Sunday, June 16, 2024

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HomeIssue 13Museums: First Nations demand to speak for themselves

Museums: First Nations demand to speak for themselves

p2634 Museums Turner & KoolmatrieBy KIERAN FINNANE

Impossible to go to the national museums conference, held in Alice Springs last week, without thinking about the agenda set by the Northern Territory Government to create a national Aboriginal art gallery here.

Our experience of that proposal to date was the elephant in the room, all the more so given the major themes of the conference, which were around telling stories in museums and galleries, and who gets to tell them, in particular the stories of First Nations.

Right: Emerging Aboriginal curators at the South Australian Museum, Jacinta Koolmatrie at the mic, and Jade Turner, challenge white male authority, represented here by Head of Humanities at the museum, John Carty.

First Nations people being fully in charge is, it would seem, a rarity. An inspiring exception is The 2020 Project, giving the “right of reply” to next year’s 250th anniversary of James Cook’s first voyage to Australia. The Australian Museum in Sydney has placed the direction of the project entirely in the hands of two young First Nations curators, Laura McBride and Mariko Smith.

The museum has put away its substantial Cook collection; it will not be shown. Its only response to the anniversary will be what these curators, working with their communities, come up with. And it clearly won’t be a celebration of Cook.

This direction has been established by a survey that set out to capture meaningful information  from a large representative sample of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The survey got over 800 responses from members of 175 different nations or language groups or clans, with a significant concentration in NSW.

The survey asked questions (what words come to mind?) about the museum, about the name “Captain James Cook”, about what they would like to see the museum address in an exhibition responding to the events of 1770, what they would not like to see, and why.

A majority of associations with the museum itself were either neutral (47%) or positive (21%), but a significant proportion were negative (32%), with the leading concern of this group being that the museum was “white”, representing “their” history, and under non-indigenous control.

p2634 Museums AM McBride & SmithThe answers on the project itself were unambiguous.

Associations with the name of Cook were overwhelmingly negative (87%): “invasion, invader” topped the list.

Left: Their job is truth-telling: Mariko Smith and Laura McBride. 

Truth-telling was identified as a key objective of the project (40%), with “colonisation and its effects” as the leading topic to be addressed (59%).

What should not happen is “praise and glorification” and representing Cook as a hero (212 respondents); this was followed by concerns about “false history”, whitewashing and “colonial fiction” (163); and rejection of the notion that Cook “discovered” Australia (133).

How this clear direction will manifest in the museum’s program is the curators’ next big step, to have ready by August next year.

In the meantime, McBride and Smith hope other institutions will take up the survey’s findings (the report will soon be available on the museum’s website), relevant not only to the 1770 anniversary but also as a methodology for consultation.

Another pair of First Nations young women, emerging as curators, took the lead in the keynote address from the South Australian Museum. They were Jade Turner, who acknowledged her ancestors in Mparntwe, and Jacinta Koolmatrie, an Adnyamathanha and Ngarrindjeri woman. Turner is completing a Bachelor’s degree in archeology; Koolmatrie already has under her belt Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in the discipline.

They predicted that their presentation would make the audience feel “uncomfortable”, by confronting the bias towards white privilege that is ingrained in museum culture, and Australian culture more broadly. They began by initially excluding from the stage John Carty, Head of Humanities at the museum, to whom the program had given lead billing.

They told a story about conducting a tour of the museum for some educators in the company of Carty, and observing the very different reactions from people on the tour when he spoke compared to when they spoke: for Carty they got out their notebooks, started taking pictures, here was “the voice of authority” and it belonged to the white man.

p2634 Museums Turner & Koolmatrie 2Turner spoke about the conflicting feelings  for First Nations people of working in a space that “for a really long time has been a place of violence, sadness, stolen goods – because this is what they are, and I think sometimes people don’t want to admit this.”

Right: Hard questions about trust: Jade Turner at the mic, Jacinta Koolmatrie seated. 

The pain extends to the way cultural collections are dissected, labelled, objectified by white anthropologists.

“We are living people, we are a living culture, and this is something we still feel, even inter-generationally,” she said.

She spoke about experiencing daily the censure of others who react to her critiques as complaining and negative. She challenged the audience to examine what their own reactions had been to First Nations presenters in the course of the conference.

