Frances Morphy and Howard Morphy. Photo by Stuart Hay.
A marriage of love and work
ANU academics Frances Morphy, MA Linguistics ’77, and Howard Morphy, PhD ’78, have devoted their professional lives to studying Aboriginal language, society and art.
Howard: We met at University College, London. She wore mini skirts.
Frances: He was in the year above me. Long hair and beard – very cool.
H: I had intended to do a law degree.
F: I had been expected to study French at Edinburgh, my home university.
H: But in applying for uni we both switched to anthropology. Accident was the first film we saw together.
F: An omen for the serendipities to follow.
H: My first job was in the Ethnography Department at the British Museum. I loved museum collections but wanted to do a fieldwork-based PhD. I saw an advertisement for ANU scholarships and applied to research art in Vanuatu. I was offered a scholarship if I agreed to study Arnhem Land bark paintings!
F: So we came to ANU. I reverted to type and started an MA in Linguistics, and we set off to Yirrkala together. In retrospect, that field experience with the Yolngu gave us the solid foundation for our long-term partnership and our lifelong, shared interests.
H: We complemented one another. Frances researched the grammar of Djapu, a Yolngu language, and I worked on the grammar of Yolngu art. We came together in our study of Yolngu kinship and marriage. We have close links to our Yolngu extended family to this day.
F: I finished my MA and worked as a research assistant while Howard wrote his PhD. Then, while on our first visit ‘home’ to the UK, my flu turned out to be morning sickness and Howard got a job offer in the Prehistory and Anthropology Department at ANU, so back we came. Our daughter was born and then, three years later, our son. ANU was a great place for a young family – terrific childcare, good friends. On Friday evenings after picking up the kids we all congregated on the lawns of the Staff Club at Old Canberra House.
H: One day to my surprise it was suggested I apply for a lectureship and curatorship at Oxford University’s Pitt Rivers Museum. We moved back to my childhood home for an interval.
F: It was a hard transition for me (apparently there is such a thing as ‘trailing spouse syndrome’) but in the end I landed a job at Oxford University Press as an assistant, and, later, commissioning editor. Despite the joys of being close to family and old friends, Oxford never agreed with me, so I was relieved when Howard got an offer of an ARC professorial research fellowship back at ANU. We thought we were here just for five years – but here we are still, 20 years on!
H: Is there such a thing as ‘getting a job where your spouse wants to live syndrome’? Back in Australia, back in Canberra, we could do so much. Our children visited the ANU creche and our son thought it was where he once lived. We worked together with Yolngu on the Blue Mud Bay claim, which confirmed Aboriginal ownership of the intertidal zone under the Northern Territory Land Rights Act. Frances became an ANU academic and transformed into an anthropological demographer. Thanks to the National Museum of Australia I was able to keep up my involvement with museums and collections. We grew another native garden.
F: We’ve been together for nearly half a century, which is both weird and wonderful. We can never quite remember when our anniversary is – the only one we celebrated officially was our 25th, when some friends made us. I haven’t worn mini skirts for some time and his beard belongs to the past. But otherwise we are exactly who we were when we first met – on the inside.
Frances Morphy is an Honorary Associate Professor at the ANU Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research.
Howard Morphy is an Emeritus Professor at the ANU Research School of Humanities and the Arts.