Uluru, Ayers Rock, central Australia, 1894

Walter Baldwin Spencer1894

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 to participate as the expedition zoologist and photographer. Spencer was foundation Professor of Biology at the University of Melbourne and his experience and the friendships forged on this expedition would see a passion for anthropology emerge that would dominate his career from that point onwards. Spencer not only joined what came to be known as the Horn Expedition, but would later edit the four volume report of its findings. The Expedition lasted only three months due to major issues amongst the other scientists in the group, however it was widely acclaimed and greatly increased knowledge about central Australia.
The photographs taken by Spencer during the Expedition represent some of the earliest images of the centre, and in fact he took the first photograph of Uluru. In the Journal of the Horn Scientific Exploring Expedition (published 1897) for Tuesday June 12 it was reported that, "final preparations were made for dispatching under Mr. Cowle's guidance a detachment of the party to Ayers Rock". On the following day the party "were astir earlier than usual. Mr Cowle, with Professor Spencer and Messrs. Watt and Belt, who desired to participate in the trip, will leave the main party at this place and visit Ayers Rock and, if possible, Mount Olga, for the purpose of obtaining photographs of either or both of them." Spencer and Cowle's party split from the main expedition for two weeks, and in that time this iconic photograph was taken of the remarkable landform that was then known as Ayers Rock, known to local Pitjantjatjara people as Uluru. When the group reformed on 26 June, Spencer was able to report that he had "succeeded in obtaining photographs of both Ayers Rock and Mount Olga", despite the ardous journey. The party "were compelled to travel from dawn until sundown, covering a distance of between eighty-five miles and ninety miles over continuous porcupine sandridges. They were without water - a fact entailing additional anxiety".
WB Spencer was Director of the then National Museum of Victoria (now Museum Victoria) from 1899 to 1928, and the surviving photographs from the Horn Expedition are housed today in the Indigenous Collections at Museum Victoria.


  • Title: Uluru, Ayers Rock, central Australia, 1894
  • Creator Lifespan: 1860 - 1929
  • Creator Nationality: English
  • Creator Gender: Male
  • Creator Death Place: Tierra del Fuego, Chile
  • Creator Birth Place: Stretford, Lancashire, England
  • Date Created: 1894
  • Physical Dimensions: w106 x h80 mm
  • Type: Image
  • Rights: Copyright expired. Source: Museum Victoria. Indigenous or Cultural Rights Apply, Copyright expired: Photograph by Walter Baldwin Spencer. Courtesy of Museum Victoria. Indigenous or Cultural Rights apply
  • External Link: Museum Victoria Collections
  • Medium: Glass plate negative
  • Subject: expeditions, Aboriginal peoples (Australians), ethnology, Anthropology
  • Photographer: Walter Baldwin Spencer
  • 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.

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