Research project: The String Figures of Yirrkala


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Robyn McKenzie

Robyn McKenzie
Photographer: Robyn McKenzie © Robyn McKenzie

Museum investigators


String figures are patterns or designs made on the hands with a loop of string. You may know them by the term ‘cat’s cradles’. Anthropologists in the late 19th and early 20th century, ‘collected’ string figures from indigenous peoples in various parts of the world by mounting the final designs on card, and recording the often complex series of manipulations by which they were made.

There are 193 mounted string figures collected at Yirrkala in N-E Arnhem Land in the Cultural Collections division of the Museum. This is the largest known collection from one community, made at the one time, in the world. It was made by Frederick McCarthy, Head of Ethnology at the Australian Museum, while on secondment to the American-Australian Expedition to Arnhem Land in 1948. His principal source and collaborator was Ngarrawu Mununggurr, a young Djapu woman, whose knowledge of designs, powers of recall and skill in making he regarded highly: ‘With Na:rau string-figure making is an art’. In the Museum archives there are 159 photographs McCarthy took of Ngarrawu and two male informants demonstrating designs.

My research project focuses on understanding the context in which this collection was made, and the significance it holds now.

My first task was to research McCarthy’s motivations in making such a collection and the circumstances under which it was made, as documented in his personal diaries kept during the Expedition. This was the subject of a paper given to a symposium assessing the legacy of the 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition held at the National Museum of Australia in 2009 (forthcoming publication in ANU e-Press).

The size and by implication comprehensive nature of the collection, suggest the possibility of analysing how string figures might function as a ‘meaning system’ – or pictorial language. For this purpose I have been documenting the collection at the Museum. McCarthy noted that while an everyday activity for women and children, string figures were used in ceremony by the men. In a series of fieldwork trips I have been working with members of the contemporary community in Yirrkala seeking to understand the place of string figures in the matrix of Yolngu culture, both then and now.

String figure making survives as a cultural practice in Yirrkala, and reconnecting the collection with its source community has been an important part of the project. I hope finally, working in collaboration with the Yirrkala community, to bring the string figures ‘out-of-storage’ and re-animate them: telling their story in an exhibition context, where they can be seen, appreciated, and experienced as living culture, by a wide audience.

Robyn McKenzie,PhD candidate at the Australian National University. Read more about Robyn:

Read her article on String Figures from Yirrkala:


Dr Stan Florek , Database Manager
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