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.
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