Transformations of the expeditionary enterprise: Perspectives on the Smithsonian’s expeditionary history before 1948

by Paul Michael Taylor


This article offers some historical context for the Smithsonian’s participation in the 1948 American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land (AASEAL), setting that participation against the background of Smithsonian partnerships or involvements with domestic and international scientific expeditions up to the 1926 Stirling expedition to New Guinea.[1]

Since its establishment in 1846, the Smithsonian Institution has grown to become the world’s largest museum complex, incorporating 19 museums and galleries, nine research centres, and the National Zoo.[2] Though considered America’s national museum, the collecting mission was from the beginning worldwide in scope. A 19th-century history of Smithsonian expeditions, undertaken as part of the Institution’s 50th anniversary celebrations, emphasises the broad original mandate for scientific exploration and collecting (including ethnographic research).[3] It also notes the Smithsonian’s chronic inability to fund entire expeditions, leading to partnerships with other United States government agencies.[4]

More recent studies have developed an ethnography of collecting, within which expeditionary collecting has a place;[5] and meetings such as the 2012 Australian National University conference, What Is an Expedition?, explored the ‘expedition’ envisioned as ‘a culturally and historically specific way of organising a journey and creating a discourse about it’.[6]

As a contribution to this ongoing examination of expeditions and how their research results have been presented, this paper considers the role of some individual collectors and explorers whose collections resulting from expeditions were later donated to the Smithsonian. Transformations in museum expeditions (at least, their ethnographic components) are shown to have, over time, followed a pathway similar to the transformations in museum exhibitions, evident especially in the changing relationships between the collectors (or collecting institutions), the people whose cultural products and records were collected, and the collection’s or expedition’s audience. The paper also illustrates some recent Smithsonian efforts to revisit, present and interpret these early expeditions through online and print publications, and provides examples of some current uses of expedition source materials (such as archives and collections). The paper concludes by looking at some other attempts to make collections acquired during expeditions available to the descendants of those encountered during the expeditions, and to include their perspectives in any contemporary interpretation of such collections.

A national institution with an international reach

In 1826 James Smithson, a British scientist, drew up his last will and testament, naming his nephew as beneficiary. Smithson stipulated that, should the nephew die without heirs (as he did in 1835), the estate should go ‘to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men’.[7] After a debate in the United States about whether or not to accept the gift, diplomat Richard Rush secured Smithson’s gift in 1838. The total value of the gift, brought in gold sovereigns from England, was (at that time) more than US$500,000. Debate continued about whether the Smithsonian Institution would be a museum, a university, an observatory, a library, a science institute, or some other kind of establishment.

On 10 August 1846, the Smithsonian Institution was officially created by an Act of Congress, with its mission for the ‘increase and diffusion of knowledge’ to be interpreted and carried out by its secretary and Board of Regents. The original Smithsonian building, completed in 1855, contained an art gallery, lecture hall, library, chemical laboratory, natural history laboratory, and a science museum. Spencer Fullerton Baird, who served as both assistant secretary and secretary, worked to establish a national collection. By 1878, Congress had given responsibility to the Smithsonian Institution for the United States National Museum. From its inception the ‘national collections’ envisioned for all scientific fields were expected to be worldwide in scope, not limited to collections from the United States alone. A second building, the National Museum building (now called the Arts and Industries Building) was added to house the growing national collection, opening in March 1881. A third, then referred to as the ‘new National Museum building’ and now called the National Museum of Natural History, opened in March 1910. It is here that most early expedition collections are housed or administered today.

The Smithsonian participants in the AASEAL expedition correctly described themselves as representing the United States ‘National Museum’. The use of this name had developed slowly after the Smithsonian’s founding. Secretary Joseph Henry first used the term ‘National Museum’ in the 1867 Annual Report; and the term was also used by the executive committee in that same year’s report on funds. [8] The Smithsonian’s Annual Report for 1884 noted that only within the 1877 appropriation bill did Congress first recognise the ‘National Museum’ as a distinct entity.[9] Much later, in 1957, the United States National Museum split into two administrative subdivisions, the ‘Museum of History and Technology’ and the ‘Museum of Natural History’, the latter consisting of four departments (anthropology, zoology, botany and geology).[10] In 1967, those two subdivisions became separate administrative units and the United States National Museum ceased to exist as an administrative entity.[11] Then, in March 1969, ‘National’ was added to the title of both museums,[12] one becoming the National Museum of Natural History and the other the ‘National Museum of History and Technology’. In 1980 the History and Technology Museum was renamed the ‘National Museum of American History’.[13]

