MV Blog


Launch of Spencer and Gillen website

by Kate C
Publish date
8 May 2013
Comments (2)

The Spencer & Gillen: A Journey through Aboriginal Australia website was launched last Friday at a celebration at Melbourne Museum. In attendance were MV staff, representatives from several partner institutions, Central Arrernte Elders, and descendants of the two ethnographers, Walter Baldwin Spencer and Frank Gillen.

Screenshot of Screenshot of the newly-launched website,
Source: Museum Victoria

People at launch of Spencer and Gillen Descendants of Sir Baldwin Spencer with MV curator Dr Phillip Batty and three visiting Central Arrernte Elders.
Image: Jon Augier
Source: Museum Victoria

Central Arrernte Elders performing The launch included speeches by project partners and collaborators, and a performance by three Central Arrernte Elders. L-R: Martin McMillan Kemarre, Ken Tilmouth Penangke and Duncan Lynch Peltharre.
Image: Jon Augier
Source: Museum Victoria

The website has been several years in the making and brings together over 50,000 objects, photographs, documents, recordings and drawings that are housed in institutions in Australia, Europe and the United States. Research coordinator Jason Gibson calls it "one of the most comprehensive collections to do with a group of Aboriginal people. Certainly there’s nothing else like it on the web. It covers life on the frontier in Central Australia between 1875 and 1912."

Among the treasures are rare and wonderful audiovisual recordings, including the earliest film footage taken on mainland Australia. "Most of this material isn’t available on the web anywhere else, so we had to digitise and compile it at the same time," explains Jason. With a new mapping function and many ways to sort and filter the collection, you can now access these vital ethnographic records in ways never before possible, which is particularly important for members of Arrernte communities. "We spoke to over 80 different individuals from five different language groups, mainly in Alice Springs and Tennant Creek and overwhelmingly everyone is really excited and proud to have their heritage on display for all to see."

Men watching film The Central Arrernte Elders watching the footage on of the 1901 Unintha corroboree at Charlotte Waters. This is the earliest film footage shot on mainland Australia.
Image: Jon Augier
Source: Museum Victoria


View the Unintha corroborree footage on

Spencer and Gillen worked in Central Australia for 30 years. "Although they have been criticised by many people for their social evolutionist attitudes, this collection demonstrates the collaboration with local people," explains Jay. "Gillen’s very close relationship with Arrernte people was unusual at the time and they were among the first non-Indigenous people to grapple with the concept of the Dreaming. 'Dream time' was a Gillen interpretation of the Arrernte word Altyerr and this interpretation became important internationally in terms of thinking about religion and society."

The website is the product of a collaborative project that was funded by the Australian Research Council and led by the Australian National University. It would not have been possible without the partner organisations especially the South Australian Museum, Northern Territory Library, and the Pitt Rivers Museum.


Media News: Putting Spencer and Gillen back together

MV Blog: Following the travelling Tjitjingalla

MV Blog: Rare scene of first European contact

Following the travelling Tjitjingalla

by Jason Gibson
Publish date
9 September 2011
Comments (4)

Jason Gibson is a Senior Research Coordinator with the Australian National University and the Indigenous Cultures Department at Museum Victoria.

In 1894 Walter Edmund Roth heard about a performance, called the 'Molong-go' that had been shared by the Wakaya people from the upper reaches of the Georgina River in the Northern Territory with the Pitta Pitta people in outback Queensland. As an ethnographer, Roth was fascinated to hear that the dance had 'originated from a point east or south-east of Darwin'; some hundreds of kilometres from the Queensland desert country where he was stationed. Two years later in 1898 Alice Springs Special Magistrate F.J. Gillen wrote to his friend and collaborator in anthropological studies, the then Professor of Biology at the University of Melbourne Walter Baldwin Spencer, explaining that a corroboree almost identical to the one seen by Roth had appeared in Alice Springs. Gillen explained to Spencer that the dance, known as the Tjitjingalla altharte (corroboree) to the local Arrernte people, had been 'brought down' into the region by a 'northern group'.

Tjitjingalla Corroboree performed in Alice Springs, 1901 Tjitjingalla Corroboree performed in Alice Springs, 1901. The picture depicts one of the dance sequences of the Tjitjingalla as performed by Arrernte people at Alice Springs.
Image: Sir Walter Baldwin Spencer
Source: Museum Victoria

After attending the performance, which extended over five nights, Gillen reported that the repertoire had indeed originated 1500kms north, in the 'country of the Salt water' and that 'the implements carried by the performers' were 'in all cases the same as described by Roth'. Three years later, during the Spencer and Gillen Expedition of 1901 Spencer collected two of the dancing sticks used in the performance.

Two Tjitjingalla dancing sticks Two Tjitjingalla dancing sticks wrapped in human hair string. These dancing sticks were used in one of the dance sequences of the altharte or what Spencer called an ‘ordinary corroboree’.
Image: Justine Philip
Source: Museum Victoria

Tjitjingalla dancing stick detail Detail of a Tjitjingalla dancing stick.
Image: Justine Phillip
Source: Museum Victoria

Earlier in the expedition, whilst camped by the Stevenson Creek in the remote north of South Australia, Spencer and Gillen were visited a small group of Lower Arrernte men. Gillen writes, 'we gave them a good feed and after tea rigged the phonograph up and got them to sing into it a number of corroboree songs' and Spencer also noted that the men 'were very much excited and interested, especially as we let them hear the instrument repeating what they had said.' It was here, almost by accident, that one of the Tjitjingalla song verses was recorded. A few weeks later when the expedition reached Alice Springs Spencer spent considerable time photographing and filming the altharte using his Warwick motion film camera. The sound and film recordings made of the Tjitjingalla are some of the earliest ever made on the Australian continent.

Listen to Baldwin Spencer's introduction to the recording, courtesy of the Gillen Collection, Royal Geographic Society of South Australia  (Length 0:29)  
(Download MP3)

"This corroboree, the Tjitjingalla corroboree, was first described by Dr. Roth in north central Queensland. Subsequently was performed by the natives of central Australia [unknown] the Arrernte tribe at Alice Springs. This corroboree was sung on the Stevenson River on March 22nd, 1901."

The peregrination of the Tjitjingalla/Molongo, which was subsequently documented at various locations in South Australia, the Northern Territory, Western Australia and Queensland, later became important to theories regarding the exchange of ideas, songs, dances and mythologies amongst the Australian Indigenous population.

More stories like this are being uncovered in a joint research project between the Australian National University, Museum Victoria and the South Australian Museum. The Reconstructing the Spencer and Gillen Collection Project will produce an online database of the W.B. Spencer and F.J. Gillen collaboration, including objects they collected, their photographs, manuscripts, diaries, correspondence and other material held in over 20 institutions, both in Australia and overseas.

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