The international conference events industry has really been stripped bare by the COVID pandemic. I say ‘industry’ deliberately, because international conferences have very much become commercial events, leveraged and promoted by cities for tourism and reputational benefits far beyond any papers that might emerge from the conference itself. But this is perhaps not such a recent phenomenon as we might have thought.
This small collection of essays, edited by Lynette Russell looks at the annual conference of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, which was held in Australia in 1914. The ‘advance party’ for the conference arrived in Perth on 28 July 1914, the day that Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Talk about timing! Right up to the official opening of the conference on 14 August, there was a question mark over whether the conference would go ahead, but it was decided that it would, as long as it didn’t interfere with the war preparations of the Commonwealth.
The British Association for the Advancement of Science was founded in 1831. It had always included the human sciences alongside geology, chemistry and the hard sciences, often included under headings of ‘Geology and Geography’ and ‘Biology’. By 1884, spurred by interest in archaeology and with links to humanitarian groups active on behalf of indigenous peoples in Australia and North America, a separate ‘Section H- Anthropology’ had been formed. When the BAAS organized its conference in Australia, it was concerned that it would have too much of an Australian focus, so it was decided to limit the number of Australian-themed topics to just 1/3 of all offerings – except for the Anthropology section. For anthropologists, the opportunity to travel to Australia and actually see ‘natives’, as distinct from reading about them from their armchair, or reading the untutored scribblings of local informants, was a real drawcard. Many took the opportunity – as you would – to extend their trip to the Antipodes for a bit longer to do some field research and catch up with old contacts.
The fairly new Australian Commonwealth Government made a hefty contribution to having this prestigious conference held in Australia. Over 155 scientists were fully funded by the Australian government, and they travelled on three ships especially contracted for this purpose (two of them were commandeered for war purposes after war was declared, making the return trip rather difficult). Another 200 scientists received subsidies and supported travel to the tune of 15,000 pounds (several million dollars in today’s terms). The conference participants visited Western Australia (where it started), South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. It had a prominent public focus. Five thousand people in total attended sessions, with two thousand of these in Melbourne alone. Melbourne, as the then-capital, played a particularly significant role with a number of scientific organizations, and many interested citizens, mostly -although not all- drawn from the wealthier suburbs, attended the lectures out of genuine interest.
I have gleaned most of this information from Lynette Russell’s opening chapter, ” A ‘Young and Vigorous Outpost of Empire'” where she emphasizes the unfortunate coincidence of timing with World War I and the significance of the conference for the newly federated nation. As an ‘anthropological historian’ she was the recipient of a fellowship undertaken with Oxford University, where the archives of the BAAS are housed at the Bodleian Libraries, with 200 linear metres of shelved material. A small seminar was held at the Royal Anthropological Institution, where these papers were workshopped.
As several of the papers in this volume emphasize, anthropologists at the time were operating under the stance of ‘salvage ethnography’ – the idea that ‘real Aborigines’ were about to die out, and that cultural change as a result of colonialism was invariably equated with cultural loss, culminating in an impoverished, corrupted and inauthentic culture. In Chapter 2 Ian J. McNiven explores the idea of ‘salvage ethnography’ more fully, where he describes the visit of Alfred Haddon and his daughter Kathleen to the Torres Strait immediately after attending the BAAS conference in Australia. Alfred was a Reader in Ethnology at Cambridge, a position he took up in 1909, and Kathleen, aged 26, was a Demonstrator in Zoology at the same university. Kathleen was a keen photographer. It was a six-week Papuan expedition, where Alfred returned to meet Maino, whom he had described as an ‘old friend’, who had been senior cultural consultant during previous expeditions in 1888 and 1898. When Maino was not able to explain the use of old shrines, Haddon attributed it to the ‘vanishing past’ trope that he had warned his professional and academic colleagues against. Although his approach to anthropology was seen to be rigid and outdated, ironically it was the observations and writings of anthropologists working in the ‘salvage ethnography’ tradition that formed the foundations of land and sea native title determinations in recent decades. The chapter closes with a lengthy extract from Haddon’s paper ‘The Decorative Art of Papua’.
