Panel 3: Writing onto the public record our stories
Chaired by Andy Greenslade with panellists Peter Read, Stephen Hagan, Michael Aird and Christine Hansen, Who you callin’ urban? Forum, National Museum of Australia, 6 July 2007
MARGO NEALE: This afternoon the topic is ‘Writing onto the public record our stories’. That came from the vox populi we showed you [it is a quote] by Wesley Enoch, one of his things. This is very integrated with the exhibition and what people have said about this topic of the urban Aborigine. Andy Greenslade is chair of this session.
Andy is and has been for some time a curator in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Program here at the National Museum of Australia, involved with a lot of the early exhibits. Most recently she worked on the Ernabella exhibit and she also worked on 70% Urban with me and Barbara. She will take over from me and run through another fabulous highly textured group of people.
ANDY GREENSLADE: By this stage I am sure you don’t really need me to introduce Peter because we have already heard from him. He is a visiting professorial fellow in the Department of History at the University of Sydney. Fortunately we get to use him for quite a few of our things so we are in contact. He is author of The Stolen Generations and Charles Perkins’ biography. He is currently researching a biography of Joy Janaka Williams and the history of Aboriginal Sydney.
PETER READ: [reading from a transcript of an interview with Joy Janaka Williams with a slide show of official documents relating to her life as keep in the NSW Aboriginal Welfare Board] At the moment I feel like a television series where different parts of me are so diverse. I have a political background, a musical background, I have an academic background, I have a homeless person’s background, I have an alcoholic woman’s background - I have a lot of other strong backgrounds. Somehow these things have to come together. Even when I die, it is still going to be a bit of a jigsaw puzzle. Some day someone will work out what it is all supposed to be because I have no idea myself.
My earliest memories would have been with a lady with a silver buckle visiting me at Bomaderry. I think now that probably she was my mother going from Bomaderry to Lutanda - that’s the home I went to second - with Sister Saville and Auntie Leila. I remember a station at Strathfield had its hedges all cut into animal shapes. I can remember having bread and milk when we got to Lutanda as well. I was wearing a little tartan skirt and little blue coat. I remember that.
I was never told of any decision not to send me to the Cootamundra Girls Home as I got older but obviously there was a decision taken because years ago I wrote to Lutanda and asked them why I went there. They sent me back this certificate that was made at the time. I showed it to Mum and she had signed it but she told me that it didn’t have anything written on it when she signed it. That was in 1947. It says something like, ‘reason for admission to take the child away from association of Aborigines as she is a fair-skinned child’. That is why I didn’t go to Cootamundra. Religion is very important. We had plenty of that. Many were chosen but few would go. It’s in the Bible. I have been sometimes awake until my eyes got dry because I was so frightened I wouldn’t be taken. We weren’t allowed to put another book on top of the Bible, literally, otherwise, we were told, God couldn’t see his written word. I used to think, God there are so many bloody bibles around why can’t you find somewhere else to look at one. Sundays, church in the morning, Sunday school in the afternoon, the older girls and boys went to church at night. During the week we always had to say our prayers and say grace, even if we didn’t like what was for dinner. Ironic that, having to say thanks for the dinner we hated.
I didn’t do too well at school, never did really well. After school it was jobs, cleaning shoes, helping put ironing away that the ladies had come in and done every Tuesday, ladies from the church, Saturdays too. We had a roster that filled every day of the week. They couldn’t have run the home without the children doing the work. I don’t remember much about my childhood. I was a lonely child. The aloneness. I had to find myself a hiding spot in the children’s home so I could have a place of my own. It was right up in the corner of a big paddock. I wouldn’t let anybody else come in. I didn’t make a cubby house but I could see them come to me. A bit sad, isn’t it?
The kids used to get food and lollies from their visitors so I punched the girls out if they didn’t give it to me or share it with me. But nobody ever told me about me Mum. And at Christmas I was the only one left. Lutanda, in its answer to me in court, said that’s not true. But I can’t remember anyone else staying over Christmas. They said how stable the lifestyle and everything was. But we weren’t treated like individuals. If there was any trouble going on, they would always assume I was in the middle of it. But I don’t know how much trouble I really caused. I was probably a bit aggressive because I was unhappy, especially when I found out I had a mother. Once I was taken to a Sunday school picnic to La Perouse and all the young Koori boys were diving in for money. How could they do such a thing? I am glad I am not like one of them. Jesus Christ, we wouldn’t even consider doing things like that. I wasn’t better than them but I thought I was. I had been made to think I was.
I think I was about 12. That is when I started waiting for Mum on visiting days. It was one of the workers; one of the staff told me I actually had a mother. I always had thought I was an orphan. I knew I had a horrible origin. I can only put it, as I see things now, that I thought at that stage everything had been done for me that possibly could have been done. But no, there was one more thing and even now there will always be one more thing that somebody else can do. I was in high school. I had done something wrong and this woman said to me, ‘Well you know you’re Aboriginal, don’t you and your mother didn’t want you and there is mud in your veins and by the way she was a drunk’. I didn’t know what a drunk was. It was up in her room. I was standing up and she was looking down to me, horrible woman. I was devastated, absolutely devastated. I hardly knew what Aboriginal was but I soon found out in history lessons. We did ancient history of course so the Kooris came into the Stone Age. The only Koori I had ever heard of was Albert Namatjira. I remember the bloody mission plates that used to go around for the poor little blackfella.
I was in so much trouble and isolation at the children’s home at the time. I had nowhere to go, nowhere. Look at the cuts in my arms. I started doing that when I wanted to find out what colour my blood was and was running away from home as well. I think I wanted to have some mark on me that I was somebody and that I belonged to somebody. I was a loner, very much so, and the other girls were probably a little bit frightened of me. I was always aggressive. I had to be on top but nobody wanted me, except to work. I was looking after the girls all the time when I was 16. I grew up thinking I was ugly and stupid. I didn’t do well at school, never did really well. I don’t think anyone wanted me and I was angry most of the time, always attention seeking whether it was good or bad. That is why I was converted a lot, so many times because they were all over you like a rash when you converted. I don’t remember a lot about what happened as a child. When I do remember things I have to sort it out whether it’s a fantasy memory that kept me surviving. I don’t deliberately or maliciously lie.
