Professor Martin Thomas

BA (Hons), Sydney PhD, University of Technology, Sydney
Professor of History
ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences

Areas of expertise

  • Aboriginal And Torres Strait Islander History 210301
  • Historical Studies 2103

Research interests

perception and representation of landscape; history and philosophy of place; cross-cultural histories in Australia; Aboriginal studies; legacy of the Australian anthropologist R.H. Mathews; Visual and auditory culture; The American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land in 1948.


I joined the School of History as a Future Fellow in 2010. In my last position, I was Research Fellow in the Department of History at the University of Sydney, the department where I first studied as an undergraduate. I came to full-time academia in 2001 (as an ARC Postdoctoral Fellow) after working for many years as an independent writer, critic and editor, and then as Research Historian for the National Parks & Wildlife Service of New South Wales. I was in New York during the first Gulf War where I had the opportunity to record oral histories with homeless people, including a number of Vietnam Veterans. These recordings became a radio documentary, Home Front Manhattan (broadcast on the ABC and on American Public Radio). It marked the beginning of an enduring interest in radio documentary-making and sound recording. Upon returning to Sydney, I took up editorship of the journal Photofile, wrote art reviews and essays, and taught in Art History and Theory at the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales. Most of my recent work has been in the field of Australian and trans-national cultural history, as revealed through perceptions of place, representations of landscape and narratives of cross-cultural encounter. I explored these intersecting concerns in a long-term study of the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, a place I have known since childhood. The research became a doctoral thesis and then a book, published as The Artificial Horizon: Imagining the Blue Mountains (2003). Concurrently, I began to research historic sound recordings and made two radio documentaries about Jimmie Barker (1900-72), the Muruwari storyteller from northwest New South Wales who autonomously produced a vast tape archive, aimed at linguistic and cultural preservation. Recent research concerns Australian anthropology of the Federation era and its relevance today. A longstanding interest in the life and publications of the surveyor and self-taught anthropologist, R. H. Mathews (1841-1918), inspired a speculative biography, The Search for R. H. Mathews. Recent work includes study of expeditions as a cultural form and an ARC Discovery Project on the history of the magic lantern.

Researcher's projects

Expedition to Arnhem Land in 1948: Intercultural Inquiry in a Trans-National context
The research is funded by two grants from the Australian Research Council. An award under the Future Fellowships program supports my position (FT0992291) and a five-year Discovery Project (DP1096897 for commencement in 2010), held in collaboration with University of Sydney ethnomusicologists Linda Barwick and Allan Marett, funds other expenses and personnel (including a research associate and a doctoral student). The following description is adapted from our Discovery Project application.

The Arnhem Land project is motivated by five key questions:-
(1) How do Western and Indigenous knowledge systems interact and inform each other?
(2) How do histories of intercultural research affect contemporary cultures?
(3) What does it mean for the discipline of history if the conventional activity of excavating and elucidating a past epoch is informed by a research practice that uses ethnographic techniques to explore the relationship between anthropological archives and the people they document?
(4) In what ways has Indigenous knowledge shaped Australia's national image, its engagement with modernity and its international relationships?
(5) How might historical research strengthen the social fabric of Aboriginal communities?
We will address these questions by investigating the genealogy, preparations, activities and legacies of the event known as the 1948 American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land (AASEAL). This expedition, a significant (if neglected) episode in the US-Australia relationship and in cross-cultural history, has been selected as a case study for several reasons. (1) It resulted in the gathering of huge natural history and ethnological collections (extant in Australian and American institutions) including film, photographs and sound recordings that are of particular interest in Arnhem Land today. (2) The interdisciplinary nature of the expedition, occurring at a watershed moment, makes it highly significant to intellectual, cultural and political history. (3) The expedition was a collaboration between the Commonwealth of Australia, the Smithsonian Institution and the National Geographic Society. Studying it is a way of rekindling dialogue and collaboration between the original stakeholders, though now with the ambition of repatriating (rather than exporting) the intellectual property of Arnhem Land. (4) The expedition, coloured by the intrigues, politics, hubris and humour that are common themes in the history of Western exploration, is a remarkable story that deserves to be told and analysed, being highly pertinent to the present moment.

In exploring the legacy of this expedition we will integrate methods and ideas developed in Thomas' work on landscape, anthropological and oral history and the long experience of Marett and Barwick as ethnomusicologists, fieldworkers and digital archivists. Relating the detail of what happened in Arnhem Land in 1948 is of course a major objective, but it is not an end in itself. We will situate the expedition in terms of its epoch by investigating the interrelated histories of the individuals and communities associated with it over a period of some 30 years, spotlighting the period 1935-64. This starting date is chosen because the expedition was unwittingly conceived that year, when expedition leader Charles P. Mountford made a formative journey to Central Australia. Movie footage shot there resulted in documentaries which in 1945-6 he screened in the US on lecture tours promoting Australia. Negotiations in Washington resulted in the National Geographic funding that seeded the expedition. 1964 marks the terminus of the AASEAL period because in that year the final report was published, and the project officially closed. The periodisation is conceived loosely but it has an inherent logic, being the time frame of a generation.

Working from this time-frame, the research will examine how aspects of Indigenous knowledge were incorporated into the national self-image that Australia presented to the world, and how elements from which this image was wrought can assume a new life in the making of contemporary cultures. Our intention is to initiate a collaborative research process in Arnhem Land that will constitute an intergenerational dialogue, based on the comparison and synthesis of two streams of data. The first stream is the archival evidence that we will excavate and return to its locality of origin in digital form. The second will be derived from consultative, community-based research that has been employed by all investigators in a variety of situations. We will work primarily in the communities where AASEAL conducted research: Groote Eylandt, Yirrkala, Oenpelli and Milingimbi. Prior to going to Arnhem Land, the Expedition studied briefly at Belyuen, so some research will occur in that community where Marett and Barwick have a long history of research. Owing to the subsequent movement and dispersal of people, it will be often necessary to work in areas outside the locations where the original data were recorded. For example, an important strand of the research will occur on Croker Island and Cobourg Peninsula, where Iwaidja people with connections to Cape Don and Oenpelli at the time of the Expeditions visit are now resident.
The project will have a range of outcomes including book and journal articles, productions for radio, a documentary film, and web-based resources such as interactive databases. Small audio or film projects, or shorter publications, designed to meet the internal needs of community stakeholders, will also be developed


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:  24 June 2024 / Responsible Officer:  Director (Research Services Division) / Page Contact:  Researchers