Theodor George Henry Strehlow (1908–1978) was brought up by his parents, Carl and Frieda Strehlow at the Hermannsburg Mission near Alice Springs. His work as linguist and ethnologist contributed extensively to white understanding of Aboriginal culture and music, but provoked ongoing dispute between settler and Indigenous cultures. From childhood, Strehlow mixed freely with the local Arrernte people and gained privileged knowledge: his language skills played a significant role in the Stuart Case. In 1933 a tribal elder, dreading their dispersal or destruction, asked Strehlow to protect the area’s sacred objects. Agreeing to act as custodian, Strehlow amassed a huge collection of artefacts, photographs and films. A professor at the University of Adelaide, he gained an international reputation before his argumentative nature and threats to burn the collection rather than let the university look after it lost him the goodwill of important Aboriginal and academic supporters. Aboriginal leader Charles Perkins lamented that Strehlow’s last ten years had ‘turned all his life’s good work upside down’.

The collection eventually found a home at the Strehlow Research Centre in Alice Springs but significant photographs remained with the family who auctioned several to private collectors. The South Australian government rescued more from sale in 1992, but Strehlow’s son continues his battle to sell the remainder. 

By Carol Fort

This entry was first published in The Wakefield companion to South Australian History, edited by Wilfrid Prest, Kerrie Round and Carol Fort (Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2001). Edited lightly. Uploaded 8 September 2015.

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Image courtesy of the State Library of South Australia, SLSA, Mountford-Sheard collection: PRG 1218/34/83, Public domain.

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