Field expeditions have had an important role in Smithsonian collecting from the beginning, though I know of no attempt to identify the proportion of objects that came into the collection in this way. G Brown Goode’s early history of Smithsonian expeditions, undertaken as part of the Institution’s 50th anniversary celebrations, emphasises the broad original mandate for scientific exploration and collecting.[14] In that sense Smithsonian expeditions began at a time when science had already become identified with exploration, in a transformation that science historian Roy MacLeod[15] describes as taking place through the 19th century, when advancement of science came to be associated with exploring frontiers rather than with activities at the metropolitan centres.[16] Smithsonian collecting often took place alongside the work of other agencies, with their own non-scientific purposes. Goode frankly summarises these two early aspects of how non-scientific expeditions enriched the Smithsonian. First, he notes the Smithsonian’s role as repository for the scientific collections assembled through expeditions and activities carried out by other government agencies, including the Navy and early diplomatic or consular overseas missions. Second, he remarks on the Smithsonian’s chronic inability to fund entire expeditions on its own, leading to the importance of partnerships with other government agencies in geological and biological surveys, coast, river and lake explorations, surveys for cross-country railroad routes and other national infrastructure-building projects. In all these cases, scientific expeditions and partnerships for collections, both at home and abroad, were considered an important part of the Smithsonian’s mission. Funding specifically tied to collecting expeditions was part of the first Congressional appropriations for care of the national collections, in 1858. In accordance with Joseph Henry’s request, Congress in that year appropriated US$4000 ‘for the preservation of the collections of government exploring and surveying expeditions’ and an additional US$1000 for the general transfer and new arrangement of collections.[17]

Revisiting historic expeditions in new media

Until recently, the full breadth of ethnographic collections and documentary material collected on early expeditions has only been available to the few. More recently, efforts to put entire archives and collections online have given unprecedented access to these resources. In addition, a very productive mode of recent scholarship that places objects in historical and ethnographic context consists of taking images and information about legacy collections back to the descendants of those who produced them, engaging descendants of the peoples who created museum objects with their interpretation.[18] Recent initiatives that draw upon or present material from early Smithsonian expeditions serve to illustrate trends in ‘digital repatriation’ and new uses for expedition source materials. One example is the 2004 online publication within the Smithsonian Institution Libraries Digital Collection of the reports of the United States Exploring Expedition of 1838–42.[19] That scientific exploring expedition, led by Charles Wilkes, included a large team of officers, seamen, artists, and scientists. They collected thousands of ethnographic, archaeological and biological specimens, and explored and surveyed island groups of the Pacific Ocean and coastlines of north-western North America. After the Smithsonian was established and the national collections formed, this expedition’s collections were among the early materials that the museum acquired by transfer. The new museum expanded rapidly to accommodate these and other collections.

The publications that resulted from this expedition include a five-volume narrative by Wilkes[20] and about 20 separate scientific volumes broken down by subject matter, detailing the discoveries and collections of the expedition. The original published volumes are rare, as in some cases fewer than 100 of each were printed. The Digital Collection project digitised the original published text, which is now viewable online and therefore widely accessible.[21] The online medium has made it possible for the original print publications to be considerably expanded with additional kinds of information.[22] For example, alongside the printed works, viewers can also examine a database of cultural artefacts collected on the expedition, a list of the crew and vessels, and other forms of information. The online publication represents one way in which material once considered rare is now widely available for continuing study and reinterpretation.

Later expeditionary collection surveys include Houchins’s publication Artifacts of Diplomacy: Smithsonian Collections from Commodore Matthew Perry’s Japan Expedition (1853–1854).[23] Houchins documents the Smithsonian collections arising out of Commodore Matthew Perry’s historic voyage to Japan in 1853–54. This study surveys for the first time a group of artefacts whose individual origins and collective meaning had been poorly understood, and provides insight into early diplomatic relations between the United States and Japan.[24] When material from this expedition was acquired and catalogued, this collection – mixed somewhat randomly with material from the earliest diplomatic missions to Thailand – provided the first series of catalogue numbers (beginning with ‘1’). This arrangement is still used today in the anthropology department.