I hate lightning. Lightning, I know when it’s going to come. It’s like a belt being held up. You know it is going to come cracking down and you just freeze for the crack, if you know what I mean, and you know it’s going to hit. But it was incredible going up those wooden stairs because ‘this was going to hurt me more than it’s going to hurt you’ and use the bloody belt. And you know at times at Lutanda I used to pray like mad that it wouldn’t hurt them like they said it was going to. They are kind of talking to you with one arm on your shoulder like a claw and then would come the lightning, thunder not so much. Lightning terrifies me, equivalent to Armageddon and the fear, the fear. I never did well at school, not real well. I got the Intermediate I think - no I didn’t, I only got English. I didn’t care. I didn’t even know what it meant, but it certainly limited my opportunities for employment at Hornsby Girls High.
Running away, I guess that was attention getting too. It was very easy to run away. One time I didn’t go back for two nights because I was too frightened. I slept on Hornsby Station and I spent a night with this fella - nothing happened though. Next thing they hauled me down to the cop shop at Hornsby where they gave me an internal and I was still a virgin, much to their surprise. When I got back to the home I got a hiding with a butter pat and I had to write out 500 times. After I left school I worked on at Lutanda but they never paid me. I used to do the same work as any of the workers, didn’t like it much but they got me a job in the city at a bike shop. I wasn’t there very long. That is where they got me the job at Parramatta District as a nurse’s aid. The majority of girls went into business college, nurses’ aid, and I think that was from Lutanda because we were never allowed to wear makeup and we had our faces scrubbed by Lutanda staff if we ever did. It was a Plymouth Brethren home I was living in and that was when my connection with Lutanda stopped. They said I couldn’t go back any more, even on my days off because I didn’t live there. The superintendent told me that. He was a horrible man, horrible. I think I was a troublemaker and they saw me as a troublemaker. No, Joy, you can’t come back here, you live at the nurses’ quarters now and that’s where you stay.
But it was there that I was introduced to drugs from one of the senior nurses. First of all they got me amphetamines to keep me awake. I asked what it was for and she said Methedrine and I liked the feel of that. Then I was getting sleeping pills at night, Carbutil. I was a junkie, first to make me wake up and then some things to put me to sleep. On weekends I would go out with blokes, usually visitors I met, some of them were good times. I didn’t like being the victim of rape though and that happened quite a lot. I had no idea of the ways of the world, no idea at all and I started going to The Cross as well.
Ambitions, well, I wanted it all at once. I wanted to be a nurse but I didn’t know the hard work and the preparation that went into it. I had no idea what I was capable of doing. I had to learn survival skills to learn the sense of paying board and lodging at the place where I was working. I never could understand why I had to pay rent if I was working there. I imagined myself as a mother with a husband and three children. That didn’t work out, did it? So one day I just left. It was one of my days off and I just didn’t go back. By then I was sitting pretty much in the routine of The Cross. I was there more often than I was at home, at work. I used to go there with some of the nurses. I think I started that, just for the night if one of them was having a birthday. The Cross was the place that one of the superintendents told me you must never, never go there. I wondered why because we were always told to lay ourselves at the foot of the cross. And here is the bloody Cross. The first night, I remember it vaguely, we first met in the coffee lounge, Napoleon I think it was called. A dentist and his wife used to run it. They let us sit there for hours and hours with just one cup of coffee. Some nights I would do the washing up or at least I would get enough for feminine items and access to a dentist. Sometimes I used to go in that little coffee shop, hooked on amphetamines not on alcohol, I didn’t drink. At first I got them from the hospital and then I got the pills from the truckies. The truckies used to go to that coffee shop too. At Central railway station we could go and wash and dry our hair. So I was living at The Cross, homeless most of the time, flop houses and so on. That’s where I met Koori women, flop houses, sixpence a night, nothing. It depended on who had the money. A little group of us would sleep on the floors and girls and boys, all homeless, long before The Cross became a drug centre, or bus stops. I remember I used to sleep at the Darlinghurst fire station. Rape was the order of the day usually too. When I used to pick up blokes for a room for the night that was all it was for. You couldn’t say no. Pretty bad memories - yeah, they are. Very traumatic memories. Actually it is something I haven’t talked about before. Even the relationships I have been in, every one of them have all been violent except for one. I remember the vice squad and the Vagrancy Act. I would pick up somebody and then get a room for the night and then the dawn patrol would come through and only the woman was arrested and charged with indecent behaviour.
Aboriginality, no, not very strong. I knew I was a Koori but at the Wayside Chapel I met up with Charlie Perkins and Cole Hardy. I was on the phone system for the Freedom Ride. I was not only with nowhere to go but had no prospect of going anywhere either. I used to take a lot of Methedrine and stuff like that from the truckies. You never feel hungry with that. Not much use getting hungry either. The way I used to have my bath was to go swimming in the baths at Woolloomooloo. I used to do my washing there too. It was all the underwear I had. Not that I had anything to speak of. Prostitution hadn’t occurred to me then. Lutanda had written me off as a bad girl. So very much unloved, although I felt I belonged to this particular group. I have a very, very, deep sense of abandonment. Friends have too, especially when they moved away. Gaol, well that was worse than North Ryde Mental Hospital, I think. I never got any sleeping tablets. Ray Desmond was there and he was from Broken Hill and Bill Cruise - this is before the Wayside Chapel started - I spent seven days at Long Bay. That never worried me. I was already institutionalised so a gaol couldn’t hurt me. I used to go down to the Domain on Sundays where I learnt my public speaking, talk up with the best of them. That’s where I was introduced to the Communist Party as well. Or I would go to poetry readings at Bohemia or that pub down there at Pyrmont, the Royal George, I was writing too. There was a poem I wrote there. I think it was called Shadows, the very first poem I wrote.
