Queering needs to be anti-colonial

KINQ = Knowledge Industries Need Queering

This was written in response to the KINQ Manifesto, particularly responding to point 2 and 4 of the Manifesto.

  1. All museums are sex museums

The KINQ manifesto does something very essential, it discusses heteronormativity in archive, library and museum spaces. As with whiteness, naming, discussing and pointing a finger at heteronormativity is an important part of its disruption and hopefully its eventual abolition. By not being named, by being invisible and by being nowhere and everywhere at the same time heteronormativity and whiteness have long been maintained because if they are not named and discussed, they cannot not be critiqued and challenged. Also, because of their invisibility and the fact that they are  so embedded in our colonial social institutions, like archives and museums, heteronormativity and whiteness, along with the power dynamics and oppression associated with them, appear like the natural order of things (Levine-Rasky, 2013, 12). This is how…

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What are Anniversaries for?

History organisations like libraries, archives and museums often commemorate important dates, days and anniversaries through social media posts, events, book displays, and exhibitions but why? What do we hope to achieve with these commemorations? To me, historical anniversaries have frequently been associated with nationalism and I believe anniversaries are just propaganda if they don’t come with critique. As Jane Ellison said in their keynote address at DCDC “anniversaries have to do more than just jog the memory” This is why I feel the ways in which some of us in libraries, archives and museums utilise important dates is generally shallow.
The way we celebrate the anniversaries of the events and people related to different aspects of invasion and colonization rarely offers a large space for critique, only a small footnote or an afterthought public talk or exhibition addition. An Aboriginal perspective may be asked for this type of exhibition, but this perspective can’t make white settler audiences uncomfortable or feel guilty.
Besides the fact that it is disgusting to celebrate colonization, audiences do not take anything away from these commemorations without critique because, without the truth about the physical, legal and material repercussions of colonization, they lack social relevance. They do not assist in creating contemporary social change which should be the goal for our output in libraries, archives and museums.

Social Justice Anniversaries
Social justice anniversaries particularly in terms of racial justice, are frequently celebrated in a way that conceals many details and creates dishonest narratives. Narratives like “look how far we’ve come”, which ignores contemporary oppression and maintains the myth that racism is in the past. It also neglects many regressive actions that follow events of racial progress. For example, Delgado & Stefancic (p.29-30) note what followed the landmark case of Brown vs the Board of Education was that the benefits won in the case were quietly cut back down by narrow interpretations and administrative obstructions which left minority groups are left a little better, if not worse. Another example is the 1965 Freedom Rides, which has been been highly celebrated by us in libraries, archives and museums, as it should be, however we usually leave out that some of the towns in NSW the Freedom Rides bus visited are still highly segregated.
We must be wary of overemphasizing “look how far we’ve come” in our exhibitions, programs, educational kits and explore how racism of the past influences the racism of today. To coincide this, we need to create space for critical self reflection for our audiences as well as ourselves (libraries, archives and museums are not innocent regarding oppression).
In addition to “look how far we’ve come”, the ways in which some of us in libraries, archives and museums utilise important social justice dates can proliferate the narrative of heroes and villains. The problem with a narrative with villains is that it may portray racism as the disturbed acts of individuals rather than a structure. It can also discount the fact that most villain’s views reflect the mainstream society. Similar to how racial prejudice and police is often conveyed as incidents with bad apples and if you get rid of those bad apple police, everything would be okay, rather than look the whole policing system as the problem.
Additionally, how we tell the stories about people we frame as heroes related to racial justice events and anniversaries often sanitizes them, makes them more palatable to a general, white settler audience. Their demands for liberation become demands for equality and their work discussing their want for peace gets privileged over their work that discusses the evils of capitalism. Furthermore, it can be neglected that people we now see as heroes were hated in the past, are probably still hated by some in the present, and if they would or could speak about issues of racism today, they would get a lot of hate from mainstream white settler society. Their work fighting oppression rarely gets connected to the oppression people are fighting today. This hypocrisy was highlighted by a tweet by Aamer Rahman who wrote in 2016 “White people: You can’t celebrate Muhammad Ali’s life and then 2 months later be mad at @Kaepernick7 [Colin Kaepernick]”
Hero narratives sometimes lean toward a story of Black exceptionalism rather than tell a story of systemic racism. For instance, DiAngelo (p.40) notes the way Jackie Robinson is generally celebrated is as the first African American to break the colour line and play in major league baseball. As DiAngelo suggests maybe it should be framed as Jackie Robinson was the first black man white people allowed to play major league baseball. This framing makes the distinction because no matter how fantastic a player Robinson was, he could not play major league baseball if the white people who controlled the institution did not allow it.
Because of the above, we should be careful how we use historical figures. They are powerful. Their achievements are worth celebrating and libraries archives and museums should publicly do so. When discussing them in our exhibitions, tours, reading groups, we can use their stories to inspire action in our audiences and inform our audiences of their strategies to help them better enact the structural change we need now.

