Returning and Connecting Collections with Communities

by Kirsten Thorpe

Cultural and Critical Archivist, JIIER Research

The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) recently held a forum in Canberra, to report back on their project Preserve Strengthen and Renew in Community.  The project, which is a research pilot, aimed to work with community members to establish protocols for keeping materials safe, as well as to determine relevant access procedures for materials that were held in the AIATSIS collections. In addition to this, the pilot sought feedback on ways in which community members wished to manage processes around knowledge production, documentation and preservation.

The case studies for the pilot were drawn from Western Australian communities. As the project description notes:

The project involves three case studies and is carried out in collaboration with Indigenous Desert Alliance (Central Desert Native Title Services and the Kimberley Land Council) and Wangka Maya Pilbara Aboriginal Language Centre. The three project partners have varying objectives in terms of the production and management of materials. The Kiwirrkurra traditional owners are focused on initial discussions of processes for repatriation and information recording for future generations, Wangka Maya is looking at the management of material that exists as part of the AIATSIS archive, and Karajarri cultural advisors and rangers are seeking to develop cultural knowledge through the repatriation of archived material and the recording of new material, but are also looking at how information should be stored and the best way to achieve this.

The forum provided an opportunity for attendees to hear more about grass-roots needs in regard to the management of cultural heritage collections, as well as aspirations for the future. A number of community members from the Indigenous Desert Alliance were in Canberra for the forum, as well as representatives from the National and State Libraries of Australasia, Universities and community organisations.

The project page has reports on each of the field visits, reporting on return of materials, recording of new materials, and discussions around protocols for ongoing management. Each report has signed project approval letters from the respective organisations, demonstrating practice in line with the AIATSIS Guidelines for Ethical Research in Australian Indigenous Studies. AIATSIS plan to share the pilot findings more broadly in support of communities connecting and returning collections in similar ways. The approach, they hope, will also be a guide for communities to assist them in developing community protocols.

It was evident in the forum discussions that many complex issues arise from discussions around return of collections to communities. From a lack of resources and skills for management of materials at a local level, to challenges around the capacity of collecting institutions to digitally returned often dispersed and under documented collections. Calls for a national framework were discussed at the forum, where communities could have access to a distributed network to support digital infrastructure and skills/training required for the long-term preservation of materials.  With major cultural and collecting institutions across the GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) sector being connected to return materials in a coordinated way. Any further research coming from the pilot would benefit incorporating case drawn from diverse Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across Australia, in urban, regional and remote areas. Further research around the needs and capacity of collecting institutions to respond appropriately to requests for digital return is also vital.

There is growing research in the GLAM sector around these priority areas. The report and recommendations of the Trust and Technology Project (Australian Research Council funded project led by Monash University) provide some insight into the human rights and social justice agenda associated with returning archival collections, as well as an action agenda for holistic approaches to community-based archives.