Drinking, yeah, I think I was just getting into drinking then. In the beginning it was just the cherries on a Pimms, no more than that. I was in gaol for eight months. On my record it has only got twice, but I think it was more than that, for vagrancy, seven days or until the fine was paid. Auntie Nuggo, that is Mrs Ingram, told me about my aboriginality. I think she introduced me to the Foundation, that place down in George Street, a welfare and Aboriginal drop-in centre in George Street. I stayed at Enmore with her for a while and that introduced me to Kooris. Identifying as a Koori, oh, yeah in a kind of a way but as a ‘parky’, I was a park Aboriginal. That was all I knew. Maybe social security put me onto a social worker on the Anglican thing and put me into TAFE when I was doing graphic art for a while. But I also was homeless, so it was impossible to continue. And the social worker told me to go to the Foundation. Half my relatives from Cowra were in the Foundation. I didn’t know a single one of them. It made me feel more non-accepted by the white community because I started hanging out with Kooris. And The Cross used to be a good place to live. It was obvious I wasn’t going to make it as a nurses’ aide. I wasn’t studying, missing work, always under the eye of somebody and then I shot through. But it was awful being homeless. The best thing that happened to me was when they brought in the hand dryer there so we could dry our hair. I had finished gaol, nowhere to go. And my parole officer put me into North Ryde Mental Hospital, wearing pyjamas for seven days and they worked out our medication. They would try different things like Stellazine, Melsadene, Tryptanol, Tofranol, Largactyl, good old Largactyl, Mogadons, barbiturates. I was there for two or three months at a time. It wasn’t too bad. Another institution. But that’s when the medication really started. I was in North Ryde for periods up to three months about four times - uncontrollable. Though a couple of times they said, ‘Why the hell is she here’. Then you are allowed weekend leave and I used to head off down to the city and then there was ‘group therapy’. You are supposed to talk about your innermost feelings. We seemed to sit in a big circle. I know it now as ‘confrontation therapy’. You sit in a big circle and if you said you felt good, they would keep at you until you felt rotten. You had to work it out yourself and if you didn’t the psychiatrist would spout it out. I was still very much a child, the child I never was. I was 19. A refugee, yeah, I was, but the place was a refuge. It didn’t worry me that it was a psych hospital. One time the superintendent from Lutanda came over, when I was in group therapy at Fraser House. He left in disgust. Why? Because it was ‘pick on Joy’ day. The psychiatrist told him what I had been in gaol for. It still irritates me how I was treated. I don’t want to talk about that any more.
But I had a baby, my Julianne. Somehow, I lost her. They were put into St Anthony’s Babies Home and they told me she was sick. I don’t know whether she was sick or not. She would have been six or seven months when I lobbed in to see her at Croydon and I nearly died when I saw there were nuns there. Not again! I went back to try and see her the second time and the nuns told me she was sick. When I went back the third time she was gone. They reckon I had signed papers apparently and had them with me at North Ryde. Maybe a couple of months later I took off again apparently. I had taken off from North Ryde and when I came back they got a male nurse to take me over to St Anthony’s to sign the adoption papers. I am told that I signed them but I was very heavily sedated. What did I sign? I was on 600 ml of Largactyl a day - should have killed an elephant. Even now I can’t handle babies crying. My Julianne.
So I was working at a place called George Street where they sold men’s clothes real cheap and had a lot of good jobs, mainly part time, not for too long though because I knew there were little rooms you could rent and get a good feed there. I went to the Sydney Folk Club, Garry Shearstone, Declan Affley, Marion Henderson, I stayed on at the Chapel looking for work though, looking for work. I went to Melbourne quite a few times - went to Adelaide. Still had a lot of work to do with white people. Always looking for my Mum and never finding her.
When hitching I was looking for my Mum. All I knew about my Mum was she did grape and bean picking. I knew her name because it was on my birth certificate. But I didn’t know if my mother had told anyone she had even had a baby. I ended up in Nowra years later. No-one knew she had even had me at all. Casual work, yeah, I was always trying to get work but no-one would believe me that I wanted it.
I didn’t like men at the time because, well, they could do so much damage. I saw them as violent. Even sex was violent. A violent act, because I had been raped so many bloody times, never went to the police. I did once and they wouldn’t believe me. Removed child? Yeah I am. The part you never get back is the missing that you have done all the years. What you missed out on. There is nothing there can put it back. Even with Julianne. Just because I had three children what’s a mother anyway for God’s sake? You know on Sorry Day someone had to point out there’s more than one stolen generation. There are three in my family for a start. That is disgusting. I can’t think that anything makes up for that loss. And it’s still a loss. Thanks.
ANDY GREENSLADE: Thanks, Peter for telling that really heart-wrenching story and one of so many. I would now like to introduce Michael Aird. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts Anthropology from the University of Queensland. His main interest is urban Aboriginal photographic history. He worked in the area of Aboriginal culture and heritage for over 20 years and in that time curated several exhibitions as well as publishing books and articles. For five years Michael was curator of Aboriginal studies at Queensland Museum and is currently the director of the Aboriginal owned publishing house Keeaira Press.
MICHAEL AIRD: Thanks Andy. I have a paper here that I will read. The early 1980s was a time when urban Aboriginal people increasingly, publicly voiced their concerns as to how their culture and history was being portrayed by institutions. [Shows image] I guess that is why I am showing this first photo because I have to give credit, in reference to myself, one of those people in the 1980s that joined the area, but as I mentioned with Bronwyn this morning and plenty of others that were there long before us doing things. Stephen has talked about the work his father was doing representing Aboriginal people in various levels. I have to give credit to those people that were there long before us. They are the ones that were out in the street. They are the ones that have fought. They are the ones that made it possible for us to secure careers and be in places like this today talking.
It was the intense political struggle of the previous decades that opened the doors for a new generation of Aboriginal people that wanted to do more than protest but also secure careers as professionals in the arts and cultural heritage industry. One of the first institutions to be attacked in the 1980s was museums, and non-Aboriginal curators that controlled the Aboriginal collections. There was a dream held by many Aboriginal communities at the time that was for the government to fund the building of keeping places and cultural centres, and the government institutions would then return the artefacts from each local region to community control. This paper will discuss proposed community museum projects that never eventuated as well as look at buildings that were actually established and discuss how successful or not they have been.
I commenced my career in Aboriginal cultural heritage in June 1985 working for Dr Peter Lowery at the University of Queensland anthropology museum. I was carrying out research on archaeological sites to be nominated on the national estate. This work was intended to contribute to the establishment of an Aboriginal cultural centre to be built on the Gold Coast. At the time it was anticipated that a multi-million dollar bicentennial grant would fund the construction of this building. The large bucket of funding never eventuated and the building was never built. In retrospect it would have never succeeded, even if several millions of controversial grant money was received, as a lot of Aboriginal groups were objecting to the whole concept of receiving bicentennial money. The concept was far too ambitious and it would never have been able to compete with the big-name tourist attractions such as Dream World, Sea world and Movie World.
Numerous market studies talk of overseas tourists wanting an Aboriginal experience while in Australia, although nobody really knows what sort of experience they expect. There doesn’t seem to be any accurate exit polls to determine how many tourists actually got the Aboriginal experience that they hoped for. But one thing that was identified in the market studies done in the 1980s and supported by more recent research is that tourists are not going to part with their hard-earned cash to hear about Aboriginal culture from fair-skinned Aborigines living in an urbanised area such as the Gold Coast. Those that are interested in Aboriginal culture will save their money for a genuine Aboriginal experience at places where ‘real’ Aborigines are [located], such as Cairns or Alice Springs. The reality of the market is that the big tourist attractions do such a good job of extracting money out of the tourists there is only a very small demographic left that can afford to or may want to visit an Aboriginal tourist attraction and of course they are most likely interested in an Aboriginal experience that fits in with their own preconceived ideas as to what genuine Aboriginal culture is, for example, red loincloths, a didgeridoo and of course dark-skinned Aborigines.
