Spencer & Gillen

A journey through Aboriginal Australia

About the Spencer & Gillen website


On this site you will find a digital reconstruction of the original materials either collected or created by one of Australia's most well known collaborations in the social sciences.

Spencer and Gillen worked together very closely for over 10 years and collected an enormous collection that was ultimately donated to Australian museums, traded with other museums across the globe, or retained by their respective families. The website contains all of the objects – notebooks, films, audio recordings, illustrations, photographs - collected during Spencer and Gillen’s studies in anthropology between 1875 and 1912. However, out of respect for the continuing ceremonial life of central Australian Aboriginal people we have disabled access to any images of sacred or restricted material. For a description of the consultations we have undertaken during the course of this project please visit the ‘consultations’ page.

In presenting this collection online we have for the most part retained the original titles and documentation used by Spencer and Gillen to describe their collection. Researchers that wish to know more about any of these collection objects should contact the relevant institution. See the Institutions pages for contact details.

Important Information

Users of this system are advised that the information on this site is presented largely from a research perspective. The system assembles information from a number of museum, library and private collections and Museum Victoria makes no representations, warranties or assurances (either expressed or implied) as to the accuracy, currency or completeness of the information presented. The system also displays information created by institutions outside of Museum Victoria and enquiries regarding this information should be directed to the relevant institution.

Users of this system are also advised that locations of language groups or places shown on the Google map are approximate and it is not to be used for land or native title claims. The system offers one, but not an authoritative or definitive, representation of these locations.

Restricted Material

Spencer and Gillen took photographs of ceremonies, and collected ceremonial objects which are traditionally only accessible to senior initiated men. These ceremonies, or objects, are treated reverently and revealed to trusted, initiated men only. Many of the photographs, films, sound recordings and objects are therefore not accessible on this site but you will be able to read some of the information collected about the object.

Consultations with Aboriginal People

Over a three year period the Spencer and Gillen project team consulted with over 80 individuals; both men and women, young and old, from five of the cultural groups with connection to the Spencer and Gillen collection. Our final round of consultations was hosted by the Central and Eastern Arrernte Elders Group at the Institute for Aboriginal Development in Alice Springs and the Nyinkka Nyunyu Cultural Centre in Tennant Creek where we reviewed a selection the Spencer and Gillen film, photographic and artefact collections and discussed appropriate ways of providing access to the site. We thank all of the individuals and institutions that have assisted us in carrying out these consultations.

In these meetings we were also given advice regarding the perceived status of ‘restricted’ content in the collection. Senior Aboriginal men and women were able to determine whether certain material – be it manuscript, photographic, film or artefacts - were restricted or not and we have worked diligently to ensure this material is not freely accessible via this website.

This website has been developed as collaboration between the Australian National University, Museum Victoria, and the South Australian Museum, the Northern Territory Library, Australian Capital Equity, Barr Smith Library and with the funding support of the Australian Research Council. Copyright in the website resides with both the ARC team although all images are used with permission from Museum Victoria and the South Australian Museum. The website may be accessed and materials downloaded solely for the purposes of personal study. No other reproduction of the website or source materials is authorised without the prior written permission of each relevant collecting institution. Further advice regarding the ownership rights and/or use of these materials may be obtained by contacting the Spencer and Gillen project.

Project Background

In 2009 the Australian National University, Museum Victoria and the South Australian Museum were successful in obtaining Australian Research Council funds to undertake research into the Spencer-Gillen collection. One of the critical aims of the project is to digitise the entire Spencer-Gillen collection, including objects, photographs, manuscripts, diaries, correspondence and other material. Once the digitisation process has been completed, an online database will be created for the use of researchers, Aboriginal people and the wider public. Throughout the duration of the project - as the material is identified and catalogued – a variety of research projects will be conducted. This will include, but is not restricted to:

  1. How the collection was formed in relation to the type of research questions that Spencer and Gillen were attempting to answer. In conducting this analysis, the actual dates and places where Spencer and Gillen collected their material will be identified and carefully mapped out so that their collecting activities can be correlated with their research findings.
  2. Investigate and document the significance of the collection to the Central Australian Aboriginal groups through a series collaborative research projects. This would involve working in close association with relevant Aboriginal men and woman in Central Australia and appropriate Aboriginal organisations and councils in the region. This could entail, for example, a re-examination of the Warumungu mortuary rituals that Spencer and Gillen recorded during their 1901-02 expedition to Tennant Creek.

Aboriginal Community Participation

The descendants of the Aboriginal people with whom Spencer and Gillen worked still have a strong presence in Central Australia. The indigenous population in the region currently constitute approximately 38% of all inhabitants; this represents one of the highest regional concentrations of Aboriginal people in Australia. In many respects, the material collected by Spencer and Gillen constitutes the most important cultural archive available to these peoples. It is therefore important that this research project be undertaken in close association with the Aboriginal people of Central Australia.

It is crucial to the success of this project that all indigenous material be handled with respect and care and consultations will be conducted with senior Aboriginal men with a connection to this material to determine any conditions of access that may need to be applied. The database will therefore be designed in such a way that it will restrict public access to any ceremonial or sensitive material.