The title of Chapter 3 “A Diary in the Loose Sense of the Term” is a play on the title of ethnographer Bronislaw Malinowski’s diary called A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term, published in 1967 by his second wife. In fact, Austrian-born Malinowski was one of the participants in this conference and was detained when war was declared, but he was released with the assistance of a fellow anthropologist and allowed to carry out the research in the Trobriand Islands that established his career. But the diary in this chapter was written by Henry Balfour, the first curator of the University of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum. And he had none of the self-reflection or emotional angst of Malinowski’s diary. Instead, it was always intended to be a souvenir, filled with inserts, drawings and cuttings – a bit like a scrapbook. In fact, it’s not very interesting at all. There is a page of ‘cartoonlets’ from the Western Mail commenting on the war, but it was only kept because there were portraits of some prominent BAAS delegates on the back. His encounters with the Noongar people of Western Australia involved them hauling their car out of a ditch when it got bogged; in Lake Alexandrina (South Australia) he enjoyed a show of boomerang-throwing, lunch at the hotel, and a corrobborrie [sic]. He went for a trip with local Melbourne collectors, including Alfred Stephen Kenyon (who lived in my own suburb of Heidelberg), and his diary occasionally mentioned objects that he collected or bought, although it’s not clear whether they were private purchases, or acquisitions for the Pitt Rivers Museum.
Jane Lydon contributed Chapter 4 “Taming the Territory: William Baldwin Spencer and Elsie Masson”. Baldwin Spencer is best known today as a building at Melbourne University, but he was actually the foundation chair of biology. He was one of the main architects for the conference itself, but in the years preceding the conference he had been appointed Special Commissioner and Chief Protector of Aborigines in the Northern Territory. During his year of service in 1912 he travelled throughout the Territory and submitted a report in 1913 which emphasized the ‘child like’ and primitive nature of the indigenous people there. A couple of years later, Elsie Masson (who went on to marry Bronislaw Malinowski) published An Untamed Territory, an account of a year spent as an au pair companion and nanny with the inaugural Northern Territory Administrator John Gilruth and his family in Darwin. The Masson and Spencer families were friends and neighbours on campus. She visited many of the places that Spencer had visited before her. Her book shared many of the racial views expressed by Spencer and his circle, but she gave it “a distinctively romantic, humorous, stereotypical inflection to her circle’s views, facilitating their reception by a popular audience” (p. 101) Her book concludes with the trial of nine Aboriginal men for the murder of a white trepanger, Jim Campbell. Although she satirizes the cultural misunderstandings during the trial, she also expressed sympathy for the Indigenous prisoners and the unfairness of the ‘justice’ system in which they found themselves enmeshed. She took photographs of the accused men’s wives and children, and the trepanning enterprise in which the murder took place.
The final chapter ‘The Notes and Queries, Gestures toward a Settler History’ is written by Leigh Boucher. In her introduction, Lynette Russell warned that “At first blush Boucher’s essay may not seem to obviously sit in its collection…” (p. 23). She’s right. However, ‘Notes and Queries’ was a questionnaire published in 1841 which was distributed to colonial informants to fill in and return to the BAAS in London. There were 89 questions dealing with
physical characteristics, language, individual and family life, buildings and monuments, works of art, government and laws, geography and statistics, social relations and religion (Queries Respecting the Human Race Address to Travellers and Others, 1841)p. 125
The Queries were distributed to the British Museum, the Royal Geographical Society, Scientific Bodies, missionaries and travellers, and were reprinted in colonial newspapers across the empire. However, it seems that not many completed questionnaires found their way back to the learned gentlemen in London, because travellers and commentators preferred to write their own volumes about their travels and observations. Other colonial observers, like Daniel Bunce, used the thinking in Notes and Queries to inform their own investigations.
So why is a discussion of an 1841 questionnaire included in this collection of essays? Well, the questionnaire was periodically reviewed until 1951, and indeed practising anthropologists in the 1970s could still remember the questionnaire being used in classrooms to introduce them to taxonomies of anthropological thought. Each of those anthropologists in Section H at the BAAS conference in 1914 would have been steeped in the thinking of Notes and Queries.
Nonetheless, the tenuous connection between this essay and the others in the volume has prompted me to think about the construction of a book of papers on a theme like this. I really don’t know where I would have put this essay. Chronologically, it occurs well before the conference, but putting it at the start would deflect the reader’s attention from the conference itself which is, after all, the theme of the book. Yet putting it at the end leaves it dangling, not so much as an afterthought as an aside.
I’m a little sorry, too, that Russell herself didn’t come back with an afterword to pick up on the subtitle of the book: ‘The Scientific Event that Changed Australia’. She does address this in her introductory chapter, pointing out that a chair of anthropology was established at the University of Sydney. An Advisory Council of Science and Industry was established in 1916, and Kangaroo Island was proclaimed a government reserve to protect the fast disappearing native fauna. However, these observations about the changes that occurred in Australia as a result of the conference probably would have made more sense after reading the papers, rather than before.
Nonetheless, I found this an interesting little volume, although it is probably aimed at a niche audience. I had not heard of this conference before, and it casts a light on the scholarly mindset that underpinned the early writing about indigenous society, very much from a London-based perspective.
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library
Because Lynette Russell is the editor, and because she has really taken the running in publicizing this book, I am including it on the Australian Women Writers Challenge database.