What is Our Purpose?

Written for the GLAM Blog Club theme of End

Two news events in 2018 made me ask the questions, what is point of archives and museums? What is their role in society?

The first news event was the NSW government passing damaging new legislation which expanded the powers of family and community services to permanently remove children from their families. This legislation will no doubt impact Aboriginal families the most and will have destructive, traumatic effects similar to the effects caused by the policies of the Stolen Generations, policies that were acts of genocide.

Many museums and other history institutions on this landmass have dedications in some form to the Stolen Generations. This is important as victims of this history have previously been ignored, adding to their trauma and the effects of this history have shaped our communities and many aspects of society more broadly. We need to share this part of history to understand the context we live in today.

However, I believe that understanding this history is pointless if it does not lead action. Museums and archives should not just work to document bad history, but work to prevent bad history from happening. Museums are not making the world better if they just do an exhibition in thirty years focusing on the oppression caused by this new devastating legislation after the damage is already done, damage museums could have helped stop.

The second news event that made me question the role of archives and museums was the potential removal of the sacred Djap Wurrung trees. According to the Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy website “These beautiful trees include an 800 year old tree that has seen over 50 generations born inside of a hollow in her trunk”. Their potential discretion continues a history of colonial destruction of First Nations cultures.

Archives and museums have long been part of this colonial destruction. As history institutions, they have helped in supplanting First Nations history with a newly created colonial memory, working almost as propaganda distributors for the settler state. Many people within archives and museums would disagree with this and say that’s not what we do is collect, preserve, and make accessible knowledge for future generations. If that is the case, then us working in archives and museums should stand up against the possible destruction of sacred Djap Wurrung trees as so much history, knowledge and culture embedded in them could be lost. If we don’t, then I don’t believe we can declare our role is preserving knowledge for future generations. And I don’t mean by moving the sacred trees to a museum, this is also colonial violence.

Archivists will also claim their role is to facilitate public accountability, particularly of the accountability of the government. And around the world, many archives are being used to bring accountability to past oppression created by settler states. However, with these aforementioned news events and many other recent ones, archivists have a responsibility to use the knowledge their organisations hold to inform the public and make the government accountable, this includes current government. As Archivists Against History Repeating Itself express we need to use history “to learn past strategies and get inspiration to enact the structural change we need now” This kind of action towards structural change needs to be supported, advocated and undertaken by memory institutions. (without infringing on work already being done by grassroots groups)

For this to happen there does need to be a shift in archives and museums, namely addressing that we are, and the organisations we work in are not neutral.  Inaction by memory institutions is not neutral, it is supporting current oppressive structures. Memory institutions have power they need to share with grassroots organisations working towards repairing the damage done by and preventing future harm caused by white supremacy, colonialism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, ableism, and capitalism.

This means not just addressing past issues stemming from colonisation and invasion (which many archives and museums still have trouble doing), but also addressing oppression happening now. Challenging oppressive structures is what we need to do to assist positive social change, which, I believe should be our purpose.

By Nathan Mudyi Sentance

Further reading

Archivists Against History Repeating Itself

Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy

Grandmothers Against Removals NSW

 

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