A letter to Catherine Berndt

Aboriginal cultural life and the preciousness of time

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.

Ronald Berndt passed away in 1990; Catherine Berndt in 1994. While some of the Indigenous Australian material they collected (especially a series of painted barks) were absorbed into the Macleay Museum’s collection in Sydney, and other items (boomerangs, coolamons, spears, shields) ended up at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the bulk of the collection was bequeathed to UWA in Catherine Berndt’s will. It now constitutes part of the Berndt Museum’s collection of archives, artefacts, photographs, audio-visual recordings and artworks. Among the archives are a series of Field Notes books based on research recorded by Ron and Catherine with Aboriginal women and men between the 1940s and 1980s in locations across the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia. A thirty-year embargo on the release of the Field Notes is a clause in Catherine Berndt’s will, commencing from the time of her death. As a result, the Berndt Field Notes are not publicly available until 2024, including to the families of Indigenous groups with whom Catherine and Ron worked. In some cases, such as for Gurindji Traditional Owners at Wave Hill, whose ancestors had worked with the Berndts in 1944, this means there is no access for present-day families to information provided around eighty years ago.

The implications of the Berndt bequest and the embargo conditions, alongside the value of field notes as cultural materials to present-day Indigenous people and organisations, seem at odds with Catherine’s dedicated, long-term work with and support for Aboriginal Australians. It raises questions about with whom responsibility lies when a nation’s laws, policies and ethics incrementally change, about the impact of donor conditions when a bequest is offered, and about the extent to which a trustee can trust over time.



The preciousness of time is embedded in death, as it is in life. I am regularly reminded of the presence of your absence, and the indelibility of your intellectual, social, cultural and economic legacy with regards to Aboriginal Australia past, present and continuing, and anthropological thought and practice more broadly. How do I begin to describe the how, when and why things have changed, and remained the same, since your death? Reflecting on your distinctive and strong, yet quietly spoken and written words that always pointed to the vitality of raising questions, exploring nuance, qualifying ambiguities and noting the context, might be a good beginning. I will not wander into your personal life – something you were always protective of – but I will try to explain what’s been happening with the collection of Indigenous Australian, Melanesian and South-East Asian cultural materials, and the funds for research in Aboriginal Australia that you and Ron left in the care of the University of Western Australia.

That the Berndt Museum and the collection have been physically, administratively and metaphorically restructured into a new ‘cultural precinct’ governance framework would surprise you. Everything has been moved from the site where you last saw them, at the Social Sciences Building, to an area (converted from a former car park) that combines a small cluster of offices and large storage area below UWA’s Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery. The museum does not sit independently or with other anthropology collections, and (despite a series of funding campaigns) a new museum to house the collection you and Ron initiated and sought to protect in your will has not yet materialised.

The collection has grown, of course, due to scholar and collector donations, a federal government tax incentive gift scheme and a small acquisition fund. The objects now number around thirteen thousand after the first-ever stocktake was conducted in 2014–15. The bulk of the collection is double-packed and tightly stored, however, making it difficult for a small staff and limited resources to manage, even with the aid of an increasingly sophisticated computer management system, or CMS. (How you would loathe the increased use of acronyms, and the dominance of technology!) Museum items are selected and displayed on a two-exhibitions-a-year basis in a small exhibition space upstairs in the LWAG, and sometimes Berndt Museum items are loaned to other institutions, such as when a selection of the Yirrkala Drawings were shown at the Istanbul Biennial in 2014. One of the positive changes of the move was that collection items were all brought into the same storage domain (rather than spread widely, as before), and there was the prospect of greater exposure of cultural materials in a way that was not feasible in the old setting.

In writing to you, I contemplate  what you might think, and how you might react to some of the concerns that have arisen about collection protection and management and access issues.

I should note, first of all, that while it was an honour in 1993 to be asked by you and your much-loved and now deceased older brother, as well as the then Berndt Museum director (now retired, but also co-trustee) to become a trustee of your estate, I was also a little unsettled about not having been present when the will was developed, and about what sort of advice you had received in its crafting. Of concern, for instance, was and is the thirty-year embargo placed on your Field Notes from the 1940s to 1980s.

As a husband-and-wife team, you and Ron commenced research with Aboriginal people in 1941 in a way that distinguished your field research from other anthropologists at the time, such as William Stanner, Norman Tindale, Phyllis Kaberry and others, who mostly worked on their own. Another defining feature is that, as far as I know, no other Australian-based anthropologist, linguist or archaeologist working with Indigenous groups during that period decided on such a lengthy embargo on recorded research. What was it, I wonder, that not only inspired an embargo, but one meant to last so long and which has resulted in a lack of access for the present-day families of the Aboriginal groups among whom you worked? Was there no way, if a blanket embargo was to be imposed, that it could have been shortened, specified according to time, content and place, or incrementally governed? Wouldn’t that approach have reflected the thoughtful rigour and care you so often applied to your own work?


OVER THE YEARS, there have been countless inquiries about, and requests to access either directly or on behalf of others, the Field Notes, those small books in your handwriting, and Ron’s, that contain substantive cultural detail about the intellectual lives, philosophies, beliefs and practices of so many Aboriginal people. Requests related mostly (but not always, as you would wish me to qualify) to what is now commonly described as ‘remote’ Australia: for example, West and East Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, the Kimberley and Warburton in northern and eastern Western Australia, and Ooldea and Adelaide in northern and southern South Australia. Access requests have mostly come from scholars in Australia, Europe, the UK and America who have worked in the regions you knew.

Requests have also been received from Australian-based anthropologists, lawyers and historians working on land and native title claims for government, land councils and industry, and increasingly from Aboriginal art centres, families and individuals wishing to discover and share information relayed by their ancestors to you and Ron. On each occasion, requests were denied through both the Berndt Museum and the UWA Legal Office citing will conditions – that is, that the Field Notes were not to be released until thirty years after your death. On one occasion only was a request acquiesced, and this was due solely to a 1998 Federal Court order in the South Australian Hindmarsh Island Bridge Case listed as Kartinyeri v Commonwealth. A highly supervised visit for an anthropologist to view and interpret relevant Field Notes at the Berndt Museum was arranged without adverse outcomes for any party.

Of course, the High Court’s 1992 Mabo decision, and its consequences for Aboriginal people and Australia’s colonial history more broadly, could not have been predicted by you or by Ron who died in 1990. The decision was new, hopeful and full of anticipation for the potential it held. But for reasons that will always remain a little unclear to me, no reference to the decision’s implications occurs in your 1993 will; limited reference only is made in the notes written many years later.

The Keating government’s Native Title Act was implemented in 1993, and a National Native Title Tribunal was established to hear land claims in 1994, the year of your death. While today the native title process is not without its flaws, it has provided a symbolic and practical means for documentation and recognition of traditional continuity of Indigenous land ownership, in addition to a certain negotiating leverage for Indigenous groups to, for example, offset or at least guide resource development. It has also prompted increased interest and inquiry for Aboriginal families and research associates to gain access to archival material about their ancestors, lands and histories held at various state libraries, government institutions, religious organisations and so on – including the Field Notes.

I can understand the need to protect people’s privacy and political sensitivities, as indeed you liked to protect your own, but what Indigenous groups are seeking access to is the social and cultural knowledge imparted by their forbears: grandparents, aunties, uncles. This desire has been expressed to me as increasingly urgent due to the age and poor health of senior Aboriginal women and men.

There are ways in which ethnographic records can be and are carefully made available in a considered way upon rigorous request. For example, I turn to the legacy of Phyllis Kaberry. As the trustee of Kaberry’s 1935–36 anthropological Kimberley Collection (field notes, genealogies, commentary, photographs, hand-drawn maps) lodged at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in Canberra, I am regularly asked to sign off on formal requests to view and copy (not remove) her material. Requests come from government and/or industry lawyers and anthropologists, Indigenous groups such as land councils, family members and ‘bona fide’ scholars. AIATSIS library and collection staff manage a complex set of inquiries thoughtfully and efficiently in a way I know you would commend, including when seen from Kaberry’s perspective.

As a scholar and former Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (as AIATSIS used to be known) research grant recipient, you would also value the response of Aboriginal people when they see and usually learn from comments – in Kaberry’s scrawling handwriting – about deceased loved ones, or from notes that help to explain data toward a native title claim, their family’s history, a landscape, ritual, song cycle, water holes or rarely hunted animal species. A Kimberley Gooniyandi woman once put it emotionally and cogently to me when she trawled through a series of Kaberry’s genealogies and recognised the names of her ancestors: ‘I feel like I’m walking among my people again…’

Do you see what I mean, Catherine? How important such an enduring moment is, one that can not only engender empathetic connections but also have clarifying benefits for family histories, native title and heritage matters? What was it that you, and Ron – who seems to have impressed the embargo on you – believed would happen to the Field Notes if managed access had occurred? Viewed within a contemporary context of reconciliation, active policy repatriation and a complex, extended struggle toward recognition of Indigenous Australians as the First People in Australia’s Commonwealth Constitution, the embargo can only be understood as representing the opposite of such qualitative shifts.


IF YOU AND Ron intended the Field Notes to be kept for safekeeping throughout a long embargo, I wonder for whom that safekeeping was? In the present, it cannot be regarded as being for Aboriginal people themselves. Mindful that you both published extensively during your lifetimes, that so much of the ethnographic data you recorded has been published and that major co-authored publications, such as The World of the First Australians (Ure Smith, 1977), continue to be published and attract royalties, a curious outcome of the embargo is that a sort-of mystique about your Field Notes has emerged. In that sense, the Field Notes have been given elusive investigative weight, rather than treated as valuable archival material meant to contribute to Indigenous cultural life.

I have minimal doubt that, were you alive today, the conversation would be a lively one but that you would support negotiated, non-precedent access to Indigenous groups in response to considered specific requests from Aboriginal descendants of the people among whom you worked. Several requests come to mind, but one of the most recent and telling refers to the Gurindji people and their unsuccessful request to access 1944 field notes recorded by you and Ron. A request without precedent – accompanied by a compelling audio-visual recording with senior Traditional Owners explaining their rationale, a substantive support letter from their local representative arts organisation and a strong support letter from me as co-trustee – it was not only formally denied, but a visit to the Berndt Museum discouraged. That the request was initiated through Gurindji artist and researcher Brenda L Croft, who was awarded a research grant from the Berndt Research Foundation (set up with funding from your bequest), added to what turned into an unhelpful encounter for all parties – most especially for the Gurindji applicants. Only one committee member looked creatively beyond the embargo conditions to at least consider what might be possible to support the Gurindji request. Do you see the complex, contradictory circumstances that have emerged, Catherine?

One thing that could possibly explain the lengthy embargo is that you might have lacked confidence in how efficiently and cogently the Field Notes, and access to them, would have been managed by the museum around the time of your death. Then, as now, staff and resources were limited – but a process could doubtless have been found and equitably developed, especially given extensive funds from your estate have been used to pay an archivist’s salary through the Berndt Research Foundation, the very body established to administer monies for research in Aboriginal Australia in accordance with the conditions stated in your will.

Another reason might be your wariness of an unwanted critique of the material you and Ron recorded in the Field Notes. I always sensed certain sensitivities in this regard, perhaps something widely and understandably felt by all researchers, especially anthropologists in colonial and post-colonial circumstances. In the case of you and Ron, however, the vulnerability seemed heightened. Such wariness may have stemmed from identity politics and publishing outcomes, and the sometimes-contested role anthropologists (in all their diversity) had played in the twentieth century. But none of this should have been personally felt, or been sufficient cause to embargo cultural information for three decades. Of course, as with Kaberry and the scholarship embedded in her notebooks, I am not referring here to the restricted information that may have been provided to Ron by Aboriginal men, or to you by women. The protective handling of these matters should and increasingly does come within the purview of senior Aboriginal people, and those collaborative researchers they have come to trust. If that is one of the matters you were concerned about, it is not evident in a reading of your will. You would also know that there are ways and means to protect restricted, gender-specific material and, notably, respect for such handling is increasingly embedded in the work of many contemporary, innovative and properly resourced ‘living’ museums that thrive on an engaged, inclusive, practice-led cultural ethics model – as I hope the Berndt Museum will receive support to one day become.

There are so many things I wish you had been in a position to receive specialist advice about, and that had been canvassed prior to the design of your will – a document I have read and re-read and that seems so detached from you. Perhaps all wills are, but in your case, with the standard of responsibility so high, the consequences are stark. Despite such an overtime-irony (or ‘muddled up situation’, as you might put it), you would otherwise be happy to know that the Berndt Research Foundation has, in addition to paying a full-time archivist, funded a post-doctoral scholarship, research grant awards, an annual subsidy for the journal Anthropological Forum and a Berndt Biennial Lecture. Plans also began in 2015 to ensure doctoral funding for a UWA-tied degree in anthropology. Whether or not the funds have always been used for the purpose you intended has been the subject of ongoing debate, especially as the foundation is now oversighted by a non-research-focused body at UWA.


ONE OF THE last times we spoke was during a phone call, when you simply stated ‘Proust’ when I picked up the receiver. I had been with you earlier that day, as I often was, especially after Ron’s death, and we had been talking about literature and memory. Always so proud of your memory (for which you were well known), you wanted to tell me that you had remembered Proust, the writer who said so much about remembrance. With this in mind, a matter that obviously continues to sit uneasily with me is that you are now poised to be remembered as someone other than the woman I think (or know) you were: an intelligent, compassionate, hard-working, loyal and inquiring researcher and author.

I continue to trust and care for the Catherine Berndt I knew. Your actions, like those of others (including your husband), can only be understood within the contextual practice, politics and ethics of time. But it is hard as both a person and a trustee not only to understand your will’s intent but also to justify the circumstances in which an institution could or would accept a thirty-year embargo that resulted in an unfair and unjust outcome for groups such as the Gurindji, but also in a stifling of intellectual and cultural rights and long-term interests.

No matter how dedicated you were during your lifetime, or without specialist advice when the will was crafted, it cannot be denied that the intellectual and cultural copyright for information currently embargoed in your name rightly belongs to the Indigenous groups who gifted their insights to you and Ron. This is not to suggest that the original materials should be immediately returned, or that this is what people are asking. But it is to advocate responsible and courageous decision-making that accords with a human rights perspective that is more ethical than it often was in the past. The tremendous efforts you and Ron expended, the valuable collection you left, and the support and interest you extended to Aboriginal people stands otherwise tall in Australia and elsewhere.

I conclude by noting that when Ron died in 1990, I happened to be at the Kimberley Balgo Community, where you and Ron had worked many years before. The Kukuja, Wangkajungka and Walmajarri women with whom I shared the ‘bad news’ message immediately started keening. The wailing became increasingly intense and lasted for some time. The women were not weeping for Ron, however; they were weeping for you: ‘We’re crying for that old woman, she’ll be on her own now. We’re feeling sorry for that old woman, that Catherine Berndt.’

There is always potential for an institution in a position of trust to use its discretionary power, or perhaps better understand and clarify bequest conditions when these are offered, and before they are confirmed. That potential also resides with trustees. In the case of the Berndt Field Notes, with the rigorous and eloquent Gurindji access request via documentation and film as a recent example, adherence to the embargo conditions have both confounded and ultimately worked against Indigenous aspirations and entitlements. Whether or not this was your intention is open to interpretation, while the reality remains less cogently but firmly in place.

With affection,




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