Like all history, I believe we should utilise anniversaries to better understand the present and better understand the historical context which we live in. Especially, in terms of oppressive structures. This understanding should be a call to action to make the present better. Commemorations, like all things libraries, archives and museums do, should have a purpose.

Please comment the best examples you know of libraries, archives and museums effectively commemorating important dates, days and anniversaries

By Nathan “Mudyi” Sentance

Brown Skin Girl – identity & the colonial gaze

Identity is hard enough for most people, however it is harder when imposed on you are stereotypes about who you are, what you should look like and what that entails. Identity can be unimaginably distressing when the ability to define yourself is stolen. It is hard to discover who you are when there are narratives attached to you and your body, false narratives that could be decades if not centuries old, way before you are born. Working in libraries, archives and museums, I know how these institutions along with academia have created and proliferated these harmful narratives about and imposed identities on First Nations people and People of Color, that not only have defined who we are in mainstream settler society, but have dehumanized us which justified our oppression. This continues today, with narratives in the mainstream settler society framing us, First Nations people and People of Color, as criminals or as victims who need saving. Both positions/narratives marginalize us, leave us voiceless and in a space where we are both hyper visible and invisible at the same time. This is part of the colonial gaze, the white gaze.

This gaze is made visible, questioned, mocked and disrupted in the Black Birds production, Brown Skin Girl, a show that melds visual art, spoken word, music and movement, drawing the audience into the lives of three Black and Brown women as they navigate the complexities of life as twenty-somethings in Sydney. They share their personal stories using humour, powerful words and movements. Ayeesha Ash (also director), Emily Havea and Angela Sullen discuss the feeling of transversing white spaces as Black and Brown women where your bodies, skin and hair are magnets for the white colonial gaze. Spaces where saying you are from “Bendigo” in response to the question where are you from is not good enough because of the color of your skin, spaces where no matter how Italian you are in heritage and culture, to white Australians you can’t be because of your melanin, spaces so white, your natural afro hair is political.

As for white spaces, Brown Skin Girl does not feel like one, which I don’t feel is often said about theatre. Even though there has been continuous amazing contributions to Australian theatre by People of Colour, particularly First Nations Womxn and Womxn of Colour, theatre can feel like a white thing. This was solidified for me last year when a friend of mine went to a First Nations dance performance featuring many cast members who were her friends and she has previously performed with. During the performance, as can be standard with some types of First Nations performance, she was whooping and cheering in the crowd. The predominantly white audience turned on her and made her feel not wanted. In her introduction to the Brown Skin Girl, Ayeesha dispels this stifling etiquette and informs the audience to engage, laugh hard, stand up and dance if you feel like it. This eliminated for me the performer/audience hierarchy as well as said, you can be you during the show.

This is marambangbilang (awesome) as much of the show itself is about the performers being themselves, loving themselves and seeing and empowering each other. In her recent article, Black Birds co-founder and Brown Skin Girl producer & assistant director, Emele Ugavule stated how “theatre should be an experience of exchange” in discussing how we need not only diverse performers on our stage but in our audience as well. I could feel this during Brown Skin Girl.

One of the best things about Brown Skin Girl is that it is often hilarious. Ayeesha, Emily and Angela are incredibly funny in their delivery and content. In writing about the film White Chicks, philosophy professor, George Yancy said “humour brings the power of whiteness out of the background into the foreground” (p.112). Brown Skin Girl does this and along with the white gaze. Because of this, I believe Brown Skin Girl works incredibly well for a multi-racial audiences as white audience members can experience aspects of themselves and society that often remain unconscious while audience members of Colour can laugh in unity of familiar experiences.

