Engaging with the Uncomfortable

My blog post about First Nations programs, events and exhibitions in libraries, archives and museums that discuss subject matter that White settlers may find “confronting” or “difficult”

“I can’t own your uncomfortability” – Aunty Charmaine Papertalk Green

Several months ago I asked fellow museum, library and archives folks on Twitter, how do we engage audiences to enter uncomfortable spaces? Especially, relating to First Nations people and the impact of ongoing invasion.

I asked this because I was recently involved in a museum program for university students where we discussed the Stolen Generations and intergenerational trauma and after the program, one of the students anonymously commented on a feedback form that they felt like they were being reprimanded and made to feel bad for being White. I found this to be an odd response as we were just discussing a reality and an issue that affects many, many First Nations people, but they chose to disengage because it made them uncomfortable. This made me worried that White fragility will always get in the way of settlers engaging with programs that challenge the colonial structures that benefit them. This made me worried that White fragility is more of concern to some people than the truth.

I previously experienced this when I was ask to write something about James Cook and I wrote that he represents the start of invasion to many First Nations people and this was changed to he represents that start of the colonial encounter to many First Nations people. I felt that this language was soft and dishonest, but I can understand why it was chosen and that was out of fear of any potential backlash caused by White fragility. Nevertheless, it is concerning that White feelings are privileged over First Nations oppression. Furthermore, what are the implications for us working in libraries, archives and museums trying to ensure that historically suppressed and marginalised voices are prominent part of the history constructed and conveyed by the collections held in theses institutions?

In regards to First Nations people, how our history, culture and communities has been represented in libraries, archives and museums has been historically governed by settlers, particularly settler men and because of this we have been represented through a colonisers lens which reflects the values and beliefs of mainstream settler society. But thanks to the tireless work of First Nations people in these spaces before me and many allies this has changed and continues to change, however if the First Nations output from libraries, archives and museums is scared of settler feelings then our representations are still in a way governed by settlers.

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Be more positive

Of course, tone policing is not new. I have heard people say many times if First Nations people were more inviting and less “confronting” with their stories, then people (settlers) would engage with them more. Although, this is flawed, because it puts the responsibility on us, First Nations people. Instead of asking ” why are you making me uncomfortable”, settlers should ask “why do I feel uncomfortable” when engaging with First Nations stories and histories.

Additionally, even when manifestations of our cultures and our histories focus on the positive, it can still threaten White fragility. For instance, the opening ceremony of the 2018 Commonwealth Games included culture and performances by several different First Nations cultural practitioners and communities, which even though it was celebratory and by no means critical of colonisation, it still caused a negative reaction among settlers. Social commentators were offended by the mere inclusion of First Nations culture and the disruption of our invisibility.

Who’s discomfort?

All of this can imply that settlers are the intended audience for First Nations output from libraries, archives and museums. For instance, I was recently talking with a settler curator about how it is becoming more common for exhibitions to include relevant First Nations languages and she said she was worried that it can be confusing for the exhibition visitors. Undoubtedly, she was talking about White settlers when she was saying visitors and my initial reaction to this was “not everything is about you”. But exhibitions have been, in many cases, about her as her epistemology, her experiences and her language are considered the default in mainstream settler society and therefore have been reflected in a majority of exhibitions. And because of this, she is more concerned with potential settler discomfort caused by confusion than suppression of First Nations languages.

In addition to this, discussions about discomfort in libraries, archives and museums rarely touch on First Nations peoples’ discomfort that could stem from keeping our cultural heritage in very colonial buildings, describing or classifying our cultural heritage in ways that are alien to our world-views, the implementation of confusing access guidelines and the celebration in libraries, archives and museums of people many of us deem to be violent, oppressive colonisers.

How do we engage audiences to enter uncomfortable spaces?

I genuinely asked that question several months ago because I know many people have done great work in regards to this and want to hear their thoughts because we need many colonial structures to change and change comes from being uncomfortable which will never happen if White fragility gets in the way and is prioritised. How do we get audiences, especially White settler audiences to understand discomfort is temporary, oppression is not?

