TGH Strehlow and the
Strehlow Research Centre
TGH Strehlow was born 130 kilometres west of Alice Springs at the remote Hermannsburg Mission station on June 6, 1908 to his mother Frieda and father Pastor Carl Strehlow, who served the Lutheran Church as part of the Finke River Mission. Carl Strehlow had begun work at the mission in 1894 and was joined by his young fiancée Freida Keysser several years later. TGH Strehlow was the youngest of their six children all born at the mission station.
While Pastor Carl Strehlow undertook his duties as the Mission Superintendent with great committment, he spent much of his leisure time conducting linguistic and ethnological research among the local Aranda people. He was at times invited to witness the closely guarded ceremonies of the Aranda men, but owing his first allegiance to God, chose not to attend. Carl Strehlow did however always maintain the view that all cultures deserved respect and understanding on their own merits and could not be placed on an evolutionary scale as was the dominant thinking of his day among other researchers.
In 1922 after more than 26 years at the mission, Carl Strehlow became gravely ill and a decision was made to seek urgent medical help in the distant southern city of Adelaide. His life depended on it. A desperate journey ensued from the isolated outpost of Hermannsburg following the Finke River downstream to the rail line head at Oodnadatta, a distance of nearly 800 kilometres. Both his wife Frieda and son TGH accompanied him. This journey had to be made by horse and buggy as motorised transport was still largely unknown in the Centre. At the time Alice Springs was a repeater station on the Overland Telegraph Line with a few houses scattered nearby.
But he never made it. Pastor Carl Strehlow died at Horseshoe Bend Station on the Finke River, hundreds of kilometres short of Oodnadatta and the safety of the railway line. TGH Strehlow recounted this epic tale in the novel Journey to Horseshoe Bend, which first published in 1969 and went on to become a celebrated literary achievement. The impact of losing his father as a 14-year-old boy was a tragedy that was to haunt him for the rest of his life.
As an adult, TGH Strehlow also dedicated much of his life to documenting and defending the cultural traditions of the Aranda people of Central Australia. After graduating from the University of Adelaide in 1931, he returned to the Centre and once again became immersed in the Aranda world of his earlier formative years. He was employment as the first government patrol officer in the southern part of the Northern Territory to report on the welfare of the region’s little known native inhabitants. This experience gave him a profound sense of purpose and direction and led to the continuation of an academic career where he gained a masters degree in 1938 for his thesis titled An Aranda Grammar.
From 1932 through to the mid 1970’s, TGH Strehlow produced over 40 field diaries, 150 plus genealogies, numerous cultural maps, thousands of photographs and slides, more than a 160 hours of sound recordings and kilometres of film, nearly all of which relates to the Arandic cultures of the Centre. This vast repository of knowledge along with the more that 1200 sacred objects housed in a special vault at the Strehlow Research Centre, makes up the majority of the Collection. Most of the Strehlow Collection remains highly relevant to current generations of Aranda custodians and special permission is required to access sensitive material from the archive.
The Strehlow Research Centre is located within the Museum of Central Australia in Alice Springs. It manages one of the most important ethnographic collections of film, sound, archival records and objects relating to Indigenous ceremonial life found anywhere in the world.
This collection is based around the field work and writings of Professor Theodor George Henry Strehlow, often referred to as TGH Strehlow, who spent more than four decades in recording the ceremonial customs and traditions of Aranda culture in Central Australia.
Repatriation and the Strehlow Research Centre today
In 2005 a change to the Strehlow Research Centre Act allowed for the return of sacred objects from the collection to their custodians. This could occur where custodians could be identified and there was evidence to substantiate the claims of ownership. That evidence relies on a mix of archival research and extensive community consultation with the Central Australian Aboriginal community. Aranda customary law is governed by a complex system of rules based on kinship and country.
The Aranda community are active participants in the repatriation process and several culturally qualified people are employed at the Strehlow Centre as Indigenous Research Assistants. Appropriate access to the collection is mediated through the Strehlow Research Centre Board and the senior custodians from the Aranda community. MAGNT's approach is to maintain a constant reference to the culture through research and ongoing community consultation. This is leading to a renewed interest from the Aranda community in engaging with the Strehlow Collection and the intention is to increase access within the archive for appropriate use by researchers and others interested in learning more about the work of TGH Strehlow and of Aranda culture. MAGNT is confident that the Strehlow Collection has a solid direction for the future and the aim is to realise this with the support and participation of traditional custodians to ensure the sensitive and restricted aspects of this cultural treasure trove are respected and protected for current and future generations.