Throughout Brown Skin Girl, Ayeesha, Emily and Angela remind the audience that for many Womxn of Colour, who they are is tricky in the historical context we live in today. People, society are constantly trying to make them fit into boxes, categories that were created without their consent.

Brown Skin Girl is personal, energetic and insightful. Moving forward, it will influence the way I work in libraries, archives and museums in attempting to provide a counter gaze to dismantle the colonial gaze that these history institutions were built on and have embedded in their operations.

Find out more about upcoming Black Bird events

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 to 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, 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

Australian farmland

-Australian farmland is beautiful but eery

– is it eery because we are not accustomed to silence?

-but it’s not silent

-is it eery because of the violence that took place on it?

-the blood spilt on it?

-like us, Australian farmland is shaped by violence

-violence informs how we both look

-violence influences our interactions with each other

-violence is always present on Australian farmland

-there is rarely screams, but the sound of cicadas

-Australian farmland is a symbol of beauty,but it’s eery. It has a rage within it

-Australian farmland is a kingdom, like all kingdoms, its rulers need it more than it needs the ruled, but rulers obfuscate that fact

-Australian farmland is conquest

-Australian farmland is beautiful and smells great

Diversity means Disruption

Written for the GLAM Blog Club theme of Change

Why hire First Nations people into your mostly white structure and expect/want/demand everything to remain basically the same?

Many libraries, archives and museums will talk about how they value diversity and many individual institutions and professional organisations will have their own diversity and inclusion policies and initiatives. However, these are often shallow exercises as they are seldom created to challenge and disrupt whiteness within and outside the sector. We cannot change institutional racism without first changing institutions and without disruption, nothing will change .

Why don’t libraries, archives and museums challenge whiteness more? It could be argued it is because these organisations were not designed to, as they, particularly archives and museums, were established by settler states as tools of colonisation to maintain whiteness by proliferating colonial narratives and mythologies that have aided the legitimization of historic land theft, assimilation actions, over-policing and racial violence by the settler state. These narratives and mythologies are still in effect today, continuing the demonization of marginalised groups as means to protect whiteness.

Additionally, through the historical exclusion of non-white voices and bodies,  libraries, archives and museums have centred white thought, whiteness created history, white bodies which has solidified them as the default and neutral in mainstream society therefore framing non-white thought and bodies as the “other”. This has helped make whiteness invisible, thus making it harder to challenge.

As result of the invisibility of whiteness, diversity initiatives  are often about including diverse bodies into the mainstream without critically examining what that mainstream is. Kyra describes this “When we talk about diversity and inclusion, we necessarily position marginalized groups as naturally needing to assimilate into dominant ones, rather than to undermine said structures of domination” And because theses structures are the default, undermining them is destabilizing aka “rocking the boat” which is disapproved.

It could be suggested that most diversity initiatives are what Poka Laenui called Accommodation/Tokenism which is stage 5 of the process of colonization. In this stage of colonization, whatever remnants of culture have survived the onslaught of the earlier steps are given surface accommodation. They are tolerated as an exhibition of the colonial regimes sense of leniency to the continuing ignorance of the natives. They are given token regard.

As consequence, I have seen a high turnover of staff from marginalized communities, especially First Nations people, as well as general feelings of disenfranchisement. However, I think are some things we can do to improve diversity initiatives.

1.Don’t let white fragility get in the way of change

“If you are lucky enough to be let in, don’t have the bad manners to complain about the way you are treated” – paraphrased, Levine-Rasky, 2013, 159 

In my experience, many white people will often see discussions of racism in libraries, archives and museums as personal attacks against them and instead of reflecting on their own actions and complicity, they chose to disengage because what is been said made them uncomfortable or worse they gaslight and tone police the First Nations person bringing the issue up with statements like “you’re always so negative” “you’re making a mountain out of a molehill”, “it’s not that bad”, or “you’re looking for racism”. Even accusations of reverse racism are issued to consciously or unconsciously defend whiteness. Consequently, this can make the person bringing up racism seem like a trouble maker.

