Exchanging totems: Baldwin Spencer and the ‘manufacture’ of ethnographic totem in inter-museum exchanges

This showed up in my inbox this morning:


Discovery Centre, Lower Ground Floor,
Melbourne Museum, Carlton Gardens
Tuesday 23 February, 1pm – 2pm

Free entry, Bookings essential
For RSVP and information contact: Larissa Tittl, Administrative Assistant, Indigenous Cultures Department
Phone 8341 7363, Email ltittl@museum.vic.gov.au

Exchanging totems: Baldwin Spencer and the ‘manufacture’ of ethnographic totem in inter-museum exchanges

Dr Gareth Knapman

Between 1899 and 1908, the then director of the National Museum of Victoria, Walter Baldwin Spencer dispatched a number of collections of Aboriginal material culture to museums in Europe and North America as either gifts or exchanges. He initially used these collections to promote his ideas research into totemism, although as his ideas on totems and totemism changed so did the collections purpose. Totemism was one of the hot debates of early C20th sociology/anthropology with historic figures such as Émile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud and James Frazer relying on Spencer’s research. The constructions of these collections reflected clear patterns, in which Spencer promotes particular totemic symbols to fit scholarly discourse and considered these collections overseas as appendages to the books he wrote with Francis Gillen. In developing these collections, Spencer developed a hierarchy of totemic symbols and ‘manufactured’ the Nurtuja (Anartentye) as an Arrernte equivalent to the American North-West Coast totem pole. More so than the Churinga (Tywerrenge), the Nurtuja — which is an ornate sacred pole that is constructed and destroyed during Arrernte ceremonies — was the object of material culture that reflected Spencer’s theory of totemism. In placing importance on the Nurtuja, Spencer was using material culture to develop social theory and promote social theory. This paper therefore reflects how material culture influenced aspects of his ‘social theory’ and was used to shape ‘trade’ in material culture.

Dr Knapman completed his PhD research at RMIT University’s Globalism Institute. His research focused on nineteenth-century ideas of ethnicity. He has published articles on colonialism, liberalism and evolution in Southeast Asia and has taught at Monash University, University of Melbourne, RMIT University, Deakin University, and Victoria University. In 2009, Gareth was the Thomas Ramsay Science and Humanities Fellow at Museum Victoria, and is currently a curator in the Indigenous Cultures Department.


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