Arrernte welcoming dance, entrance of the strangers, Alice Springs, Central Australia, 9 May 1901

Walter Baldwin Spencer1901

Museums Victoria

Museums Victoria
Carlton, Australia

Walter Baldwin Spencer, one of the founding fathers of anthropology in Australia and Director of the then National Museum of Victoria (now Museum Victoria) from 1899 to 1928, was invited to participate as zoologist and photographer in the The Horn Scientific Expedition. This was the first primarily scientific expedition to study the natural history of Central Australia. The expedition took place from May to August 1894. At the end of the Expedition, at Alice Springs in July of 1894, Spencer met Frank J. Gillen, the operator of the Alice Springs Telegraph Station and the South Australian Government Sub-Protector of Aboriginal people. Gillen had for many years maintained an interest in and concern for the Arrernte Aboriginal people.
In 1901 Spencer and Gillen set out on an expedition together to study the Arrernte people, establish 'intimate relations with the natives' and study other groups between the Arrernte and the north coast. Spencer and Gillen were concerned to get the most detailed possible records of the societies they studied, and to achieve this, they used the most advanced technology available to them. Photography was a collecting device, and the two men became pioneers not only of photography but also of sound and film recording. The cameras that they used had developed sufficiently to record action sequences as they occurred. Spencer's desire was to take photographs of people engaged in the activities of daily life, while remaining as unconscious as possible about the presence of the camera.
This photograph was taken on 9 May, 1901 in Camp 22 at Alice Springs. Spencer noted in his field diary "just at midday word came that a mob of strange natives was coming up. There was much excitement in the camps as strange natives may mean a big row... After about half an hour, during which time no notice had apparently been taken of the visitors, though, in reality, the local men had provided themselves with their weapons and gone to the spot where visitors were received, one or two of the older local men went to them, squatted down on the sand in front of them, and invited them to come up. After being thus invited they formed themselves into a solid square and approached at a fairly quick run, every man with his spear aloft and all of them adopting the curious high knee action".


  • Title: Arrernte welcoming dance, entrance of the strangers, Alice Springs, Central Australia, 9 May 1901
  • Creator: Walter Baldwin Spencer, Francis J Gillen
  • Date Created: 1901
  • Physical Dimensions: w106 x h80 mm
  • Type: Image
  • Rights: Copyright expired. Indigenous or Cultural Rights apply. Source: Museum Victoria.
  • Medium: Glass plate negative
  • Subject: Expeditions; ethnology; anthropology; Aboriginal peoples (Australians)
  • Photographers: Walter Baldwin Spencer and Francis J Gillen
  • Description: Sir Walter Baldwin Spencer (b. 23rd June 1860, Stretford, Lancashire, England, d. 14th July 1929, Tierra del Fuego, Chile) was a pioneering anthropologist and biologist. He was born was born on 23 June 1860 in England, and was educated at Old Trafford School and at the Manchester School of Art. He studied at Victoria University of Manchester, then moved to the University of Oxford in 1881 to study science under Professor H. N. Moseley, who combined enthusiasm for evolutionary biology with ethnological interests and a deep concern for his students. Baldwin Spencer came to Melbourne in 1887 to take-up the position as Professor of Biology at the University of Melbourne. Between 1899 and 1928, he served as the honorary director of the National Museum of Victoria. The 1894 Horn scientific exploring expedition to central Australia recruited Spencer as zoologist and photographer, and from 1896 Spencer teamed with Frank Gillen for intensive fieldwork, which was published in the important volume 'The Native Tribes of Central Australia' (1899), a text that was to strongly influence contemporary theories on social evolution and interpretations of the origins of art and ceremony. When the Commonwealth Government assumed control of the Northern Territory, Spencer led the 1911 Preliminary Scientific Expedition. Impressed with the findings of the expedition, the government appointed Spencer to Darwin for a year. As well as the substantial body of photography that resulted from these expeditions, Spencer and Gillen pioneered sound recording on wax cylinders and shot movie film in challenging conditions in remote areas of Australia. While visiting Oenpelli in the Northern Territory, in 1912, Spencer initiated the collection of over 200 bark paintings, which he donated with his entire ethnographic collection in 1917 to the National Museum of Victoria (now Museum Victoria). The collection comprises his movies, wax cylinders and some 1700 photographic negatives. Francis J Gillen (b. 28 October 1855, Little Para, South Australia, d. 5 June 1912, Woodville, Adelaide, South Australia) was an ethnologist, born to Irish parents. Gillen joined the public service in 1867 as a postal messenger at Clare, South Australia. He was transferred to Adelaide in 1871, and worked as a telegraph operator. Gillen began work on the overland telegraph line in 1875, culminating with his appointment as Alice Springs Post and Telegraph Station Master in 1892. He was Alice Springs Special Magistrate and Aboriginal Sub-protector, and assisted the Horn Scientific Expedition to Central Australia in 1894. He met Walter Baldwin Spencer in 1894 during the Horn Expedition, and co-authored the seminal 'The Native Tribes of Central Australia' (1899) with Spencer. Gillen undertook expeditions with Spencer between 1901 and 1903, culminating in the book 'The Northern Tribes of Central Australia' (1904).

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