Past events

BAAS Seminar
Thursday 09 April 2015, 01:00pm
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The British Association for the Advancement of Science, Anthropology and Historical Legacies

Thursday 9 April at 1.00pm

The event is free, but tickets must be booked.  To book tickets please go to

This seminar will bring together scholars interested in the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) and how it functioned as a key network for anthropological thought in the nineteenth century. Coming from different disciplinary backgrounds the  speakers will reflect on relationship between anthropology and the Association 1831-1914. The emergence of the 'science' of anthropology and the understandings of deep human history and difference was a crucial aspect of the intellectual culture of the BAAS.   Founded in 1831, the ‘gentleman of science’ of the BAAS soon developed into a network that stretched across and between Britain its colonies. Colonial interlocutors eagerly engaged with the Association's intellectual output and soon were making contributions of their own from the anthropological field. As the reach of empire grew, encounters with various indigenous peoples provided yet more evidentiary grist for this seemingly metropolitan anthropological mill.  Indeed, by the close of the century, annual meetings were regularly held at the edge of empire.  Boatloads of metropolitan scientists made the journey to witness the confounding combination of colonial “advancements” alongside anthropological “antiquities” that characterised settler modernities. These excursions to the colonial peripheries and their impact will be explored with a particular interest on the Australian meeting of 1914.

1.00PM Lynette Russell
“Overshadowed by the greatest calamity”: Australia and the BAAS congress 1914.

In 1914 the Australian Federal Government sponsored the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) to travel to Australia for their annual conference. Costs were met by Commonwealth and State governments and hundreds of intellectuals travelled to Australia. Over 150 scientists were fully funded by the Australian Commonwealth government. They travelled on three ships especially commanded for this purpose. As the Association conceived of science in its broadest meaning and included ethnography and anthropology alongside geology, chemistry and the hard sciences, section H (anthropology) was an important consideration in Australian congress.  The history of section H has been studied in detail by scholars such as George Stocking, Paul Sillitoe and Malcolm Smith. As is well known the outbreak of, what became to be known as the Great War, very nearly resulted in the congresses’ abandonment. Against this historical  backdrop this paper focuses on the role that Australian Indigenous material played at the Australian meeting. Museum displays, performances and excursions were all tailored to the Association’s visiting members which resulted in Aboriginal culture being showcased with unprecedented visibility.

Bio: Lynette Russell is Director of the Monash Indigenous Centre (Monash University) and Visiting Fellow All Souls Colllege, Oxford.

1.30PM Leigh Boucher
Notes and Queries about the Human Race: The colonial afterlife of anthropological questionnaires

George Stocking observed that the different editions of the Notes and Queries on Anthropology represented something of a ‘palimpsest’ of different modalities of anthropological thought.  Initially produced by members of the BAAS and the APS, this questionnaire in its continually revised form would become an essential frame through which anthropologists would collect data in the field.  Given the centrality of this questionnaire (and its tremendous afterlife as an mechanism of colonial governance) it is surprising the formation and use of these questionnaires has been the subject of little direct inquiry by scholars of colonialism – they do, after all, seem to show subtle and then sometimes major shifts in ways of differentiating “between” peoples.  This paper will make a few tentative steps towards this kind of historical investigation by pondering the formation of these first questions and their latter deployment in the colony of Victoria as a mechanism to systematically govern Aboriginal people. What kind of responses did the metropolitan authors of these questionnaires imagine were possible? Did colonial interlocutors “play by the contemporary rules” of ethnographic thought when they answered, or, did the exigencies of the colonial encounter disrupt and reconfigure these metropolitan imaginings of race?

Bio: Leigh Boucher is a lecturer in modern history at Macquarie University, he has published work on settler colonialism and liberalism in nineteenth century Victoria.  

2.00PM Rebekah Higgitt
“The Ladies’ Section”: Women, Geography and Anthropology at the British Association for the Advancement of Science

Both newspaper reporting and private commentary on the 19th-century meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science reveal that Section E (Geography and Ethnography until 1868, thereafter Geography) was often seen as 'The Ladies' Section', with large numbers of women attending its sessions during the annual meetings. The main theme of this Section was geography, and thus women's attendance within the context of the geographical work of the BAAS has been discussed by Charles Withers, while I have written about women as BAAS audience more generally. However, it is clear that the ethnographic and anthropological papers, which also formed part of Section E from 1851 to 1868, and topics, which remained an aspect of geographical discussion after 1868, were a very significant draw. Drawing on my earlier research, this paper will reflect more directly on women as audience for anthropology at the 19th-century BAAS.