[Shows image] This is the slide of the proposed cultural centre that was never built. You can see in the foreground a bora ring. It was on a very small block of land. That is the Pacific Highway going past. A lot of people questioned how you could fit such a big building on such a small block of land right beside a sacred site. I think a lot of people are glad it never got built. Then also the building failed - how could we then on-sell it to some other purpose if it’s right on a sacred ceremonial site.
This essentially sums up the obstacles that have faced Aboriginal communities, all over Australia, that have attempted to establish museums or cultural centres with the dream of becoming self-sufficient, thanks to the tourist dollar. Part and parcel of this whole process has been the army of government officials that have promised funding to Aboriginal communities to set up museums and keeping places as long as they can prove that they will be financially viable. I am convinced that the only way to prove that any proposed cultural institution will be financially viable is to use some form of totally made up and dishonest accounting system. I think you will find of course this building in itself couldn’t survive without extra funding, as in a sense it is not viable.
[Shows image] I am proud to say that the second Aboriginal cultural project that I was involved in was actually built and almost 20 years later is still operating successfully. In 1987 I was employed by the Brisbane Catholic Education Office to develop plans for an Aboriginal cultural centre to service the educational needs of the entire Brisbane diocese, which covers much of south-east Queensland. This was intended as the Catholic Church’s contribution to the bicentennial year along with a promise to fund the upkeep of the building and two staff indefinitely. The difference between this cultural centre and so many other proposed cultural centre projects of the 1980s was that this project did not get out of hand with false promises and grand plans. In other words we were told, okay pitch your two classrooms, put together, placed on the edge of a school oval. That is how big it will be. Now what is the best way to turn this into a functional Aboriginal cultural centre? This building, that is an old friend of mine, [points to image] Arthur Peterson, he couldn’t believe that within 12 months this building was actually starting to be constructed. That is the building when it was first built. It has actually been extended and looks a lot better than that again today.
[Shows image] This building was opened in 1988, which is pretty good as the planning for it only began the year before. Almost 20 years later it is far more substantial than two classrooms put together and the Church has sold off the oval where this photo was taken, which was an important part. They could take the kids out and throw boomerangs on this oval. The Church has sold off the oval and built units on it. But everything came together, working with the financial realities of the time and slowly building on it. I think one of the main reasons that it was successful is that it was built in the highly urbanised, mainly Housing Commission suburb of Inala, one of the most outlying and disadvantaged suburbs of Brisbane. Here we had a strong Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community that were willing to claim this building as their own and contribute to it. Here is Rosemary Bell, Richard’s sister-in-law. She was Rosemary Graham back then. She spent her whole life growing up in Inala and she ends up director of this centre. She brought in all the community she knew well. They all helped. So 19 years surviving, the Catholic Church in this case has stuck to its promise and kept on funding and building up. They are on a bit of a creek, which is now beautiful cultural walk.
In 1995 I took up the position as curator of Aboriginal Studies at the Queensland Museum, a position I held for five years. In my time at the Museum I came into contact with community representatives from all over Queensland that wanted to build cultural centres. By this time terms such as community museums and keeping places were being used. By the 1990s things had changed a bit. People had realised that the multi-million dollar buckets of money that people were promised in the 1980s were never going to eventuate and expectations were far more realistic. In fact, some communities had built up fantastic resources relying on volunteer labour of old people and the occasional small grants of a few thousands dollars. Another reason several communities succeeded in documenting much of their history and physically protecting this information was that they built genuine relationships with local institutions or government people that could help them in some way. I can name examples of school teachers, clergy, librarians, local aldermen, amateur historians and many others that shared their expertise and supported Aboriginal communities to secure much-needed basic resources to carry out important cultural work. In my opinion the most successful community museum projects have been those that have ignored the promises of lots of money from government people and simply moved ahead with whatever resources they could secure.
[Shows image] This a picture of Irene Rider at the Mitchell Yumba. This was the old school that used to be on the Yumba. Stephen would know this story well, similar to Cunnamulla, where they had a thriving fringe camp, the school and then they removed the school and made all the people move into town. I think the people still had fond memories of that place and they took charge of the land where the Yumba used to be, put this old school building back. [Shows image] This little building then became the cultural centre. I don’t know what the museum professionals think of the signage but it’s pretty interesting. Those signs are all over the place, talking about where different families had their camps and whatever. Irene is a classic example of somebody who has just attacked and harassed people and screwed whoever could help in some way, she has just done it. She has done an incredible amount of cultural work and was supported by others in the community. It is not just her doing the work.
[Shows image] In the early 1990s members of my own community established a small museum in a rented building in an industrial area, in a cheaply constructed block brick building that was first built as a church and later used as a cabinet making factory. It is called the Yugembeh Museum Language and Heritage Centre. Its establishment was clearly a result of the dream that was first ignited when the multi-million dollar tourist attraction was proposed, but on a far more realistic scale and far from the central tourism precinct of the Gold Coast. The locality itself has caused some confusion as it was situated in Beenleigh, the most northern suburb of the Gold Coast. In fact many people from the Gold Coast do not even consider Beenleigh to be part of the Gold Coast, but the location was central to a few staff that initially worked in the building. But it was not central or easy to get to for most of the community members or potential visitors. In fact I have heard a lot of people say there should be an Aboriginal museum on the Gold Coast. I say there is one, it’s at Beenleigh. They say ‘yeah but there should be one on the Gold Coast’.
[Shows image] In its first few years the museum produced a few exhibitions with well-attended openings and catered for numerous school and community groups. Although in recent years the school visits have ceased and the numbers of community groups and researchers have dropped off. The sign in front of the building stating that it’s a museum has been removed. You are looking at the front entrance of the building. I didn’t purposely try to take a horrible photo of it but it doesn’t look welcoming at all.
In 2006 the community organisation that administers the museum changed its constitution to restrict its potential membership to one family group. But some members of that family group that have tried to join the organisation have been rejected without explanation. The need to explain rejections was also removed from the constitution in 2006. I am not criticising some other family that I am related to. It is actually my close relatives that have changed the rules to exclude me and my brother and my mother and whoever else. Even though the museum and land has been purchased by the Indigenous Land Corporation and it continues to receive federal funding, it raises the question, ‘Is a community museum a community museum if the community are excluded from the building and its operation?’ I am sure many other communities have asked this question.
