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Indigenous Collections

In 1966 Professor W.E.H. Stanner from the Australian National University and one of the founders of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (the forerunner of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies [AIATSIS]), wrote:

Everyone loves a good story, and one of the world’s best stories could be told about Australia … It is the story of the discovery, mastery and enrichment of the continent by the Australian Aborigines [and Torres Strait Islanders], and it makes one of the most splendid tales of its kind that any country in the world can offer.1

More recently, in 2014, Professor Mick Dodson AM, former Australian of the Year and current Chairperson of the AIATSIS, in referring to the AIATSIS collections, stated:

These are the stories that have shaped and continue to shape the very soul of the Australian nation. They speak to its past, to the survival of Indigenous cultures against all odds, and that in so doing, have rescued our nation from what would have been certain ignominy for all time.2

As a nation we must now gather and cherish these materials, before it is too late.

The UNESCO Memory of the World Australian Register contains nine items that tell significant stories of the Indigenous peoples of Australia. A variety of voices can be heard through the collections, such as: Indigenous groups and individuals as they impart and share their cultural knowledge to others through art, song, and stories; academics as they record aspects of Indigenous culture through photography, film, sound recordings and field notes; and the general Australian public as they express their deep sorrow at the wrongs done to Indigenous people through the years.

Each entry contributes towards an understanding of Australian identity through providing primary source material for understanding the Indigenous culture and history of Australia. Several of the collections, compiled through long periods of time, give examples of how Indigenous people have faced and adapted to changes in their political and natural environments. Also revealed in the collections are the constraints and ideals of the society of the scholars and others who created them, especially in how they portray themselves in photographs, the technology that they use to record the information, and the ways that they refer to the Indigenous peoples with whom they worked and formed relationships.

The collections are held in different types of institutions, such as museums, libraries, universities, and one internationally unique institution, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS).

The following three items are direct expressions of culture, mostly by Indigenous people.

The Australian Indigenous Languages Collection (#31, held at AIATSIS), is the largest corpus of published items in Australian Indigenous languages. Children’s readers, Bible translations, dictionaries, traditional legends, language learning kits, and many other works have been used for teaching over 100 Indigenous languages from all over Australia. Many of the items are no longer in print, making the collection extremely valuable, especially from the Indigenous community perspective where languages are being revived. Several noted artists, such as Alick Tipoti (Torres Strait) and Mawalan Marika (Arnhem Land), illustrated several of the booklets, making them important artistic works as well.

Inscription #18, the Ronald M. Berndt Collection of Crayon Drawings on Brown Paper from Yirrkala, Northern Territory, shows a new style of artistic practice amongst people who had formerly painted on stringybark. In the 1940s and ‘50s, the anthropologist Berndt feared that his collection of bark paintings could not be safely transported to Darwin, so he asked various artists to transfer their imagery to paper. Yolngu artists depicted their beliefs and the structure of their society through their art. These works give a view of Indigenous society and cosmology before the great changes brought about by developments such as mining and land rights in the 1960s and ‘70s. The drawings are held at the University of Western Australia.

The Margaret Lawrie Torres Strait Islander Collection (#29) contains information on the languages, songs, stories, art and culture of the Torres Strait region. It is the most comprehensive collection of material from the Torres Strait since the exhaustive ethnographic study made by the Cambridge Expedition to the Torres Strait in the 1890s. Lawrie’s books on Torres Strait myths, legends, and stories helped to educate the general public, both in Australia and overseas, about the richness of Torres Strait Islander culture. Lawrie’s collection was also used to advise the Australian government as it examined how best to provide services to Indigenous communities. The State Library of Queensland holds this collection.

The story of Indigenous Australia continues with four collections that were gathered during anthropological investigations, either as team efforts or as personal records of research.

These are the Donald Thomson Ethnohistory Collection (#25), the Mountford-Sheard Collection (#210), the Norman Barnett Tindale Collection (#45), and the Board for Anthropological Research Collections, 1923-1974, (#50). These multidisciplinary collections cover large geographical areas, ranging from Cape York in North Queensland through Arnhem Land and the Tiwi Islands to Central Australia and the Flinders Ranges in South Australia. They contain a variety of media, such as film, photography, recorded sound and written documents. All of these collections document Indigenous culture and society as it was from the 1920s to the 1970s. As well, they illustrate the methods used by anthropologists and ethnographers to describe Indigenous culture within those time periods and the ways that researchers related to their Indigenous colleagues.

Much of the information in all four collections has been used for Indigenous land claims as they document cultural practices, laws and customs, and geographical locations of Indigenous groups. Norman Tindale produced extensive genealogies and a map of tribal groups. The Thomson and the Mountford-Sheard collections portrayed their subjects with great respect and sensitivity. Also, Donald Thomson’s ethnographic collection includes some of the earliest colour films of ritual. Some of these from Arnhem Land were popularised by the filmmaker Rolf de Heer as historical footage in his acclaimed film, Ten Canoes.

Information in these collections has been used by individual Indigenous communities to revitalise their languages and cultural practices. The audiovisual elements of the collections give viewers and listeners an immediate experience of how Indigenous people lived prior to Government and missions’ administration. These four collections are held in the State Library of South Australia, the South Australian Museum and Museum Victoria.

The final part of the story of Indigenous history comes with two collections, the Mabo Case Manuscripts (#2) and the Sorry Books (#13) that demonstrate actions towards righting some of the wrongs done to the Indigenous people of Australia. The Mabo Case Manuscripts document one of the most momentous changes in the legal landscape of Australia through the recognition by the High Court of Australia that pre-existing rights to land under customary law survive and are protected by the laws of the invading British culture. These papers have been inscribed on both the International and the Australian Registers of Memory of the World. Eddie Mabo, whose name has become a household word throughout Australia, was a Torres Strait Islander who initiated the struggle for recognition of his rights to land on the island of Mer (Murray Island).

The series of hearings and the legal documents involved in the Mabo Case resulted in overturning the concept of the former legal doctrine of ‘terra nullius’, according to which Australia was conceived as an empty land when it was claimed for the British crown in 1788. Although Eddie Mabo was fighting for his rights to particular land in the Torres Strait, the findings by the High Court of Australia recognised that there were certain kinds of rights that existed for all Indigenous Australians on the mainland as well as the offshore islands.

The Mabo papers also include the thoughts and struggles of Eddie Mabo as he followed the tortuous legal processes to establish his rights to his land. Although he did not live to see the fruits of his labour, his name lives on in Australian history. These papers are held in the National Library of Australia.

Finally, the Sorry Books provide an expression of sorrow over the practice by the Australian Government of removing Indigenous children from their parents. Hundreds of thousands of signatures and comments express grief at the actions that produced the Stolen Generations. These books were assembled in 1998 before the formal apology declared by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2008. They are held at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS).

In conclusion, all of the inscribed component collections mentioned make priceless individual and collective contributions to both the spirit and purpose of the UNESCO Memory of the World Australian Register. These collections tell significant Australian stories in ways which truly do justice to Stanner’s concept of representing very ‘splendid tales’ and are much deserving of Dodson’s call to ‘be cherished’ by all Australians and by the world at large.

Attribution: I wish to acknowledge the work, wisdom and support of Dr Grace Koch of AIATSIS in the research and preparation of this document.

1.W. Stanner, ‘Gallery of Southern Man for Canberra’, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies Newsletter 2 4 October 1966, p.42.

2.Professor Mick Dodson, Address to the National Press Club, 12 November 2014.

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