Decolonising Archive

We Can Decide Where to Stand: Advocating for Aboriginal Priorities as Archivists and Information Workers

Introduction

One of my main professional interests relates to the intersections between practice and theory, and how we can lead transformation to reshape and support structural changes within cultural institutions. I believe archivists and information workers can play a key role in advocating for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights in cultural heritage collections. This includes, for example:

  • Supporting sovereignty over access, use and representations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stories and information held in archives and libraries.
  • Proactively building spaces for deep listening and understanding of our own positionality.

In an historical moment where structural racism and white privilege have been brought to the light across society, and the world is pulsing for change— it is even more crucial to know where we will be standing in our professional lives to ensure our commitment is enduring [1].

Working to centre Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices

Over the last decade, I have been working and collaborating on several projects and initiatives advocating for increased visibility of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices across the sector; advancing respectful access to historical records held in cultural institutions; and pushing for increased provision of resources and tools for local community archives so that people can care for their local collections and stories on Country.

I have contributed to projects such as the Indigenous Archives Collective; the building of the State Library of NSW Mukurtu site, Gather [2]; the creation of the strategy Indigenous Spaces in Library Places; and the establishment of the NSW Australian Mukurtu Hub.

When I moved from Italy to Gadigal Land (Sydney, NSW, Australia) to study and work in the field of archives, my drive was the advancement of social justice and human rights, and I started to be especially interested in how the archival profession contributes to this area [3]. This interest was sparked thanks to the many Aboriginal, First Nations and Native American scholars, professionals, activists, and community members who have exposed the vital importance of control and transparency over their historical archives to achieve concrete social justice and building of a nation based on the recognition of past harm against Indigenous peoples (Allison Boucher Krebs, Henrietta Fourmile, Jennifer O’Neal, Loriene Roy, Kirsten Thorpe, Lyndon Ormond-Parker, Martin Nakata, Shannon Faulkhead, and many others).

We need to be the change in the sector

Despite this long-standing advocacy across the sector, there are still structural changes that need to happen to be able to develop research agendas which are built upon community needs, aspirations and control—rather than fostering a model which aims to build partnerships to fulfil institutional needs and visions [4]. Events like the destruction of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol during the BlackLivesMatter protests in June 2020 [5] are powerful examples of how the disruption of national symbols shocks and disturbs. This is because honest conversations on the benefit that colonialism, human trafficking, slavery and structural inequalities have brought to our countries are still failing to happen.

Cultural institutions have an opportunity to be present and visible in these debates right now, becoming arenas for contested histories, spaces for dismantling stereotypes and where informed activism can flourish. In the NSW (Australian) context, some of the questions which still need to be addressed include the communities’ ability to benefit from the co-design of projects and research; the impact of dispersed collections and issues of provenance; the support needed for the management of local community archives and digital keeping places; the role of cultural institutions in overcoming the digital divide (both in terms of access to Internet and digital tools); the increase of Aboriginal employment and professional paths; and the growth of communities of practice of people across the sector who can support Aboriginal leadership and community priorities.

But first, we must listen and acknowledge

Before advocating for change, we must firstly acknowledge the deep harm that past colonial practices have inflicted and try to understand the impact that these histories had, and still have on people [6]. Growing cultural competence is fundamental not only in understanding diverse standpoints and worldviews, but to support direct calls for action, both from an organisational and personal point of view [7].

As an Italian migrant to Australia, I have committed myself to deeper learning, including reflecting on my role in this space, and on how I can continue to support Aboriginal aspirations within the cultural sector [8]. Reflecting on my own positionality and standpoint has been—and is every day—a powerful way of understanding my own bias, which I carry during my work. But it has also been an instructive journey, to recognise how my double perspective of working in the Aboriginal space and being an Italian woman could make a contribution in this space.

As Yorta Yorta woman, public health professional and academic Summer May Finlay reminded us in occasion of the last Reconciliation Week:

“As just three per cent of the Australian population, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people need the other 97 per cent of Australians to do the heavy lifting if we are ever to see true reconciliation. This National Reconciliation Week is a good time to decide where you fit. And if you are tokenistic, or an ally, ask yourself what you can do to become an accomplice in supporting the future of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people […]” [9]

Aboriginal cultural heritage materials remain disconnected and dispersed

Throughout my work, the concept of displaced and misplaced archives has come up constantly among Aboriginal peoples and communities, along with the thick layers of representations, narratives, histories, politics, violence, silences, ownership and responsibilities intertwined within these dispersed stories.