A tale of two collectors

Two further examples of Smithsonian expedition history provide particularly worthwhile opportunities to observe some of the changes in Smithsonian approaches to international expeditions up to the 1940s. The first example relates to the work of Smithsonian donor-collector, William Louis Abbott (1860–1936), whose lifelong collecting expeditions generated vast ethnographic and zoological collections from East Africa, South and Central Asia, South-east Asia and the Caribbean. The second is Matthew Stirling (1896–1975), who led the Stirling New Guinea Expedition in 1926, later referred to as the ‘Dutch and American Expedition to New Guinea’.

William Louis Abbott

William Louis Abbott
William Louis Abbott (1860–1936)
National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution

My research into Abbott’s expeditionary practices arose from the process of creating an online and print publication of the Smithsonian’s material related to this independently wealthy collector of biological and ethnographic objects. The online archive, which includes four volumes of letters and photographs from Abbott’s travels, has been organised under the title William Louis Abbott (1860–1936): American Naturalist.[25] The four volumes group Abbott’s expeditions as follows:

1 Spoils of the Merikani: William Louis Abbott and the Smithsonian in East Africa, Madagascar, and the Seychelles, 1887–1895

2 An American Naturalist in the Himalayas: William Louis Abbott and his Smithsonian Expeditions to Central Asia, 1891–1915

3 Travels of the Terrapin: William Louis Abbott and the Smithsonian in Southeast Asia, 1896–1909

4 Journey’s End: William Louis Abbott in the Caribbean and at Home.

All Abbott’s original handwritten letters that could be located in Smithsonian archives, as well as his expedition field notes, have been transcribed and annotated for this resource.

William Louis Abbott in the grounds of a Dutch controleur's house
William Louis Abbott in the grounds of a Dutch controleur’s house (described by Abbott as ‘a very decent chap. He gave me a quantity of baskets etc. & 2 blowpipes etc. which was very decent in him for of course I could make no return’) at ‘Kampong Tyan’, Kapuas River, West Borneo, 1905
National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution

This photograph of Abbott near the house of a Dutch East Indies civil servant provides a chance to reflect on changes in the practice of collecting. Abbott’s collecting in what is now Indonesia, in the last decade of the 19th and first decade of the 20th century, differs markedly from Matthew Stirling’s experiences in the 1920s. In Abbott’s time, research or collecting ‘permits’ were rarely required. His schooner, the Terrapin, regularly brought his collections to Singapore for trans-shipment to the Smithsonian in Washington, without arrangements of any kind for depositing part of the collections with the host government, much less the people who first created or owned the objects.

Abbott’s archival photographs and ethnographic and biological collections, along with their associated documentation now found in his field notes, correspondence, and specimen labels, remain an important source of information on the regions he visited. Some of his collections and photographs from Indonesia’s island of Nias were displayed in Australia (Sydney and Brisbane) in 1992 as part of the Smithsonian’s travelling exhibition Beyond the Java Sea: Art of Indonesia’s Outer Islands– just one example of the renewed interest and reinterpretations these old expedition collections are receiving, as they are considered within changing views of art history, or as components within systems of symbols and exchanges, and through other approaches.[26]

Abbott’s view of his proper role, and the role of ethnographic collections, quickly became outmoded. It is clear from working with his archive that, like many other 19th-century collectors, Abbott regarded collecting as a worthy profession in its own right, equivalent in scientific importance to the work of museum- or laboratory-based scientists. But by the 1920s that view had become outmoded: collecting was seen as just one tool that scientists should use for specific purposes. In Abbott’s view, the role of the museum scientist was to study and describe the objects collected, developing theory through examination and classification of the objects, in the way that biologists used the comparative study of organisms collected to develop taxonomic classifications and evolutionary hypotheses from them. Through correspondence with Smithsonian anthropologists such as Otis T Mason and Walter Hough, Abbott was encouraged to send artefacts that would inform the kinds of classificatory studies that could place societies of southern Asia and the south-west Pacific within an evolutionary framework, along a scale toward the early civilisations of the west.

