The Berndt Museum originated as a private research collection of Professor Ronald M and Dr Catherine H Berndt. The earliest references to the idea of the Museum can be located in documents from 1957, one year after the Berndts relocated to Perth to establish the Department of Anthropology at UWA.

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The collection's history extends across to the University of Sydney (New South Wales), where the Berndts both studied under Professor A.P. Elkin, and to South Australia, where Ronald Berndt was raised, and across the globe, where they contributed to countless collections of Aboriginal Australian material.

In Western Australia, the earliest exhibition of the Berndt Collections was in 1957 in a show developed by Ronald and Catherine called An Exhibition of Australian Aboriginal Art – Arnhem Land Paintings on Bark at the Perth Museum in conjunction with the Western Australian Museum and Art Gallery as it was known then. The original collections were established to support the creation of the Department, teaching and research, with a particular focus on Aboriginal Australia, the Pacific and Asia. Today, the collections represent some 60 years of UWA history in anthropological education.

Early days

In 1979, the Anthropology Research Museum was launched with several collections from the Anthropology Department adding to its holdings. The inaugural exhibition was a survey show that opened on 22 February 1979 in the basement of the Social Science Building and showcased works from the Northeast and Western Arnhem Land, the Kimberley, Southwest South Australia, Central Western Australian and the Western Desert. By 1980 Ronald and Catherine Berndt, with support from the then Vice Chancellor, donated their collections of Aboriginal material to UWA.

Development

In 1992, two years after Ronald Berndt’s death, the Anthropology Research Museum was renamed the Berndt Museum of Anthropology in honour of Ronald and Catherine’s contribution to the University, the field of anthropology and the Berndt Museum. Catherine Berndt passed away in 1994 and a second major bequest was made to UWA in which the Berndt Museum received significant Asian and Melanesian material, the Ronald M and Catherine H Field Notebooks, their personal and professional archive that includes manuscripts, personal and professional papers relating to their research, and items within the collections from across their full range of field work and research.

The Berndt Museum has also been fortunate to receive additional donations and gifts from a wide range of donors that have expanded the collections across a hundred years of Aboriginal Australia as well as additional contributions to the Asian collections. UWA has also supported the acquisition process and today the Museum is a mix of cultural material, archives, film and sound, photographs, publications and significant works of art. 

Current site

In 2010, due to infrastructural concerns, the collections and administration offices were relocated to a temporary location in Car Park 20, beneath the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery (LWAG) while awaiting a new building. Its governance was transferred from the discipline of Anthropology to Community and Engagement and we currently exhibit in the Janet Holmes à Court Gallery within LWAG.

The Berndt Museum has been supported by the Professor Ronald M and Dr Catherine H Berndt Research Foundation, which was established by the Will and Testament of Catherine H Berndt (1994). The Foundation exists to encourage and support research in social and cultural anthropology in the area of Aboriginal Australia.

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