The need for reclassification of First Nations original material in memory institutions.

Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums (GLAM) organisations have in many ways failed to correctly classify First Nations material, particularly original material in their collections. This is the result of the classificatory structures being used, such as the Dewey Decimal System or subject thesauri, by GLAM organisations were developed based on the epistemology systems of the dominant culture, which in the case of most colonised countries, is one of white Judeo-Christian. As a consequence, there is a marginalisation and a failure to incorporate concepts and epistemology outside the dominant culture, including First Nations knowledge frameworks (Olson, 1998).

This is because most of First Nations cultural material in collections was either recorded or collected by Europeans (Thorpe & Byrne, 2014). And since entering GLAM collections, has only been intended to be accessed by non-Indigenous people to research First Nations culture (Koch, 2010).

However, now, more and more First Nations people want to access this material to reconnect or revitalise their culture and language, research their family history, or to know more about their communities (Thorpe & Galassi, 2014). However, the failure to only classify cultural materials through Western systems has affected the discoverability of cultural heritage for First Nations people (Russell, 2005)

Furthermore, because current classification practices do not incorporate First Nations epistemology, they may be less useful in terms of culture revitalisation. Additionally, First Nations cultural heritage may organised and arranged in a way that is culturally inappropriate (McKemmish et al, 2011).

Based on years of experience being First Nations people working in GLAM with a focus on facilitating access for First Nations communities to the cultural material in collections and years of experience cataloguing and classifying material, this post will discuss the how First Nations cultural heritage is currently classified and arranged and issues related to that. 

Classification by discipline

Most classification systems, such as Dewey Decimal, divides material by subject such as art, science, sport etc. (Satija, 2013). There are many reasons these classifications could be inadequate to First Nations material. Firstly, much of First Nations knowledge does not fit in traditional Western disciplines (Watson, 2014). As Watson (2014) notes, First Nations knowledges were very holistic and theology, environmental sustainability, art, science, philosophy, technology and ethics were all connected. As consequence, manifestations of First Nations knowledges can easily get mischaracterised. For instance, the shark masks from the Torres Strait are aesthetically pleasing and used for dance and therefore a book relating to them could easily be categorised as an art book or a dance book. However, this may not be the discipline First Nation people may search under to access the aforementioned book. Ceremony or philosophy may be the more likely categorisation used by First Nations people.

In some cases this mischaracterisation may be offensive. For example, occasionally in Dewey, Aboriginal creation stories come under 398.2049915 Aboriginal myths and legends. Conversely, Christian creation stories are not classified as Christian myths and legends. Aboriginal culture is a living culture and many Aboriginal people believe their creation story, just as Christians do, as fact.


Current classification systems centre colonial locations rather than Nation group

Provenance, either in terms of who collected the material or by material’s geographical location is occasionally how First Nations cultural heritage, particularly cultural objects, are arranged in collections (Bennett, et al, 2017). However, this heavily hinders discoverability for many First Nations people trying to access their own cultural heritage.

For example, if all First Nations material from Melbourne is classified together this presents a problem as Melbourne and surrounding areas are home to 5 different language groups of the Kulin nation (Victoria University, 2017). Therefore, if a member of the Wurundjeri community of the Kulin nation wanted to access their own cultural heritage they may have to go through a lot of unrelated Melbourne material to find material that relates to their culture. Thus, creating more work which could be a barrier to access.

Additionally, if physically searching through First Nations cultural material from Melbourne, a Wurundjeri community member may come across cultural material from a different language group or material that is considered men’s or women’s business, that because of cultural protocols, they are not meant to see. This could cause distress or vicarious trauma (Arnold-de Simine, 2013).  

Current classification misclassify and/or simplify First Nations cultural heritage

Another method to arrange and classify cultural material, particularly in museums, is by type. For example, tools together and weapons together (Johnson & Horgan, 1979). Within these categorisations is sub-categorisations. For instance, within the category weaponry there might a subcategory of boomerangs (Bennett, et al, 2017).

