Speaking back to colonial collections: Building living into Aboriginal archives

Jonathan Jones, mugugalurgarrra (conceal), 2015, unprovenanced south-east museum objects, paper from The Aborigines of Victoria: With notes relating to the habits of the natives of other parts of Australia and Tasmania, 1878, by Robert Brough Smith, Australian Institute of Anatomy display case. Installation view, National Museum of Australia, Canberra. Photo: Merinda Campbell. Courtesy the artist
Jonathan Jones, mugugalurgarrra (conceal), 2015, unprovenanced South-East museum objects, paper from The Aborigines of Victoria: With notes relating to the habits of the natives of other parts of Australia and Tasmania, 1878, by Robert Brough Smith, Australian Institute of Anatomy display case. Installation view, National Museum of Australia, Canberra. Photo: Merinda Campbell. Courtesy the artist

During the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries a significant number of amateur collectors were on a quest to record, categorise and preserve what they perceived to be the “dying races” of Aboriginal Australia. In New South Wales, collectors such as Alan Carroll (1823–1911) and Clifton Cappie Towle (1888–1946) set out to capture information on Aboriginal cultural practices and languages and to disseminate these through their networks and in published journals. Both used various kinds of methods to gather and document cultural content, be it in the form of diaries, paintings, manuscripts or photographs.

This knowledge had previously been held by Aboriginal people in specific locations on Country or transmitted in fluid ways through relationships between people and informed by community protocols. The collections of Carroll and Towle, which are now housed at the State Library of New South Wales, are significant for Aboriginal peoples and communities as they contain vital information relating to art, language, and cultural practices. But the archives are inherently biased, and they frequently position Aboriginal peoples and communities in racist, derogatory and offensive ways.

It is also unclear how Aboriginal people and communities were engaged in the collecting process and whether materials were developed through ethical processes, or with informed consent. How do we engage with collections that silence Indigenous peoples’ voices and perspectives? How do we transform Indigenous archives so that collections are better understood? How do GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums) institutions revisit and gain consent from family members when collections were not formed with appropriate protocols, or with informed consent? How can we enable a right of reply to these Indigenous archives?

It is imperative that these archives are made accessible for them to be understood in Aboriginal community contexts. Indeed, one of the major challenges that is currently being faced by the GLAM sector is the need to reconnect these colonial collections with Indigenous peoples, families and communities. To reposition Aboriginal voice and perspectives respectfully into these collections, to honour the deep living histories of Indigenous Australia. This opening up of the archives can support creative practices, language transmission and a reframing of stories from our colonial era. It enables opportunities for further research and scholarship so that these collections are not situated as “dead” or old relics of our past but in the frame of a living archive that is related to people, place and culture.

The 2018 National Gallery of Victoria exhibition Colony: Frontier Wars explored issues relating to the incomplete nature of colonial collections and the prevailing approach of Indigenous archives being catalogued and described in relation to the European person who collected them. Contemporary works a number of Aboriginal artists were included to reposition Aboriginal voice against the poorly documented colonial collections. Maree Clarke’s (Mutti Mutti, Yorta Yort) series Ritual and Ceremony (2012) is an example of revitalised cultural practices with the works aiming to reconnect Aboriginal people to their cultural heritage, stories and cultural practices.

Many artists and researchers engage with Indigenous archives to critique them and to transform their meanings. Public programs and exhibitions provide opportunities for a re-reading of colonial archives. As part of this, new stories can be told so that power is shifted from the “all-knowing” colonial collecting institution back to the Indigenous people that are the subjects of the collections. It opens up the archive to be understand in multiple contexts and situated in community knowing.

The digital space provides us with opportunities to build counter narratives to colonial collections and to develop stories that give voice to Aboriginal worldviews and perspectives. It enables the material to be activated and animated in new and transformative ways. There are many critical areas to consider when we think about the obligations to care for Aboriginal digital collections online through space and time. Of critical importance is the need for library and archive catalogues to be updated to include multiple perspectives—for Aboriginal people to be able to speak back to these archives—rather than them communicating one single European view.

