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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 ANU School of History as an Australian Research Council Future Fellow in 2010. I came to full-time academia in 2001 (as an ARC Postdoctoral Fellow) after working for many years as an independent writer, critic, editor, and maker of radio documentaries. I was Research Historian for the National Parks & Wildlife Service of New South Wales in 1999-2000.

My research is in the field of Australian and transnational cultural history, as revealed through perceptions of place, representations of landscape and narratives of cross-cultural encounter. I often use oral history in my projects, and am an interviewer for the Oral History and Folklore Program of the National Library Australia. My doctoral research concerned the mythology and cultural landscape of the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, a place I have known since childhood. The thesis became the book, The Artificial Horizon: Imagining the Blue Mountains (2003).

In the late 1990s I began to research historic sound recordings. This led to two radio documentaries on Jimmie Barker (1900-72), the sound recordist storyteller from northwest New South Wales who autonomously produced a vast tape archive, aimed at preserving Muruwari, his indigenous language. For some years I have been investigating Australian anthropology of the Federation era and its relevance today. A longstanding interest in the life and publications of the surveyor and self-taught anthropologist, R. H. Mathews (1841-1918), inspired an edited volume of Mathews’ writings and a speculative biography, The Many Worlds of R. H. Mathews (2011).

My recent work concerns expeditionary anthropology, especially the 1948 American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land, a major research venture of the immediate post-War era, led by the autodidact Charles Mountford (1890-1976). The expedition resulted in a vast array of sound recordings, films, photographs and material culture collections that I have been studying in collaboration with elders in Arnhem Land. The removal and export of human remains by this expedition, and their eventual repatriation, is the subject of a documentary film that I am researching and directing. My most recent book is an edited collection titled Expedition into Empire to be published by Routledge. The book developed from the ‘What is an Expedition?’ conference/workshop, which I convened in 2012.

Current research project

Expedition to Arnhem Land in 1948

In collaboration with University of Sydney ethnomusicologists Linda Barwick and Allan Marett, I am part of a five-year ARC Discovery Project (DP1096897) investigating the history and legacy of the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land, a research and filmmaking venture that took place in 1948 with the support of the National Geographic Society, the Smithsonian Institution and the Commonwealth of Australia. The project was inspired by the following 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?

Current Teaching (2014-15)

HIST2233 ‘How the Camera Changed History: A Century of Photography and Cinema’.

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

Recent conferences and presentations

Biographical presentation on R. H. Mathews at Conceptualising the “South East” of Aboriginal Australia (workshop for Native Title anthropologists), University of Sydney, 20-21 February 2014.

Seminar presentation on the collection and repatriation of human remains at École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), Paris, 8 January 2014.

‘R. H. Mathews as Middle Man: What anthropological correspondence reveals about the space between the bush and the metropole’. Invited presentation at ‘Before the Field’ seminar, 7-8 November 2013, Alfred Deakin Research Institute, Deakin University, Geelong.

‘Myths of Discovery and Settler Identity: Probing the “first” crossing of the Blue Mountains after 200 years’. Lecture given as part of The Crossing Seminar organised by the History Council of New South Wales, Blue Mountains Cultural Centre, NSW 10 May 2013.

‘Spirited Away: The Homeward Journey of Human Remains from Western Arnhem Land’. Keynote presentation at Framing Lives: 8th Biennial Conference of the International Auto/Biography Association, Canberra, 17-20 July 2012.

Convenor and presenter: ‘What is an Expedition?’ Workshop-style conference at Australian National University South Coast Campus, 27-30 June 2012. See

‘The Homeward Journey of Human Remains from Western Arnhem Land’. Invited seminar at the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, 8 March 2012.

 ‘Anthropologist or Colonial Nuisance?’ Presentation on The Many Worlds of R. H. Mathews in the Reviewer Meets Reviewed seminar series, Anthropology Library and Research Centre, British Museum, London, 15 March 2012.

‘American Dreamings: Travel abroad and the transformation of Aboriginal Cultures’. Keynote address at Australians Abroad 2011: An interdisciplinary conference, University of Queensland, 10-11 February 2011.

Presenter and Academic Advisor: Barks, Birds & Billabongs: Exploring the legacy of the 1948 American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land. International Symposium at National Museum of Australia, Canberra, 16-20 November 2009. See

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 publications


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

Expedition into Empire: Exploratory Journeys and the Making of the Modern World (New York and London: Routledge, 2014 - forthcoming) (95,000 words).

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

‘What is an Expedition?: An Introduction’ in Expedition into Empire (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 (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 forthcoming).

‘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 (forthcoming).

‘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 (Routledge forthcoming 2014).

‘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

• Interview with Tom Griffiths about the Calibre Prize:

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

• National Biography Award:,

• Press coverage of human remains repatriation to West Arnhem Land:

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

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