ARC Future Fellow
Phone: 6125 4282
BA (Hons), Sydney
PhD, University of Technology, Sydney
Biography and interests
I joined the School of History as a Future Fellow in 2010. In my last position, I was Research Fellow in the Department of History at the University of Sydney, the department where I first studied as an undergraduate. I came to full-time academia in 2001 (as an ARC Postdoctoral Fellow) after working for many years as an independent writer, critic and editor, and then as Research Historian for the National Parks & Wildlife Service of New South Wales.
I was in New York during the first Gulf War where I had the opportunity to record oral histories with homeless people, including a number of Vietnam Veterans. These recordings became a radio documentary, Home Front Manhattan (broadcast on the ABC and on American Public Radio). It marked the beginning of an enduring interest in radio documentary-making and sound recording. Upon returning to Sydney, I took up editorship of the journal Photofile, wrote art reviews and essays, and taught in Art History and Theory at the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales.
Most of my recent work has been 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 explored these intersecting concerns in a long-term study of the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, a place I have known since childhood. The research became a doctoral thesis and then a book, published as The Artificial Horizon: Imagining the Blue Mountains (2003).
Concurrently, I began to research historic sound recordings and made two radio documentaries about Jimmie Barker (1900-72), the Muruwari storyteller from northwest New South Wales who autonomously produced a vast tape archive, aimed at linguistic and cultural preservation. Recent research concerns 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 a speculative biography, The Many Worlds of R. H. Mathews (2011).
My current work takes up the story of the 1948 American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land, a major research venture of the immediate post-War era, led by another autodidact, Charles Mountford. The expedition resulted in a vast array of sound recordings, films, photographs and material culture collections that I am studying in consultation with relevant communities in Arnhem Land.
Current research project
Expedition to Arnhem Land in 1948: Intercultural Inquiry in a Trans-National context
The research is funded by two grants from the Australian Research Council. An award under the Future Fellowships program supports my position (FT0992291) and a five-year Discovery Project (DP1096897), held in collaboration with University of Sydney ethnomusicologists Linda Barwick and Allan Marett, funds other expenses and personnel (including a research associate and a doctoral student).
The following description is adapted from our Discovery Project application.
The Arnhem Land project is motivated by five key questions:
- How do Western and Indigenous knowledge systems interact and inform each other?
- How do histories of intercultural research affect contemporary cultures?
- 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?
- In what ways has Indigenous knowledge shaped Australia’s national image, its engagement with modernity and its international relationships?
- How might historical research strengthen the social fabric of Aboriginal communities?
We will 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.
- 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.
- The interdisciplinary nature of the expedition, occurring at a watershed moment, makes it highly significant to intellectual, cultural and political history.
- 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.
- 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.
In exploring the legacy of this expedition we will integrate methods and ideas developed in Thomas’ work on landscape, anthropological and oral history and the long experience of Marett and Barwick as ethnomusicologists, fieldworkers and digital archivists. 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 will 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.
This starting date is chosen because the expedition was unwittingly conceived that year, when expedition leader Charles P. Mountford made a formative journey to Central Australia. Movie footage shot there resulted in documentaries which in 1945-6 he screened in the US on lecture tours promoting Australia. Negotiations in Washington resulted in the National Geographic funding that seeded the expedition. 1964 marks the terminus of the AASEAL period because in that year the final report was published, and the project officially closed. The periodisation is conceived loosely but it has an inherent logic, being the time frame of a generation.
Working from this time-frame, the research will examine 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. Prior to going to Arnhem Land, the Expedition studied briefly at Belyuen, so some research will occur in that community where Marett and Barwick have a long history of research. Owing to the subsequent movement and dispersal of people, it will be often necessary to work in areas outside the locations where the original data were recorded. For example, an important strand of the research will occur on Croker Island and Cobourg Peninsula, where Iwaidja people with connections to Cape Don and Oenpelli at the time of the Expeditions visit are now resident.
The project will have a range of outcomes including book and journal articles, productions for radio, a documentary film, and web-based resources such as interactive databases. Small audio or film projects, or shorter publications, designed to meet the internal needs of community stakeholders, will also be developed.
Awards and fellowships
2008: Smithsonian Fellow, Smithsonian Institution, Washington. Three month fellowship to study collections gathered during the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land.
2007: Visiting Fellow at the Australian Museum, Sydney. Four month residency to study collections gathered during the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land. Fellowship will include six works of fieldwork with Arnhem Land communities.
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 (Melbourne University Press, 2003).
2004: Short-listed—Award for Innovation in Writing, South Australian Festival Awards for Literature for The Artificial Horizon: Imagining the Blue Mountains (Melbourne University Press, 2003).
2004: Short-listed—Award for Non-Fiction, South Australian Festival Awards for Literature for The Artificial Horizon: Imagining the Blue Mountains (Melbourne University Press, 2003).
2003: Joint winner of the inaugural 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 (2000) and I love you Jimmie (2001).
2002: Harold White Fellow at the National Library of Australia. Four month residency at the Library to study the papers of the Australian anthropologist R. H. Mathews.
2001-03: Australian Research Council Postdoctoral Fellowship, hosted by the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Technology, Sydney
2001: Residency at the Denise Hickey Studio, Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris. Residency awarded by the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Jointly funded by the Visual Arts/Craft Fund of the Australia Council for the Arts and the Australian Academy of the Humanities which granted a 2001 Travelling Fellowship.
2000: Winner of the Premier’s Audio/Visual History Prize, 2000 New South Wales Premier’s History Awards for the ABC radio program This is Jimmie Barker.
1998: Short-listed—New South Wales Premier’s Audio/Visual History Prize for the ABC radio program Stony Silences.
The Many Worlds of R. H. Mathews: In search of an Australian Anthropologist (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2011). https://www.allenandunwin.com/default.aspx?page=511&book=9781741757811
The Artificial Horizon: Imagining the Blue Mountains (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2003).
A Multicultural Landscape: National Parks & the Macedonian Experience (Sydney: Pluto Press and NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, 2001).
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). http://epress.anu.edu.au/arnhem_citation.html
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). http://epress.anu.edu.au/cit_citation.html.
Uncertain Ground: Essays Between Art & Nature (Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1999).
Selected articles and book chapters
‘A Short History of the Arnhem Land Expedition’, Aboriginal History, vol. 34, 2010, pp. 143-70. http://epress.anu.edu.au/ah34_citation.html
‘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.
‘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. http://epress.lib.uts.edu.au/ojs/index.php/phrj/article/viewArticle/196.
‘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.
Stony Silences - A radio essay based on a cultural reading of the Three Sisters, a sandstone formation in the Blue Mountains (duration 54 minutes). Scripted by MT and co-produced by MT and Brent Clough. Broadcast on 'Radio Eye', ABC Radio National. Broadcast August 1997; repeated December 1997. Shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Audio/Visual History prize, 1998.
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.