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

 

 

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.


Strengthen

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.


Promote

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.

Advocating

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.

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

GLAM

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.

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 white 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 white settler feelings then our representations are still in a way governed by white settlers.

Screenshot (37).png

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 (white 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 white 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 white settlers are the intended audience for First Nations output from libraries, archives and museums. For instance, I was recently talking with a white 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 white 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

Right of Reply: an introduction

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

1_Create_Digital_Heritage___Mukurtu_Demo_copy

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.

 

 

 

 

You should be grateful!

An argument I see online often in response to First Nations people discussing the historical and ongoing oppression that stems from colonisation and invasion, is that we, First Nations people, should be grateful that we were invaded by the British because the French, Spanish, Chinese, etc would have wiped us out. I thought I would write a microblog in response to that argument so I don’t have to respond it ever again.

I have two main points regarding this idea.

Aussie brahs do you think Aboriginal people are lucky that the British came first Bodybuilding com Forums

Firstly, it is unseemly to speak about a hypothetical when we are speaking about REAL land dispossession, real removal of children, real high suicide rates, real massacres, real disenfranchisement and real cultural genocide. What we are discussing is real and opresses us and causes us trauma, what you are speaking about is a maybe. Saying we are lucky the British invaded instead the French is similar to saying we are lucky the British invaded and oppressed us rather than a meteoroid hitting our land and destroying all of us.

Secondly, I will use an analogy to make my point (I know that an analogy is not adequate in describing the brutality of colonisation). If I was to burn down your house, but not your shed and I said you are lucky Todd did not burn down your house because he would of burnt your shed as well, would you feel grateful towards me? Is your anger in regards to your lost house misplaced because I’m hypothetically better than Todd? Am I not responsible for my consequences because I did not destroy your shed even though you are without house? As you can see, just because I’m hypothetically better than Todd, does make my actions good.

In conclusion, I know you do not want to feel guilt or discomfort, but we need to engage in these discussions around ongoing invasion to disrupt and change structures that oppress. I know you want to feel pride in Australian history, but you should attempt to feel pride in your actions instead.

Lastly, please retire this lazy and offensive argument.

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.

Top 3 Favourite Blog Posts

The following are my top three blog posts that I’ve have written this year for the Archival Decolonist.

1) The Paternalistic Nature of Collecting 

My blog post about the misconception that galleries, libraries, archives and museums are preserving First Nation cultural heritage.

This was the post that started it all. I wrote it to articulate my frustration with white saviour-hood in Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums (GLAM) that would see itself as rescuing and saving First Nations culture, but would avoid discussions of their involvement in cultural destruction and denigration, colonisation and invasion.  This self perception now currently informs well intentioned, but paternalistic thinking and actions in GLAM institutions that can hinder, not recognise  and block First Nations agency in our maintaining, telling, and preserving our culture and history.

2) Maker unknown and the decentring First Nations People.

My blog post about the need to centre First Nations Voices in GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, museums) collections.

This post was in response to a First Nations cultural heritage object I saw on display at a museum where the label did not mention anything about the community where the culture was from or knowledge attached to this cultural heritage object, only information about the Non-Indigenous man who collected it. It just seemed so sad to me that we are not the focus of our own culture or history and that we continue the romanticised idea of European adventurer or scientist “discovering” First Nations culture. This label was just a continuation of the renaming and retelling of our culture and history that has distorted information and has allowed non-Indigenous people to claim ownership of First Nations knowledge. It is also sad because while this man on the label may be remembered for centuries, the First Nations person who created this cultural heritage object based on their ancestral knowledge, will be nameless in our records.

3) Diverse Voices in Diversity

My blog post about the construction of memory and need for more in depth diversity in GLAM collections. 

I wrote this post to get people to consider the diversity within First Nations communities and that we not a monolithic entity and that GLAM collections, discourses and history should reflect that.

Note: I do not claim expertise, these posts are just my perspective as a Wiradjuri man working GLAM. I write them as method to start discussions.

 

Bonus Round: my top 3 favourite tweets

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This tweet was to challenge the idea of a non-Indigenous definition of what a real Aboriginal person is and to demonstrate the hypocrisy of centuries of forcing assimilation on us  and then saying because we don’t know our language we are not authentic.

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This was because I read about a First Nations community from North America where herding was part of their culture and the writer referred to them as nomadic and I thought no European culture is thought of as nomadic. Captain Cook’s travels didn’t mean he was nomadic and people who travel recreationally are not nomadic. This description of cultural practice of behaviour is part of the anthropological ideology that dehumanise us First Nations people.

 

24273718_10155693667210944_3199477474948658692_o.jpgThis tweet was in response to a curator telling me that use of terms like invasion or brutality made them feel uncomfortable and that the use of different First Nations language without English captions was confusing and it made me realise how many GLAM spaces (as well as many other spaces) have White European settlers as their default audience and are created to comfort them.

 

Mandaang guwu (thank you) to all the people who read my blog this year. Y’all are deadly