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Collecting at the Crossroads: Anthropology, Art and Cultural Change (1939-85)

Collecting at the Crossroads: Anthropology, Art and Cultural Change (1939-85)

Collecting at the Crossroads is a three-year project funded by the Australian Research Council. Our research re-engages with a remarkable ethnographic archive – including artworks, objects, photographs and an extensive manuscript archive – assembled by the influential Australian anthropologists, Catherine and Ronald Berndt. Focusing on the collecting activities of the Berndts as they carried out their research in Western Desert Aboriginal communities between 1939 and 1985, we aim to arrive at a better understanding of the historical context in which these materials were gathered and examine their contemporary significance for a range of communities. Via close partnerships between our research team and the descendants of the Aboriginal people who co-produced this important collection, we aim to arrive an at intercultural understanding of the Berndt collection.

Tjigaban rockholes by Kalannga, 31.03.1945 (Berndt Museum, 1945/0065)

Tuber Yam Dreaming by Old Charlie, 05.04.1945 (Berndt Museum, 1945/0066)

Kilikili hill by Lefthand, 22.03.1945 (Berndt Museum, 1945/0112)

Sturt Creek Pinyayi lilly by Badawon Berndt Museum, 1945/0401)

The Berndts conducted over 40 separate fieldwork expeditions across large swathes of remote Australia and the collections they amassed and the research they published had a profound effect on both popular and scholarly appreciations of Aboriginal Australia. Only a small part of this unique and vast collection has ever been made publicly accessible and there is now only a limited number of elderly Aboriginal cultural experts who can work with researchers to understand the significance of the collection. The project will concentrate on the urgent task of working with these people to investigate a number of key collections that are of great importance to the emergence of 20th century desert art, such as:

  • the large and extraordinary collection of drawings produced by Aboriginal stockmen at Birrundudu, Northern Territory in 1944/455
  • the artworks and associated song recordings produced at Balgo, Western Australia during repeated fieldwork between 1958 and 1986; and
  • the drawings of landscape and story made by adults and children at Ooldea, South Australia, in 1941.

Men at Birrundudu outstation producing crayon drawings for Ronald Berndt (Berndt Museum)

The project is being led by Dr Jason Gibson at the Alfred Deakin and involves partnerships with the Berndt Museum of Anthropology, the University of Western Australia, the South Australian Museum, the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Warlayiriti Artists (Balgo), and the Warlukurlangu Art Centre (Yuendumu).


This two-day workshop will explore how museum, art and archival collections have emerged out of social encounters and interactions. We seek to uncover evidence of these negotiated, historical events across diverse locales in settler-colonial societies and consider how forms of intercultural knowledge have been, and continue to be, produced. Our focus will be on assemblages that hold elements of Indigenous expressive culture, language, visual art, material culture, song, and performance, but also material traces of hybridity, fields of engagement and entanglement. Using the heuristic of ‘crossroads’ we think about what diverse collections can tell us about shifting frontiers and divergent exchanges within and across Country/countries and contexts. Other themes will include the interplay between cultural (re)production and museums, acts of archival return and repatriation and the history (and future) of museum anthropology.


Chief Investigators:

Dr Jason M. Gibson (ADI)

Professor Alistair Paterson (University of Western Australia)

Professor John Carty (University of Adelaide/South Australian Museum)

Partner Investigators

Tui Raven (Art Gallery of Western Australia)

Carly Lane (WA Office of Culture and Arts


This project is funded by an Australian Research Council Linkage Grant (LP200100045).


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