“Don’t ask me to reposition myself, you need to reposition yourself,” she said.

At the other end of the spectrum, she described being completely ignored when she had raised issues or given an opinion; alternatively it had been suggested to her that her view could be rephrased.

“If I have something to say, I can say it myself,” she said. “I don’t need it to be rephrased … the chances are that the first thing I said was the truest thing I said.”

She had a solution to propose, just one suggestion, not enough but a start, and that was for institutions to build and facilitate “internal communities.”

She mentioned the example of the Australian Museum, having a group of strong Indigenous people inside the organisation, who had each other’s backs: that seemed to be “working extremely well for them.”

She hadn’t minced her words and neither would Koolmatrie. The pair are very close.

Koolmatrie spoke about how difficult it is to trust white people working in heritage spaces, the experts: “Their knowledge of our culture has been weaponised against us.”

p2634 Museums Angeles & Drover

Above: Aboriginal authority: Shaun Angeles, researcher at the mic, with Alan Drover Perrurle, Eastern Arrernte very senior man, who holds high knowledge learned from their old people. Drover is on the right in the image above, alongside another man of high knowledge, John Kavanagh.   

She spoke of the racist boxing of Aboriginal people as “educated with no culture” or  “having culture but being uneducated”; of the way it is assumed that Aboriginal identity will get in the way of being able to create something from an objective standpoint.

She challenged the idea of museums as “neutral”; they are rather mostly places where Aboriginal culture is displayed for white people to consume.  Aboriginal people are rarely viewed as the audience, let alone the researcher or creator in these spaces; they are the subject.

She observed the lack of faith in Aboriginal curators, that they would have the same capabilities as a non-Aboriginal curator.

“The difference between our distrust and the distrust from non-Aboriginal museum workers, is that ours is based on our experience of the past 200 years, while yours is based on race,” she said.

Driving home this comment, Koolmatrie specified who she trusted in the academic and museum spaces. It came down to just three people: it took her three years to come to trust the two supervisors for her Master’s degree; and in the last few months she has come to trust John Carty.

This trust gave her confidence that her information would be treated as hers, not as theirs to share; that they would not turn her into a statistic, but see her as a person; that they would be able to take criticism and use it to better themselves, rather than be offended.

After a good half hour of this incisive critique, the women invited Carty onto the stage. He said he had asked them how he would fit in, and Koolmatrie had advised him to simply talk about how he was going to help them achieve what they wanted to do.

He had initially wanted to talk about the new cultural landscape emerging in Adelaide, the new First Nations art and cultural centre being proposed by the SA Premier, and the “kinships, the intersections and the necessary differences” with the national Aboriginal art gallery being developed in Alice Springs, “creating new kinds of cultural institutions in Australia, grounded in Aboriginal authority, governance and story-telling.”

He said it became really clear, however, in talking with Turner and Koolmatrie, that there was something else that needed to be addressed, before turning to “buildings and visions” – and this was the risks being experienced by Aboriginal colleagues in museums every day, experiences that had sought to define them, silence them.

So one of the biggest conversations that needed to be had was around “cultural safety” and that conversation needed to be grounded in country. On this he quoted Bunuba leader June Oscar, contributing to the development of the Encounters exhibition at the National Museum of Australia of First Nations objects held by the British Museum:

I think museums, as a building with bricks and mortar, is reflective of western culture and the western thinking. For us, the museum of ours is out in the landscape, it’s out in the Country. It’s the important places we visit at every chance we get. On a daily basis we are stepping into our museum … People are led to believe museums are the place where stories are kept. In my view museums are part of the bigger story.

He said everything they had done at the South Australian Museum over the past three years had been done in the shadow of this guiding statement.

The proposed projects of the SA and NT Governments did not come up again in Carty’s talk, but all of this – the example being set at the Australian Museum, the reflections of these three from the SAM – went straight to the heart of the matter.

p2634 Museums Dobson & WalshJune Oscar’s statement was a sharp reminder of Mparntwe, the rich and storied homeland of Arrernte people, being a living museum, saturated in stories if only we knew how to see and listen.

Right: Country alive with the bigger story: Veronica Perrurle Dobson AM, supported by Dr Fiona Walsh, gave their audience a glimpse into the grandeur of Arrernte ways of seeing .

