A review of ‘Hunters and Collectors: The Antiquarian Imagination in Australia’ by Tom Griffiths

Reviewed by Ken Inglis

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Tom Griffiths’s book delivers a lot more than his title promises. His own purpose is not all antiquarian. After respectfully exhuming a diverse cast of amateur ethnologists, archaelogists, chroniclers, naturalists and ratbags, after showing how their studies of nature and history were rendered obsolete by professionals, he goes on to analyse persisting puzzles and conflicts over two inseparable questions: who owns the past and who owns the land?

During the past twenty years many books, articles and theses have been written, in Australia as elsewhere, on the overlapping issues of public history and private memory, the making, unmaking and remaking of cultural landscapes, the encounters and reciprocal perceptions of old and new inhabitants in colonised territories. Griffiths knows all these literatures well, cites them generously in text and footnotes, and goes well beyond them to make his own thoughtful synthesis.

John Mulvaney appears not only as the founder of a truly professional Australian archaeology, dealing tactfully with old collectors whose judgments he is surpassing or refuting, but also as a scientist indignant when bones are removed from a museum and placed beyond reach of any scholar who may want to interrogate them in the cause of getting to know more about humanity. The themes of “preservation” and “conservation” are pursued, from efforts early this century on behalf of old buildings to disputes about the proper uses of “wilderness” which will last into the next.

Like all the best nonfiction, this is the work of a writer with a novelist’s eye for character. When half a century ago I dipped into Isaac Selby’s book The Old Pioneers’ Memorial History of Melbourne, I imagined the author, if I imagined him at all, as a grey old fogey. I wish I had known that, while on a lecture tour in the United States, Selby sued his wife for divorce in San Francisco and when the court issued a decree in her favour he fired a revolver at the judge. I see now that this story is relevant to the passion with which, after release from jail and lunatic asylum, he took up the cause of the Old Melbourne Cemetery.

Griffiths’s richest character, occupying a chapter entitled Victorian Skulduggery, is Reynell Eveleigh Johns, clerk of petty sessions in various parts of Victoria during the late 19th century. He was a Victorian autodidact, a wrestler with theories of evolution, and omnivorous collector of “curiosities”, from plants and rocks to birds and Aboriginal remains, including “blackfellow skulls,” which he “scrubbed up…until they looked quite clean and nice”. Johns’s collection of Aboriginal remains and artefacts, Griffiths shows, played a role in the international interplay of fact and theory “which cast Aborigines as evolutionary survivals, the world’s most primitive beings.” Far from disappearing, as Johns and his contemporaries expected, Aborigines have become Koories, exhibiting his curiosities alongside their own craftwork. Connie Hart learns how to make an eel trap by examining one collected by Johns in 1902 from Lake Condah, where her mother lived.Here are Griffiths’s last words: “R.E. Johns, who thought he was memorialising a dying race…was at the time unwittingly participating in, even encouraging, a process of local cultural renewal. Perhaps I am unfair, perhaps he was not unwitting.”

“Perhaps” recurs often in this book — sometimes it betrays the author’s undue modesty, as does his overly respectful quoting of insights no more illuminating than his own. I hope¬†Hunters and Collectors will find its way to old curmudgeons who grizzle about the state of Australian historical writing and to young Foucaultphiles who write cultural studies in gobbledygook. Griffiths knows Foucault, and Freud, and Darwin, as he knows R.E.Johns and Isaac Selby. He blends them all into a lucid and subtle prose, a transparent medium for insights to enrich, even transform, our understanding of the land and the culture we live in.


Ken Inglis is a Canberra historian. This review was first published in theWeekend Australian.

Hunters and Collectors: the Antiquarian Imagination in Australia, is published by Cambridge University Press, 1996.

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