There have been many times I’ve been told that I should careful working with different First Nations people because “they are difficult to work with” or a “bullies” only to find out what that they meant is these First Nations people would not put up with racism. Ruby Hamad wrote about this and how the legitimate grievances of brown and black women were instead flipped into narratives of white women getting attacked which helped white people avoid accountability and also makes people of color seem unreasonable and aggressive.

As individuals in libraries, archives and museums we need understand that our discomfort is temporary, oppression is not and as organisations we need to create more accountability. Racism is continuously swept under the carpet instead of confronted which  is loud statement to First Nations people, that is, our concerns and by extension, we, are not important to you.

2. Treat lived experience as expertise

Often when discussing issues of colonialism in libraries, archives and museums, your voice can be easily perceived as being arbitrarily antagonistic because in a majority white organisation, you are being contrarian. Your view is seen as the opinion or preference of one person, not a critique based on your lived experience or many conversations you have had with your family and fellow community members about structural issues that affect us. If I am disagreeing, it’s not because I want to (it’s heaps easilier to agree), it’s because it’s necessary I do because I know that the issue at could affect one of my loved ones’ lives.

If you are seeking a First Nations perspective, expect it. If you only want a First Nations perspective to agree with you, that’s disrespectful. Respect our input on topics that affect us because we live it. We know more than what you seen in media or the thesis you read.  We bring many skills to the table, this includes our experiences as First Nations people in this country.

3. Support us

“it is frustrating being one of the only voices of colour in a sea of white talk” – paraphrased, Yancy, 2012, 60

Being First Nations person in a majority white organisation means a lot is asked of you that is not in your role description. This needs to be acknowledged. This acknowledgment needs to come with support such as additional First Nations staff which could help alleviate some of the of the issues that come with minority status. Also, the strength in numbers helps cut through “sea of white talk”.

Additionally, support should include providing First Nations only spaces when necessary as well as supporting staff with time and resources to connect with other First Nations staff in other organisations and to connect with different community members as part of our professional development.

4. Remember it ain’t 9-5 for us

We don’t finish being First Nations people when work finishes. Our work in these places has physical and metaphysical consequences for ourselves and our communities as such the work we do has added responsibilities and our work extends outside these walls. Who we are accountable to are not just inside these organisations. While many of us work so all stakeholders are happy, community comes first. This is something libraries, archives and museums must recognise.

5. Advocacy

Libraries, archives and museums should support and advocate (without centreing themselves) First Nations causes and grassroots initiatives. Especially ones that are deemed “political” or “controversial” as they are usually deemed that because they are addressing the most vicious and systemic oppression, such as black deaths in custody. Not doing so or “being neutral” in such contexts means lending support to those oppressive structures. In this complicity you are then also an oppressor.

In conclusion, I believe diversity initiatives from libraries, archives and museum are a concession and acknowledgment that things need to change. Nevertheless we cannot have change or meaningful diversity without disruption.

by Nathan Sentance

Further readings

White Librarianship in Blackface: Diversity Initiatives in LIS by April Hathcock 



Why do we collect?

“Just because somebody has possession of an item doesn’t mean they necessarily own it” –Roxi Ruuska

The GLAM blog club theme of collect bought up many questions in my mind in regards to First Nations culture in archives and museums such as, why do we collect it and who for?  What does this mean for ownership of culture?

Why do we collect?

Regarding First Nations culture, people often state that one of the reasons why archives and museums collect First Nations cultural heritage is to preserve it from its inevitable historical decay or loss. I would argue this reasoning was conceived to legitimise the theft of cultural heritage and is false as First Nations people do not need help preserving culture.  For example, there are some First Nation stories that talk about events that happened 13,000 years ago and these are only the stories “proven to be true” by Western institutions. There are many other stories that discuss a lot older events.

The “preserve forever” mentality is very much based on Western idea of time being linear and irreversible (Smith, 2012, 64). It is also a colonial value judgment and is part of colonial institutions deciding what is and is not valuable now and in the future.

