Board for Anthropological Research

Archive Collections / Board for Anthropological Research
From : 1926
To : 1975

The Board for Anthropological Research was established as permanent committee of the Council of the University of Adelaide in 1926. Its establishment formalised the activities of individuals interested in anthropological research, a number of whom had come together in a committee in 1925 in an (unsuccessful) attempt to secure for Adelaide a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to establish Australia’s first chair of Anthropology. (Jones, 1987: 72-75)

Members of the Board had already made several trips within South Australia for the purpose of field research among Australian Aboriginal people: to Mount Eba in 1923, and to Wilgena in 1925 and mid-1926. Shortly after the first official meeting of the Board for Anthropological Research in December 1926, a Board-sponsored expedition left for Macumba (South Australia) and Alice Springs (Northern Territory). Over the next five decades, the Board was to sponsor more than forty expeditions. The South Australian Museum and the Board had a close relationship, and NB Tindale, Museum Ethnologist from 1928, was to play a lead role in many expeditions. For an account of the context, establishment and activities of the Board to 1939, see PG Jones, 1987, 'South Australian Anthropological History: the Board for Anthropological Research and its early expeditions', Records of the South Australian Museum 20: 71-92.

In the late 1920s, a Board report stated that: 'The main purpose to which the Board has directed its activities has been the study of physical anthropology', study which was intended to investigate the 'unsettled questions' of the place of Australian Aboriginal people according to contemporary theories of genetics and evolution - and which was underscored with a sense of urgency as it was believed that 'pure blood' Aboriginal people would not survive into the future. (AA 346/3) This research direction was reflected in an emphasis on the collection of anthropometric data (physical measurements and observation) on Board expeditions, and an approach to Aboriginal people as the objects of scientific research. However, the number and areas of interest of personnel on expeditions led to research being undertaken in a range of fields, including linguistics and botany, and also broader aspects of anthropology, including the documentation of social organisation, tribal/language boundaries, and songs and ceremony.

The geographical focus of the Board’s research was Central Australia, and during its peak of major expeditionary activity in the 1930s there were eight BAR expeditions to the wider Central Australian region: Hermannsburg (1929), MacDonald Downs (1930), Cockatoo Creek (1931), Mt Liebig (1932), Mann Range and Ernabella (1933), Diamantina (1934), Warburton Range (1935) and The Granites (1936). However, the Board also undertook two major survey expeditions in conjunction with American universities as the result of collaboration between NB Tindale and JB Birdsell. These were the Harvard and Adelaide Universities Anthropological expedition in 1938-39, and the University of California at Los Angeles and Adelaide University Anthropological expedition in 1952-54.

Following the Second World War, major multi-disciplinary expeditions became less frequent, and the Board expeditions tended to be more focussed and smaller in scale. From 1951, the Board auspiced a longitudinal research study at Yuendumu (Northern Territory) by members of the University’s Dental School (led alternately by TD Campbell and MJ Barrett), and a latitudinal study of physical anthropology of Aboriginal people in different parts of Australia by the Anamtomy Department, led by Professor AA Abbie.

As well as its major expeditions, the Board contributed funds towards other anthropological research and expeditions, including, for example, those of TGH Strehlow and CP Mountford in the late 1950s. (AA 346/1 Minutes 1 December 1959)

Over its history, the Board was to include as members many of the men prominent in the sciences in Adelaide who held positions at the University of Adelaide - particularly in the medical sciences, but also in other disciplines such as linguistics. See list of related collections, below.

A Department of Anthropology was established at the University of Adelaide in the early 1970s, and this led to the Board changing its name in December 1973 to the Board for Aboriginal Studies. (AA 346/1 Minutes 4 December 1973) The Board ceased operations two years later.

The records of the Board for Anthropological Research, and related collections held in the South Australian Museum Archives, contain detailed information in a range of formats about many Australian Aboriginal groups and individuals. They also provide a rich field for the study of the history of Anthropology.

The records of the Board of Anthropological Research in the South Australian Museum Archives include: minutes; drafts and proofs of publications; papers related to expeditions; data cards; genealogies; photographic prints and negatives; crayon drawings; and film. Related collections of individuals involved in Board expeditions include journals, maps, vocabularies and sound recordings (see, for example, AA 338 Tindale).

The Board for Anthropological Research expeditions were given alphabetical symbols (expedition E was the 1929 expedition to Hermannsburg, Northern Territory, for example). Expedition members also developed the research practice of allocating unique numbers to each individual examined, measured and interviewed. These numbers, prefixed by the relevant expedition symbol, are referred to in this guide as ‘individual subject numbers’ and can be used to cross-reference information relating to a named individual across different Board for Anthropological Research series, expeditions, and related collections.

The South Australian Museum Archives hold many related collections, principally of those individuals who were involved with the Board. These include:

  • AA 31 EC Black

  • AA 53 TD Campbell

  • AA 42 A Brumby

  • AA 60 JB Cleland

  • AA 71 EH Davies

  • AA 91 FJ Fenner

  • AA 105 HK Fry

  • AA 111 JH Gray

  • AA 122 CJ Hackett

  • AA 124 HM Hale

  • AA 155 FA Jeffrey

  • AA 161 T Harvey Johnston

  • AA 370 HJ Wilkinson

  • AA 338 NB Tindale

  • AA 379 F Wood Jones

  • AA 688 AA Abbie

  • AA 689 JB Birdsell

The South Australian Museum Archives reading room holds and maintains a 'BAR Guide' to Board for Anthropological Research expeditions and collections, which is available to assist researchers.

Note that papers of the Board for Anthropological Research / Board of Aboriginal Studies are also held in the University of Adelaide Archives.

Inventory Listings by Series
Prepared By

Mandy Paul, Stella Marr, Sarah White, Rebecca Jury, Trisha Kidd, Ann Guy and Francesca Zilio