The Donald Thomson Collection is one of the most comprehensive and significant collections of Aboriginal cultural heritage material in the world.
It contains ethnographic, archive, image and sound material, primarily from Arnhem Land, Cape York Peninsula in Queensland, the Great Sandy and Tanami deserts; as well as from Victoria, Solomon Islands and West Papua (formerly Irian Jaya). It also comprises biological specimens and material relating to Thomson’s academic career as an anthropologist and biologist, and his social justice work.
The collection provides a unique record of the diversity of Indigenous knowledge in Aboriginal Australia: a focus on material culture and technology together with a visual record of ritual, economic and domestic life at critical points in Australia’s frontier history.
Material culture items represent ritual, economic and domestic pursuits, as well as technologies (such as raw materials and tools). These objects combine with Thomson’s photographic work of around 11 000 images to give an extraordinary depth to the collection.
Objects and images are annotated by Thomson with details of language, kinship and cultural information. For the desert component of his work, Donald Thomson took 7600 meters of colour film, as well as sound recordings on reel-to-reel tape.
The collection was transferred on loan to Museum Victoria in 1973. Field notes, diaries, drawings, photographs, film and recordings all remain the personal property of Mrs Dorita Thomson, while the artefacts are owned by the University of Melbourne.
The Donald Thomson Ethnohistory Collection is the second Museum Victoria collection to be placed on the prestigious UNESCO Australian Memory of the World register. It was inscribed onto the Register in 2008.