History of the Anthropology Department

With 2000 ethnological artefacts stored in the Botanic Gardens, these early acquisitions were lost in the 1882 Garden Palace fire.

Anthropology c.1933

 © Australian Museum

The Anthropology Department

After the Garden Palace fire, the Museum’s Trustees employed a policy of purchasing artefacts to replenish the ethnological collection. Between 1885 and 1890 it is estimated that 7500 objects were collected from Australia and the Pacific. The acquisitions were accumulated by several collectors of the day, such as the Mason Brothers, Emma Kolbe and Captain Thomas Farrell. Donations from missionaries were also common during the formative years of the collection.

William Thorpe was employed in 1906, as the head of the growing anthropological collection. Fred McCarthy joined the museum in 1920 at the ripe young age of 14 as a library clerk. In the 1930s McCarthy and Elsie Bramell, recent graduates of the new department of Anthropology at the University of Sydney, were engaged as Thorpe’s assistants. They were the first employees of the department to have university qualifications in anthropology. In 1941, Elsie’s marriage to Fred forced her resignation from the museum. Elsie Bramell was an early advocate for the protection of Aboriginal sites, well ahead of the popular and professional view of the day.

Changing Attitudes

The Federal Referendum in 1967 saw the beginning of change in Australia with respect to Indigenous rights. In 1972 Australia experienced further changes with the election of a non-conservative government for the first time in 23 years. Under the Whitlam administration the Aboriginal Arts board was formulated, and inspired the Australian Museum exhibition ‘Renewing the Dreaming’ in 1977. The exhibition was intended to introduce non-indigenous people to aspects of contemporary Aboriginal life.

The Australian Museum has been repatriating human remains since 1979. However due to the poor documentation of the early acquisitions in the collection, this can be a complicated task. The Museum’s repatriation program, ‘Return of Indigenous Cultural Property’, is funded jointly by the federal and state governments. In 1996 the Aboriginal Heritage Unit was created as a part of the Anthropology department “to act as an intermediary between the Australian Museum and the indigenous communities of Australia on issues of indigenous cultural heritage management” and to facilitate the repatriation program.

In the 1820s Erromango Island (now a part of Vanuatu) was home to 30,000 people. By the 1920s only 96 islanders survived from the devastation of European disease. Chief Jerry of Erromango Island told a newspaper in 2006 when discovering the Australian Museum collection:

"When the missionaries came they really disturbed our culture, but at the same time the families of missionaries were sending these things here. So we have got to thank them because in this way they have actually helped us to preserve our culture."

In 1995 the People and Place Research Centre was established to bring together anthropological and multidisciplinary collaborative research programs. This department was headed by Dr. Paul Tacon until 2003 when Dr. Robin Torrence took over. In the same year, the Anthropology department ceased to be a division in its own right became a part of the Science and Collections Division. In 2007 Anthropology became a part of the newly formed Cultural Heritage and Science Initiatives Branch. Currently Anthropology is known as Cultural Collections and Community Engagement.

Heads of Department:

• 1906 – William Thorpe becomes the official Head of the department, known as the Ethnological, Historical and Numismatic Department
• 1932 – Charles Anderson is the curator of Anthropology
• 1941 – Fred McCarthy becomes the Head of department
• 1966 – David Moore becomes the Head of department
• 1975 – Jim Specht is appointed Head of the Anthropology department
• 1976 – 1988 the Head of department fluctuates between Jim Specht, David Moore and Ron Lampert
• 1989 – Betty Meehan becomes the Head of Anthropology
• 1990 – Jim Specht is Head of department
• Nov 1995-May 1996 – Dr. Paul Tacon is acting Head of the department
• 1995 – The People and Place Research Centre was established to bring together anthropological research multidisciplinary collaborative research programs with Dr. Paul Tacon as Head
• 1996 – Jim Specht returns as Head of Anthropology
• 2001 – Phil Gordon is Head of department
• 2003 – Dr Robin Torrence becomes the Head of the People and Place Research Centre
• 2003/04 – Anthropology ceased to be a division in its own right and was absorbed into the Science and collections Division and eventually came into the branch of Collections and Research
• 2007 – The anthropology collection becomes a part of the newly titled Cultural Heritage and Science Initiatives Branch
• 2013 – The department is now known as Cultural Collections and Community Engagement
 


Elizabeth McKinnon
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