projects with a significant biographical or oral history component.
Prospective students should contact me by email. Please attach your resumé and a sample of your writing.

Awards and honours
2013: Winner of the Australian Book Review Calibre Prize for an Outstanding Essay for ‘“Because it’s Your Country”: Bringing Back the Bones to West Arnhem Land’.

2012: Winner of the National Biography Award for The Many Worlds of R. H. Mathews.

2010-14: Australian Research Council Future Fellowship (FT0992291).

2008: Smithsonian Fellow, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D. C.

2007: Visiting Fellow, Australian Museum, Sydney.

2003-08: Postdoctoral Fellow and then Research Fellow, Department of History, University of Sydney.

2004: Winner of the Gleebooks Prize for Literary and Cultural Criticism, New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards, for The Artificial Horizon: Imagining the Blue Mountains.

2003: Joint winner of the Best Moving Portrait Documentary Award presented at the Woodford Festival for two ABC radio programs documenting the recorded life of Jimmie Barker: This is Jimmie Barker and I love you Jimmie.

2002: Harold White Fellow, National Library of Australia.

2001-03: Australian Research Council Postdoctoral Fellowship, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Technology, Sydney (F00104426).

2001: Residency at the Denise Hickey Studio, Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris. Jointly funded by the Visual Arts/Craft Fund of the Australia Council for the Arts and the Australian Academy of the Humanities through its Travelling Fellowship program.

2000: Winner of the Audio/Visual History Prize, New South Wales Premier’s History Awards for the ABC radio documentary This is Jimmie Barker.

Selected research grants

2015: Co-Chief Investigator on Australian Research Council Discovery Project (DP 160102509) titled ‘Heritage in the limelight: the magic lantern in Australia and the world’ in collaboration with chief investigators Martyn Jolly (lead CI, ANU) Jane Lydon (UWA), Nicolas Peterson (ANU), Paul Pickering (ANU) and Joe Kember (University of Exeter).

2009: Co-Chief Investigator on Australian Research Council Discovery Project (DP1096897) titled ‘Intercultural inquiry in a trans-national context: Exploring the legacy of the 1948 American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land’ in collaboration with chief investigators Linda Barwick (lead CI) and Allan Marett (of the University of Sydney).

2009: Sole Chief Investigator on Australian Research Council Future Fellowship (FT0992291) for the project ‘Intercultural inquiry in a transnational context’.

2001: Sole Chief Investigator on Australian Research Council Postdoctoral Fellowship for the project ‘Meeting Jimmie Barker’ (F00104426).

Selected publications

The Many Worlds of R. H. Mathews: In search of an Australian Anthropologist (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2011 & 2012), 462 pp.

Winner the 2012 National Biography Award of Australia and shortlisted for the following prizes: Prize for Non Fiction, 2014 Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature; Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction, New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards; Ernest Scott Prize (awarded by the Australian Historical Association for the most distinguished contribution to the History of Australia or New Zealand or to the history of colonization); The Age Book of the Year, Non Fiction category; New South Wales Premier’s Australian History Prize; Queensland Premier’s History Prize.

The Artificial Horizon: Imagining the Blue Mountains (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2003 & 2004), 320 pp.

Winner of the Gleebooks Prize for Literary and Cultural Criticism, 2004 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards and short-listed for the following prizes: Award for Innovation in Writing, 2004 South Australian Festival Awards for Literature; Award for Non-Fiction, 2004 South Australian Festival Awards for Literature.

A Multicultural Landscape: National Parks & the Macedonian Experience (Sydney: Pluto Press and NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, 2001), 110 pp.

Edited books

Expeditionary Anthropology: Teamwork, travel and the ‘science of man’ (co-edited with Amanda Harris). Forthcoming: under contract with Berghahn, UK.

Expedition into Empire: Exploratory Journeys and the Making of the Modern World (New York and London: Routledge, 2015), 242 pp.

Exploring the Legacy of the 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition (co-edited with Margo Neale), (Canberra: ANU E Press in association with the National Museum of Australia, 2011), 451 pp.

Culture in Translation: The anthropological legacy of R. H. Mathews (with translations from the French by Mathilde de Hauteclocque and from the German by Christine Winter), (Canberra: ANU E Press in association with Aboriginal History Monographs Inc., 2007), 267 pp.

Uncertain Ground: Essays Between Art & Nature (Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1999), 174 pp. 

Selected articles and book chapters

‘Mathews, Janet Elizabeth (1914–1992)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2016.

‘What is an Expedition?: An Introduction’ in Expedition into Empire, pp. 1-24 (see edited books, above).

‘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 (see edited books, above).

‘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, 2014), pp. 129-66.

‘Myths of Discovery and Settler Identity: Probing the “first” crossing of the Blue Mountains after 200 years’, Journal of Australian Colonial History, vol. 16, 2014, pp. 226-43.

‘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 and New York: Routledge 2015), 150-68.

‘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.

