A letter to Catherine Berndt

Aboriginal cultural life and the preciousness of time

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Readers are informed that images of deceased persons are included in this essay, which may cause unintentional distress.

Catherine and Ronald Berndt established the anthropology program at the University of Western Australia in Perth in 1956. Twenty years later, they also established the Berndt Museum there, in part by donating a collection of cultural items they had gathered from fieldwork in Aboriginal Australia and Melanesia. Significant among works collected and held in the museum were the renowned Yirrkala Drawings, the lesser-known Birrundudu Drawings, and dilly bags and drawings from the old Wave Hill Station (now known as Jinparrak) in the Northern Territory, a place made famous by an internationally documented walk-off by Indigenous workers striking for equal pay and conditions, by the sublime archival imagery of Gough Whitlam pouring soil of traditional lands into the hands of Vincent Lingiari, and by the eloquent lyrics of Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly to commemorate the event in the song ‘From little things big things grow’. A smaller collection of artefacts and paintings from the Berndts’ travels to South-East Asian settings also became part of the museum’s collection.

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