Recently, a colleague experienced the “preserve forever” mentality from a museum worker who video recorded a First Nations dance performance in her gallery to coincide with an exhibition launch. The museum worker did seek permission from the performers to do so. She said she did the recording because she wanted the dance to be “preserved forever”. Which seems preposterous when that dance has been taught, learnt, and undertaken for thousands of years.

This also brings up the conversation of ownership. Does the fact the museum worker got permission to record mean the museum owns it and if so, does that mean they own it forever? Can the performers and/or their descendants rescind this permission? There are many issues around this. If the museum legally “owns” the recording nothing stops them from putting the dance recording into different contexts the dance was not meant to be in. Like, maybe in fifty years the museum puts the dance recording as part of exhibition titled Primitive dancing or something similar, completely denigrating and de-contextualising the dance that is in the video. Or they start playing only snippets of recording when the dance needs to the experienced in its entirety to be understood. This is why many First Nations people, including myself, would say culture, if not being preserved in the right context, it is not being preserved at all.

However, we see this a lot as most of First Nations cultural heritage in archives and museums is in the wrong context as it is being preserved unnaturally behind glass or in storage. This can disregard that this cultural heritage is part of living cultures and that some cultural heritage needs to be touched and used for the memory embedded in them to be learnt and sustained.

Furthermore, unnatural preservation by archives and museums can deny First Nations peoples’ autonomy regarding our own cultural heritage. If our autonomy was being respected, then we should choose what gets preserved even if it means some cultural objects deteriorate. Some stories are not meant to be preserved in a physical form. Nevertheless, many museums will not let that happen with the cultural heritage objects in their collections and will only return or repatriate cultural objects if the relevant First Nations community has the means to preserve cultural objects to museum standards.

If First Nations cultural heritage is being preserved unnaturally and this conflicts with First Nations community interests, then it asks the question who are archives and museums collecting First Nations cultural heritage for?

Many archives and museums will say they collect for everyone to access to this cultural heritage. But again if this collection conflicts First Nations community interests, then we are not part of this everyone. In fact, some will argue First Nations people and other people of colour were never the intended audience for archives and museums. Instead, archives and museums were designed by colonisers to legitimise colonisation to misrepresent ‘The Other” and falsify history.  The result being, when white visitors entered different colonial museums or read different historical records they were confronted persuasive evidence of their white superiority which alleviated any guilt they might have about colonial conquest (Levine-Rasky, 2013, 179).

Additionally, “collecting for everyone” can be potentially harmful to some First Nations communities if what is being collected is contains secret or sacred information. What’s more, if collecting for everyone means that everyone has the same Eurocentric access conditions, then First Nations people and other people of colour will continue to face structural issues that may impede from accessing their own cultural heritage in archive and museum collections.

In conclusion, if archives and museums continue to collect and preserve First Nations cultural heritage, they must do so based on the interests of First Nations communities and must be willing to change their perceptions around preservation, to be not just in a Western way and reform their collecting and preserving practices.

“Colonisation is what is killing our cultures.  If our culture is dying, I’d rather it dies with us, than behind glass at a museum”   – Courtney Marsh

by Nathan Sentance


Wirimbirra: How libraries and archives can support the cultural ecological knowledge of First Nations people.

Our ever growing dependence on fossil fuel-based modes of production along with our increasingly unsustainable resource consumption and growing urbanisation is having catastrophic impact on Earth’s ecosystem (Metz, 2009, 14; Hamilton, 2003, 174), endangering the Earth’s biodiversity (Langton and Ma Rhea, 2005, 43), leading to rising sea levels and rising temperatures (Metz, 2009, 15). Consequently, this is threatening to rapidly decrease agricultural food production and increase the scarcity of drinkable water (Raygorodetsky, 2011).

Recently, with the aim to reverse and decrease our environmental impact, many are looking to incorporate the environmental knowledge (EK) of First Nations people into their practices and sustainability efforts as the natural resource management of many First Nations communities are low carbon and have kept their local ecosystems sustainable for tens of thousands of years (Raygorodetsky, 2011; Berkes, 2008, 3; Langton and Ma Rhea, 2005, 40). However, there are a number of factors that can impede the incorporation of First Nations EK into Western practices. These factors include destruction of EK due to assimilation policies, land dispossession, and eurocentric education as well as the invalidation of First Nations EK by Western societies (Whyte, 2017, 155; Berkes, 2008, 227). The consequences of ignoring or losing First Nations EK could be dire.