‘“Because it’s Your Country”: The Repatriation of Human Remains from the Smithsonian Institution to an Aboriginal Community in West Arnhem Land’, Life Writing, (2013), 21 pp. This is a peer-reviewed republication of my (non-peer reviewed) Calibre Prize essay, published in Australian Book Review, No. 350, April 2013, pp. 26-37.

‘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).

‘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).

‘The Crackle in the Wire: Digitisation, Ethnography and Sound Recording in Northern Australia’ in Ross Gibson and Norrie Neumark (eds), Voice: Vocal Aesthetics in Digital Arts and Media (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2010), pp. 71-90.

‘A Short History of the Arnhem Land Expedition’, Aboriginal History, vol. 34, 2010, pp. 143-70.

‘Word Territory: Recording Aboriginal language with R. H. Mathews’, History Australia, vol. 5, no. 1, July 2008, pp. 37.1-37.18.

‘The Ethnomania of R. H. Mathews: Anthropology and the rage for collecting’ in Gretchen Poiner & Sybil Jack (eds), Limits of Location: Creating a Colony (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2007), pp. 189-208.

‘Taking Them Back: Archival media in Arnhem Land today’, Cultural Studies Review, vol. 13, no. 2, September 2007, pp. 20-37.

‘The Rush to Record: Transmitting the Sound of Aboriginal Culture’, Journal of Australian Studies (issue titled Dawn Bennett (ed.), Who Am I?: Perspectives on Australian Cultural Identity), no. 90, June 2007, pp. 105-21.

‘A Very Human Survey: The Cross-Cultural Inquiries of R. H. Mathews’, Public History Review, vol. 12, 2006, pp. 12-26.

‘Looking for Mr Mathews’ in Robert Dessaix (ed.), The Best Australian Essays 2005 (Melbourne: Black Inc., 2005), pp. 195-207. ISBN: 186 395 118 0. (Republication of essay in Meanjin, vol. 64, no. 3, 2005, pp. 152-62.)

‘R. H. Mathews and Anthropological Warfare: On writing the biography of a self-contained man’, Aboriginal History, vol. 28, 2004, pp 1-32.

‘Technology of Perception: The Installations of Joan Brassil’ in Benjamin Gennocchio and Adam Geczy (eds), What is Installation? (Sydney: Power Publications, 2001), pp. 127-34.

Selected works for radio

Return to Arnhem Land - A documentary for radio about the making of recordings of Aboriginal songs and performances during the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land in 1948 (duration 45 minutes). The program documents the return of these recordings to a small Aboriginal community in west Arnhem Land in 2006 and charts the ways in which archival media contribute to the formation of a contemporary Aboriginal culture. Commissioned by Radio Eye through the ABC Radio Regional Production Fund. Broadcast 2 June 2007 and 6 June 2007. Repeated 17 January 2009.

Returning to Wales - A memoir for radio about returning to the village of Llanwddyn in Wales where I lived in 1983 (duration 56 minutes). Commissioned by Radio Eye through the ABC Radio Regional Production Fund. Broadcast 25 June 2005. Repeated 29 June 2005.

A Very Human Survey - A radio essay about the cross-cultural research of the Australian surveyor and amateur anthropologist R. H. Mathews (1841-1918) (duration 55 minutes). Broadcast on Big Ideas, ABC Radio National, 6 July 2003. Repeated 8 July 2003 and 13 July 2003.

Symphony in Stone - A radio essay inspired by Victor Hugo and the acoustic environment of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris (duration 57 minutes). Broadcast on The Listening Room, ABC Classic FM, 1 April 2002. Australian entry for the Prix Marulic Festival in Croatia.

Two Journeys - A radio essay on landscape and gender developed from nineteenth century travellers’ accounts of the Blue Mountains. Written by MT and produced by Jane Ullman (duration 58 minutes). Broadcast on The Listening Room, ABC Classic FM, 12 November 2001. Repeated on Radio Eye, ABC Radio National, 2 July 2005. Repeated on Hindsight 7 October 2007.

I love you Jimmie - A sequel to This is Jimmie Barker based on Barker’s description of his first romance during the period of World War I (duration 54 minutes). Broadcast on Radio Eye, ABC Radio National, 6 October 2001.

This is Jimmie Barker - A radio documentary about sound recording in an Aboriginal context (duration 56 minutes). Broadcast on Radio Eye, ABC Radio National on 25 March 2000. Repeated 19 November, 2000.

Home Front Manhattan - An acoustic essay on homelessness and the Gulf War (duration 60 minutes), recorded and produced by MT. Broadcast on ‘The Listening Room’, ABC-FM, 5 August, 1991.  Broadcast on public radio networks in USA via New American Radio (Brooklyn) and repeated on ‘The Listening Room’, 19 April, 1993. 

Media Links

• Oral history interviews in the National Library of Australia:

• Interview with Tom Griffiths about the Calibre Prize:

• Author’s reading of ‘Because it’s your country’ podcast:

• Interview with Phillip Adams about The Many World of R. H. Mathews:

• National Biography Award:

• Book launch of Exploring the Legacy of the 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition:

Updated: 14 April 2016/ Responsible Officer:  Head of School / Page Contact:  Web Publisher