Decolonising the agenda, one program at a time

My blog post about how public programs can disrupt colonial narratives in GLAM. Note: this is based on my short experience in programming which I am very new to.  

The Australian Museum (AM) has one of the largest and most significant collections of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural material in the world and as such is a powerful instrument for cultural engagement for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Aboriginal people alike. Unfortunately, as is the case in many Galleries, Libraries , Archives and Museums (GLAM)  until now much of the pre-existing Aboriginal cultural and historic narrative was told by non-Aboriginal people with a Euro-centric bias.

As a result, this narrative contains information gaps, misconceptions and inaccuracies, which sometimes lead to a simplistic views of Aboriginal people and their culture, views which have created and continued stereotypes.

This dynamic has started to shift as the AM as well as many Galleries, Libraries , Archives and Museums (GLAM) begin to empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to take control over their own narrative and culture, so the First Nations Staff in GLAM can present the cultural and historic narrative of First Nations people in the way that the community wants.

One effective method for the AM and GLAM more broadly to facilitate and amplify Aboriginal perspectives is through public programs, which can get visitors to engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture in nuanced ways that challenge stereotypes and misconceptions.  Programs can provide First Nations cultural practitioners a space to share culture and for visitors to interact with culture  that moves beyond the static which is not how most of culture is meant to be presented.

Through public programs participants can leave with a better understanding of Aboriginal knowledge, science and history. These programs also facilitate Aboriginal voices and can provide the catalyst for important discussions.

This is also important, because while there are more and more First Nations staff in more senior positions in GLAM, there are many ways GLAM institutions still reinforce colonisation and the oppression that comes with it, in ways First Nations staff have no control over.

For example, a GLAM institution could do an exhibition that portrays First Nations people poorly or an exhibition or display that celebrates a violent invader, maybe through programs First Nations voices can challenge these portrayals and the systems that allowed them to happen in ways that not only get visitors to critique GLAM but the all coloniser output broadly. Even something as simple as tours, digital and analogue, can be used to help dispute and question Museum and Galleries colonial agendas.

All that being said, there are issues that can arise when hosting programs, I’ll list some below:

  • Resources: First Nations cultural practitioners take years spending time with Elders to build up their cultural knowledge and as such should be paid accordingly for their expertise. No other experts in any other field are asked for their knowledge for free or for cheap besides First Nations cultural knowledge holders and practitioners. This needs to stop. First Nations cultural knowledge holders need to be paid justly as the knowledge and culture they share is a valuable resource. For this to happen however, GLAM institutions need to provide enough resources and proper funding
  • Diversity of audience: This is something I try and be careful of. It is important to have Non-Indigenous participants and attendees in First Nations programs as in many cases, there the people whose worldview needs to be challenged and confronted. Nevertheless, if we only host programs aimed at these audiences,  does the community benefit? Are your programs too assimilated or does aiming for a white audience compromise  the content in anyway?
  • Ensuring mutual benefits: First Nations GLAM staff and the First Nations voices they facilitate and host have cultural values and community they are accountable to and GLAM institutions have stakeholders they are accountable to and in best case scenarios, First Nations programs would meet both institutional and community needs and that is what they should aim to do. However, if that cannot be achieved, GLAM institutions need to afford First Nations people, internal and external, the cultural safety to ensure that they are not put in positions were they forced to undertake things that go against their cultural values.

In conclusion, today, the GLAM sector has more First Nations people working within it than ever before. With the right support, First Nations staff in GLAM can deliver public programs that demonstrate the complexity and diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait culture. This can help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people take control of the narrative that surrounds them.

By Nathan Sentance

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