It has been twenty years since I first stepped into an archive, an accidental journey into a space of great significance to Aboriginal people and one that is filled with tensions and complexities. One of my main interests in being involved in this space is to support Aboriginal people’s rights to access information. I was always interested in the interaction that had taken place between our family—who on my mother’s side are Worimi people from Port Stephens, NSW—and the NSW Aborigines Protection and Welfare Board.

As a researcher and professional archivist, I consider myself to be a facilitator—a role that focuses attention on negotiating the spaces in between traditional collecting institutions and communities—to connect people with their cultural heritage materials that have previously been locked up and difficult to access. Libraries and archives are powerful political spaces and there is great need for activism in this space. They are privileged institutions, and while many people view libraries as sites of reflection and learning, they can also be dangerous.

They are dangerous because of the nature of the collections and more broadly because of issues relating to the lack of consent that was afforded to Aboriginal people in the collecting process. Their collections are polarising, and they can both support or silence Aboriginal people’s worldviews, histories, and experiences. The reoccurring cycle of debate regarding the “history wars” is a prime example of the tensions that exist.

Accessing and using archival sources requires us to turn our gaze back on the collectors to question their motives and intentions. We need to analyse the silences in archives and consider whose memories and perspectives have been recorded? Many questions need to be more deeply explored. Who writes history? Whose materials are collected, and whose point of view do these collections represent? Who gave authority or consent for the capture of cultural materials and languages? How much cultural knowledge is held in these collections waiting for stories to be told? What materials are appropriate for use in continuing cultural practices?

Maree Clarke, Ritual and Ceremony, 2012, 84 inkjet prints. Installation view, Colony: Frontier Wars, National Gallery of Victoria, 2018. Collection: National Gallery of Victoria
Maree Clarke, Ritual and Ceremony, 2012, 84 inkjet prints. Installation view, Colony: Frontier Wars, National Gallery of Victoria, 2018. Collection: National Gallery of Victoria

Nevertheless, libraries and archives are vital for Aboriginal people in reclaiming histories, writing counter narratives, and in drawing on these source materials to continue cultural practices. They are also sites of strength as they document the resistance and resilience of community efforts despite ongoing colonial practices. Our libraries and archives hold the evidence of Australia’s history of genocide, massacre and forced removals of families and communities.

There is a whole range of future work that needs to be carried out to ensure that collections are used appropriately. My work focusses on the questions of how you bring these colonial collections out of the archives to be used and reused so that the archive is not static. This means identifying ways to hand over control of the management of collections directly to Indigenous peoples, rather than keeping it in the major collecting institutions. I am particularly interested in how these transformations can take place through digital access and storytelling.

The digitisation of paper and analogue materials has created opportunities for collections to be managed and circulated in ways that were not previously imagined. Once a place for the privileged scholar and researcher, archives and libraries are now becoming more accessible. The last two decades have seen significant changes in the ways that historical collections can be accessed. With digital materials now made available online in an instant, you can search, download, print and re-use content 24/7 from your living room.

The ease of access is transformative—yet in an Aboriginal cultural context, it can also come with a measure of risk. We are living an era where open access to data is the new norm, and where public expectations are that materials are available online through aggregated search tools such as TROVE. No longer are the public required to visit an institution and search through microfilms of copied newspapers and manuscripts. We can now take data from these historical collections and curate them through new means such as digital storytelling. They can be animated, repurposed and reimagined in multidimensional ways.

We need to care for Aboriginal digital collections respectfully and with the full understanding that they were captured as part of the colonial process. We need to be able to find ways to reconcile these tensions so that collection management respects local protocols and is culturally safe. If we care for collections appropriately, we can use them for ongoing cultural renewal and storytelling. If we get this wrong, we risk repeating the same unethical approaches that were carried out when they were originally collected.

