Archival Community, Indigenous Australia

Is Your Collecting Institution Culturally Appropriate? 

Is Your Collecting Institution Culturally Appropriate? Probably not.

Please note: I am not an Indigenous person and this post does not and could not replace an Indigenous voice. I am writing this as a non-Indigenous GLAM professional to other non-Indigenous GLAM professionals.


No person is likely to willingly go to a place which portrays or displays them in a way that is alien and degrading (Mick Dodson, 1993)


Those who get to work on Indigenous projects or in Indigenous cultural institutions are required to learn about Indigenous culture as part of core business. It’s those collecting institutions that hold only some Indigenous cultural materials that need to be particularly careful and would require a special effort from staff and management in order to be culturally appropriate.

This post is intended as a reference for those who want to engage with the Indigenous items in their collections and don’t know where to start.

  1. The first thing you need to do is to consider the very nature of your collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander material. Whether the material was created about, or by, the communities themselves, the collection is likely to be the result of colonisation and is paternalistic by its very nature. I recommend reading the post about The Paternalistic Nature of Collecting by Nathan Sentance on this very topic,
  2. The second thing you need to be aware of is that your collection may contain objects which are considered sensitive, secret and sacred by the community. Poor education and awareness can result in offending the very communities we purportedly serve through the unintended mishandling of these secret sacred objects. For example, one major cultural institution in Australia caused significant offense when a female staff member photographed a secret-sacred object which should only have been seen by men,
  3. More cultural institutions need to engage in repatriation projects – where Indigenous cultural materials are returned to the relevant communities. Examples being the repatriation of Indigenous Australian ancestral remains or the repatriation of digitised photos from European collections.

Whilst engaging with the points raised above on an intellectual level in the longer term, here is the resource to help guide your cultural institution in the shorter term:

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Protocols for Libraries, Archives and Information Services is the ‘go to’ protocol which covers all manner of issues of relevance to GLAM staff. The protocols are available here and cover the following topics:

  1. Governance and management
  2. Content and perspectives
  3. Intellectual property
  4. Accessibility and use
  5. Description and classification
  6. Secret and sacred materials
  7. Offensive
  8. Staffing
  9. Developing professional practice
  10. Awareness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and issues
  11. Copying and repatriation of records
  12. The digital environment

Here are a couple of things of particular note:

If you have questions about how to deal with particular collections appropriately – get in touch with the community. Most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have a representative body which you can get in touch with.

Don’t just put these questions in the ‘too hard’ basket – it’s not too hard – you just need to be willing to engage with this space.

Terminology has political power and is anything but neutral.

For example: By describing an Indigenous cultural object as being ‘from Melbourne’ you are continuing that dominant narrative and colonise that object and the community it relates to as a result. Instead, describe that object as being ‘from Wurundjeri country – later also referred to as Melbourne’. By making this change, you acknowledge the agency of the Wurundjeri people and the complexity and parallels of history.

Your reading room is your public face – make it accessible. Consider something as simple as enrolling your staff in cultural awareness training or popping up a welcome sign in the Indigenous language(s) of your area.

Employment – the GLAM sectors would be greatly strengthened by an increase of Indigenous staff. Without diversity amongst GLAM sectors our ability to ensure diversity in our collections is limited.

“It’s really important to pay the organisations you ask to consult with, if they are not already receiving funding to perform this role. It costs community organisations and elders time and effort, i.e. labour, and draws on expertise and relationships to participate in consultation and engagement processes.” Read BadBlood’s comment below this post for more on this.

In order to engage effectively within this space you need to up skill and educate yourself – consider registering for the 2017 Information Technologies Indigenous Communities symposium or future AIATSIS conferences. Become an ally to the Indigenous community and make our cultural institutions a better reflection of the diversity within our society.

Within this space it is problematic to adopt a one size fits all approach. What is deemed appropriate in one community may offend another. Australia is thought to have had upwards of 500 Indigenous language groups prior to colonisation. If you’d like to learn a few more things about why I admire our Indigenous community so much – read my post about 6 Things You Should Know About Indigenous Australia.

The Australian Society of Archivists’ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Special Interest Group is available if you have specific queries beyond what is covered in the ATSILIRN protocols.

Reminder: The author of this post is not an Indigenous Australian and this post can at most only act as a precursor to a conversation with an Indigenous Australian.

4 thoughts on “Is Your Collecting Institution Culturally Appropriate? 

  1. Thanks for this post. I am also non-Indigenous and have worked in the community health sector on projects engaging with different communities, including Aboriginal people, for more than a decade. I want to note one thing that is really important and might have been an oversight here — it’s really important to pay the organisations you ask to consult with, if they are not already receiving funding to perform this role. It costs community organisations and elders time and effort, i.e. labour, and draws on expertise and relationships to participate in consultation and engagement processes. In some organisations I’ve observed an almost moralistic response to the request for payment — as if this should be done for free and it’s in bad faith if it isn’t. The best way to prevent this is to manage expectations, message early about it being best practice, and build it into your budget. Again, thanks for this post.

    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment – you are so right and it’s definitely a continuing problem given the Qantas debacle last week. I will add a note in the post about the importance of this point and to refer to your comment.

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