Professor Martin Thomas

Position: Professor
School and/or Centres: School of History


Phone: (02) 612 52352

Location: Level 5, RSSS Building, 146 Ellery Crescent


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

Researcher profile:

Martin Thomas is a cultural historian who specialises in Australian, Aboriginal and trans-national history. He has published in the areas of environmental history, landscape studies, cross-cultural encounter, expeditions and exploration, history of anthropology, and on the impact of sound recording and photography. He has written numerous visual art reviews and catalogue essays and also works as an oral-history interviewer for the National Library of Australia. He has had long experience as a broadcaster and maker of radio documentaries. His recent teaching at ANU includes courses on exploration, photography and public history.

Research Interests:

• Australian and trans-national history

• History of exploration and expeditions

• History of anthropology

• History of photography and sound recording

• Aboriginal history

• Magic lanterns


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.

Media Links:

• Oral history interviews in the National Library of Australia:

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

2016-18: Australian Research Council Discovery Project award for ‘Heritage in the limelight: The magic lantern in Australia and the world’ (co-investigator with Martyn Jolly, Jane Lydon, Nicolas Peterson and Paul Pickering).

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.

2010-15: Australian Research Council Discovery Project award for ‘Intercultural inquiry in a trans-national context: Exploring the legacy of the 1948 American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land’ (co-investigator with Linda Barwick and Allan Marett).

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.

Australian Historical Association

Oral History Association of Australia

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’.

Updated:  28 September 2022/Responsible Officer:  Head of School/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications