Martin Thomas

Martin Thomas is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow in the School of History at The Australian National University and an Honorary Associate Professor in PARADISEC at the University of Sydney. His main interests are the perception of landscape, the history of cross-cultural encounter and inquiry, and the impact of technologies such as sound recording and photography that have transformed attitudes to space and time.

Martin is an oral-history interviewer for the National Library of Australia and has had long experience as a radio producer and broadcaster. His radio work began in New York in 1991 when interviews with homeless people became the basis for the ABC documentary Home Front Manhattan (1991)—a reflection on the First Gulf War. Since then he has made more than a dozen documentaries, including This is Jimmie Barker (2000), a study of the Aboriginal sound recordist, which was awarded the NSW Premier’s Audio/Visual History Prize.

Martin’s publications include The Artificial Horizon: Imagining the Blue Mountains (2003), winner of the Gleebooks Prize for Literary and Cultural Criticism in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, and (as editor) Culture in Translation: The Anthropological Legacy of R. H. Mathews (2007). He is a leading authority on Mathews’ pioneering contribution to cross-cultural research in Australia and is author of a biographical study, The Many Worlds of R. H. Mathews (2011).

Martin’s current research is on the history and legacy of the 1948 American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land. This involves archival research and ongoing fieldwork in Arnhem Land. In 2008 he was awarded a Smithsonian Institution Fellowship to study Arnhem Land collections and archives in Washington, DC. He is part of a team (including Linda Barwick and Allan Marett) that is studying the history and impacts of the Expedition, funded as a five-year Discovery Project by the Australian Research Council.

Exploring the Legacy of the 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition »

Edited by: Martin Thomas, Margo Neale
Publication date: June 2011
In 1948 a collection of scientists, anthropologists and photographers journeyed to northern Australia for a seven-month tour of research and discovery—now regarded as ‘the last of the big expeditions’. The American–Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land was front-page news at the time, but 60 years later it is virtually unknown. This lapse into obscurity was due partly to the fraught politics of Australian anthropology and animus towards its leader, the Adelaide-based writer-photographer Charles Mountford. Promoted as a ‘friendly mission’ that would foster good relations between Australia and its most powerful wartime ally, the Expedition was sponsored by National Geographic, the Smithsonian Institution and the Australian Government. An unlikely cocktail of science, diplomacy and popular geography, the Arnhem Land Expedition put the Aboriginal cultures of the vast Arnhem Land reserve on an international stage.

Culture in Translation »

The anthropological legacy of R. H. Mathews

Edited by: Martin Thomas
Publication date: September 2007
R. H. Mathews (1841–1918) was an Australian-born surveyor and self-taught anthropologist. From 1893 until his death in 1918, he made it his mission to record all ‘new and interesting facts’ about Aboriginal Australia. Despite falling foul with some of the most powerful figures in British and Australian anthropology, Mathews published some 2200 pages of anthropological reportage in English, French and German. His legacy is an outstanding record of Aboriginal culture in the Federation period. This first edited collection of Mathews’ writings represents the many facets of his research, ranging from kinship study to documentation of myth. It include eleven articles translated from French or German that until now have been unavailable in English. Introduced and edited by Martin Thomas, who compellingly analyses the anthropologist, his milieu, and the intrigues that were so costly to his reputation, Culture in Translation is essential reading on the history of cross-cultural research. The translations from the French are by Mathilde de Hauteclocque and from the German by Christine Winter. For more information on Aboriginal History Inc. please visit