‘Hunters and Collectors’ by Tom Griffiths

1996, 282 p

I finished reading this book, sitting up in bed.  I clapped it shut and burst out “Bloody brilliant!”. Now I love my history books as much as anyone, but I don’t always react with such enthusiasm.  The book came with high credentials- the string of medals across its front cover indicated that it was going to be pretty special ( winner of the NSW Premiers Literary Award 1996, the National Book Council’s Club Banjo Shortlist 1996, the winner of the Premier’s Literary award- not sure which state- 1996, and the Eureka Science Book Prize 1996.)  I wasn’t disappointed one little bit.

The book’s full title is “Hunters and Collectors: The Antiquarian Imagination in Australia”.  Griffiths describes the antiquarian imagination as  “a historical sensibility particularly attuned to the material evidence of the past and possessing a powerful sense of place”. (p1).  His book explores the tensions between two groups of people in relation to history: Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians, and amateurs and professionals.

He explores these tensions by focussing on a handful of 19th and early 20th century Victorian (as in the state of Victoria) antiquarians and collectors.  For example – R. E. Johns collected a huge number of Aboriginal skulls and his drawing-room collection ended up at the Beechworth museum.  Alfred Kenyon was a collector of stone artefacts and involved in societies like the Anthropological Society, the Prehistoric Club, and was heavily involved in Port Phillip history. For the family historians among you, you’ll know that  the  Kenyon index in at the State Library is a well-thumbed card index of the pastoral pioneers of the district.  Then there were the nature writers of the early 20th century like Donald McDonald  who wrote nostalgia-based nature columns like “Village and Farm” or “Nature Notes and Queries” for the Argus, or Charles Barrett who wrote for New Idea and the Victorian Naturalist.

We might feel uneasy about gentlemen amassing aboriginal skulls and artefacts for their drawing-room collections, but Griffiths points out that as well as the acquisitive aspect of their activities, there was a political and intellectual strand as well.  Although they were not academics – indeed many were hostile and suspicious towards academia as a whole- they did correspond with other collectors internationally and were particularly  interested in the classifying aspect of anthropology.  For the collectors based in Victoria, there was a tension between their interest in “real” Aborigines, preferably far distant in central Australia, and their eagerness to distance themselves from urban and what they would see as “half-caste” Aboriginal political activism in the present.   For example, Barrett and Kenyon’s book Blackfellows of Australia, written in or around 1936 in available online here.  It’s well worth a look, and sobering to consider that it’s being written at about the time of the Aborigines Advancement League, William Cooper and  the  Day of Mourning.

Then there’s the issue of amateur and professional historians, and the tension between memory and history.  This was of real interest to me, because as I may have mentioned, I am fairly heavily involved with my local historical society.  It was established in 1967, just in advance of the flood of historical societies that commenced between 1970 and 1990.  Local historical societies are grounded in a powerful sense of place and at first tend to revolve around key people and a “keep it under the bed” mentality.   This section of the book was particularly pertinent to me, as Kenyon lived in Heidelberg with his daughter, and I’ve caught several references to him in our collections.   There has always been, as Griffiths points out, an uneasy relationship between universities and local historians, and I confess to feeling that tension from time to time, overlaid as it now is by friendships and local loyalties.  And as Griffiths also points out, universities too have increasingly been repackaging their course offerings into  “public history” as a more saleable income stream in the face of decreasing funding.

I hadn’t particularly considered before the proliferation of history and nature societies and mentalities that still lingered in the 1960s education system that I grew up in.  For example, many of the antiquarians he writes of were involved in the different commemorative days that school children were involved in (Wattle Day, Arbor Day etc) and groups like the Gould League of Bird Lovers.  In particular, there was a link with the School Paper that all Victorian school children received regularly as a supplement to their School Reader.  There’s copies of the April 1911 School Paper devoted to Australian History on the SLV site here– again, well worth looking at-  for its emphases in telling Australian History.

Griffiths brings the antiquarian imagination right up to the present day with his description of “history towns” like Maldon in Victoria, and planning and demolition battles over what bureaucrats vs. locals might regard as significant buildings.  He writes of the modern wilderness movement and the contradictions of attempting to maintain a “pristine” environment which is nothing of the sort.

He closes his book with a personal reflection of his own role as a collector for the Museum of Victoria, and how it intersected with the activities of the earlier antiquarian collectors he describes in this book.  In this epilogue you can detect the influence of the historian Greg Dening in particular, whom he names almost first up in his acknowledgements.  The epilogue really is masterful: it returns our gaze to the men and their intentions on which the book is based, and reminds us how they have been interwoven into our own history-making today.   And, in case you haven’t picked it up, this really is a bloody brilliant book.

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7 responses to “‘Hunters and Collectors’ by Tom Griffiths

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