The NT Government has tirelessly promoted Alice Springs / Mparntwe as the cultural heartland of Australia and thus the natural home of its proposed national Aboriginal art gallery. The conference, packed with people from the cultural sector, including many holding top positions, could have been a place to make this case, vividly and meaningfully. The opportunity was under-realised.

Sidelined in the “regional, remote and community” strand of the program, was a 15-minute presentation by Veronica Perrurle Dobson AM on the ancestral caterpillars and beetles of Mparntwe, supported by Dr Fiona Walsh. It was made particularly compelling by the visualisation of the stories, grounded on Google Earth images, and by the evidence of the deep bond between the two women formed by years of collaboration on projects about story, knowledge and language.

Fortunately in the main program, the keynote by Arrernte researcher Shaun Angeles was about the work he and senior Arrernte men are doing at the Strehlow Research Centre – de-siloing it, putting the cultural materials it holds back together in the way that they are understood by their original owners, Arrernte and other peoples of the central deserts, creating documents of the cultural maps that their traditional stories trace, revealing a land occupied by meaning.

This presentation, poetic, reverent, emotional, deeply thoughtful and erudite, was one that most conference participants are likely to hold in their memory for a long time.

The progress to date of the gallery project can be measured by all that has been wanting in comparison: the distracting and damaging focus on a site and a building before settling the fundamental questions of Aboriginal authority, governance and story-telling; the manipulation of community rather than meaningful consultation; the sidelining of Aboriginal leadership.

Although she didn’t name the project, the co-chair of its reference group, Franchesca Cubillo, Senior Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art at the National Gallery of Australia, contributed comments from the floor that sounded ringingly relevant:

We have a lot of discussion both in academia and museums and galleries about a decolonised space. A lot of people have used that word without fully understanding the implications. As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in this country we have been very patient, very generous, very long-suffering.

I’m really at the point, having worked in museums and art galleries for 35 years now, of wanting to see more than opportunities, of wanting to see more than multiple voices. I’m wanting to see Indigenous spaces run by Indigenous people for Indigenous and non-Indigenous, with Indigenous agency at the forefront …

My challenge that I make to all of you, please don’t continue to look at multiple voices in your spaces,  please support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to have their own voice in their own institution telling their own stories. It is 250 years … I think we’ve come to the point where the patience is running out.

Note: The conference, At the Centre, was presented by the Australian Museums and Galleries Association.


  1. There is an old saying “History is written by the victors”. Is true and will always be true in my opinion.
    I believe there are always 3 sides to a story, one from the victors, one from the other party and the truth. The truth is rarely known as both sides tend to embellish their stories in some way.
    I think it would be novel to have two wings of a museum – one telling the white man’s story and the other telling the indigenous Australians’ story.
    On a side note I don’t know why Great Britain has never been held to account for their actions in the landing on this country.

  2. James Smerk: Another saying, Buddhist I believe, is better to say nothing than to speak foolishly.
    I see you are writing your comments in English. In different circumstances the common language in this country could have been Dutch, French, Portuguese, Spanish or even Chinese or Japanese.
    Furthermore if you are a descendant of British colonization you would not even exist in this country. Thank God political correctness wasn’t around when Australia was colonised.
    “Held to account for their actions,” unbelievable.

  3. The biggest problems with the use of the term First Nations are:
    1. If a small group of Australians are first because of some ancestry, large or often minimally small, then everyone else is second and that is undemocratic and racist.
    2. The many different peoples living here in 1788, descended from different waves of migration, without a common language, generally at war with each other, constituted tribes and often barely that given the numbers of some groups, and nothing close to any sort of nations. Because of the roughly 300 different groups there would have had to be 300 nations.
    3. Nation is a modern, western concept with no relevance to Aboriginal cultures. Indeed, neither Germany or Italy were nations until the 19th century so quite how there could have been one Aboriginal nation, or many, in 1788 is the question. There could not be and there was not.
    4. There is no Aboriginal “we”. There never was and today, with so much intermixing, the original 300 or so groups are now in the thousands because of varying differentials of intermixing, i.e. Asian, Anglo, European, or a mix, ranging from half to 1/32nd and less.
    5. Aboriginal communities find it almost impossible to reach any sort of “we” consensus so quite how the roughly 600,000 Australians with Aboriginal ancestry could morphs into the realms of impossible. Someone living in urban Sydney, with a part Aboriginal great-great grandparent, descended from largely Anglo-European ancestors, living middle class lives for generations, has nothing in common with someone who is half Aboriginal, from a different tribe, living in Broome, WA.
    Someone living in a remote community in SA has nothing in common with someone living in a remote community in FNQ, beyond living in a remote community, because each are descended from different groups, tribes, peoples who were called Aboriginal by the British, in a unified labelling which reflected no reality.
    Australia’s history belongs to all Australians and that includes any history from the different Aboriginal peoples.
    Living in a modern democracy we are all equal as citizens and all equally custodians of this land, of our history and of our nation.
    It is the worst kind of racism to try to pretend that human history in all of its many variations can be divided into separate groups.

