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In the 1930s, Charles Mountford, an Adelaide telephone mechanic, photographer, and self-taught ethnologist, emerged as one of Australia’s more prominent authorities on Aboriginal society, much to the irritation of his academically qualified competitors. Mountford’s evocative documentary films and his accessible speaking style resulted in an invitation from the Australian government to give a lecture tour through the United States. Among the impacts of this exercise in soft diplomacy was Mountford winning support from National Geographic and the Smithsonian Institution to lead the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land of 1948.
This paper will address two themes. Firstly, how the imperial idea of exploration was kept alive through the twentieth century and how it survived the shift towards decolonisation post-World War II. Secondly, it will examine how the deployment of images of Aboriginal culture were used to affirm ideas of whiteness across national boundaries.
Martin Thomas teaches in the School of History at the Australian National University and is presently co-director of the Menzies Australia Institute at King’s College London. His research spans the fields of landscape studies, cross-cultural inquiry, and the histories of exploration and anthropology. His publications and documentaries have won many prizes including the National Biography Award of Australia for The Many Worlds of R. H. Mathews. Current projects include an edited volume for Bloomsbury on the cultural history of twentieth-century exploration and a monograph about the 1948 American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land, which was also the subject of Etched in Bone (2018), a film that he co-produced with Béatrice Bijon.
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Co-Director of the Menzies Australia Institute
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