[Shows image] This was actually a community group, out the back of Rockhampton, between Rockhampton and Woorabinda, who wanted to set up a museum. They were doing a lot of archaeological work with coalmines in the area. They bought a cattle property. This was the house on the property. They had plans of turning this into a cultural archaeological research centre, a place they could take visitors. It was a dream, but I don’t think it really happened.
[Shows image] Here is another sad photo, one of the most important collections of Aboriginal art put together by Aboriginal community. In a sense the first really successful community-run cultural centre in Queensland would have been the opal centre which Barbara you know that well. They put together an incredible collection of Aboriginal art. They were helping promote the Aboriginal arts industry, keeping a lot of the good art. Some very well-known artists had their work in this building, Ron Hurley, Kath Walker and many others. Multiplex were building the building next door and they were underscoring the footings of the building. I think it was a Friday afternoon about three o’clock and the builders raced in and said, ‘Everybody out of the building. It’s going to collapse’. And it collapsed with an incredibly valuable collection in it. They went back in and tried to get some of the collection. [Shows image] Here is some of it. Somehow you can’t plan for things like that. All collections need to be protected somehow.
[Shows image] Here is another building, another group of community people at Millmerran involved with the coal mine power station project. They were promised, they asked for a cultural centre as most Aboriginal groups do. They said, ‘Here’s a house, one of the properties we own. We will turn that into an Aboriginal cultural centre’. The community group said, ‘That’s great’. I was called in as a museum professional to try to advise how to turn this house into a functional museum. We took away a couple of walls between bedrooms, set up shelving systems, good ventilation, security, a full office was established, good quality cabinets, good lighting was put in, full boardroom, workshop area. After this, basically I think some of the things people were talking about lots of money and ticking boxes, and committees’ gate keeping and this beautiful functional little museum was set up. But once the money from the mining company stopped coming in - because basically it was handed over to the community - and they said ‘Here is your building, we will pay the electricity and basic maintenance but we are not paying anybodies wages. It’s your building, turn it into a practical museum’. That was the end of that. I think the community people involved had moved on to the next pot of money and the building basically hasn’t been used.
Millmerran, Darling Downs.
It’s a great project to be involved in but sad that so many communities would love a resource like that but again it hasn’t worked because the people involved were, I think, committed more to money coming in from mining companies rather than actually running museums with little pay.
In my role as curator at the Queensland Museum, and more recently as a consultant, I have been invited to several workshops held by communities considering establishing museums. On these occasions I made a point of challenging all involved to think of the future. Firstly I would say that the only way a community museum would be successful is if a lot of people contributed a lot of effort, mostly without pay. Secondly, I would say that people have to contribute their knowledge, their stories, their family photographs or other precious items. Then I would warn them, once they have contributed so much, they could be overthrown by a bunch of dishonest ratbags at the next AGM, excluded from the building and someone else would then control their history and everything they contributed. So I would warn them, before they give anything up, weigh up the risks and then choose carefully what and how much they contribute. If things turn sour they should be prepared and not go to their graves bitter and twisted. I actually offended numerous people talking like this and they would angrily say back to me, ‘There are no ratbags in our community, only us, only good people’. Of course I would say, ‘I am only talking in theory and not suggesting it’s true’, although I wish I could say there were no dishonest ratbags in my own family.
Possibly the failure of many community museums is that they end up being controlled by only a few individuals and totally dependant on government funding instead of growing as a community organisation and bringing in people that can help them grow. They do the opposite, they close ranks and see all others as just wanting to steal their knowledge and, more importantly, take their funding.
In the real world of business there really is such a thing as an ever-increasing pie. For example, if you own a bookshop and another bookshop opens next door, that may actually be good for business. If you end up in a street that has five or six bookshops, then lots of people will go there to buy books. It’s the same with restaurants. People will go to a street that has a lot of restaurants rather than go to an isolated restaurant and find that it is full or closed and their night is a disaster. Aboriginal history and culture should be the same. If one community group can do a great job documenting and presenting their history, this should create the interest and opportunity for others in the community to do the same. [Shows image] Here is a photo of the Kalkadoon Centre in Mount Isa. It has been open since the early 1980s. It’s an incredible structure of a building, out of besser block. They tried to construct it like a snake but it only got one little bit of the snake. It was supposed to keep on going as they got more funding.
They had an incredible collection of local art, but then over the years this museum just deteriorated. [Shows image] I am showing you the after shots after the designer I work with sometimes and I actually went there and did it up. I didn’t want to embarrass the community by showing the before shots because they weren’t real good. Finding things like dead birds and great big dead lizards behind cabinets and stuff, and even James Cook University returned some 100-year-old wooden shields and they got placed right on the floor in the main walkway. There were a lot of cupboards with nothing in them but they didn’t make it into the cupboard. We did this museum up. A $10 million government funded building got built beside them. So that gave this building a huge boost. In fact the state government and council put up $20,000 to get this building really fixed up. [Shows image] Here are a few shots of what it looks. There is no comparison to what it looked like before.
[Shows image] This time last week I was working up where this building is at Cherbourg, the Aboriginal community, about three hours north of Brisbane. This is a great story of how a lot of the good people in that community got together. They found the old ration shed, which was obviously the building they used to go to when they were young. The rations would be handed out. They found it down at the bottom of the community paddock somewhere behind another council yard or something. They got it and put it right back close to where it used to be. They put a big rock - everybody has to have a rock to document special events - and decked it out inside with a display - lots of photos, a bit too many photos for one room. There are photos in every angle all the same size. It was curated by a librarian. I do doubt librarians’ display skills sometimes. They might have other skills. That is another museum project.
I hope you don’t think I am off on a tangent discussing economics rather than urban Aboriginal history, but my point is that we all know there is a perception that nobody is interested in urban Aboriginal history and that so-called traditional Aboriginal history is far more interesting and marketable. So how can we turn this misperception around? A sad reality in Queensland is emerging that one of the most viable models to be able to fund Aboriginal cultural heritage projects is to incorporate these projects with Native Title claim. Essentially the Queensland government has begun to completely ignore the cultural heritage aspirations of Aboriginal communities unless they have a recognised Indigenous land use agreement or registered Native Title claim. While at the same time the government is doing everything it can to prevent Aboriginal communities from registering their Native Title claims. [Shows image] Here are some people discussing Native Title. To have a successful Native Title claim a community must carry out extensive and accurate research that is done to such a high standard that it can stand up in court against well-funded government legal teams. In the long term communities will benefit from this research but not all are happy with this. For many years inaccurate versions of Aboriginal history have been promoted that have fitted in with the stereotypical expectations of tourists, the mainstream media and in particular government officials.
