Dr Hilary Howes

The PhD journey of Dr Hilary Howes at CHL: Alumni profile

15th June 2021

Up until 2020, Dr Hilary Howes—now associated with the College of Arts & Social Sciences—was a Postdoctoral Fellow on Matthew Spriggs’ ARC Laureate Fellowship Project, The Collective Biography of Archaeology in the Pacific: A Hidden History, researching the German-language tradition within Pacific archaeology. We recently caught up with Dr Howes as she recounted her PhD journey at CHL.

1. Tell us a bit about yourself and your journey at ANU CHL.

I grew up in Melbourne and completed my undergraduate studies in Arts (majoring in History and German) and Science (majoring in Botany) at the University of Melbourne, followed by an MA in History and Philosophy of Science. Just as I was finalising my MA and considering my options going forward, an email arrived on a mailing list I had subscribed to, describing an opportunity for a PhD candidate to undertake research into German anthropologists active in the Pacific region as part of an ARC Discovery Project at ANU CHL. I applied, and the rest, as they say, is history!

2. Tell us about your PhD and the top three things that made it memorable for you.

I completed my PhD from 2007 to 2011 as part of the ARC Discovery Project, European Naturalists and the Constitution of Human Difference in Oceania: Crosscultural Encounters and the Science of Race, 1768–1888. The two CIs on this project, Bronwen Douglas and Chris Ballard, were also my supervisors. I consider myself exceptionally fortunate to have had the benefit of their support, advice and guidance throughout my PhD candidature.

One of the things that made my PhD memorable was the collegiality of other PhD candidates and staff members in ANU CHL at that time. A number of us were working on topics relating to race and encounters in Oceania, so Bronwen and Chris organised a reading and writing group to introduce us to key texts in these areas and give us opportunities to present our own work for critical discussion. The structure and guidance this group injected into the PhD process were invaluable.

Another thing that was invaluable was the opportunity to undertake extended archival research in Germany. My research focused on the field experiences of two late 19th-century German physical anthropologists, Adolf Bernhard Meyer and Otto Finsch. Both had published extensively and had left collections of unpublished correspondence across a range of libraries, state and municipal archives, and museums. Initially I struggled to decipher Finsch’s handwriting; he used Kurrent, a German cursive script in which many of the letters look quite different from their modern equivalents and some (e.g., small ‘e’ and small ‘n’) are virtually indistinguishable. However, the process of discovery was genuinely exciting and I was humbled by the generosity of the archivists, librarians and museum staff who went to great lengths to assist me.

Another memorable facet of my PhD experience was being based in the Coombs Building. It is a truly unique structure and very typical of Canberra in some respects. Even after four years in the Coombs Building, I can still lose my way if I’m unwise enough to attempt a shortcut!

3. How have you continued your association with CHL?

I’m still in touch with many of the staff and students I got to know during my PhD, some of whom are still based at CHL, while others are now located elsewhere at ANU. These include Bronwen and Chris, as well as Elena Govor, with whom I’ve recently co-authored two chapters on Russian physical anthropologists in Australia and the Pacific region. A number of current and former CHL staff are members of the Editorial Board of The Journal of Pacific History (JPH), which I joined as Book Reviews Editor in 2016. In 2019 I worked with colleagues in the School of Archaeology & Anthropology and in CHL (Archaeology & Natural History) to mount an exhibition, Unearthing Archaeology in Australasia and the Pacific, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the establishment of an autonomous archaeology department at ANU.

4. What is your current research focused on?

From 2015 to 2020, I was a Postdoctoral Fellow on Matthew Spriggs’ ARC Laureate Fellowship Project, The Collective Biography of Archaeology in the Pacific: A Hidden History, researching the German-language tradition within Pacific archaeology. I’m currently a Research Fellow in the Centre for Heritage & Museum Studies, working on a number of projects led by Cressida Fforde and relating to the repatriation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ancestral remains from overseas institutions.

I became involved in the repatriation space shortly after completing my PhD, while employed at the Australian Embassy in Berlin. At that time the Embassy was working closely with Charité, one of the largest university hospitals in Europe, which had made a commitment to progress repatriation of Indigenous human remains from Australia and other countries in its anatomical collections. Some of these remains had actually been acquired by Finsch in Cape York and Torres Strait, so I was able to draw on my PhD research to help provenance them and identify their source communities. Being involved in the handover ceremonies and witnessing just how much it meant to Traditional Owners to see their ancestors returned to country really made me want to do everything I could to facilitate this process. I never thought being able to read 19th-century German handwriting could serve such a practical purpose!

On that note, in June 2021, I will commence my ARC DECRA Project, Skulls for the Tsar: Indigenous Human Remains in Russian Collections, which aims to produce the first detailed investigation of the acquisition of Indigenous human remains from Australia, New Zealand and the broader Pacific by the Russian Empire during the long 19th century. Much of the relevant documentation is in German, as this served as the language of science in continental Europe at the time. Being a glutton for punishment, I am also continuing to improve my Russian language skills.

5. Can you share an interesting anecdote from any fieldwork experience you had while at CHL?

Towards the end of my fieldwork in Germany, I was working in the archive of the Braunschweig Municipal Museum, where Finsch spent the last years of his career. Braunschweig is a small town and I wasn’t expecting to find anything ground-breaking in the archive there—perhaps just some additional correspondence between Finsch and his colleagues. Instead, I discovered a 16-page illustrated pamphlet written by Finsch and published in 1907 for the Braunschweig Colonial Festival. It’s dedicated to Tapinowanne Torondoluan, a young Tolai man from East New Britain who accompanied Finsch on his travels in the Pacific and Europe in the early 1880s. To the best of my knowledge, it is one of the earliest biographies of a Tolai person ever published, and gives a remarkable insight into Tapinowanne’s courage, abilities, and sense of adventure. I am currently translating it into English in the hope that it can be made available to Tolai communities today.

6. Is there anything else you’d like to add about your PhD days?

The PhD process was immensely broadening, but it was difficult too. I struggled with my mental health and was very fortunate to have the support of my colleagues, supervisors, friends and family members. I’d really encourage anyone experiencing similar challenges to seek help—you are not alone, and asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. Please don’t suffer in silence!

Updated:  7 July 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, Culture, History & Language/Page Contact:  CHL webmaster