Volume 12, Number 12 February 18, 2005

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U of S gets 'phenomenal' Australian Aboriginal artifacts

By Colleen MacPherson

The University of Saskatchewan has recently become home to a significant collection of Australian Aborigine art and artifacts, the gift of an avocational archaeologist and anthropologist who, until about three years ago, did not even know this institution existed.

Australian aboriginal artifacts

Artifacts find home at U of S

Some of the collection – bark paintings, carved nuts, decorative gourds, painted slate, a belt woven from human hair, other artifacts and photos – gathered over years of visiting the Australian outback by Tatjana Schmidt-Derstroff is on display at the Diefenbaker Canada Centre in an exhibition entitled Dreamings: The Magic of Australian Aboriginal Art. It is an introduction to an ancient culture for the University community and the general public that is sure to invite comparison with local Aboriginal cultures. For Margaret Kennedy, head of the Department of Archaeology which is co-presenting the exhibit, the items point to “parallels in the way (Aboriginal) people approach their world” despite living half a world apart.

In an interview Feb. 4 while in Saskatoon to open the exhibit, Schmidt-Derstroff explained it was a lifelong interest in archaeology and anthropology that led her from her native Germany to Australia for the first time in 1972. For 27 years after that, she spent five to seven months annually exploring some of the most remote parts of the continent by land rover, bush plane, boat and on foot. What she was looking for were engravings and petroglyphs by early humans. What she found was “the biggest pre-historic art gallery in the world”.

The ancient images she located and photographed, many dating back tens of thousands of years, and the artifacts she purchased represent a form of storytelling for Aborigine tribes, she said. The cave paintings and engravings “tell their dream story,” of ancestors, creation myths, behaviour, habits, heroes, the spiritual world and legends. “But they don’t paint because they think it’s art. It’s their record, their diary, their Bible, their schoolbooks.”

Many of the sites she visited are now closed to non-Aborigines, making Schmidt-Derstroff’s field research all that more significant. She reminisced about the learning process involved in her work, particularly in the harsh outback environment – “There is poison everywhere. You have to learn what is dangerous, how to identify it and how to avoid it.” She also spoke of drawing pictures in the dirt to communicate with Aborigine people who had had virtually no contact with the outside world.

Schmidt-Derstroff, 84, began her post-secondary education in medicine and journalism at the University of Berlin, only to have her studies interrupted by the Second World War. After the war, married and with three children, she pursued her passion in anthropology and archaeology on her own, a passion that grew from her first look at rock engravings at age eight. Over a lifetime, her work took her to France, Spain, North and East Africa, India, Malaysia, Indonesia and New Zealand as well as Australia.

Her expertise on Aborigine art and culture is widely recognized and she has lectured on the subject at universities in Germany. Her field experience and research has been published in leading European journals, and she has organized exhibits of her collection at universities, embassies and art galleries.

In 1992, Schmidt-Derstroff and her husband emigrated to Salmon Arm, B.C., where she continues to reside.

Now a widow, she began the search several years ago for a repository for her collection of cultural artifacts, books and some 38,000 slides. They are, she said, “irretrievable treasures” that require “good caring hands that will use them for the betterment of students”. A tip from her grandchildren in Europe pointed her toward the U of S. She said the grandchildren heard from “a friend of a friend” who spent a year studying at the U of S that this institution is “more open to the world than others – not just hockey and money”.

She sent a letter to Kennedy three years ago that began a relationship and negotiation culminating in Schmidt-Derstroff packing her car with 800 pounds of goods, then driving three days from Salmon Arm to deliver the collection.

Kennedy said when she first heard from Schmidt-Derstroff, she was taken by the woman’s effort to secure a place for the collection: “She was clearly so wanting to find a good home for it.” What particularly interested Kennedy were the thousands of slides of rock art, a special area of interest for faculty member Ernie Walker. That was a “major factor” in the department deciding to accept Schmidt-Derstroff’s offer “(but) we weren’t originally aware of just what a phenomenal collection of artifacts it was.”

Now that the collection has arrived, been inventoried and appraised, Kennedy said “we consider it ours to watch over” and to make use of as a tool for teaching and learning. Ideally, she would like to see artifacts from the collection on display in the Archaeology Building. That, she said, “would be one way to use them. That would be a big part of education”. Unfortunately, the presentation cases in the building do not currently provide the security necessary to have the artifacts on permanent display. Until that situation changes, she said many of pieces could be used as examples in various archaeology classes.

Schmidt-Derstroff said she will miss being surrounded by artifacts that represent a life’s work but she is satisfied with her choice of the U of S as their new home. There was no question of the collection going back to Europe because Canada, she said, has been good to her since she arrived 13 years ago. And, having met and gotten to know Kennedy, Walker and others at the University, “I know it will be safe here”.


Tatjana Schmidt-Derstroff with some of her Australian Aboriginal art and artifacts.

Photo by Colleen MacPherson

For more information, contact communications.office@usask.ca

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