My blog post about the construction of memory and need for more in depth diversity in our collections. The post will be from a predominantly First Nations perspective.
People look to memory institutes such as galleries, libraries, archives and museums to tell them their history and therefore these institutions are an important part of constructing memory and identity. However, many times these collections do not tell the whole story. There are silences and distortions of our own history in these collections as voices from oppressed minorities were often not collected and when stories of oppressed individuals or communities were included in collections, frequently their story was told by someone else who was part of the dominant, oppressive mainstream (and numerous times they would centre themselves in telling the stories of oppressed others). This was because previous collecting practices were part of the colonial agenda or at least influenced by it. Subsequently, historic collections worldwide are mostly filled with the voices of rich white men.
These silences and distortions contribute to the dehumanisation of certain community groups as well as proliferation of stereotypes. Both of which assist in continuing these groups’ oppression. Fortunately, many memory institutes recognise this and are working toward amending their collection gaps and biases with the aim to be more inclusive.
However, there’s one area in which collecting practices and strategies need to improve and that’s in collecting and conveying diversity within diverse voices.
Looking at this from a First Nations perspective, because there are so few of our voices and perspectives in collections only a number of our stories are told which causes many people to think of us as a monolith, a big homogeneous group, not individuals with many perspectives, ideas, opinions and experiences. This causes some of our identities to be denied and not included in history which consequently leads to others and ourselves questioning our identity if they do not match of one identities or stories being conveyed.
Liddle (2016) highlights this in her article about Miss Australia where there were three Indigenous finalists, however only one of the three was talked about in terms of their Aboriginality. Liddle hypothesises that this is because only one of three match the white defined archetype of what an Aboriginal is.
This does not capture the complexity of First Nations communities and people, instead it simplifies them.
Furthermore, this also leads to a misrepresentation of history. If your inclusion of diverse voices means only including Stan Grant and Noel Pearson because of their profile and how articulate they are by Western Anglo standards, is that real inclusion? It leaves out many First Nations voices, especially those at grassroots level. It also continues to populate collections with what white mainstream society deems important and interesting, not considering what communities want. A micro version of the previous collecting practices, that did not value the input of First Nations people.
This favouring of high profile First Nations voices over grassroots ones was very noticeable in the discussions over Constitution recognition as many mainstream media outlets framed it as recognition is what First Nations communities want and only the government was in the way. Whereas, the real discussion was more complex and a majority of First Nations people did not want Constitution recognition. This asks the question, in the future, would those researching the 2010s find that complexity in our collections or only the high-profile advocates for recognition telling the one story?
In addition to this, there is also a tendency to try and collect “traditional” cultural knowledge, and while that is important and should be a priority because those knowledges and the cultural practices that stem from them are part of what makes this country unique and teach us much about the science of the land and our connection to country and each other, but this focus excludes the voices of many urban First Nations people. Particularly, those on the east of this land mass, whom, because of colonisation, were forcefully separated from culture and what is considered “traditional”.
Of course, it is impossible to collect everything, there will be many, many voices that will not be captured in the constructed history conveyed by collections. However, there are some suggestions I have, that can help ensure inclusion of diverse voices within First Nations Voices (Note: this is mainly aimed at bigger institutions).
- Collect social media
Aboriginal people are one of the biggest users of Facebook on this land mass and prominent users of other networks too. Consequently, social media is where a lot of First Nations discussions are taking place. Luke Pearson recently noted that social media has amplified many First Nations voices that would otherwise be unheard and has also highlighted the diversity in our opinions.
- Engage with communities.
A lot of memory institutes do Indigenous community engagement. Although, this is usually done in terms asking permission or dictating a project. For example, you may have First Nations content going in an upcoming exhibition that you’re seeking approval for or you have an idea for an oral histories project and for it you want to record the stories of Uncles and Auntys in a certain community. However, that’s not asking community what they want.
If you ask community what they want and keep a consistent dialogue with them after the completion of projects, you may be informed what First Nations voices community want collected or hear about important community events and activities, you were unaware of. Additionally, you may realise that some First Nations voices you thought were influential are not considered so by community.
- Empower First Nations collection hubs
There are many First Nations knowledge centres, cultural centres, art galleries and Elders groups across this land mass that are already collecting a wide range of First Nations voices. Many of these hubs would love guidance and resources from bigger institutions.
A helpful idea would be if big cultural institutions adopted a program like Jawun secondment program where private sector organisations (mostly banks) pay for one of their staff member to borrowed short term (6 weeks) by an Aboriginal community organisation that needs their skills. It works because it gives an Aboriginal community organisation a highly skilled person that may not afford otherwise and it gives that person an experience they wouldn’t get otherwise. After the secondment, that staff member also returns to with new skills and perspectives.
I’m sure there is a program like this, I’m just not aware of it.
- Be mindful
Question if your collections only derive cultural heritage and First Nations history from a few sources. If you’re favouring an art form or medium or a writing or speaking style over others, does that exclude voices?
History is complex and diverse and we should try capture that in our historical collections have it influence how we convey historical narratives.
By Nathan Sentance