Donald Thomson and the Collection

Donald Thomson

Professor Donald Finlay Fergusson Thomson OBE (1901-1970) was a renowned anthropologist and biologist. From an early age Thomson dedicated himself to studying the natural sciences. In 1920 his passion for exploring new territories led him to undertake a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Melbourne, focusing on zoology and botany. His interest in natural history led him to teach himself the art of photography, in order to record images of the natural world.

Donald Thomson
Professor Donald Thomson OBE before 1955. Image: State Library of Victoria (Public domain, CC 2.0).

Thomson was in the first generation of professional fieldworkers to work in three distinct areas - Cape York, Arnhem Land and Central Australia - seeking out Aboriginal people and learning from their unsurpassed traditional ecological knowledge of plants, animals, fish and birds. In his professional pursuits, he ventured as far as the Solomon Islands, West Papua, Ireland, the United States of America and British Columbia.

In collecting zoological specimens, Thomson sought to document this encyclopedic Indigenous knowledge, in addition to the standard data expected of a natural scientist. When combined with his field notes and photographs, the collections take on an unrivalled comprehensiveness, which forms the foundation for the lasting significance of the Donald Thomson Collection, and its importance to Aboriginal people: virtually everything is documented and very few people are left unnamed.

Thomson made the most sustained contribution to policy and advocacy for the rights of Indigenous communities and individuals of any single person associated with the University of Melbourne in his generation. His intervention in the Caledon Bay affair was a turning point in race relations in Australia, marking the end of state-sanctioned violence against Aboriginal people on the Australian frontier. In 1946 he campaigned publicly for Aboriginal land rights, decrying the use of Aboriginal land for the Woomera Rocket Range in Central Australia. Since his death, Thomson's research materials have been used as evidence of connection to country in successful native title land and sea claims.

Donald Thomson is remembered for his love of fieldwork, sophisticated linguistic skills, sociological sensibility, deep concern for evidence, and profound interest in ecological anthropology and material culture. Although primarily an anthropologist, his work was always suffused with a deep and abiding love of natural science, which was largely responsible for his meticulous documentation of the material in his collection.

The Donald Thomson Collection

The Donald Thomson Collection was amassed by the Melbourne-based anthropologist and biologist, the late Professor Donald Thomson OBE (1901-70) during a professional career, predominantly at the University of Melbourne, that spanned five decades. While best known for his anthropological work, the collection also reflects Thomson's research and field collecting in botany, herpetology, mammalogy and ornithology. Further, the collection highlights Thomson’s focus on social justice issues and ecology.

Objects from the Donald Thomson Collection on display in Arts West Gallery. Image: Christo Crocker, 2019.
Objects from the Donald Thomson Collection on display in Arts West Gallery. Image: Christo Crocker, 2019.

Throughout his career Thomson took some 11,000 photographs, wrote 4,500 pages of field notes, and collected 7500 artefacts and 1000 botanical and zoological specimens collected mainly on Cape York, in Arnhem Land, and from the Great Sandy Desert and the Gibson Desert of Western Australia. A smaller component of the collection was acquired during his work in the Solomon Islands and West Papua.

For sheer quantity and diversity, it ranks amongst the most important anthropological collections in the world, and in 2008 the ethnohistoric component was inscribed onto the Australian Register UNESCO Memory of the World Program.

After Thomson’s death in 1970, his wife, Mrs Dorita Thomson, donated the object and science collection to the University of Melbourne. His literary estate (ethnohistoric) was retained by his family. Together this material forms the Donald Thomson Collection which was placed on long term loan to Museums Victoria.