Abbott did not realise that anthropological science was already abandoning the evolutionary paradigm that underpinned his collecting. This change had a major effect on the role of collecting, and material culture studies, within anthropology. William Sturtevant’s 1969 paper ‘Does anthropology need museums?’ indicates that the percentage of American anthropological publications using material culture collections reached a peak around 1900, then steadily declined.[27] Only after the 1960s would new paradigms arise to make use of these collections, giving new significance to the related source material publications. Thus it is unlikely that today’s studies of material culture would revive Mason’s typological methods to establish sequences of societal evolution, as in Abbott’s time. Yet 19th-century collections assembled for that purpose can today be reconsidered as rich sources of data on indigenous systems of beliefs and symbols, on the history of indigenous technologies, and on intercultural contacts of all kinds. 

Matthew Stirling

The records of the Dutch and American Expedition to New Guinea of 1926 (the so-called ‘Stirling Expedition’) were first published online in 2006 as By Aeroplane to Pygmyland: Revisiting the 1926 Dutch and American Expedition to New Guinea.[28] This formed the inaugural work of the Smithsonian Libraries Digital Editions: Sources and Critical Interpretations, a series of web-based critical editions with scholarly interpretations. The title of the Stirling publication is based on the title of a 1927 film and lecture tour, By Aeroplane to Pygmyland, by Matthew Stirling, who led the American side of the expedition. Stirling’s title sets modern technology in the most ‘primitive’ and exotic of settings, and affirms the wider collaborative projects of science and collecting, and the resulting expansion of the national museums of both the United States and the Netherlands.

Four American expedition members with the airplane as they set out from Maywood, Illinois, 1925
Four American expedition members (clockwise from top left), Albert C Hamer, Hans Hoyte, Stanley Hedberg and photographer/filmmaker Richard Peck, with the expedition’s airplane (the Ern) as they set out from Maywood, Illinois, 1925
National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution

The expedition began small, but grew to include more than 400 participants, including Dutch military officers and scientists, Ambonese soldiers, Dayak canoe men from Borneo, and Malay (Indonesian) convicts who served as carriers. They journeyed up the Mamberamo River and its Rouffaer River tributary, and then hiked upland to the so-called ‘pygmy’ tribal areas of the Sudirman mountain range. The expedition was the first to use an airplane in the scientific exploration of the New Guinea mainland. It also produced some of the region’s earliest film footage.

Richard Peck using a movie camera to film villagers
Richard Peck using a movie camera to film villagers, Agintawa district, Nassau Mountains of New Guinea, 1926
National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution

The online publication looks at the 1926 expedition to Netherlands (or Dutch) New Guinea (now Papua in the Republic of Indonesia) from today’s perspective through interpretive essays, accompanied by a broad range of archival source materials published for the first time. These include two complete expedition diaries by American participants, maps and other archival records, all available in searchable as well as ‘print-friendly’ format. Three diaries of the Dutch participants in the expedition have also been transcribed, for later addition. The online publication includes more than 700 previously unpublished original photographs and approximately two hours of the original silent film footage, as narrated later by Matthew Stirling in the 1960s. This too has been indexed, and can be viewed at various levels of resolution. The format allows for easy comparison of diary entries from separate journals, as well as any associated photos, film footage, and other records from particular dates or places.

 The Stirling expedition confronted problems that Abbott’s earlier venture did not have to contend with. First was the need for a formal agreement with a host (foreign) government for the division of collections. Then there was the necessity of having a permit for travel, and (in the case of this 1926 expedition) even a military escort. Put simply, one can see in the expedition records considerable conflict between three models of how the expedition should be run. The American scientists preferred an expedition by hydroplane carrying a small group of scientists. Their Dutch counterparts were divided into the military leaders and the scientists: the military leaders favoured a large military march into the interior, with scientists assisting the topographic and geographic survey; the scientists preferred a smaller military contingent to act as an escort of scientists and their Malay helpers. Dependent on the host government for permissions of a kind Abbott never had to contend with, the Smithsonian scientists were required to turn over leadership of the expedition to the Dutch at an early stage.

