The Northern Australian Ethnographic Collection began primarily with the material collected by and associated with Baldwin Spencer over the period 1902 to 1928; however its true beginnings go back to the 1880s and 1890s.
Containing some of the most significant Aboriginal cultural heritage material held in Australia, the collection comprises objects, photographs, manuscripts, films and sound, a significant component of which are of a restricted ceremonial nature.
Materials represent much of Queensland, Arnhem Land and coastal Northern Territory, and north-west and northern Western Australia. Collection strengths include cultural materials from Darwin, the Daly and McArthur rivers, Borroloola, Bathurst and Melville islands, Roper River, north-east Queensland rainforest, Mornington Island and Torres Strait.
The Northern Australian Ethnographic Collection is complemented by the Donald Thomson Collection.
- Around 500 Arnhem Land bark paintings, including W.B. Spencer and P. Cahill collections (first major collections in existence) and those collected by D. Thomson, W. Chaseling, T.T. Webb and E. Wells.
- Sound, image and manuscript collections: W.B. Spencer’s film, wax cylinder, photographic and manuscript collection; U. McConnell’s wax cylinders from Aurukun; R. Seeger’s photographs from 1940s–50s; plus a large number of miscellaneous photographic collections.
- Economic and ceremonial material from Arnhem Land and Cape York Peninsula: watercraft; Kakadu and McArthur River material from W.B. Spencer; Tiwi material from early to late 20th century; central and northeastern Arnhem Land material from Thomson, Chaseling, Webb and Wells.
- Howitt manuscript collection relating to language and customs along the eastern coast.
- Crayon and pencil drawings by children at Aurukun around 1950 for R. Seeger.