In response to Aboriginal community calls for action, libraries and archives are now considering important issues around the ownership, use and control of content and other matters such as the protection of Indigenous knowledges through the management and expression of Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property (ICIP) rights. A search of TROVE or the national and state archive and library catalogues for Aboriginal-related content demonstrates the significant work that lies ahead.

This work will require a deep commitment by our national collecting institutions to prioritise community engagement and participation in understanding the context of these collections to determine their future use and transmission. We need to find ways to speak back to these colonial archives, beyond the temporal moments of public programming and exhibitions. We need to change the systems of access to fully consider Indigenous peoples’ rights to the colonial archives, including enabling a right of reply to records that are incomplete or simply incorrect.

Photographer unknown, Photographs of Edmund Milne standing next to Aboriginal Arborglyphs [carved trees], Gamboola, near Molong, 1912. Collection: State Library of NSW
Photographer unknown, Photographs of Edmund Milne standing next to Aboriginal Arborglyphs [carved trees], Gamboola, near Molong, 1912. Collection: State Library of NSW

The images from the collection of Towle were displayed in the exhibition Carved Trees at the State Library of NSW in 2011. The exhibition was aimed at showcasing a selection of some of the 1,000 images collected by Towle that were donated to the Library in the late 1970s. Curated by Indigenous Librarians at the Library, the exhibition focus was to share the significant collection that Towle had amassed in the period leading up to his death in 1946.

They include photographs of amateur anthropologist Edmund Milne standing with friends, axe in hand, alongside the Carved Trees at the gravesite of Yuranigh. The exhibition catalogue notes that “Milne was an avid collector of Aboriginal artefacts and, although he wields an axe in these photos, none of the trees were chopped into or removed”.[1] Towle was a founding member of the Anthropological Society of NSW. He undertook fieldwork to photograph arborglyphs and dendroglyphs, more commonly known as “Carved Trees”.

While many artefacts that were collected across NSW and into Queensland were deposited into our national museums the images found their way to the State Library of NSW. The collection is rich, and it is unique and varied in demonstrating the cultural practice of Wiradjuri and Gamilaroi communities. The SLNSW catalogue hints at the potential cultural significance of the materials noting that they document burial grounds and archaeological sites.

Towle, and the other amateur collectors he worked with did not record any of the express wishes of community knowledge holders when this collection was formed. There are no protocols associated with the use of the images, whether for personal use or for use in other creative practices. Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi artist and scholar Jonathan Jones has used historical collections as part of his art practice. Central to his creative approach is a deep engagement with Elders and knowledge holders to ensure that cultural transmission is both alive, and also transmitted respectfully through appropriate protocols and understanding.

Jones reminds us that these historical objects cannot be viewed simply as a relic of the past, they must be situated in contemporary practices, and understood in terms of current kinship connections. They also require permissions and protocols to be observed. Jones understands and locates these works in the fabric of an Aboriginal kinship framework and understands them importantly as being a part of a living and thriving cultural living archiving system. 

In my research I have come to see Aboriginal community archives, and the “living archive” as: “The term ‘living archive’ refers to an Aboriginal community archive containing both tangible and intangible records. The living Aboriginal archive holds records that may be transmitted orally by members of the community or passed on through art, dance or storytelling—that is, they are not captured in particular physical or digital form but are transmitted through interaction and connections between people.

In addition, the living archive is considered to be not only a place for storing or gathering materials, but also a place where information can be contested. Multiple sources of records can be gathered, analysed, debated and new layers of information captured on their context.”[2] In this way the living archive provides a space in which voice and self-representation can be given to the experiences of Aboriginal people.

Another area of emerging use of archives has been in projects that seek to use Aboriginal placenames or meanings: for example, in dual naming projects or within Aboriginal language revitalisation projects. Community stories and engagement are critical when working with historical collections of Aboriginal language materials that have been digitised and made available online. Any users of these documents should consider the nature of how word lists and meanings were gathered. Who were the informants who provided the information, and has it been recorded correctly?