It remains the case that many Aboriginal cultural heritage materials held in Australian and overseas institutions remain disconnected and dispersed from their communities of origins. The difficulties and frustrations that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples experience when trying to access this material, has motivated me to reflect on the existing theories around displaced archives (for example, through the work of Anne Gilliland, James Lowry, Michelle Caswell and Sue McKemmish), and on how the current transnational legal debate around physical and digital repatriation of displaced records to marginalised communities needs to seek new paradigms and frameworks to result in effective changes.

I will explore this topic as part of my doctoral studies, which focuses on the power structures embedded in displaced archives, with a particular focus on Italy, and on the opportunities that the digital circulation of knowledge could offer to the conversation around these records.

Conclusions

To be proactive in increasing our own cultural competence, reflecting on our positionality and opening up spaces for deep listening are crucial steps to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander priorities across the cultural sector in the long-term, and advocating for structural changes.

Drawing the nexus between power dynamics embedded in displaced collections and the human rights of communities this information is related to, my PhD aims to contribute deeper understanding to these questions in order to build dialogue in this area, and build spaces of partnerships and collaborations which could benefit both communities and institutions.

References and Notes

[1] Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and professionals have been standing up all over the world to support the #BlackLivesMatter movement, reminding us that #AboriginalLivesMatter and that structural racism is very present in Australia today.

[2] The Content Management System Mukurtu is an open source community digital access platform designed to meet the needs of Indigenous communities worldwide. More information is available at https://mukurtu.org/.

[3] The Gadigal people of the Eora Nation are the Traditional Owners of the area we now call the Sydney CBD. A great resource to know the areas in which area we stand is the AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia, available online at https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/articles/aiatsis-map-indigenous-australia.

[4] Authors and scholars such as Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Jo-ann Archibald Q’um Q’um Xiiem, Jason De Santolo, Larissa Behrendt have written about the challenge of Indigenous research to Western paradigms. Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni provides an overview in his article Decolonising research methodology must include undoing its dirty history.

[5] To find out more about the questions raised by the destruction of Edward Colston’s statue read The Guardian , BBC, or The Conversation. For an Australian perspective, read Nathan mudyi Sentence’s Whose History: the role of statues and monuments in Australia and this SBS story.

[6] Taking control of learning and reflecting on history and racism is everyone’s responsibility. Some useful resources are the Anti-Racism Resources for White People in Australia, or the Anti-Racism Resources from Australia and Beyond, among many others. For a perspective on the role of Australian museums read Deaths in custody: What can museums do to effect change? by Dr Sandy O’Sullivan

[7] An example is the great post of Melissa Bennet for Archivoz (@HistorianMel) Decolonising the Archive: Responsibilities for Researchers and Archive Professionals.

[8] Galassi, M. (2019) ‘My Cultural Competence Journey/An Italian perspective of working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Collections and Services in GLAM’, Indigenous Archives Collective, https://indigenousarchives.net/2019/06/27/my-cultural-competency-journey-an-italian-perspective-of-working-with-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander-collections-and-services-in-glam/.

[9] May Finlay, S. (2020) ‘Where do you fit? Tokenistic, ally – or accomplice?’, Croakey independent, in-depth social journalism for health, https://croakey.org/where-do-you-fit-tokenistic-ally-or-accomplice/.

Banner image credit: “Northcote street art – ‘Change’” by Melbourne Streets Avant-garde, used under CC BY / Aboriginal flag colours and black background added to original image.

Decolonising the Archive: Responsibilities for Researchers and Archive Professionals (Part II)

Write responsibly. Do not absorb the errors of the past but correct them.