Further reading

‘Difficult’ exhibitions and intimate encounters

By Nathan Sentance

Your neutral is not our neutral

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” – Desmond Tutu

My blog post about the myth of neutrality in libraries, archives and museums. This post is from a First Nations perspective

I had a discussion with someone once about if memory institutions, like museums, libraries and archives, should modify past classification and description of First Nations material that use antiquated and potentially offensive terminology, they said we could not because that would be whitewashing history and we need to remain objective and just present the facts. While part of me partially agrees, my retort was memory institutions have predominantly presented a colonial history as fact and have excluded the voices of marginalised people and by doing so have demonstrated an ingrained bias (Jimerson, 2009, 216). This bias manifests itself in how material is collected, described, preserved, and exhibited (Jenson, 2008, 93). I argue that museums, libraries and archives cannot not remain objective or neutral because they never were.

Many have contested the objectivity of memory institutions, noting that their collections are governed by people, people who have their own perspectives and intentions and as such are not impartial agents (Jimerson, 2009, 215; Durrani & Smallwood, 2008, 123). Their perspectives are influenced by their epistemology (Kwaymullina, 2016, 439). This affects their decisions such as what information should be preserved for future generations and these decisions shapes the public’s memory, thus making these political decisions (Jimerson, 2009, 215).

Admittedly, there are systems created to reduce individual choices in regards to memory institution’s collections to uphold objectivity, such as government policies and professional criteria, guidelines and standards. However, these systems are influenced by the dominant culture, which in colonised countries is a Western Eurocentric culture (White, 2017, 369; Jimerson, 2009, 215). There is a reason why the predominant cataloguing code libraries used until just recently was titled the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules (AACR2).

Furthermore, because many memory institutions are part of the government and/or are funded by the local, state or federal government, they are not just influenced by the dominant culture, they are also influenced by the government (Luker, 2017, 112); Jimerson, 2009, 216). Different governments have different political positions, which may change the objectivity of the memory institutions.

In regards to First Nations cultural heritage, it has been argued that memory institutions are tools of colonisation in which colonial powers used to proliferate narratives for their own means (Luker, 2017, 112; Sentance, 2017). For example, exhibitions in natural history museums portrayed First Nations people as primitive savages. This helped justify land dispossession, because it framed us as inferior and in need of Western civilisation (Genovese, 2016, 34; Smith, 2012, 39).

In addition to this, Western institutions, including memory institutions, have a long tradition of centring Anglo non-Indigenous people in the telling of First Nations history and culture (Sentance, 2017a; Moreton-Robinson, 2004, 87). Kwaymullina suggests that this reinforces Anglo non-Indigenous people as the default which places First Nations people as the “other” (440). As a result, First Nations people are perceived as objects of history or of anthropology, rather than fellow humans (Kwaymullina, 2016, 43; Smith, 2012, 39).

Consequently, some perceive memory institutions not as neutral sources of information, but as political tools. To accept them as neutral means to accept the existing distribution of power they enforce and contribute to (Jenson, 2008, 94).

This idea of neutrality in institutions is very much informed by the Enlightenment and the concept that Eurocentric Western scholarship produces a universal knowledge that is universally relevant (Kwaymullina, 2016, 439). This notion portrays Western scholars as speaking from a neutral position which means those outside of the Western scholarship are biased. As a result, this notion has delegitimised First Nations knowledge production and denied historical and cultural pluralism (Kwaymullina, 2016, 441).

Why this is a problem

There are issues that can occur if the notion of neutrality in memory institutions does not continually get challenged. For instance, if a memory institution is perceived as being neutral, then actions like adding First Nations stories of oppression to the collection to rectify past imbalances of perspectives can be framed as not an action of balance, but rather a political act This could lead memory institutions to avoid necessary actions because they are “risky” and they do not want to be political (Jenson, 2008, 94).

Similarly, if memory institutions are neutral, then their inherent Eurocentrism is neutral which continues First Nations people being framed as the “other”. This makes it harder to challenge and change white privilege and institutional racism within memory institutions and society more broadly.

