Crossing Salt Creek near the Roper River, Eastern Arnhem Land, Australia, July 1911

Walter Baldwin Spencer1911

Museums Victoria

Museums Victoria
Carlton, Australia

This photograph was taken by Walter Baldwin Spencer during his time as a member of a Commonwealth Government party travelling across northern Australia to investigate possibilities for future development of the Northern Territory. The year was 1911 when the Commonwealth of Australia took over responsibility for the Territory. Spencer was 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. Spencer was actively involved in fieldwork and research from 1894, when he joined the Horn Expedition as zoologist and photographer, a joint project of the three existing Australian universities, investigating the MacDonnell Ranges and surrounding area of 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.
Spencer undertook numerous anthropological field trips in the central desert and northern regions of Australia throughout his career. For three months from mid-1911, Spencer accompanied Dr Gilruth, the newly appointed Administrator, and others on a tour that extended from Darwin over four major river basins and to several offshore islands. With responsibilities to report on the condition of the Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory, he was appointed the following year as 'Special Commissioner for Aboriginals and Chief Protector in charge of the Department instituted to safeguard the interests of the aboriginal population'.


  • Title: Crossing Salt Creek near the Roper River, Eastern Arnhem Land, Australia, July 1911
  • Date Created: 1911
  • Physical Dimensions: w125 x h100 mm
  • Type: Image
  • Rights: Copyright expired. Source: Museum Victoria. Indigenous or Cultural Rights Apply, Copyright expired: Source: Museum Victoria / Photographer Walter Baldwin Spencer. Indigenous or Cultural Rights apply
  • External Link: Museum Victoria Collections
  • Medium: Glass plate negative
  • Subject: expeditions, Aboriginal peoples (Australians), ethnology, Anthropology,
  • Artist Information: Sir Walter Baldwin Spencer 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 J. 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.
  • Artist: Walter Baldwin Spencer

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