Bio: Rebekah Higgitt is a lecturer in history of science at the University of Kent and is currently Co-Investigator on an AHRC-funded project on the history of the British Board of Longitude.

2.30PM Ian J. McNiven
“All memory had perished”: Alfred and Kathleen Haddon’s visit to Torres Strait in 1914 and the forgotten past

The ‘salvage ’ approach of British anthropology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was exemplified by Alfred Cort Haddon and the 1898 ‘Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits’. That salvage anthropology could arrive too late was played out for Haddon during a trip he and his daughter Kathleen made to Torres Strait in September 1914 immediately after they attended the final British Association meeting in Brisbane. Haddon was keen to visit his ‘old friend Maino’ on Iama island who had ‘saved up’ a special site which he had ‘recently found’ but for which apparently ‘all memory had perished’. Haddon measured the site and speculated on its function as a factory to manufacture stone tools. Kathleen photographed the site and found it ‘extraordinary how quickly the memory of such things vanishes’ within two generations of ‘the coming of the white man’. Yet recent archaeological research suggests that the grinding grooves maybe much older than conceived of by the Haddons. By temporally collapsing Maino’s ancestral landscape into an ethnographic instant, the Haddons inadvertently denied the possibility of an ancient archaeological past for Maino. Such denial not only overstated the impact of European colonialism on Torres Strait Islander society and concomitant cultural loss, but also provided salvage anthropology with an overstated legitimacy.

Bio:  Ian J. McNiven is Professor of Indigenous Archaeology at Monash Indigenous Centre (Monash University). He is currently a visiting fellow at St Cross, Oxford.

3.00-3.30PM Afternoon Tea

3.30PM Christopher Morton
A diary in the loose sense of the term: Henry Balfour and the 1914 Australian meeting

This paper explores Henry Balfour’s three-volume diary relating to his participation in the 1914 British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Australia. Taking a material culture approach to the diary, rather than examining it solely as a text, the paper argues that Balfour constructed his numerous travel diaries as semi-public documents that would be viewed by family and colleagues on his return. Balfour’s diaries simultaneously acted as a record of people met and places visited and as a ‘worked-up’ ethnographic field notebook, containing many drawings, pasted-in photographs, and ethnographic descriptions or observations. It is undoubtedly for their ethnographic content, and their usefulness in contextualising his numerous object donations made on such trips, that led to their preservation in the Pitt Rivers Museum’s manuscript collections, the museum where he spent his whole career. The paper argues that recent re-engagements with the diary by researchers and indigenous groups have realised a new set of cultural and political relevancies for Balfour’s document.

Bio: Christopher Morton is Curator of Photograph and Manuscript Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum, and Lecturer in Visual and Material Anthropology at the University of Oxford

4.00PM Jane Lydon
Popularising Anthropology: Elsie Masson and Baldwin Spencer

In 1915 Elsie Rosaline Masson (later Malinowski) published An Untamed Territory, an account of a year spent au pair with the inaugural Northern Territory Administrator John Gilruth and his family in Darwin. Masson’s profusely-illustrated narrative of life in the wild north mobilized historical and scientific knowledge to construct a utopian future for the nation premised upon essential racial difference. She belonged to an elite global network of anthropologists and colonial administrators: her father David Orme was the Chair of Chemistry at Melbourne University, and childhood neighbours on campus included Gilruth and anthropologist Baldwin Spencer; she subsequently married the Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, who came to Australia first for the 1914 BAAS conference. Through her book, Masson popularized the expert scientific, governmental and policy views of her circle, revealing the ways in which literary and scientific modes of knowing colonial subjects became implicated in practices of governance.

Bio: Jane Lydon is the Wesfarmers Chair of Australian History at the University of Western Australia. Her research centres upon Australia’s colonial past and its legacies in the present.

4.30PM Discussant
Alison Bashford is Vere Harmsworth Professor of Imperial and Naval History, University of Cambridge. She is co-author of Griffith Taylor: Visionary, Environmentalist, Explorer, a study in part about Taylor-as-anthropologist. Most recently she has explored the history of population, in Global Population: History, Geopolitics, and Life on Earth (Columbia University Press, 2014) and The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus (with Joyce E. Chaplin, forthcoming with Princeton University Press).

5.00-6.00PM DRINKS and CLOSE

Location 3