Some of these inaccurate histories have promoted mythical tribes that in turn have elevated the status of a few individuals or one family group. Sadly, some Aboriginal people do not want any Native Title research to be carried out in their region as they are scared that well-researched facts may conflict with the inaccurate versions of history that they have promoted for and benefited from for many years. [Shows image] Here is a group of protesters having trouble - this is at the Tugun bypass on the Gold Coast Tweed - literally getting opposed by Aboriginal people, in a situation where they have to protest just to try to get in the door. There are a couple of consultants that came in and pretty much screwed the community and got paid lots of money and no decent work got carried out. It is sad to say, I started the talk with protesting and finish it now with protesting. As professionals in the cultural heritage industry it is our responsibility to accurately document and present Aboriginal history and all its complexities in an interesting and exciting way so that all Australians and the rest of the world will want to hear our story and in turn resources, either commercial or from the government, will be secured to enable this to be done.
ANDY GREENSLADE: Obviously hard yards to go and a lot of cooperation needed but when you see some of the successful models you know they are really worth the effort.
MICHAEL AIRD: This is a photo this is why I was supporting 98.5. I went to a meeting - I am on the board - meeting with the whole staff and board. It was incredible. I have mentioned a few times that, 20 years ago, I had a dream of securing a career in Aboriginal cultural heritage and for people before me it was even harder than that again. These young kids are going straight from school getting jobs at a place like a radio station in the cultural industry. They are accepting it as just the norm. I want to work in Aboriginal radio. I can. It is incredible to see this organisation with 27 full-time staff offering real hope to kids where it is not a dream now. It is just a career choice.
ANDY GREENSLADE: The same experiences over in Broome with Goolarri. They run their own training programs. It is absolutely the business to be in. Earlier on this afternoon Stephen made some comment about academics maintaining the status quo and things wouldn’t change. We have heard from one academic this afternoon and I would like to welcome Christine Hansen. Christine is a doctoral candidate at ANU for Indigenous history in Australia. Currently at the ARC linkage scholar on the project Australian Indigenous collectors and collections, which is being conducted in partnership with the NMA.
CHRISTINE HANSEN: I have been thinking what an amazing forum. I am going to speak on a very small scale about the work that I have been doing as a white fella working in a museum in way that interacts with the Indigenous collection. It doesn’t in many ways address the broad range of the conversation that has been going on today, which has been absolutely incredible, a fantastic forum.
This is really about this institution, the National Museum of Australia. When people in Australia are asked to rank sources of information about the past that they most trust, museums can come close to the top of the pole. This is actually from a survey, well ahead of history teachers and far ahead of politicians - unsurprisingly - who come last. That may be because I think museums are custodians of the public record held in 3D, in stuff, in objects. Stuff is fun. Old stuff in particular is compelling. There is something about objects that speaks to us directly. Things stand as witness to a human past - evidence which substantiates particular narratives. Of course, when placed in the context of a national museum, as they are here, objects collectively participate in constructing the larger narrative of nation.
The inaugural director of the NMA, Dawn Casey, had no qualms in admitting that Australia’s National Museum, like others of its era, is a consciously nation-building exercise. Inside this nation building exercise, as we all are at the moment, the Museum must navigate a path to find appropriate Indigenous cultural representation, albeit within the totalising concepts of national identity and national history, which is a really tricky thing to do.
If the objects in the collection of the NMA narrate the nation, which is what the proposal is, then that narrative includes stories by and about Aboriginal people - more than includes - depends on. Aboriginal material culture, in fact, has been absolutely central to the entire notion of the museum in Australia since Henry Parkes first mooted the idea of what he called ‘memorial state house’ in 1887, but it was the idea of a museum. His suggestion was that such an institution should contain, amongst other things - this is from a letter that he wrote to some colonial bigwig back home - ‘relics as may be illustrative of the various Aboriginal races of Australia, their customs, languages and ethnological characteristics’. That was the idea right back in 1887 and so it came to be. Not within his term of administration but over the next half a century, swarms of ethnographers, anthropologists and collectors, many as we know from the shady side of the track, went out into the field to gather and to bring back to the academy examples - when I say examples I mean truck loads - of Aboriginal material culture. Much of this material sits in store houses here in Canberra and even today still dominates the National Historical Collection, of which this museum is the custodian, which really surprised me when I found that out.
It is through these vast collections that museums in general in Australia and overseas, particularly in Europe, have had a heavy hand in defining what aboriginality is and how it should look in the popular imagination. This is the place where people come to find out about Aborigines. They are deeply implicated in describing the taxonomies from which the throne of the primitive, the traditional, the authentic - or whatever the language of the day prescribes - is constructed. Of course we no longer see the types of narratives that were found in museum exhibits of the past. The dioramas showing the lifestyles of hunter gatherers, the glass cases of implements disconnected from their makers and locations and behind the scenes the drawers and cupboards of human remains.
Dawn Casey, who as we all know herself is an Indigenous person, has quite bluntly stated that the day when museums could collect and display ethnographic material from the viewpoint of a dominant culture depicting an exotic minority culture are well and truly over. It goes without saying that Indigenous narratives told through our exhibitions here and elsewhere have been re-imagined within a more sensitive contemporary context, mostly by Indigenous curators such as Michael, Barb and Margo and community participants.
So you would think that would be the end of this story, wouldn’t you? We have that one sorted, if nothing else we have that worked out. Well I thought so too until it was my turn, as a researcher, to venture out into the field. My research area was to be and in fact is the south coast of New South Wales. As a beginning point, thinking to consult the wisdom of experience, I arranged to speak with a senior research adviser here at the museum. I started off by telling him about my project. But within the first couple of sentences I noticed him glazing over. The south coast held no interest for him. The people of south-eastern Australia, he told me, had no distinctive material culture. Decimated by the colonising process, their possessions would reflect merely their diminished cultural status. Sadly he noted this was true for all Aboriginal people this side of the frontier. The frontier, he said, could be drawn on a map as a line that stretched approximately from Townsville to Perth. As I was about to discover, he said Aboriginal people’s possessions this side of the frontier would be the same as those of non-Aboriginal people from the same class and era. He could tell me straight up that I would not find any Aboriginal objects.
The researcher’s advice was kindly intentioned. He was trying to save me time and energy, diverting me from what he saw was a methodological red herring, but I was shocked. What I heard was an unintended insight into not only his thinking about notions of authenticity and material culture, but more widely the kinds of orthodoxies that still underpin a surprising range of contemporary museum research practices. His attitude exposed, in my way of thinking, just how easy it is to follow familiar lines of inquiry.
