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The Australian National University

Ms Robyn McKenzie

Position: PhD candidate in Interdisciplinary Cross-cultural Research


Phone: 6125 9878

Thesis title: The String Figures of Yirrkala
String figures are patterns made with a loop of string on the hands. Anthropologists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century collected string figures from indigenous peoples in various parts of the world by mounting the final ‘designs' on card. My research takes as its focus the collection of 193 mounted string figures made by anthropologist Frederick McCarthy in Yirrkala with Yolngu informant Ngarrawu Mununggurr, on the 1948 American-Australian Scientific Exhibition to Arnhem Land (now in the Australian Museum, Sydney). This collection is the largest of its kind in the world – that is string figures collected at a single time and place / from a single community. These objects, turning the performance-based cultural practice of string figure making into a fixed and stable 2-D form, are hybrid artefacts of cross-cultural encounter – both strange and beautiful.

I am interested in the story of the collection, why and how it came into being, and the question of its agency now as a cultural heritage resource for its source community. Following the work of scholars in Visual Anthropology, I am using the collection to analyse string figure making as an aesthetic meaning system. Working with the contemporary Yirrkala community, this includes consideration of those functions and the meanings delivered through the embodied experience of their performance in everyday and ritual aspects of social life.


McKenzie, Robyn ‘The String Figures of Yirrkala: Examination of a Legacy’, Thomas, Martin and Neale, Margo (eds.), Exploring the Legacy of the 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition, ANU E Press, Canberra, 2011, pp. 191-212.

McKenzie, Robyn ‘From the contested Zone: String Figures in the Museum’, Museological Review, Issue 15, 2011, pp. 48-62.

Updated: 29 March 2012/ Responsible Officer:  Head of School / Page Contact:  Web Publisher