Finally, as archivists and researchers it is important that our writing does not entrench the errors of the past but aims to correct them in order to make collections, and writing about them, more accessible and inclusive. I recently worked on an exhibition with a community partner and, during the initial object selection phase, spent a lot of time with a museum’s collections management system and library catalogue. Some of the things I saw shocked me. In records referring to prints and drawings that include people of African descent, the word ‘negro’ was still being used to describe people. One object’s description used the word ‘negro’ four times in one sentence. Initially I thought that the records might have been old, or that someone had directly typed what had earlier been on a card index. Unfortunately, the records dated from 2007 when a large amount of material connected to African Caribbean history had been accessioned. I was disturbed at what I had found, but was glad that it was me, and not the community partner from a West African heritage organisation, who had found these records.

A search for the word ‘negro’ in the description field of all records found 99 instances where it had been used in this way, not in the title (which could arguably have been copied from the original), but in the description written by the cataloguer. Words like this are not just words. They symbolise oppression and degradation for the very communities that heritage organisations are struggling to attract. Organisations need to do better at engaging with these audiences, and checking databases for the appropriate use of language can be done quickly. Edits may take time but are essential if we are to bring collections databases out of the colonial past. For guidance on potentially sensitive and offensive words, archivists can consult Words Matter, ‘an unfinished guide to word choices in the cultural sector’ compiled by the Netherland’s National Museum for World Cultures (Tropenmuseum, Afrikamuseum, Museum Volkenkunde). The guide can be used as a starting point to discuss words that may feature in your archives, and begin searching your databases to edit or contextualise them. You can also consider adding words that might be missing. In cases where these words are direct quotes from historical documents or titles, they should always be placed between inverted commas.

When working with colonial collections, particularly archival documents, it is easy to become over familiar with, and absorb the language they use. To counter this, add an extra step to your proof reading process. Just as you check for spelling mistakes, grammar, and repetition, check your word choice and use of language, and be very wary of unconscious bias. Are there sentences where your language implies the superiority of colonial authorities or western culture? For example, ‘the African soldiers were unable to speak English’ should be written as ‘the English and African soldiers did not share a common language’.

Conclusion

Archives can be decolonised if archive professionals and researchers work together to uncover evidence of colonialism and take steps to remedy it. Where colonialism has separated archives, they should be unified, at least digitally. Researchers have the responsibility to inform the archives that they are working with when they find corresponding material elsewhere. Archives should be shared with the communities to whom they are most relevant, especially when those communities do not have the funds or means to access the archive in its current state. In some cases, this could mean returning items to their source communities, but should at least mean working with those communities to re-define and re-purpose the materials. Archivists and researchers can collaborate to identify these communities and work with them to develop engagement projects. Finally, when writing catalogue entries, blogs, or articles, we must proof our work to pull out any colonial language that has crept in due to over familiarity with such words. Likewise, it is vital to check for unconscious bias, in case we have inadvertently reproduced the tones and assumptions of the colonial period when describing different groups of people, their languages, cultures, and customs.

Archives can be decolonised and made more attractive and accessible to all communities. Researchers and archivists must work together to achieve this.

<< back to part I of the interview
Bibliography

Peers, L. and Brown, A. K. (2009), ‘“Just By Bringing These Photographs..”: On the Other Meanings of Anthropological Images’, in Elizabeth Edwards and Christopher Morton (eds.), Photography, Anthropology and History: Expanding the Frame (Farnham, Ashgate).

Decolonising the Archive: Responsibilities for Researchers and Archive Professionals (Part I)

Introduction

Researchers and archivists working on colonial collections face a number of challenges arising from the historical contexts of these materials: where they came from, how they were brought together (or separated), and who has been their custodian. In these circumstances, it is important that contemporary professionals do not repeat or entrench the mistakes of the past. In today’s climate, where it is no longer possible to ignore or silence the debates around decolonising collections and the repatriation of objects, high-profile institutions are having to act, and researchers and archive professionals have a responsibility to respond to the missteps of past generations.

Firstly, we must share the archives we use or care for with the people to whom they relate, allowing them to access what was lost or in most cases taken from them. Secondly, we have a responsibility to re-connect archives that have been dispersed and disrupted by colonialism. Finally, we have to write responsibly: rather than absorbing the errors of the past, we need to correct them. Researchers and archivists need to work together to fulfil these responsibilities, and this article outlines some ways to do so, with examples from both my own research and the wider field.

Share your archive with the people it relates to. Connect them with what they have lost/what has been taken from them.

