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Reviewer Meets Reviewed - Anthropologist or Colonial Nuisance?
Thursday 15 March 2012
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Anthropologist or Colonial Nuisance?: R. H. Mathews and the race to document the ‘disappearing’ world of Aboriginal Australia

Thursday 15th March 2012 at 10.00 am (tea & coffee served from 9.30am)

Centre for Anthropology, British Museum


The British Museum’s Centre for Anthropology, in collaboration with the Royal Anthropological Institute, is pleased to present the fourth seminar in the 2011-12 series of ‘Reviewer meets Reviewed’. Martin Thomas will give a presentation on his book ‘The Many Worlds of R.H. Mathews: In search of an Australian anthropologist’ and Lynette Russell will pose questions in her part of the discussion.

The Australian surveyor-turned-ethnographer R. H. Mathews was denounced by his nemesis Baldwin Spencer as a ‘nuisance and will do more harm than good!’ Others were more sanguine. Andrew Lang declared him as the most ‘well informed writer’ on Australian kinship and Norman Tindale considered him Australia’s ‘greatest recorder of primary anthropological data’. Mathews (1841-1918) was born in New South Wales, the son of a fugitive Irish papermaker. He was aged fifty when he became a sudden and most zealous convert to the emerging discipline of anthropology. Almost immediately he caused controversy by contesting the evolutionary theory that prevailed in the social sciences. He became a corresponding member of the Anthropological Institute (now RAI) and published more than 2200 pages of reportage in English, French and German. He was one of the most prolific autodidacts on whom the ‘armchair anthropologists’ depended for primary data on the life of ‘savages’.

The Mathews story was almost entirely buried until historian Martin Thomas began his biographical excavations ten years ago. His book The Many Worlds of R. H. Mathews was published last year and was quickly short-listed for several literary awards in Australia. In this discussion with Indigenous studies scholar Lynette Russell, Thomas will examine the fault lines in Victorian and Edwardian anthropology that are revealed by the Mathews story and he will discuss the enduring relevance of Mathews’ work to Aboriginal communities today.

The Many Worlds of R. H. Mathews: In search of an Australian anthropologist is published by Allen & Unwin.

Bookings/enquiries: Jan Ayres (