Such orthodoxies, unintentionally compounded by constant rearticulation here and in the academy, have their origins deep in the history of colonisation. Archaeologist Dennis Burn sees the adaptation of Aboriginal equipment at the moment of contact as the moment at which Europeans began to classify Indigenous material culture. Burn proposes that as Aborigines adapted their lifestyle and material culture under European influence, the Europeans lost interest in them. He says: The Aborigines were seen to have lost or be fast losing that quality, which was the only excuse for being a native, the quality of being authentically primitive. With few exceptions the early observers failed to attend to the process by which Aborigines were recontextualising or Aboriginalising elements of European culture.
That such aboriginalised objects were of so little interest to Europeans pointed to the way in which Aboriginal cultures were conceptualised as existing outside of systems of transaction and exchange, particularly in regard to technological innovation. As Burn points out, the passivity with which Europeans saw their technology being adopted was a function not of the Aborigines’ interaction with new objects but the thinking which separated Europeans, at least in their minds, from what they saw as primitives. This thinking at the foundation of cross-cultural discourses for the best part of the next two centuries played a role in the establishment of collections now housed here in this Museum, and museological practices throughout Australia in general. As I found out more surprisingly, it continues to play a role today. As archaeologist Rodney Harrison notes, the notion of Aboriginal history being prehistory is still shockingly pervasive with Aboriginal people’s presence before the arrival of white invaders: Commemorated through heritage discourse which memorialises fossilised representations of the deep Aboriginal past while emphasising that authentic forms of aboriginality exist only outside of settled Australia.
Which, as Wesley was talking about this morning, is a complete fantasy. There was no moment of pure culture. So while the masses of ethnographic objects collected in the heyday of exploration dominate the National Historical Collection here, artefacts which offer a place to Aboriginal people within an historical narrative are, not surprisingly, few and far between. This is changing. Quite clearly the Museum has an interest in filling this gap and a duty to do so. In order to do that they need to find objects which hold the narratives that need telling, that need preserving. If that requires actively pursuing objects from people in the community, then that is appropriate and justified. But it is not that simple. Talking about material culture and historiographical practices from inside the borders of the Museum is safe. Out in the field the question shifts to a new paradigm where gubbas, Kooris, objects and history are profoundly entwined and not necessarily in a good way. I would like to illustrate something of this complexity by telling you a story from my own field work.
It was in Nowra, a town an hour or so south of Wollongong, which, as you might know, in the middle of summer, is flat and hot. Suzanne’s 86-year-old grandmother, Auntie Mary, doesn’t seem to mind. When we arrive at her new elder care unit, a development of a retirement village style accommodation out near the naval base, she is keen to take us on a tour of its features. I admire the large light switches and the button in the bathroom to call for help. My real interest, however, lies with the amazing array of black, red and yellow decorations that adorn the tiny unit, from the ornately crocheted dress on the cupie doll in the china cabinet to the painted cork coasters on the table, to the patchwork knee rug across the back of the couch. I try to admire them but Auntie Mary is more interested in showing off the kitchen. It’s a perfect place to segue into stories of other houses she has lived in from the zinc shacks at La Perouse, where she raised her children, to the river front cottage at Orient Point of her own early childhood. Susan prods her in that direction but she won’t start the stories until we are settled with tea and bikkies in the lounge room.
I set up my camera and tape recorder while the kettle boils. I am here to film Susan and her grandmother speaking together for an oral history project and as usual I am relegated to the technological fringe, focusing lenses, testing microphone levels, framing shots. I put my headphones on and settle into the shadows as the conversation heads back towards the mission at La Perouse and the fun of diving for mutton fish or boiling the billy on the beach. We’re well into the shady country of memory with a pack of bare footed kids running wild while their mother, with her long black wavy hair, dives deep into the rock pools of Botany Bay when Susan jars us back into the present with an exclamation, ‘For Christ sake, Nan, why did you give her that cup?’ I freeze, the cup midway to my mouth. I am suddenly aware of the delicate piece of china in my hand, cream with a yellow rose pattern and gilded filigree edge. It’s a lovely cup. I took it with some pleasure when Auntie Mary handed it to me, noticing that she served herself and Susan in regular thick navy blue mugs. I don’t I understand what the problem is. It is polite to give the visor the good cup. Doesn’t Susan think I warrant it? Auntie Mary ignores the question and we all return to the interview. As we are leaving I reach into my bag and pull out a slab wrapped in alfoil and offer it to the old lady. She takes it and pulls back the wrapping to reveal a corner of sticky, dark, brandy-soaked fruit cake that Mum had given me for Christmas. No words were exchanged as she shoves it deep into the back of the kitchen cupboard and she herds us towards the door.
Back at the caravan where we are staying, Susan, perhaps sensing my confusion, feels the need to explain. The bone china cup is what her Nan calls the gubba cup, given to gubbas who need to have impressed on them her good manners and her ability to maintain a properly functioning household. The tradition of the gubba cup stems from the mission days when the manager, or perhaps his wife, would do a weekly house inspection. Blankets were lifted to examine the condition of the sheets, a gloved finger run across surfaces to check for dust and cupboards opened to check for food. During the weekly inspection a cup of tea would be offered to the inspector in the gubba cup. This polite ritual of tea and chat was in reality a game of high stakes. If the mission manager felt you were not up to scratch an unfavourable report could be made to the welfare and a review of whether your children might need to be taken into care could ensue. Suddenly, irreversibly, I am in the frame. I have walked into shot and found myself cast as a central character. I am the gubba. I constitute the other half of the story. I am the antagonist around which the action is generated. The mission manager’s wife, the school head mistress, the babies’ home matron, the missionary, the gubba historian.
On our return the next day, Auntie Mary tells me that she had a slice of fruit cake with her Milo before bed. It was very nice. I confess that my Mum had made it. She nods and seems to be a little warmer. As I am setting up the gear while the tea is being made, I look at the tiny unit through new eyes, gubba eyes. The tender objects of family and identity crowd the cabinet, coffee table and walls - posed studio photos of the children and grandchildren, the handmade decorations in team colours. Gold rimmed cherry glasses holding posies of dried flowers. As she hands me a cup of tea, I notice I have been upgraded to a navy blue mug by virtue of Susan’s intervention and Mum’s Christmas cake. But it’s too late. I have been told the truth. I am the gubba. Someone has to be and it’s not like we can pretend they don’t exist. The truth of that constellation is all around us. The huge family photo that takes up almost the entire wall above the couch tells the story. Yvonne, Susan’s mother, smiling out from the far left, was taken into care, as was Susan in her turn. Dan, the oldest boy, leaning on his mother’s shoulder and eyeballing the lens, famously made a record in gaol, the first ever inmate to do so. Each of the seven of them have their story - husbands, wives, children, siblings and parents all came up against the gubba in one way or another. That’s just the way it is.
