Helen Gardner


Helen is an historian of the broader Oceania, including Australia and the Pacific Islands through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Following her undergraduate and postgraduate studies at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Helen was awarded her PhD in 2000. Helen’s book Gathering for God: George Brown in Oceania was shortlisted for the Ernest Scott prize. Over a twenty-year career at Deakin University, Helen has taught on twentieth-century world history and the history of race, anthropology, and colonialism in Australia and the Pacific Islands. Helen’s long focus on the history of anthropology in Oceania has expanded to an exploration of the global intellectual forces on Pacific peoples, including theology, particularly in the era of decolonisation. Helen has a longstanding interest in anthropological archives and she is the Chief Investigator of a large Australian Research Council Linkage Grant on Aboriginal materials in South Eastern Australia. When Helen is not puzzling over historical conundrums with her historian partner, or chairing the Journal of Pacific History, she is learning how to draw and unsuccessfully teaching her dog not to bark at the possums.

  • Research

    Helen’s research is concerned with the history of anthropology in Oceania, and the interplay of this discipline with Christian mission and colonialism through the nineteenth and twentieth century. Helen explores colonial archives as sites both of colonial control and dialogue.

    From 2016, Helen has led an Australian Research Council Funded Linkage Project dedicated to transcribing and returning a large archive of nineteenth-century anthropological materials to Aboriginal people in South Eastern Australia. This project followed from her long interest in the history of anthropology in the nineteenth century in Oceania and the Pacific and her book Southern Anthropology: A History of Fison and Howitt’s Kamilaroi and Kurnai (with Patrick McConvell, 2015).  This book was followed by a special issue on the early history of anthropology Before the Field: Colonial Anthropology in Oceania.

    Through the last ten years Helen also has been working on the history of the culture concept specifically and anthropology more broadly, in Christian mission in the Pacific. Helen is interested in how these ideas spread through Pacific networks via theological institutions as pastors moved between pulpit and parliament in the decolonisation era. Helen edited a special issue on decolonisation in Melanesia in 2013 and has a forthcoming chapter on the spread of the culture concept in Christian mission in the Pacific in the Cambridge History of the Pacific Islands.

    Throughout her career Helen has worked collaboratively with linguists, anthropologists, and historians.

  • Selected publications

    Forthcoming 2021. Helen Gardner, ‘Culture and Christian Missions in Oceania’, in Samson, Darcy, Hattori, Jones, Matsuda (eds), Cambridge History of  the Pacific Islands, Cambridge University Press.

    2019. Jason Gibson and Helen Gardner, ‘Conversations on the Frontier: Finding the Dialogic in 19th Century Anthropological Archives’, History Workshop Journal, 88 (Autumn 2019), 47-65.        

    2016. Helen Gardner, ‘The Genealogy of the Genealogical Method: Discoveries, Disseminations and the Historiography of British Anthropology’, Oceania, Vol. 86, Issue 3, 294–319.

    2015. Helen Gardner and Patrick McConvell, Southern Anthropology: Fison and Howitt’s Kamilaroi and Kurnai, Palgrave Macmillan.

    2013. Helen Gardner, ‘Praying for Independence: The Presbyterian Church and the Decolonisation of Vanuatu’, Journal of Pacific History, 48:2, 122-44.

    2010. Helen Gardner, ‘From Site to Text: Australian Aborigines and the Origin of the Family, Itinerario, 34: 3, 25-38.

    2010. Helen Gardner, ‘Practising Christianity, Writing Anthropology: Missionary Anthropologists and Their Informants’, in Patricia Grimshaw and Andrew May (eds), Missionaries, Indigenous Peoples and Cultural Exchange, Sussex Academic Press, Brighton, England, 110-122.

    2009. Helen Gardner, ‘”By the Facts We Add to the Store”: Lorimer Fison, Lewis Henry Morgan and the Origins of Kinship Studies in Australia’, Oceania, 79:3, 280-293.