The papers of the Royal Anthropological Society of Australasia are an example of such a collection of materials. Led by former paediatric specialist Alan Carroll, the papers capture a significant collection of Aboriginal words, placenames and meanings from across Australia. The society circulated a survey form in the late 1890s to members and government officials to record wherever possible site‑specific Aboriginal words and meanings.

These words were then curated and disseminated in published form in the RASA publication The Science of Man. In 1899 words from Sydney were recorded as Boondi (Bondi), meaning “Noise made by sea wave breaking on beach”, Koojah (Coogee), “Bad smell, caused by the decay of large quantities of seaweed washed ashore” and Merooberah (Maroubra). “The beach was named after the tribe that inhabited that particular place”. The names of Aboriginal language speakers or informants to these recordings are not captured or noted in the collections.

While digital engagement allows an opportunity for the Aboriginal words to be shared, these collections also need to be reconnected with Aboriginal language speakers and custodians to check their accuracy. Community member Brad Steadman (Brewarrina, NSW) reminds people of the challenges of access: “There is a historic and linguistic dilemma being presented in making these materials accessible, this is only one manifestation of which we hope and think such an endeavour will clarify a 120‑year problem of neglected archive material.”[3]

The importance of reawakening and revitalising Aboriginal languages is clear. Firstly, and importantly for Aboriginal people at a community level, and secondly for the broader Australian public. But we need to work with caution when drawing on these historical collections and ensure that they are recirculated for community feedback and input. A significant risk in increasing access to digital collections is a lack of stories about how these materials were collected.

We cannot just make these documents available digitally without investing in a re‑reading of the materials from an Aboriginal perspective and worldview. We have seen in the work of Uncle Bruce Pascoe in Dark Emu that our archives demand further research to contextualise them in a living archive paradigm. This means being able to situate the materials not as old/dead relics but in the context of continuing relationships between people and their Country.

Indeed, much more thought should be placed on factors relating to the cultural, spiritual and emotional care of collections—efforts that put Aboriginal people in the driving seat so that they are building and determining priorities based on local needs. This balancing act of enabling access—while ensuring appropriate cultural management—is vital. If access is allowed online without Aboriginal participation there is real potential for materials to alienate Aboriginal people or retraumatise peoples who have lived through, and survived, colonial processes of dispossession.

Getting things right from the start, by working at a grass-roots level with cultural owners can enable incredible opportunities, particularly in creative spaces across the arts and in language maintenance and revitalisation. To safeguard Aboriginal knowledges into the future, we need to move beyond an urge to see the items as consumables—that is, merely being able to download, share and reuse without appropriate consent.

If we get the consultative process right, and we engage Aboriginal people as decision makers in the use of these historical collections, we will enable significant stories to be told about the broad and expansive living histories of Aboriginal Australia.

Photograph of Edmund Milne standing next to Aboriginal Arborglyphs [carved trees], Gamboola near Molong, 1912. Collection: State Library of NSW
Photograph of Edmund Milne standing next to Aboriginal Arborglyphs [carved trees], Gamboola near Molong, 1912. Collection: State Library of NSW


  1. ^ State Library of New South Wales, Carved Trees: Aboriginal cultures of Western NSW: https://www2.sl.nsw.gov.au/archive/events/exhibitions/2011/carved_trees/docs/3449_carved_trees_guide.pdf.
  2. ^ Kirsten Thorpe, “Aboriginal community archives: a case study in ethical community research”, Research in the Archival Multiverse, Monash University Press, Melbourne, 2015.
  3. ^ Brad Steadman in an interview with the State Library of NSW regarding the use of language materials in the DX Lab interactive Muru View. See: https://dxlab.sl.nsw.gov.au/blog/making-muruview.

Kirsten Thorpe (Worimi people, Port Stephens, NSW) is a professional archivist, who has led the development of protocols, policies, and services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in libraries and archives across Australia. Kirsten is a Senior Researcher at the Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education & Research, University of Technology Sydney and a PhD student at Monash University, where is she is investigating questions of cultural safety in libraries and archives.