Baldwin Spencer seated with the Arrernte elders, Alice Springs, Central Australia, 1896.

Walter Baldwin Spencer1896

Museums Victoria

Museums Victoria
Carlton, Australia

In 1894, William Augustus Horn, a wealthy South Australian pastoralist and miner, organised an exploration of central Australia. The Victorian government commissioned Walter Baldwin Spencer (1860-1929), Professor of Biology at the University of Melbourne, to participate as the expedition zoologist. Walter Baldwin Spencer was one of the founding fathers of anthropology in Australia, and was Director of the then National Museum of Victoria (now Museum Victoria) from 1899 to 1928. Spencer not only joined the group on its arduous journey but also edited a major publication on its results. The Horn Expedition lasted only three months, but its findings in all fields were widely acclaimed and greatly increased knowledge about central Australia. For Spencer it was the beginning of a life-long interest in, and study of, the Aboriginal people of central and northern Australia. Over the next four years he made as many trips to the desert around Alice Springs, where he observed and photographed the Arrernte people, recording their social organisation and varied customs and ceremonies.
In this photograph Spencer is seated with the Arrernte Elders. Each of these men is the head of a particular totem group and together they directed the group of totemic ceremonies called the Angkwerre. All Aboriginal men must pass through a series of initiation ceremonies. These vary between peoples but in central Australia they basically begin when a boy is judged ready to live and hunt with the men, at ten or twelve years of age, and last until he is well into adulthood. The Angkwerre ceremonies are the final initiation stage for all Arrernte men, devised to show the now-adult men the 'sacred secrets of the tribe' and to impart 'courage and wisdom', as noted by Spencer. Attendance by all the local groups is necessary at an Angkwerre and hundreds of people may gather at the site chosen for the ceremonies. During the months of continuous performances and rites the old men, 'heads' of their local groups and respected for their conduct and their concern for their people, meet together to direct the ceremonies and to discuss issues important to the welfare of the Arrernte.


  • Title: Baldwin Spencer seated with the Arrernte elders, Alice Springs, Central Australia, 1896.
  • Creator Gender: Male
  • Date Created: 1896
  • Physical Dimensions: w210 x h160 mm
  • Type: Image
  • Rights: Copyright expired. Source: Museum Victoria. Indigenous or Cultural Rights apply, Copyright expired: Source: Museum Victoria. Indigenous or Cultural Rights apply
  • External Link: Museum Victoria Collections
  • Medium: Glass plate negative
  • Subject: expeditions, Aboriginal peoples (Australians), ethnology, Anthropology,
  • Photographers: Walter Baldwin Spencer and Francis J Gillen
  • Artist Information: 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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