Level 3 Mortlock Wing State Library of South Australia North Terrace Adelaide SA 5000
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Lunchtime Meeting

Away with the birds: Samuel A. White’s life as ornithologist and adventurer

Dr Philip Jones

Samuel Albert White (1870-1954) became one of Australia’s best-known ornithologists and conservationists. 

His natural history and ethnographic collections are now held at the South Australian Museum, but during his lifetime White maintained his own museum at the family property, ‘Weetunga’. This was close to the Fulham Reedbeds, teeming with birdlife during White’s childhood. White inherited his father’s ornithological collection and began carefully documenting his own collection, understanding its value to science. In 1902, following his return from the Boer War as ‘Captain White’, and independently wealthy, he set out on a remarkable series of 30 ornithological expeditions throughout Australia, collecting and documenting birds, natural history specimens and ethnography, travelling by camel, horse and motor-car. His photographic records of these expeditions contain outstanding images of Central Australia in particular. Having witnessed the disappearance of many bird species from the Adelaide Plains, White became a leading figure in South Australia’s nascent conservation movement, actively lobbying for national parks through newspaper articles and radio until his death in 1954. Eighty years later his meticulously documented collections provide a baseline for our own conservation efforts.

Philip Jones has been a curator in the South Australian Museum’s Department of Anthropology since the 1980s. His doctoral thesis concerned the history of Australian ethnographic collecting. He has undertaken fieldwork with Aboriginal communities in Central Australia, the Simpson Desert and South Australia, and has curated more than 30 exhibitions, ranging from Aboriginal art to the history of anthropology and natural science, expeditions, and frontier photography. These included the 1992 exhibition, ‘Captain White and the House of Birds’

Philip’s prizewinning book of essays, titled Ochre and Rust: Artefacts and Encounters on Australian Frontiers, has recently been republished. In recent years he has completed books on the Yuendumu school doors, Spencer and Gillen’s 1901-1902 pioneering anthropological expedition, and the Australian and New Zealand expeditions undertaken by the colonial artist and naturalist George French Angas. During 2018-2020 he undertook fellowships at Harvard’s Peabody Museum and the Netherlands Institute of Advanced Studies. He is currently working on books about shields of north-eastern Australia and the remarkable murals of the Yuendumu Men’s Museum.

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Date and Time

13 November 2023
12:00 pm

Hetzel Lecture Theatre, Institute Building, State Library of SA, North Terrace, Adelaide

Members: $Gold Coin
Non members: $5