Australia’s missing history

“A people without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots” – Marcus Garvey

There is a yawning gap in Australia’s historical record.

While the lives of British explorers like Captain Cook are documented extensively in journals, drawings and the minutiae of ship’s logs, the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are too often muffled, removed from meaningful context or – more-often-than-not – missing altogether.

Right of Reply, a meeting of over 80 researchers and professionals from cultural institutions in Sydney, New Zealand and Canada, sought to help address these issues by connecting people and acting as a springboard for further action.

Renowned University of Oregon archivist and historian, Jennifer O’Neal, was keynote speaker, bringing international perspective and raising the bar – the US hosts a vibrant network of Indigenous organisations that are actively engaged in data collection.

“People came from right across the sector who recognised the importance of the issue but who perhaps didn’t know where to start,” says Kirsten Thorpe, project lead and senior researcher at Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research. “They wanted to find out ways to enact this work, day-to-day.”

Obviously, there are two sides to the conversation and some intersection between the two – the galleries, libraries, archives and museums (affectionately known as GLAM), and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities who can struggle to have their voices heard, and to access records and cultural artefacts.

A famous example is the British Museum’s ongoing refusal to return Aboriginal objects, including the Gweagal Shield, which contains a hole created by a shot from Cook’s crew’s muskets.

“Indigenous people need to have access, to be able to connect to these things. If they are withheld or the dispersal of cultural heritage is as far removed as being in the British Museum, it really inhibits the way that people can understand and make sense of the collection,” says Kirsten.

“Because artefacts are actual things, because they are tangible, you know you can desire to have them back more than the records but it’s nice to think about how those two might be related.”

With the National Centre for Indigenous Excellence filled to capacity for the event and organisers forced to create a wait list because of excess demand, the appetite for change is clearly out there. But the will, the leadership and the ability to resource initiatives could be hard to come by in a financially pressed sector that struggled to make ends meet, even pre-COVID.

“A lot of Indigenous GLAM workers are often in the day-to-day grind of this so people are hitting against these barriers without necessarily having the forums to discuss their aims and hopes,” says Kirsten.

Despite these difficulties, the stakes are high enough to warrant the investment – for individuals, such as those impacted by historical injustices like the Stolen Generation, Indigenous communities more broadly, and as a way for Australia to genuinely come to grips with its past and move forward, says Kirsten.

“Our approach to the historical record as a nation needs to be brought into the ‘truth-telling’ paradigm, this is about reconciliation.”

Unless things change, we risk perpetuating this gap as our museums and galleries and other cultural institutions put their records online, she says.

“As content is curated, digitised and transcribed for online audiences you can end up with datasets that may have been based on mistruths from the beginning, you’re basically just perpetuating the same kind of narratives, and potentially myths, of European settlement.”

“We see the Right of Reply as being a point of redress and a point where we can actually get people to rectify the record and have their say before it gets put into those systems.”

The project team at Jumbunna and the Indigenous Archive Collective hope to make the symposium an annual event to further the debate, identify possible solutions and increase the issue’s visibility.

The opportunity to participate in a progress statement based on outcomes from a workshop held on the day will be available on the Indigenous Art Collective website in late 2020.

Right of Reply was awarded a social impact grant in 2019, which contributed significantly towards the costs of the event.

The Problem

While the voices of British explorers and other non-Indigenous people are recorded in a range of historical source material, the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are too often missing.

The Response

Right of Reply brought together over 80 researchers and professionals from cultural institutions in Sydney, New Zealand and Canada to act as a springboard for further action in the GLAM sector to address the imbalance.

What helped accomplish this?

UTS and Jumbunna are in a unique position to bring a research perspective to the debate. They’re also able to facilitate conversations that can’t necessarily happen within the context of day-to-day operations at a cultural institution.

What has changed as a result?

An issues paper on ‘the right of reply’ was circulated before the event for discussion in an afternoon workshop. The notes from this session are currently being drafted into a statement for the Indigenous Archives Collective to progress the topic. The opportunity to provide feedback on the statement will be made available on the Indigenous Archives Collective website in late 2020.

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Impact Area

Expertise

Beneficiaries

UTS Faculty or Unit

Organisers

Interviewee

Kirsten Thorpe, Senior Researcher, Jumbunna Inst for Indigenous Education and Research
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