Stirling’s expedition (like Abbott’s before him) had no Smithsonian funding, and (again like Abbott) he was not (at the time) a Smithsonian staff member. But the Smithsonian provided assistance and nominal sponsorship in return for collections and research results. Hence the venture was widely perceived as, and presented as, a Smithsonian expedition. Abbott, without the need for financial support, had chosen to eschew publicity and even avoided interviewers when he visited Washington. Stirling, by contrast, was dependent on private sponsorship and the hope of some returns from a later film and lecture tour. As such, publicity for the project was an investment, and corporate sponsorship, along with publicity crediting the sponsors, was an important part of expedition planning from the beginning. Expedition member Stanley Hedberg served as the expedition’s publicist: he arranged much of the sponsorship and regularly prepared and sent press releases from expedition camps along the way. Every phase of the expedition was extensively (and often exaggeratedly) covered by the American press, to the consternation both of the Dutch expedition members and the Smithsonian administration. It seems likely that many of the reported ethnographic activities, such as film footage of Papuans trying to taste Pennzoil motor oil, were staged for publicity purposes in response to Pennzoil sponsorship.[29]

This is just one example of many that, by the late 1920s, led the Smithsonian administration to recognise the mixed advantages of private sponsorship, and the sometimes unwelcome attention of the popular press. The evidence for this lies in the introduction, during the expedition (undoubtedly because of its extensive press coverage), of a new set of procedures for dealing with the media relating to any Smithsonian activities. A new Smithsonian office dedicated to handling the popular press about scientific issues was established. But it was too late to stop extensive and continuing coverage of the Stirling expedition and specifically the reports – crediting the expedition’s corporate sponsors – that Stanley Hedberg was developing and sending directly to his press contacts from New Guinea.

 Many years later, the outbreak of war in the Pacific provided more cause for reflection about what purposes such expeditions might serve. When American expertise on the New Guinea region was desperately needed as part of the war effort, the records of the Stirling exhibition and the personnel familiar with it became valuable resources. Though Matthew Stirling himself had gone on to become an archaeologist of the Olmecs of Central America, his contribution to the war effort was to return to the practical study of New Guinea ethnography. As one of the few American ‘experts’ available, he prepared a background study entitled The Native Peoples of New Guinea, part of the Smithsonian War Background Studies made available for troops fighting in distant lands.[30] Here was clear evidence that the Smithsonian’s global reach in science had an important national security function.

Lessons learned

This brief historical survey affords the opportunity to summarise some of the conclusions drawn by the late 1940s – from the Smithsonian perspective – about the role of expeditions.

The first of these ‘lessons learned’ (or re-learned) was firm acceptance of the idea that Smithsonian science should be global, not just ‘national’, alongside awareness that this broad scope was underfunded. There had long been recognition of the importance of opportunistic collecting and partnerships for expeditions. The Smithsonian had by the 1940s come to expect international cooperation on a large scale and, by the 1940s, had also come to expect as routine that there would be procedures for the formal division of collections that expeditions gave rise to. Such procedures were absent in Abbott’s time. They were new and unexpected in Stirling’s time. But they were an expected aspect of partnerships by the 1940s. In addition, there was an acute awareness of the mixed benefits of private or external sponsorships, which seemed overly to commercialise the scientific work and its popular press in the 1926 expedition. Furthermore, the Smithsonian had developed a strong institutional effort to manage press and public relations aspects of Smithsonian science, when done in partnership with other organisations. The National Geographic Society, however, was a scientific organisation that partnered with the Smithsonian in many research efforts, and popular press filtered through National Geographic was never a concern in the way Hedberg’s publicist efforts had become. Another aspect of changing science is that, as I have described elsewhere with reference to Abbott’s Indonesian collections, by 1948 the science of anthropology (unlike the biological sciences) had a diminished need for material culture collections for the development of scientific theory.[31] Finally, by 1948 there was a strong sense that the global reach of American science of the kinds conducted by the Smithsonian had national security importance, as confirmed during the Pacific war and reinforced by post-war international tensions. During the Second World War, the Smithsonian War Background series assisted the war effort by publishing information about a wide range of biological and ethnographic topics regarding the places where soldiers were fighting. The development of good worldwide collections representing multiple fields had proven to be of national security importance, and  the lack of collections (‘source materials’) from Arnhem Land was a challenge now seen as needing to be addressed, by a new expedition of the modern kind.

