Archival Community, Indigenous Australia, Research

Place is Bigger than Metadata: Maps as Colonial Tools

What maps and place names are not:

  • Passive
  • Neutral, or
  • Accurate

Instead, maps and place names are both the legacy and the tool of continuing colonisation

Consider this; each time that someone looks at a map of Australia and sees Wurrundjeri country being described as ‘Melbourne’, has the space once again been colonised?

An understanding of the complexity and multiplicity of place across time and space should underpin the standards, systems, and practices within the GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums) sectors.

Australia has somewhat belatedly come to the table with regards to reconsidering place names, with the most significant progress having been made this year.

The GLAM sectors have made some interesting inroads in decolonising place lately (of course we still have a long way to go). Below I briefly outline a couple of interesting projects which have attempted to decolonise place within the GLAM sectors before outlining some small measures you can implement within your own work.



Weemala is a tool which was built in the space of a week (just shows what is possible) for the Library of New South Wales and does need further updating. The Creative Technologist who built Weemala was Chris McDowall. The tool displays transcribed Aboriginal placenames of New South Wales from Survey forms and correspondence received by the Royal Anthropological Society of Australasia regarding Aboriginal place names, 1899-1903.

Weemala interface

Chris possibly didn’t fully realise the political choice he made when he created ‘a map that would give a sense of the shape and landcover of Australia and that wasn’t covered with modern placenames and transportation networks’ (Weemala website, 2017) and instead preferenced the Aboriginal place names.


Ngāi Tahu Cultural Mapping Project

The Ngāi Tahu Cultural Mapping Project is using the latest Geographical Information System (GIS) technology to record, map and transmit traditional Ngāi Tahu knowledge. With the aid of GIS technology the stories and place names that record Ngāi Tahu history in Te Waipounamu are being mapped onto a virtual landscape for future generations… Ngāi Tahu place names, traditional travel routes, Māori reserved land and other areas of cultural significance are examples of the knowledge that is being recorded on the GIS technology. (Project website, 2017)

The map is due to be published late 2017 with over 1,200 place names related to New Zealand’s South Island. According to Tony Ballantyne, password protected sections within the project web resource will include sensitive place names that aren’t appropriate to be made available to the public. From my (poor quality) photo of Tony’s presentation at the Critical Archives conference, it appears that the South Island of New Zealand was depicted without colonial place names or transportation routes, but likely it was a more deliberate political choice than in the case of Weemala.

The place names have been gathered mainly through oral accounts and the records contained in archival communities.


So what can you do?

Ok, maybe you don’t have the resources required to hire a creative technologist or commence a cultural mapping exercise. There are small things that you can do in your job that will help to disrupt the continual colonisation of place.

  • Are you working on an exhibition? Consult with the relevant community and put the appropriate place name alongside (if not before) the colonial place name.
  • Are you choosing a new collection management system? Choose one which allows multiple entries for ‘place’, and then USE those multiple entries. Keep in mind that museum and archive catalogue systems based on relational databases rather than hierarchies allows for ‘place’ to be more complex than ‘just’ a metadata text field.
  • Are you designing a website about a collection? Be conscious of how you portray country. If your map has colonial boundaries and place names on it, then you are continuing to colonise place (I’m definitely guilty of this one myself).
  • Have a read of “Is Your Collecting Institution Culturally Appropriate?” and encourage your management to read it too.


This post is the first in the ‘Place is Bigger than Metadata’ series. Sign up for the newsletters below if you’d like to read more. If you know of interesting initiatives to help decolonise place within the GLAM sectors please do let me (and other readers) know by posting in the comments below.




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