In addition to this, many are looking to the promotion of First Nations EK to change the attitudes of non-Indigenous people by helping them understand the connection between land and culture and the kincentric worldview of many First Nations communities which is underpinned by reciprocal relationships between them and the many non-human entities that make up their local environment (Erving & Longboat, 2013, 248).  Bringing awareness to the local First Nations communities’ relationships with non-humans can connect non-Indigenous people to place and may make them more personally invested in mitigating the environmental degradation of their local environment (Erving & Longboat, 2013, 249) . Furthermore, hearing the personal stories from community members about how First Nations culture and knowledge is being affected by rapid and drastic environmental changes can make climate change more real to people in a way data cannot (Lui-Chivizhe, 2017, 127; Whyte, 2017, 158; Berkes, 2008, 2).

Thus, the following essay will discuss how libraries and archives, through improved access to their collections and collaborative collection management with First Nations communities, can support efforts to the incorporate First Nations EK into Western practices by assisting revitalisation of First Nations culture and knowledge. This essay will also consider how through their programs and collections, libraries and archives can promote and validate First Nations EK to the broader public to create and re-establish reciprocal relationships between humans and the environment.


Notes on collaboration

Although, projects that utilise First Nations EK to address climate change have the potential to benefit many people, First Nations and non-Indigenous alike, libraries and archives must realise First Nations people have been the subjects of many projects that does not consider our priorities and has outcomes irrelevant to our needs or in many cases harmful to us and our goals (Datta, 2018, 41; FNICG, 2016, 142). Because of this, libraries and archives need to work to ensure any project they undertake that involves First Nations people or culture is underpinned by the relevant First Nations community’s desires and values, recognises and is underpinned by First Nations protocols, philosophy and self determination. To achieve this, Reo et al (2017, 62) recommends that multi-actor environmental initiatives should include the members of relevant First Nations community as early as possible in the development of projects and to work with them as partners. Moreover, be careful your collaboration is not exploitative of First Nations people and knowledge and is not just seeking tick a box approval (Sentance, 2017). Additionally, if consulting with First Nations knowledge holders, payment for their time and knowledge should be a priority.

Furthermore, the rights of First Nations peoples to their intangible heritage, traditional knowledge and cultural expressions must be recognised, respected and maintained for projects to be ethical (Kwaymullina, 2016, 44).  This means the collective intellectual property rights of First Nations cultural knowledge must be guaranteed and ensured. First Nations cultural knowledge is not in the public domain and must be protected in a way that is compatible with the relevant First Nations customary law.


Forced removal from our homelands, forced assimilation and destruction of ecosystems has stripped First Nations people from our sources of knowledge which has heavily disrupted our societies and the transference of culture through the generations (Lonebear, 2016, 258). For example, I have heard countless stories from family and friends who were Stolen or are descendants of the Stolen Generations who were forced to adopt English as their primary language, erasing the knowledge encoded within their ancestral languages, especially in regards to how to live in relation to certain ecosystems.

Because of this, First Nations persons are looking to access information stored in memory institutions, like libraries and archives to revive culture (Luker, 2017, 113). This is important as First Nations cultural revival could be pivotal to land and water restoration. For instance, it has be recognised that countries that have great biological diversity are also places with the greatest number of endemic languages and that loss of Indigenous languages is linked to loss of biodiversity (Langton and Ma Rhea, 2005, 45) 

However, there are a number of issues that impede us, First Nations people, from accessing our cultural knowledge in library and archives. This post will suggest a number of ways libraries and archives can address some of these barriers.

Firstly, libraries and archives should address their classification and description of First Nations cultural information because only classifying cultural materials through Western systems has affected the discoverability of this information for First Nations people (Russell, 2005, 141). Therefore, to increase discoverability of cultural heritage in library and archive collections for First Nations people ,libraries and archives need to utilise different classification systems such as the AIATSIS subject thesaurus to incorporate terms that we,  First Nations people would search by such as First Nations language words and traditional names. Furthermore, libraries and archives should work with closely with the relevant First Nations community to ensure how they classify and describe cultural material is based on how the community would search for material and reflects their knowledges.

