The right of reply commonly refers to the right to defend oneself against public criticism in the same site where it was published. This term is usually used in the context of journalism and reporting, however for at least the last decade the term has also been applied to the practice of providing marginalised voices a platform to respond to the archives and records created about them (McKemmish et al. 231). Especially, First Nations voices responding to the archives and records created relating to their history, culture and people (Luker 112).
This is to help increase First Nations peoples’ agency and self determination in the construction of memory because historically the First Nations information within museums, archives and libraries has been recorded, collected and interpreted by colonisers and this has led to proliferation of false and distorted information about First Nations history, culture and people as well as created and sustained the dehumanisation of First Nations people and sustained their “otherness” from the dominant culture in colonial states (Genovese 34; Smith 39). As result of this, memory institutions such as libraries, archives and museums have helped the colonial agenda and colonial state justify their land dispossession and assimilation policies severely affecting First Nations people (Genovese 34; Nakata 182).
Because of this, I have experienced people read records about their family members that they know are not true and have had cultural practitioners tell me that cultural objects in museum collections have been misclassified and their cultural purpose has been incorrectly described and have had community members tell me that the First Nations language written in colonisers diaries are mistranslated. However, these collections are where people look to learn history and the information within these institutions collections are considered the most legitimate (Luker 112). Therefore, this mistranslated language text is what people will use to understand a certain First Nations language or this inaccurate record of a particular First Nations family could be the basis of history book.
As consequence of this, many people have contested the colonial history and the privileging of voices, particularly rich white men’s voices, in memory institutions’ collections (Sentance). In addition to this, many have argued for First Nations people to have more control over their intangible heritage and what is written about us. Unfortunately, there has not been historically a mechanism, particularly for oppressed people to respond or “set the record straight” to the information created about them (Thorpe 911).
This is why the practice of right of reply deserves discussion. Although, I have been introduced to the right of reply in archival contexts, I believe it is also applicable to collections in museums and libraries.
What a right of reply could look like
I have seen the right of reply in action with the CMS system Mukurtu, which was created for First Nations communities. With its metadata field for cultural heritage, cultural narrative (featured above), Mukurtu allows a First Nations community member to respond to a cultural heritage item relevant to their family, culture, history or language. Furthermore, it allows community members to decide if a cultural narrative is open to the public or private.
Additionally, and what I consider very important, Mukurtu, allows community members to respond in different mediums in the cultural narrative metadata field. For example, if free text is what they prefer, that is how a First Nations community member can respond, however they can also respond through audio or video or through picture. This is integral because memory institutions have historically the written word which has excluded many voices. This also allows a First Nations community member to respond on their terms rather than the colonisers. Mukurtu is not just only the only CMS that facilitates pluralism in the creation of metadata, there are systems, like Ara Irititja. Regardless, the right of reply does not need to depend on a system, can just be a principle to adopt.
In conclusion, libraries, archives and museums need to have conversations around the concept of the right of reply in regards to First Nations cultural heritage. The results of these conversations is hopefully an official space within database metadata for a First Nations community member to respond to a cultural heritage item relevant to their family, culture, history or language, which in turn can rectify the distortions of history and lack of First Nations voices.
Luker, Trish. “Decolonising Archives: Indigenous Challenges to Record Keeping in ‘Reconciling’ Settler Colonial States” Australian Feminist Studies, vol, 32, no. 91-92, 2017, 108-125
McKemmish, Sue, et al. “Distrust in the archive: reconciling records” Archival Science, vol 11, 2011,211–239
Nakata, Martin. Disciplining the Savages: Savaging the disciplines. Aboriginal Studies Press, 2007
Sentance, Nathan. “The Paternalistic Nature of Collecting” Archival Decolonist. 12 Jun. 2017 https://archivaldecolonist.com/2017/06/12/the-paternalistic-nature-of-collecting
Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. 2nd ed., Zed Books, 2012.
Thorpe, Kirsten. “Aboriginal Community Archives” Research in the Archival Multiverse, Edited by Anne J Gilliland, Sue McKemmish and Andrew J Lau,Monash University Publishing, 2017.