This has implications toward research and cultural revitalisation as well. For instance, many records of First Nations cultural objects have limited metadata and because of this, the classification and categorisation maybe some of the only contextual information available (Gilman, 2006). Thus, leading to people who access the collections accepting the misclassification as fact which can lead to a proliferation of misinformation.

A famous example of is the “Sydney boomerang”. According to Florek’s (2012) research, the Gadigal people of Coastal Sydney did not use boomerangs before invasion. They more likely used wooden swords and adopted the boomerang in the early 1900s. However, internationally there are collections that contain “Sydney boomerangs” (British Museum, 2017). This continuation of the “Sydney boomerang” emanates from its original classification by anthropologists and GLAM professionals.

As can be seen, current classification of First Nations material can and does have devastating effects and consequences. To diminish these effects and improve classification in the future, this post recommends that GLAM institutions implement the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Library and Information Resource Network (ATSILIRN) protocols, particularly protocol 5.2 which recommends GLAM organisations “Promote appropriate changes to standard descriptive tools and metadata schemas with the aim of retrospectively re-cataloguing items recorded with unsuitable subject headings” and protocol 5.3 “Improve access by the introduction of classificatory systems which describe items by their geographic, language and cultural
Identifiers” (ATSILIRN, 2012). To implement fully, GLAM organisations need to work closely with First Nations people and communities to ensure that any new classification schemas and retroactive reclassification does not repeat the mistakes of the past and also ensures First Knowledge epistemology is incorporated.

Museums Galleries Australia Indigenous Roadmap Project

This post recommends GLAM institutions familiarise themselves with the issues outlined in the issues paper, particularly those addressing the right of self-determination of First Nations peoples around the globe. Both the resources recommended also reflect article 31 of the United Nations (UN) Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which states “Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions, as well as the manifestations of their sciences, technologies and cultures, including human and genetic resources, seeds, medicines, knowledge of the properties of fauna and flora, oral traditions, literatures, designs, sports and traditional games and visual and performing arts. They also have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their intellectual property over such cultural heritage, traditional knowledge, and traditional cultural expressions.”

By Nathan Sentance


The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Library, Information and Resource Network. (2012).
The protocols. Retrieved from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Library, Information
and Resource Network:
Olson, H A. 1998. “Mapping Beyond Dewey’s Boundaries: Constructing
Classificatory Space for Marginalized Knowledge Domains.” Library Trends
47(2): 233-255.
Satija, M. P. (2013). The theory and practice of the dewey decimal classification system. Thorpe, K., & Byrne, A. (2014). Indigenous voices in the State Library of NSW. Library History Forum, SLNSW, 18-19 November 2014 75th Anniversary of the NSW Library Act 1939.
Sydney. Retrieved from
Thorpe, K., & Galassi, M. (2014). Rediscovering Indigenous Languages: The role and impact of libraries and archives in cultural revitalisation. Australian Academic & Research Libraries, 45(2), 81-100
Webster, K. and Doyle, A. (2008) ‘Don’t class me in antiquities!: Giving voice to Native American materials’ in Roberto, K.R. (ed.) Radical Cataloging: Essays from the Front. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co, pp. 189-198.
Martin Nakata, Alex Byrne, Vicky Nakata & Gabrielle Gardiner (2005)
‘Libraries, Indigenous Australians and a Developing Protocols Strategy for the Library
and Information Sector’, Australian Academic & Research Libraries, 36:2, 185-199, DOI:
Martin, G. (1995) ‘Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People’ First Roundtable on Library and Archives Collections and Services of Relevance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People State Library of South Australia, Adelaide, 4 May 1995
Bibliotecas indígenas en Australia y Nueva Zelanda: Una revisión bibliográfica (I don’t speak Spanish but am hoping to glean a few good resources from this)

Barnhardt, R. and Kawagley, A. O. (2005) Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Alaska Native Ways of Knowing. Anthropology and Education Quarterly 36:1, pp. 8-23.

2 thoughts on “The need for reclassification of First Nations original material in memory institutions.”

    1. Hey thanks for reading.

      Watson, I 2014, ‘Re-centring first nations knowledge and places in a terra nullius space’, AlterNative: an international journal of Indigenous scholarship, vol. 10 no. 5, pp. 508-520.


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