Happy birthday Spencer

23 June, 2010

Sir Walter Baldwin Spencer
Sir Walter Baldwin Spencer, second director of Museum Victoria. This plate was published in Spencer's Last Journey.
Source: Museum Victoria

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Sir Walter Baldwin Spencer, the museum’s second director and noted biologist, photographer, editor, anthropologist and connoisseur.

After the death of Sir Frederick McCoy in 1899, English-born Spencer was made honorary director of the National Museum of Victoria, which he promptly relocated from the University of Melbourne to Swanston Street. His lasting legacy to Museum Victoria includes a vast ethnographic collection from Central Australia, including some of the earliest film and sound recordings ever made of Aboriginal ceremonial performances and song.

In 1887, as the Professor of Biology at the University of Melbourne, he was the first-card carrying Darwinist to be appointed to an Australian university and his department was the first to hire female lecturers and professors. He soon established himself as an energetic leader who excelled in the laboratory, the lecture room and in the field. He was also a keen sponsor of young Australian artists such as Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton, and became an influential advocate for the inclusion of modern Australian art in state collections.

In 1894 he was appointed as photographer and zoologist to the Horn Scientific Exploring Expedition to central Australia. This was a turning point in Spencer’s career; while in the centre he took the first photographs of classic Australian landscapes such as Chambers Pillar, Uluru and Palm Valley, he collected widely and met a handful of outback characters with whom he would collaborate for several decades.

In Alice Springs Spencer developed a personal friendship and professional relationship with Francis J. Gillen. Their collaboration in anthropological research began in earnest during the summer of 1896-97 where they documented a number of ceremonies performed by the Arrernte people from the Alice Springs region. In 1901 Spencer and Gillen continued their work together and spent a year travelling between Oodnadatta and Borroloola, collecting further information regarding the Aboriginal cultures encountered along the way.

Their resulting publications had a profound influence on the early development of anthropology, particularly in Europe, and affected the ideas of Emile Durkheim and Sigmund Freud among others. Spencer and Gillen continue to shape the knowledge about past and present Aboriginal life. Just as importantly, it also provides an invaluable cultural archive for the descendants of the Aboriginal people with whom Spencer and Gillen worked in Central Australia.

In 2009, the Australian National University, Museum Victoria and the South Australian Museum received funds from the Australian Research Council to undertake research into the Spencer-Gillen collection. One of the critical aims of the project is to digitise the entire Spencer-Gillen collection, including objects, photographs, manuscripts, diaries, correspondence and other material. Ultimately, an online database will make this material more accessible for researchers, Aboriginal people and the wider public.

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