    2008. Helen Gardner, ‘The Origin of Kinship in Oceania: Lewis Henry Morgan and Lorimer Fison’, Oceania, 78:2, 137-151.

    2008. Helen Gardner, ‘The “Faculty of Faith”: Evangelical Missionaries, Social Anthropologists and theClaim for Human Unity in the Nineteenth Century’, in B. Douglas and C. Ballard (eds), Foreign Bodies: Oceania and Racial Science 1750 – 1940, ANU e-press, Canberra, 259-282.

    2006. Helen Gardner, Gathering for God: George Brown in Oceania, Dunedin, University of Otago Press.

  • Teaching

    Helen has been teaching twentieth-century world history at first-year level for many years now and enjoys the enthusiasm and ideas that new students bring to their studies.  Helen also has drawn on her research to develop a number of units covering the history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century race, science, and religion in Oceania. Students explored the spread of scientific and religious ideas about racial differences and the debates held at the centre and the edges of empires as Oceania came under imperial rule.  Specific topics included the Melanesian labour trade to Queensland, the conversion of Islanders to Christianity, the colonisation of the Pacific Islands, and the defence and federation of the Australian colonies as the imperial powers of France and Germany sought Pacific empires.

    Over the last five years Helen has taught Australia’s Empire: Colonialism in Papua and New Guinea, with a special focus on the diverse and complex archives that are used to write colonial histories. Students examine the imperial competition that led to the annexation of the eastern half of New Guinea in 1884 and the theories of racial determinism that forged the first Australian administration from 1906. Then the spread of Christian missions and affiliated services such as education. The unit also examines the place of the Kokoda campaign as the origin of decolonisation in Papua New Guinea  and finally the rising nationalism of Papua New Guineans in the 1960s and the end of Australian rule in 1975.

  • Supervision

    Helen’s supervision centres around the themes of colonialism, anthropology, and Christian mission with a geographical focus on Oceania.  Helen is especially interested in Indigenous engagement with modernity.


    Completed and current supervisions


    Susan Blackwood, 2006. Jungle, Desert, Ice: Royal Geographical Society of Australasia, Victorian Branch


    Kirstie Close, 2015. A Mission Divided: Race and Culture in Fiji’s Methodist Mission


    Amanda Lourie, 2017. From Paddock to Page: Ethnological Engagement in 1860s-1870s Colonial Victoria


    Bronwen Shepherd, 2021. Milingimbi Mission and Early 20th Century Constructions of Difference


    Anna Kent, 2020. History of Australian and New Zealand Aid for the Pacific


    Brad Underhill, 2021. The New Deal on the Ground in Papua New Guinea


    Deborah Lee-Talbot, 2022. A feminist Frontier? Analysing Women’s Historic Experiences on Evangelical Sites


    Martin Korokan, 2022. Church and Development in Papua New Guinea: Health Services Delivery in Enga Province from 1947 to the Present


    Nicholas Oates, 2023. Deal or No Deal: White Australia and the New Deals for Indigenous People in the Northern Territory, Papua, and New Guinea

  • Awards, fellowships, and honours

    • The book from Helen’s PhD, Gathering for God: George Brown in Oceania, was shortlisted for the Ernest Scott History Prize.
    • Helen has held fellowships at Australian National University, the University of the South Pacific, and Cambridge University.
    • Helen has been funded to attend a number of conferences including Oxford, Osaka, Suva, Canberra, and Lucerne.  
    • In order to finish her second book, Helen received funding from the ANU School of Literature, Language and Linguistics.  
    • For many years Helen was an editor of the A-ranked Journal of Pacific History. Since the completion of her editorship at the journal Helen has been the Chair of JPH Inc.
    • In 2016, Helen received a large Australian Research Council Grant to lead a team of linguists, historians, and anthropologists from four Australian universities to transcribe and return a large archive of nineteenth-century materials on the Aboriginal people of South Eastern Australia. 

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