Australia’s ongoing cultural war: research, records and Indigenous heritage

by | May 25, 2018 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

By James Bosanquet

There is a growing recognition that the descriptions and handling of Indigenous culture widely used in Australian records systems and archives are inadequate, inappropriate and insensitive. This can include objects, but equally covers photographs, oral histories, interviews and other sources of identifying information. This has repercussions for researchers. The issue is being discussed at a professional body level, but requires action and, without a legislative framework, arguably institutions should be taking the lead.

As a child I have strong memory of seeing the artefacts displayed in the museum. Strange objects in tidy, backlit boxes. Labels like ‘stone age axes’, ‘totems’ and ‘ceremonial tools’. Not to mention skeletal remains. The appropriation of objects by institutions is mirrored in our present treatment of Aboriginal and Indigenous records. Removal of the existing Indigenous cultural significance of an object and placing it into a different cultural framework reflects Australia’s past mistreatment of Aborigines from genocide, the stolen generation, through to the high numbers of Aborigines in custody, deaths in custody and the health and education gap. Writing about the display of Indigenous objects in a new anthology of essays Indigenous  Archives: The Making and Unmaking of Aboriginal Art, Jessyca Hutchens writes ‘the archive represents not only historical displacement but ongoing violence towards immaterial aspects of the culture that the object remains linked to’ (Indigenous Archives, University of Western Australia Press, 2007, p.297).

By describing objects, we are contextualising and framing them in history. The process of description is core to archives and recordkeeping.  In Australia, description is an elaborate and matured process tied to organisational culture and function. It is also tied to the Records Continuum Model that uses a lifecycle for a record determining its long-term value.  The value of objects is signified by the description, such as ‘artwork’.   

The language of recordkeeping in Australia is formal and government or business orientated.  A researcher usually requires knowledge of the system to be able to access the archives. This is at the exclusion of cultural signifiers, the particular importance or harm that an object may carry. 

National Archives Australia (NAA), like other institutions, supply Reading Aids to assist researchers to understand the language. Researchers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (ATSI) history using the NAA’s site are taken to reading aids that categorise Aboriginal history within Australian government frameworks. Categories for Aboriginal records include Northern Territory Administration, Aboriginal Affairs, Nuclear Testing at Maralinga. Searches are listed by organisation and function. Researchers using the Reading Aids would access the relevant government department records in the archive, such as Department of External Affairs (CA7) to reach official Australian records about Aboriginal or ATSI populations from 1911-1916.  

Figure 1 – detail from NAA record search website, Reported discovery of prehistoric Aboriginal relics, Dr H Basedow

Figure 2 – detail from NAA Record Search website, Aboriginal dress and ornaments

This framing of records is standard for archival description almost all around the world.  In recent times, a failure to engage Indigenous communities has been highlighted in contrast to work that is occurring in Aotearoa/New Zealand Institutions.  An engagement with Maori stakeholders is a requirement. This has come from a national approach under a legislative framework ‘to uphold the principles of the treaty of Waitangi’ (p.14, Morse, Indigenous Human Rights, 2012).

Australia’s changing demographics should see the broadening need for community consultation and a willingness to engage with the cultural significance of information.  

The ASA (Australian Society of Archivists) recently partnered with ITIC (Information Technologies Indigenous Communities) in Melbourne 2017. I was fortunate to be present to hear Leisa Gibson give her paper at the ASA/ITIC Conference ‘Engaging expert knowledge outside academia: service-learning for archival education’. Leisa provided an analysis of the needs for community consultation. At the same Conference Cathy Bow, Dr Ruth Ringer and Elizabeth Shaffer (presenting on the experience of post-colonial Indian archives) the inherent flaws and violence perpetuated by archival systems. Systems and language that continue to subjugate communities.

Community engagement is something we can incorporate into practice. Without our own treaty in Australia, it is time for institutions and communities to take the lead to develop a national approach.  

James Bosanquet is the Information and Records Manager at the Health Education and Training Institute. He is an accredited professional with the Australian Society of Archivists and has a BA (Politics and Literature) from Macquarie University, a Grad Dip (Information and Knowledge Management) from UTS and a Masters of Information Services (Archives and Records) from Edith Cowan University. James has a passion for Information and Archives. 

Source of the portrait of a man above: Barani website 
This unsigned portrait is entitled “One of the NSW Aborigines befriended by Governor Macquarie” and was for many years in the possession of Mrs Macquarie. Like too many paintings of Aboriginal people, this individual is unnamed (Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW – ML 696)’


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