  4. Why cannot so few, admit to they have never been ALL THEY TRY TO CLAIM TO BEING as with, Aborigines had many divisions and sub-groups to them all!
    For, if you can show me where, back pre-arrival of the Tallships, where different clans or known tribes got on with each other in good peace, throughout the times before the white skins getting here, I will supply many other as to where fights/wars & conflict was had!
    For many, never liked or came together as they claim of togetherness (is only a dream to what some educated want to be has made up ). Sadly, the real truth has been compromised in recent times! And, there are many more older stories out there, about the kill or be killed, as is well known of in the Kimberley area of W.A. To where those first brave white station owners saved many of an old indigenous person fronm dying at a young age …

  5. I think James T Smerk’s idea of a museum with two wings is one of the best and most novel suggestions I have heard.
    Aside from a shared claim to Aboriginality, there is no unity within Aboriginal Australia.
    Yet this has not kept them from remaining present and relevant despite having been caught in the tides of history some 250 years ago.
    Let’s hear all the stories.

  6. Every one is and should be proud of their own ancestry and heritage, while respecting others as well, that is nothing new, it’s just common sense and basic courtesy as a human being.
    However for Australia as a country to function properly our standards are based and built on Western traditions including the altruistic beliefs of Christianity. If you don’t like that or don’t believe in that then you can choose to live outback away from the city or even move out of the country. In those instances don’t even dream of asking for free handouts from everyone’s tax money.
    But if you choose to join the functioning society that is Australia where every one is nice to one another one should at least try to keep up with the highest standards expected of life here.

  7. Dear RM: Well, despite my convict heritage of 205 years, and my 100% Caucasian genes, I’m not a Christian.
    I guess I’m stuffed then!
    Please advise where I should take my unchristian self that would make you and your regular-Church-going, grace-saying, non-blaspheming brethren happy?
    I mean, I still manage to be nice to everyone – even Christians such as yourself, but clearly I don’t belong!
    (And of course, despite not being a Christian, I really LOVE the swathe of Christian-based public holidays in this country! Cheers to that!)
    And for everyone commenting on this post, I suggest you read “Dark Emu” and “The Biggest Estate on Earth”.
    I know it may be difficult for some – books are l-o-n-g and can contain big words and things you didn’t know before, but persevere – you may be surprised at what you learn!

  8. @ RM: “However, for Australia as a country to function properly our standards are based and built on Western traditions including the altruistic beliefs of Christianity.
    If you don’t like that or don’t believe in that then you can choose to live outback away from the city or even move out of the country.”
    This CHRISTIAN (rather unchristian) statement is the proof of the arrogance of the western society who believes they know it all and that the Australian colonialism brought paradise to this land.
    Like Alex Gamin I will advise you to read “The Biggest Estate on Earth” and learn a bit about Aborigines and their way of life, especially the land management which was the same accross the country.
    I will quote Roslyn Ross: Many different peoples living here in 1788, descended from different waves of migration, without a common language, generally at war with each other, constituted tribes and often barely that given the numbers of some groups, and nothing close to any sort of nations.”
    I will quote Bill Gammage: “Accross Australia early Europeans commented again and again that the land looked like a park, open woodlands and abundant wildlife, it evoked a country estate in England.”
    Once Aboriginal people were no longer able to tend their country, it became overgrown and vulnerable.
    Christian westerners have done a good job.
    “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.” Desmond Tutu.
    The same can be said about Australia.


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