Professor Howard Morphy

BSc, M Phil London, PhD, ANU, FASSA, FAHA
Head of Centre for Digital Humanities Research
ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences

Areas of expertise

  • Multicultural, Intercultural And Cross Cultural Studies 200209
  • Religion And Society 220405
  • Aboriginal And Torres Strait Islander Performing Arts 190401
  • Art History 190102
  • Museum Studies 210204
  • Aesthetics 220301
  • Studies Of Aboriginal And Torres Strait Islander Society 169902
  • Social And Cultural Anthropology 160104
  • Visual Cultures 190104
  • Biography 210304
  • Art Theory 190103
  • Information And Computing Sciences Not Elsewhere Classified 089999

Research interests

In his career he has moved between Museums and Universities: researching and curating collections, and organising exhibitions. He has conducted extensive fieldwork with the Yolngu people of Northern Australia, and collaborated on many films with Ian Dunlop of Film. He has published widely in the anthropology of art, aesthetics, performance, museum anthropology, Aboriginal social organization, the history of anthropology, visual anthropology and religion. Howard's main fieldwork has been with the Yolngu people of northeast Arnhem Land (Yirrkala) beginning in 1974-76, with subsequent research visits continuing to the present. He has also worked among the Ngalakan people of the Roper Valley, in 1980-81 and again in 1998. In 1983 he spent 6 months in Darwin researching the public response to Aboriginal art. In 1988 he spent two months in the field in Central Arnhem Land (at Ramingining and Maningrida). From 2001-2005 directed a joint archaeological anthropological research project on resource use and social organisation in Blue Mud Bay, Northern Australia. The team comprised two archaeologists, two anthropologists a marine ecologist and a linguist. As a result of that he has worked with others to develop methodologies for the mapping of cultural data. In recent years the focus of his researched has moved to museum collections and the development of the concept of the relational museum. His current research projects include: 1) collaborative research with the British Museum, the National Museum of Australia and a number of Indigenous communites to develop mechanisms for linking source communities to distributed collections 2) with Frances Morphy and Bree Blakeman mapping and researching the relationship between people's names and place names in Yolngu society.


Howard Morphy (BSc, MPhil London, PhD ANU, FASSA, FAHA, CIHA) is a distinguished Professor of Anthropology and was previously the founding Director of the Research School of Humanities and the Arts at the Australian National University. Prior to returning to the Australian National University in 1997, he held the chair in Anthropology at University College London. Before that he spent ten years as a curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford. He is an anthropologist of art and visual anthropologist having co- edited two of the main source books in the respective fields The Anthropology of Art: a Reader (2006, Blackwell's, with Morgan Perkins) and Rethinking Visual Anthropology (1997, Yale University Press, with Marcus Banks). He has written extensively on Australian Aboriginal art with a monograph of Yolngu Art, Ancestral Connections (Chicago 1991), a general survey Aboriginal Art (Phaidon, 1998) and most recently Becoming Art: Exploring Cross-Cultural Categories (Berg, 2007). He has also produced a pioneering multimedia biography The Art of Narritjin Maymuru with Pip Deveson and Katie Hayne (ANU epress 2005). He has conducted extensive fieldwork with the Yolngu people of Northern Australia, and collaborated on many films with Ian Dunlop of Film Australia and has curated many exhibitions including Yingapungapu at the National Museum of Australia. He is one of the curatorial team working on the exhibition Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation opening at the Brtish Museum April 23, 2015. With Frances Morphy he helped prepare the Blue Mud Bay Native Title Claim which as a result of the 2008 High Court judgement recognised Indigenous ownership of the waters over the intertidal zone under the Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act. His involvement in e-research and in the development of museum exhibitions reflects his determination to make humanities research as accessible as possible to wider publics and to close the distance between the research process and research outcomes. In 2008 he was one of the organising committee of the major CIHA conference in Melbourne Crossing Cultures: conflict, migration, convergence. He is past-president of the Council for Museum Anthropology (CMA) of the American Anthropological Association. In 2013 he was awarded the Huxley Memorial medal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, and in 2017 the Distiguished Service Award of the CMA..


Researcher's projects

Howard is completing the written version of his biography of the Yolngu artist Narritjin Maymuru, which has been produced in multimedia form. He continues to work in various areas of applied anthropology, in particular in relation to Indigenous rights in cultural property and land, and regional economic development through educational, cultural and environmental tourism. In theoretical terms Howard's current focus is on complexity theory and developing the concept of relative autonomy.

Howard is currently working on a number of projects that involve close partnerships with museums and Yolngu community organisations in particular Buku Larrngay Mulka Art Centre, Yirrkala.  In collaboration with the South Australian Museum, the Melbourne Museum, the Northern Territory Library and the Kerry Stokes Collection we have completed the development of a virtual archive of Spencer and Gillen's Central Australian collections

A project funded by an ARC linkage grant is underway with the National Museum of Australia and the British Museum as industry partners.  The project involves preparatory research for exhibitions in London and Canberra of objects from the British Museum's Aboriginal collections.  In addition to liaison with the respective communities we are working with a number of Indigenous curators artist on various aspects of the project. In collaboration with Diana James he is undertaking a research project in central Australia on the cultural dimensions of the Seven Sisters 'Songlines'. 

He continues to work with Louise Hamby and Pip Deveson on the development of a virtual archive of Yolngu collections in order to reconstruct the material record as a whole by bringing together film, photography, archival data and material culture objects.  Linked to these various projects we have developed a very innovative comprehensive data-base OCCAMS, and use film as an integral part of our research methods.

A further project involves a collaboration with David Throsby of Macquarie University to look into ways in which Indigenous Australian's can be involved in cultural and environmental tourism on their own terms in the context of regional economies.

Current student projects

 Current student projects include 

Past student projects

 Recently completed students projects include the following:

  • An Ethnomusicological Study of Chanted Tales in highland Papua New Guinea
  • Consuming the Devil's Idols: The (Re) Presenting of  Tibetan Art in the U.S.
  • Essential challenges:  The (Re-) Making of the Body in Women's Boxing
  • Indigenous knowledge of Yuin communities and science education
  • Masked Jumba:  Masquerade in the Kimberleys
  • Metamorphosis of situatedness: the confrontation between Aboriginal place and colonialist space in the Roper River
  • Nane Narduk Kunkodjgurlu Namarnborn 'This is My Idea':  Innovation and Creativity in Contemporary Rembarrnga Sculpture from the Maningrida Region
  • Peintpientbat:  Indigenous visual art practice from the Roper Region, South East Arnhem Land
  • Witnessing the Western Desert: Historical and Anthropological investigations into the 1950's and 1960's documentary films featuring people of the Ngaanyatjarra Lands


Projects and Grants

Grants information is drawn from ARIES. To add or update Projects or Grants information please contact your College Research Office.

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Updated:  22 July 2024 / Responsible Officer:  Director (Research Services Division) / Page Contact:  Researchers