Expeditions offer just one way of organising the publication of source materials, whether as research products or as a means of ‘digital repatriation’ by which museum resources are made available to communities whose ancestors produced them. Other examples produced by the Smithsonian’s Asian Cultural History Program include activities tied to international museum development projects. For example, an ‘International Partnership among Museums’ agreement between the Smithsonian and the National Museum of Saudi Arabia allowed for the joint development of digital resources for selected Saudi collections, such as collections based on epigraphic material excavations.[32] In accordance with the demands of Saudi culture, the Museum required that Islamic and pre-Islamic epigraphic artefacts be displayed separately, even though both kinds of artefacts or epigraphy are often found together at long-inhabited sites.

Another recent publishing project recalls the 19th-century Smithsonian partnerships for scientific collections amid infrastructure projects involving America’s railroad and river surveys. Thanks to major support from British Petroleum, the Smithsonian’s Asian Cultural History Program has constructed a website that allows viewers to follow the route of the BTC (Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan) pipeline from the Caspian to the Mediterranean, examining the major finds and archaeological excavations as well as original site reports (in all the national languages of the region).[33] Partners in the website project included museums of Azerbaijan and the Republic of Georgia.[34]

Contemporary transformations of the expeditionary enterprise: the ‘indigenous expedition’?

This review of some past transformations of Smithsonian expeditions, as well as the ways in which they have been presented, leads to some predictions about continuing changes and transformations of the expeditionary enterprise, and especially ways those may relate those to transformations in museums and exhibitions. It is worth exploring the transformations that museum expeditions (at least, their ethnographic components) have followed over time, especially in view of the changing relationships between the collectors (or collecting institutions) themselves, the people whose cultural products and records were collected, and the collection’s or expedition’s audience or spectatorship. These observations derive from my work on the history of how Indonesian material culture has been represented in museums, from the Renaissance to the present.

As noted in my review of some transformations in Indonesian museums, many early Asian and African societies had, and many tribal peoples had and still have, the equivalent of museums.[35] Yet the direct antecedents of our natural history museums are the royal court collections from the Age of Exploration in Europe, such as the Royal Danish Kunstkammer. Unlike modern museums, early royal cabinets had a private spectatorship, within the courts that assembled the collections. Yet even the most private collections or cabinets of curiosity were institutions of public culture, because even private or secretive collections can fulfil the public function of embodying the values of a societal unit when those values include maintaining restrictions on access to knowledge.

The development of scientific museums (including natural history and ethnographic museums), and the differences between these and art museums, has been the object of considerable comment. A major changing trend over the entire period from the seventeenth century to the present has been the broader public spectatorship of these institutions (compared to royal cabinets). Yet, as in the royal cabinets, hierarchical relationships are reflected (colonial power vs colony; scholars vs objects of study). The people who had produced the objects in the collection were still themselves the objects of study. Museums celebrated and in many ways assisted the scientific enterprise. Thus museums summarised and reinforced Europeans’ sense of having a hierarchically more advanced culture, even in the guise of celebrating the cultures of other peoples whose objects were assembled.

The term ‘de-colonisation’ specifically indicates the conscious attempt to upset relationships of power that characterised the colonial period. The key practical element of decolonisation is the recognition that the people (or their descendants) who produced these collections are an essential, hierarchically equal part of the museum's spectatorship, whose own perspectives on display and interpretation must be valued. Since 1971, Amsterdam’s Tropenmuseum (formerly the ‘Colonial Museum’) has been at the forefront of the ‘decolonisation’ of Dutch museums – that is, the effort to transform museums from tools of Dutch colonialism into institutions evaluating their biases and devoted to cultural understanding.

Interesting things can happen when some Indonesian material culture becomes ‘primitive art’, displayed within an art museum such as in the Barbier-Mueller Museum of Geneva, for it can only do so if it can plausibly fit the underlying assumptions of the primitive art market.[36] One important assumption is the scarcity of authentic primitive art, caused by the fact that authentic pieces derive from societies that are so fragile that they have now become extinct or virtually extinct. This presumed fragility is the source of scarcity and thus extraordinarily high prices. Yet by other measures art production by many so-called tribal peoples of Indonesia is booming, as for example when it has become a commodity produced for tourists. Such material is unacceptable within the primitive art market context. One result is that even outer-island Indonesians who might be spectators at a primitive art exhibition cannot possibly be the same people who produce primitive art, though they may recognise it as part of their heritage. Unlike ‘decolonised’ ethnographic museums (like the Tropenmuseum, which actively involved Indonesian art-producing communities in recent exhibitions), the primitive art museum's spectators cannot really be the same people whose artwork is exhibited.

