22 April 2015

Spencer and Gillen objects in museums beyond Australia

Welcoming party of elders Alice Springs in 1901. Copyright Pitt Rivers Museum 1998.249.26.1
This very brief, indicative report provides only an outline sketch of the record being compiled by Philip Jones of the nature and content of the ethnographic collections assembled by W.B. Spencer and F.J. Gillen during their influential decade-long partnership, centred on their major fieldwork among the Aboriginal groups encountered in Central and Northern Australia. From this initial research it is evident that a ‘distributed collection’ outside Australia can be identified, comprising upwards of 1,000 artefacts collected and documented by Spencer and Gillen in partnership. At least another 300 artefacts were collected by Spencer, mostly in Arnhem Land, through his fieldwork following Gillen’s death in 1912.

Most Spencer and Gillen objects in British museums, and in other museums outside Australia, were obtained by Spencer and Gillen during their 1901-1902 Ethnological Expedition across Australia from Oodnadatta to Borroloola on the Gulf of Carpentaria. There are few objects in Britain from Spencer’s later solo expeditions to the Northern Territory, although such material is well represented in the European museums mentioned below.

Material from Spencer and Gillen’s collaborative work during the 1896 Engwura series of ceremonies at Alice Springs, and from their 1903 expedition to Peake Station in South Australia yielded some material now held in the Adelaide and Melbourne museums. Gillen’s primary collection is in Adelaide at the South Australian Museum and this also includes ethnographic objects collected by Gillen (independently of Spencer) during the 1890s and earlier. Spencer’s primary collection is in Museum Victoria.

It is clear that Spencer and Gillen intended to gather a significant collection during the 1901-1902 expedition, and that they carried a large supply of trade goods enabling these acquisitions. They arranged to send large consignments south by camel transport from their depots along the Overland Telegraph Line as the expedition proceeded.
Spencer made separate exchanges with at least eleven museums outside Australia. He assembled a series of essentially similar collections, comprising a core of object types from the main collecting stations on the 1901-1902 Spencer and Gillen Expedition – Alice Springs (Arrernte), Barrow Creek (Kaytej), Tennant Creek (Warumunga) and northern groups, and supplemented with additional , representative ethnographic objects from other Australian localities (drawn from the National Museum of Victoria collection), and with Victorian and New South Wales stone tools. In his St Petersburg exchange (1908) Spencer also added Melanesian objects from the Solomon Islands.

The major collections of Spencer and Gillen material beyond Australia are as follows:

British Museum: Ca.100 Spencer & Gillen objects from all the language groups encountered on the 1901-1902 expedition, viz.: Arrernte, Kaytej, Warumungu, Umbaia, Anula, Binbinga, Mara.

Pitt Rivers Museum: Ca. 78 Spencer & Gillen objects, from all the language groups encountered on the expedition.

University of Manchester Anthropology Museum: Ca. 61 objects, mostly from the 1901-1902 expedition.

University Museum, Zurich: Ca. 155 objects (ca. 70 collected by Spencer & Gillen, ca. 30 collected by Spencer in Arnhem Land, remainder from Museum Victoria collection) + ca.90 stone tools.

World Cultures Museum, Geneva: Ca. 45 objects (ca.8 collected by Spencer & Gillen, ca. 20 collected by Spencer, remainder from Museum Victoria collection) + ca. 90 stone tools.

Pigorini Museum, Rome: Ca. 76 objects (ca. 40 collected by Spencer & Gillen, ca. 20 collected by Spencer, remainder from Museum Victoria collection).

Peter the Great Museum, St Petersburg: Ca.160 objects (112 Australian objects, 48 Solomon Islands objects; ca. 60 collected by Spencer & Gillen, ca. 20 collected by Spencer, ca. 30 from Museum Victoria collection).

Field Museum, Chicago: Ca. 300 objects (ca. 200 collected by Spencer & Gillen, ca.50 collected by Spencer, ca. 50 from Museum Victoria collection).


Unexamined Spencer & Gillen collections:  In New York, Genoa, Florence & Vienna. Collections in the American Museum of Natural History (New York), Genoa and Florence were prepared and sent by W.B. Spencer.  It is unclear how Spencer & Gillen material arrived in Vienna. I have not quantified the Spencer and Gillen collections in Australian Museums for the purposes of this brief report. The bulk of Gillen’s collection is in the South Australian Museum in Adelaide, just as the bulk of Spencer’s collection is in the Museum Victoria collection. Spencer and Gillen material is also held in the Australian Museum in Sydney and in the Tasmanian Museum in Hobart. Some secret-sacred objects have been repatriated to Central Australian Aboriginal communities, and some of these objects are held in trust by the Strehlow Research Foundation in Alice Springs. Finally, there are small numbers of Spencer and Gillen objects in a number of other museums,  throughout Europe and North America, mostly stemming from a series of secondary exchanges. It would be great to receive data from museums holding such materials, as the aim is eventually to reconstitute and analyse the entire extant ‘distributed collection’. One of the project’s key aims is to more closely link the Spencer and Gillen objects (particularly those obtained during the 1901-1902 expedition) with particular fieldwork stations, dates and people, and to begin a closer analysis of the objects themselves. It is already clear from an initial examination of the objects that Aboriginal people were not only exchanging objects which had been in frequent daily use, but were also manufacturing objects directly for sale to Spencer and Gillen. Certain objects are also identifiable in Spencer and Gillen’s publications, and can also be located in the numerous photographs taken by them.

Dr Philip Jones, 14 April 2015

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