Additionally, if being neutral means shunning involvement in movements that challenge oppressive structures, then some would argue that memory institutions in attempting to be neutral, even though they are not actively oppressing people, have assisted the oppressor (Jenson, 2008, 94). Furthermore, it makes memory institutions less effective in creating social change which therefore makes them less socially relevant (Good, 2008, 145).

In conclusion, memory institutions need to challenge internal and external perceptions that they are neutral and we need to come to terms with what that means.

To be continued….

By Nathan Sentance

Durrani , Shiraz and Elizabeth Smallwood “The Professional is Political : Redefining the Social Role of Public Libraries” Questioning Library Neutrality Essays from Progressive Librarian. Edited by Alison Lewis. Library Juice Press, 2008, 119-140

Good, Joesph. “The Hottest Place in Hell: The Crisis of Neutrality in Contemporary Librarianship” Questioning Library Neutrality Essays from Progressive Librarian. Edited by Alison Lewis. Library Juice Press, 2008, 141-147

Jensen, Robert. “The myth of the neutral professional” Questioning Library Neutrality Essays from Progressive Librarian. Edited by Alison Lewis. Library Juice Press, 2008, 89-96.

Jimerson, Randall, C. Archives power : memory, accountability, and social justice‎. Society of American Archivists‎, 2009

Kwaymullina, Ambelin. “Research, ethics and Indigenous peoples: an Australian Indigenous perspective on three threshold considerations for respectful engagement” AlterNative, vol 12, no. 4, 2016 437-449.

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

Moreton-Robinson, Aileen. “whiteness epistemology and Indigenous representation” Whitening Race: Essays in social and cultural criticism. Edited by Aileen Moreton-Robinson. Aboriginal Studies Press, 2004.

Sentance, Nathan. “The Paternalistic Nature of Collecting” Archival Decolonist. 12 Jun. 2017 https://archivaldecolonist.com/2017/06/12/the-paternalistic-nature-of-collecting/

Sentance, Nathan. “Maker unknown and the decentring First Nations People” Archival Decolonist. 21 Jul. 2017 https://archivaldecolonist.com/2017/07/21/maker-unknown-and-the-decentring-first-nations-people/

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. 2nd ed., Zed Books, 2012.

Passion guides me

This is short blog post is for the AusGLAMBlog theme of passion. This is part of my upcoming talk at Future GLAM: Convergence & collaboration in the cultural heritage sector


I am a librarian and archivist but that is not my current role and before I get into the main part of my discussion, I want to talk quickly about the blurring lines of GLAM because I think it’s interesting to hear about as emerging professionals. When I tell people who know me as a librarian that I now work at the Australian Museum they often assume I work in the Museum’s library or archive. This assumption is usually based very strict ideas what a librarian is and rigid ideas that differentiate galleries from museums from archives from libraries. And there are of course differences, but they are more similarities between these memory and cultural institutions. During my time working at the State Library and my time completing my library studies undergrad, I gained experience in organising information, predominantly First Nations knowledges and histories, project management and providing access and interpretation to information. While I now work with object based cultural heritage rather than paper based cultural heritage such as books or records, my experience and skills aren’t tied to mediums of stories and knowledge. They are transferable. At the museum, I still organise and preserve information it is just in different mediums than at the library and I still provide access to information whether it be through access for First Nations community members to cultural heritage objects or getting the public to engage with First Nations histories or knowledges with events or programs. In other words, many of the skills I have obtained work across the GLAM sector, not just for silos within it.


But, the main reason I believe I can work across GLAM is because of my passion and goals. Here is a vision statement I wrote for myself three years ago when I still work as a Librarian


vision pic


I have never had a plan of what role I will have in or what institution I will work in to guide me or anything similar, I have been guided by these ambitions in this vision statement and this has directed me to what I do, which has made alternating between galleries, libraries, archives and museums easier because where I work was not the point, the point for me is to ensure First Nations agency over the history and culture collected, conveyed and preserved in memory institutions and not to ensure First Nations people control the narrative that surrounds them.