Secondly, libraries and archives need to be proactive and make connections to First Nations communities and let them know the kind of material they have that can assist with First Nations cultural revival. This should include a digital return of this material to the relevant community.

Lastly, it can be difficult to connect with the cultural information in memory institutions because it can be so dispersed among many of them. For example, if I was looking to find Wiradjuri language material, I might be able to find material in local history collections, some in state archives, some material in a national library and some material in university collections. This is a difficult process and potential burden we place on First Nations users. As information professionals we should use our skills and industry contacts to make access easier for local First Nations people trying to access their culture that is spread across institutions.

In addition to access, libraries and archives can assist in the strengthening of culture by collaborating with the local First Nations communities to preserve culture. I truly believe before invasion we, First Nations people, did not need help persevering our culture, but with the impact of colonisation is destroying many sources of First Nations knowledge such as stories,dance and songs, libraries and archives may have the skills and resources to help ensure those knowledges, especially EKs, are not lost forever  Many libraries and archives already do this through programs like oral history projects, however their success may be minimised due to projects being overly Westernised. Again, this could alleviated by collaborating with First Nations community members in the early stages of development of the project and by facilitating First Nations control of the project and the outcomes.


In collaboration with their local First Nations community, there are many ways libraries and archives can promote a kincentric worldview that helps people to understand and be more connected and invested in the non-human beings that make up their local ecosystem. The incorporation of First Nations languages is one way as our social and ecological relationships and world views are embedded in our languages. For example, I worked with Gadigal man Joel Davison and he informed me the local Sydney word for bark was bugi and the local Sydney word for skin was bagi, these words reflects the deep connection our culture draws between the biology of plants and humans. Promoting the First Nations language connected to the land you are on also reminds people of the deep history and culture that has been part of the local ecosystem for thousands of years before invasion as well as helps people understand the strong relationships between communities and their kin (the local ecosystem).

In addition to this, there are other methods to assist the change the attitudes of non-Indigenous people by helping them understand the connection between land, culture and people. For instance, my colleague and Wailwan and Kooma woman Laura McBride has suggested that when children enter school they should assigned a local plant or animal to be special to them and for them to independently learn about. This may assist these children be more invested in their local environment, for example if their special plant or animal is a particular tree,  they might be more inclined to stand up against any upcoming deforestation. In collaboration with the local First Nations community, this type of idea could be incorporated into youth library programming.

Similarly, in the Indigenous Environmental Studies class at Trent University, students are asked to identify one local non-human being they have a relationship with and through observation, they have to learn three facts about the being. Then, combine those facts with how their relationship with said being could reciprocal and turn that into a narrative story (Evering and Longboat, 2013, 251). This could be an aspect incorporated into library information literacy instruction. Not only does it promote stronger understanding of people’s roles in reciprocal relationships with the environment around them, it’s also a good method to disrupt Western knowledge as the only knowledge in information literacy instruction.

Lastly, through pubic programming, libraries and archives can promote different First Nations EKs.  For example, storytelling performances. Datta (2018, 40) discusses a community garden project in the city of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan where, local Elders were invited to tell stories related to the garden which connected people with the plants and help them understand where their seeds are from, what the plants need and what they give us.

It should be noted in some cases, libraries and archives might not be the best place to host such programs, but in many cases they are, especially when promoting First Nations EK to the broader public. Mainly, because libraries and archives are trusted western institutions which for better or worst, makes the information they promote appear valid which is part of the constant reaffirmation of the West’s view of itself as the centre of legitimate knowledge and arbiter of what counts as knowledge (Smith, 2012, 66). Libraries and archives can use this power to endorse First Nations EK. This endorsement may assist other agencies such as local councils to involve First Nations EK as part of their local environmental policy.


In addition to the above, libraries and archives also need to stand with First Nations communities when they are fighting against future environmental destruction of important cultural sites because if libraries and archives are about preservation and access of history, information and culture, but are not standing up against the destruction of the potentially culturally significant sites,  then aren’t libraries and archives being hypocrites? Documenting and narrating social and environmental injustice is very important, but not as important as preventing it. 


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.