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

Comments (2)

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Adam Macfie 15 May, 2013 09:03
Great to see the launch went so well and some of the senior Arrernte men were invited to be there. Congratulations from the staff of the Strehlow Research Centre in Alice Springs
Michael Butler. grandson of Mary Jane Butler (Gillen) brother to Frank Gillen. 22 December, 2014 20:19
My father a school teacher in South Australia was a great favourite of Gillen who gave him many artefacts shields spears and sundry which were in the Riverton primary school where he was head teacher,he was a gr eat protege of Gillen and spoke to us at school and home.He was responsible for encouraging dad in photography
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