The relations among museums, culture producers, and spectators have undergone many changes in countries like Indonesia which, since independence, has moved from a national policy of standard provincial museums to a highly devolved structure, encouraging many kinds of local cultural centres which have complex relations with the nation’s capital, where the National Museum of Indonesia is located. The National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, is often treated as an example of the ‘indigenisation’ of museums and exhibit formation, on a national scale, and has been influential in some Asian countries, such as Taiwan, with its indigenous population and its development of an increasingly Taiwanese (as opposed to Chinese) identity.

Comparing these trends toward ‘indigenisation’ in contemporary museums leads us to envision the great potential for a parallel development, that of the ‘indigenous expedition’, in which an expedition’s goals and purposes, and its modes of collecting and presenting data, are more consistent with indigenous institutions and knowledge structures. Perhaps this will be the parallel, next phase in the transformation of the expeditionary enterprise. We can all hope that just as indigenous museums and exhibitions have deeply enriched our understanding of cultural history, the source materials that survive from the past scientific expeditions discussed here, as well as the Arnhem Land expedition of 1948, will be among the data that ‘indigenous expeditions’ will elucidate and help us appreciate in important new ways.[37]


1 The article is revised from a paper originally presented at the 2009 symposium Barks, Birds & Billabongs: Exploring the Legacy of the 1948 American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land at the National Museum of Australia. The author thanks Dr Martin Thomas for delivering the paper in his absence at the conference; a recording of his delivery is available on the conference website: Other conference papers are published in Martin Thomas & Margo Neale (eds), Exploring the Legacy of the 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition, ANU EPress, Acton, ACT, 2011.


3 G Brown Goode, The Smithsonian Institution 1846-1896: The History of its First Half Century, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 1897.

4 See also William H. Goetzman, Exploration and Empire: The Explorer and the Scientists in the Winning of the American West, Knopf, New York, 1966.; and for such partnerships within expeditionary anthropology see Curtis M. Hinsley, Savages and Scientists: the Smithsonian Institution and the Development of American Anthropology 1846-1910. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C., 1981, esp. pp. 145–89.

5 For example (on Melanesia), Michael O’Hanlon & Robert L Welsch, Hunting the Gatherers: Ethnographic Collectors, Agents and Agency in Melanesia, 1870s–1930s, Berghahn Books, New York, 2000; (on Indonesia), Reimar Schefold & Han F Vermeulen (eds), Treasure Hunting? Collectors and Collections of Indonesian Artefacts, Research School of Asian, African, and Amerindian Studies (CNWS), University of Leiden, Mededelingen van het Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde, no. 30, Leiden, 2002.

6 What Is an Expedition?, June 2012,; Martin Thomas, ‘What is an expedition?: An introduction’, in Thomas (ed.), Expedition into Empire: Exploratory Journeys and the Making of the Modern World, Routledge, New York, 2015 (issued October 2014).

7 For a detailed and very readable account of the history briefly summarised here, see Heather Ewing, The Lost World of James Smithson: Science, Revolution, and the Birth of the Smithsonian, Bloomsbury, New York, 2007.

8 Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution for the Year 1867, Government Printing Office, Washington DC, 1868, pp. 55, 101.

9 Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution for the Year 1884, Government Printing Office, Washington DC,1885, p. 53.

10 See Smithsonian Archives, Guide to the Smithsonian Archives, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC, 1983, pp. 22, 96–7; Ellis Leon Yochelson, The National Museum of Natural History : 75 Years in the New National Museum, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C., 1985, p. 10.; Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution for the year 1858, Government Printing Office, Washington D.C.,1859, p. 43.

11 Guide to the Smithsonian Archives, p. 22.

12 ibid.; Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution for the Year 1969, Government Printing Office, Washington DC,1970, p. 43.

13 Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution for the Year 1982, Government Printing Office, Washington DC, 1983, p. 343.

14 Goode, The Smithsonian Institution 1846–1896.

15 Roy MacLeod, ‘Discovery and exploration’, in P Bowler & J Pickstone (eds), The Cambridge History of Science, vol. 6, The Modern Biological and Earth Sciences, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003. pp. 34–59.