The clearest and most radical way to connect audiences in former colonies with what they have lost is the repatriation and restitution of objects. Several institutions have begun to explore this. Recently the National Army Museum in London returned locks of hair belonging to Emperor Tewodros II of Ethiopia. Similarly, among a number of projects, the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford is engaged in an ongoing collaboration with the Maasai community, which has so far led not only to the repatriation of objects but also to a re-framing of how other objects are described and displayed.

Like museums, archives are also repositories of items such as documents, photographs, and letters. They too should work with researchers to determine how their collections may have created noticeable and unjust absences elsewhere. In some cases, it may be necessary to ‘return’ items or at least replicate and make them accessible to the communities from which they were (sometimes forcibly) removed. Archives may hold the letters of someone’s relatives, photographs of their ancestors, or documents that give otherwise lost insights into their family history, good or bad.

This was the case when Elizabeth Blackwood, an Oxford researcher, took referentially anthropometric photographs of the Kainai people of Alberta, Canada, back to that community during a visual repatriation project. The photographs allowed the Kainai people to tell stories of their past without using ‘the words of the white man’ which were the only previous physical records. Attaching their own stories to the photographs helped them to preserve their histories (Peers and Brown, 2009, p. 266). Many of the repatriated photographs are now used in genealogical histories and act as visual prompts for stories that were usually oral. Elizabeth Edwards writes that ‘visual repatriation is about finding a present for historical photographs’ and that working with photographs in this way also helps to democratise the use of collections, forcing institutions to reconsider whether they are the true owners of such items (Peers and Brown, 2009, p. 266).

Personally, as a researcher situated in what was once the centre of an empire, I have had privileged access both to material that is not available in its country of origin, and to a number of grants, travel bursaries, and other streams of funding that have allowed me to visit archives that are inaccessible to my peers based in former colonies. By building partnerships with archives and museums in the Caribbean, I have been able to connect my research with the communities to whom it was most relevant. Rather than waiting to share the final version of my thesis or academic papers, I shared information about photographs that I had found in other collections across the UK, USA, and Caribbean. As a result, the newly opened military museum at Newcastle in Jamaica was able to feature in their permanent displays photographs from an album that I had viewed in Yale’s Beinecke Library. It was important for the Jamaica Defence Force to access and own these images to better connect them to their own history. If I had waited until my thesis was published three years later, it would not have been possible for the images to be incorporated into the displays.

Re-connect archives that have been dispersed and disrupted by colonialism.

When working on disparate archives, it is common to find items that are replicated across a number of institutions. This is perhaps particularly true of photographs and printed materials of which numerous copies would have circulated throughout the British (or another European) Empire. In some cases, though, you may find parts of an archive in one institution and parts in another. As a researcher, it may be satisfying to find different pieces of the puzzle in different places, but how often do you inform those institutions of what you have found elsewhere? When carrying out research at the National Library of Jamaica, I came across an album compiled by Richard Glynn Vivian, who toured the Caribbean in the 1860s. The album contained three photographs of individual soldiers of the West India Regiment, one of which has been digitised and can be viewed online. After researching Glynn Vivian, I discovered that he was a prolific collector and that his entire collection was bequeathed to what is now the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery in Swansea, Wales. When I contacted the gallery to ask about corresponding materials in their collection, it transpired that they were unaware that a Jamaica scrapbook existed. I was able to connect them with the relevant curator in Jamaica to find out more about the album, thereby improving their knowledge of Glynn Vivian’s time in the Caribbean.

The gallery had another three of his albums, but few other materials related to his Jamaica trip. However, they put me in touch with the institution that holds Glynn Vivian’s diaries. In them, he had recorded the exact moment when he had purchased these photographs. In a diary entry for 10 February 1869, Glynn Vivian writes ‘arrived at Barbados…Had a Glory of the Morning at Ice House. Bought photos of Black Soldiers’. Through the connections I made during my research I was able to bring together archivists with an ocean between them, enabling them to better understand their own collections and better tell the stories of those featured in them.

Academic researchers uncover links and correlations between collections all the time. However, this aspect of their work is rarely shared explicitly in any publications. Working together with archive professionals, they should raise awareness of these connections and share knowledge that could help others to better understand the colonial links between institutions and individuals that are often lying just beneath the surface.

>> proceed to part II of the interview