16 Thomas, ‘What is an expedition?’.

17 Rothenberg et al. (eds), The Papers of Joseph Henry, Volume 10, January 1858–1865: The Smithsonian Years, Science History Publications, Washington, DC, 2004, pp. 13–14, 16–8; Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution for the year 1858, pp. 13–15, 40–1, 49, 56.

18 Paul Michael Taylor, ‘William Louis Abbott in Thailand: A Research Resource on Southern Thailand in the 1890s’, Journal of the Siam Society, no. 102, 2014, 143–68; see esp. p. 164 for examples.

19 The United States Exploring Expedition, 1838–1842,

20 Charles Wilkes, Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition: During the Years 1838,1839, 1840, 1841, 1842, five volumes, Philadelphia, 1849.

21 The United States Exploring Expedition, 1838–1842.

22 Leslie Overstreet, ‘Learn more about the U.S. Exploring Expedition: The publications of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1844–1874’, The United States Exploring Expedition, 1838–1842, [2004].

23 Chang-su Houchins, Artifacts of Diplomacy: Smithsonian Collections from Commodore Matthew Perry’s Japan Expedition (1853–1854), Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology, no. 37, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, 1995,

24 Paul Michael Taylor, ‘Introduction’, in Houchins, Artifacts of Diplomacy, iv–v.

25 Paul Michael Taylor, William Louis Abbott (1860–1936): American Naturalist, Smithsonian Institution Libraries, Digital Editions,. (forthcoming).

26 Paul Michael Taylor & Lorraine V Aragon, Beyond the Java Sea: Art of Indonesia’s Outer Islands, HN Abrams and National Museum of Natural History, New York & Washington, DC, 1991; Paul Taylor, ‘Beyond the Java Sea: The traditional art of the Indonesian archipelago is the subject of a major exhibition currently visiting Australia’, Craft Arts International, no. 27, Sydney, 1993, 41–56.

27 William C Sturtevant, ‘Does anthropology need museums?’, Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, vol. 82, 1969, 619–50.

28 Paul Michael Taylor, By Aeroplane to Pygmyland: Revisiting the 1926 Dutch and American Expedition to New Guinea, Smithsonian Institution Libraries Digital Editions, Washington, DC,, 2006.

29 ibid.

30 Matthew W Stirling, The Native Peoples of New Guinea, Smithsonian War Background Studies, no. 9, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 1943.

31 Paul Michael Taylor, ‘A collector and his museum: William Louis Abbott (1860–1936) and the Smithsonian’, in Reimar Schefold & Han Vermeulen (eds) Treasure Hunting? The Collectors and the Collecting of Indonesian Artefacts, Research School of Asian, African, and Amerindian Studies (CNWS), University of Leiden, Mededelingen van het Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde, no. 30, 2002, pp. 221–39.

32 Paul Michael Taylor & Ali S Al-Moghanam, Written in Stone: Inscriptions from the National Museum of Saudi Arabia, 2001 (updated 2004),

33 Paul Michael Taylor, Christopher R Polglase, Jared M Koller & Troy A Johnson, AGT: Ancient Heritage in the BTC-SCP Pipeline Corridor–Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, 2010,

34 See also Paul Michael Taylor, Christopher R Polglase, Najaf Museyibli, Jared M Koller & Troy A Johnson, Past and Future Heritage in the Pipelines Corridor: Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, Asian Cultural History Program, Smithsonian Institution, [bilingual: English/Azerbaijani; English/Georgian], 2011; Paul Michael Taylor & Jared M Koller, ‘Web-enriched heritage in the pipelines corridor: contested histories from the Caspian to the Mediterranean’, Museum and the Web conference proceedings, 11–14 April 2012, San Diego, California, USA, online at:

35 Paul Michael Taylor, ‘Collecting icons of power and identity: Transformations of Indonesian material culture in the museum context’, in Anthony Shelton (ed.), Museums and Changing Perspectives of Culture, special issue of Cultural Dynamics, vol. 7, no. 1, 1995, 101–24.

36 ibid.

37 Sally May, Collecting Cultures: Myth, Politics, and Collaboration in the 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition, AltaMira Press, Lanham, Maryland, 2010; Thomas & Neale (eds), Exploring the Legacy of the 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition; Thomas (ed.), ‘What is an expedition?’.