With tea made and bikkies eaten we get back to the stories. Her conversation is dotted with references to ‘them gubbas’, after which she looks over at me and adds, ‘Not you but’. When it’s time to go, she kisses me on the cheek and invites me back any time. But I have already been warned off by her eldest daughter Pam. It seems other gubbas from other universities had been there before me and had misbehaved, writing her mother’s stories into unsanctioned works. When we arrive back in Sydney I immediately hand the master tapes to Susan. Pam is scary.
The story of the gubba cup illustrates a number of things. Firstly, and most importantly, that there is an anxiety that is inevitable when working in this domain, for us gubbas. I am part of the history of collecting that needs to be consciously acknowledged, particularly when working on a project that has substantial links to a museum. That’s not to say that those links are entirely problematic. Being seen and heard by an outsider, especially one with institutional connections, can sometimes be an affirming moment for those who have struggled to preserve a marginalised history and also who don’t have community affiliations. Besides, I might be called a gubba but I don’t have to act like one. Nevertheless, the history between us cannot be denied and that history is constellated by my presence.
Secondly, it must be said, Aboriginal objects that hold important historical narratives, such as the gubba cup, have a further difficulty in coming to light. Not only are they not widely seen as Aboriginal by outsiders but they may also not be seen as important by their custodians or owners. While museums have been obsessed with the ethnographic, Aboriginal people have continued to circulate objects with an entirely different economy of exchange. Resources are re-imagined into different uses; useful things are redistributed amongst friends and family constantly. There is nothing to say that particular gubba cup has any heritage value. It may have been bought in the local op shop or at last year’s Myer sale.
Thirdly, there may also be a shame associated with poor circumstances in the past as well as memories that people would rather not have dredged up. Renowned curator Elaine Heumann Gurian, in her work establishing the Smithsonian Institute’s Museum of the American Indian, found that often the people in the lowest economic strata could hardly wait to exchange their objects for those that were more valued, giving no thought at the time to the preservation of their discarded material. So it goes for most people during their most impoverished historical periods.
By marking the National Museum of Australia as its Centenary of Federation flagship, the government openly acknowledged the role of cultural institutions in society, knowing as it does that museums, historic sites and other institutions of memory are the tangible evidence of the spirit of a civilised society. Part of the responsibility of such a civilised society is to find the means to represent the diversity of its people. It is no longer enough to follow the well-worn grooves of essentialist discourses that are still shockingly present in the study of Indigenous material culture. Yet to move away from them is not easy either. This is a conversation that museums are having more frequently, both inside and outside its boundaries, and it’s a conversation that will continue for some time yet. Thank you.
ANDY GREENSLADE: For those of you who don’t know, we have the archetypical gubba cup here. This is Captain Cook’s gubba cup. [shows image] MICHAEL AIRD: If I can start as a comment in response to Christine. I found out something when I was young, that my mother had a thing whenever somebody in the family would die - only if she was offered it - that if the closer members of the family for that person, that relative that died said, ‘Would you like something of your mother or Auntie or whatever’, she would always say, ‘I would like a teacup and a saucer please’. I remember my Mum’s Auntie Mary, who was the only member of my grandmother’s family that I ever remembered because my grandmother was dead long before I was born, she only had one sister. I remember my Mum, she really wanted a piano but she didn’t ask for that, she just said I will have a cup of tea and a saucer.
BRONWYN BANCROFT: I just want to make a comment. In 1992 I travelled to Buenos Aires and had an exhibition with Banduk Marika at La Recoleta cultural exchange. We were getting ready for the opening. This attendant from the Australian embassy came trundling in with these push trolleys. They had all these funeral coffins and they were going to decorate the space. I said, ‘Excuse me can you get those coffins out of this room immediately’. They said, ‘We don’t know what they are. There are hundreds of them down in the basement in the Australian embassy. We just thought we would get them out because we thought it would make it look a bit more Aboriginal’. As they were rolling them out all the bones came out. Real ones, the hair and everything. I freaked out because I was a long way from home. I was scared and I knew that I had seen it. I didn’t touch anything or whatever but it destroyed my entire time there. I was there for two weeks. When I was coming home, we came back via New Zealand. We got stalled, our Boeing stalled at Rio Bejegas, which is the bottom of the Antarctic before you fly over to New Zealand. We had to wait eight and a half hours in an airport hangar for a starter motor to come in from Buenos Aires, we were at Aerolineas Argentina at this time. Everyone was shattered because we all wanted to get home. We had nine hours waiting there. I thought this curse that has been brought on because I went there and I exhibited. I am going to die. When we transferred to Qantas, they opened up, all the Qantas attendants opened up all the bar. Everyone was running around kissing each other. When we got into New Zealand a woman died of a heart attack. It was the most horrendous thing I ever did. But I did do a three-metre by four-metre painting called Lost Journey in Colour which was my death. I actually painted my death and in it I painted where I had been, which was Buenos Aires, it meant nothing to me, but what I had in my other hand was my Aboriginal world, which meant everything, and I was falling down out of the sky. I left two small children. I thought I was going to die.
The inappropriateness of not having a proper register of Aboriginal claims, of Aboriginal body parts, of human remains of objects should be an absolute moment in this country’s history to retrieve all of that. To make a proper audit and return it, which they do in little bits and pieces. But at the end of the day that buggered up my story over there and made me feel very uneasy. I bet you there has been nothing done about it. I bet there is no registration of that gear at the Australian embassy. There are a lot of scary things out there.
PHILLIP YUBBAGURRI BROWN: I am just asking, before the big rush starts. The National Museum here in Canberra has the main collection for Indigenous artefacts. Is there any way that those artefacts can be interpreted by Indigenous people? Because a lot of those artefacts - I have worked here before but I was wondering about whether people are getting the right training to interpret those artefacts. Or should it be- I want to ask Michael and the rest of the group where they sit on whether Indigenous people should be the only people interpreting those artefacts or can it be just about anybody?
MICHAEL AIRD: I think you are never going to stop non-Aboriginal people from writing history books and interpreting Aboriginal culture. You are never going to stop that. But the most important thing is that we have to do a better job with them. We have to do a better job than non-Aboriginal people so that we can take over. It’s like the argument of stopping non-Aboriginal manufacturers of cheap boomerangs and tourist material. You are never going to stop them from producing made in China boomerangs. The market forces are there to keep that alive. But somehow, I think people in the cultural heritage industry have to support, promote and educate the community that they should not be buying that stuff. Legislation is not going to stop it. You somehow have to educate the community, educate the market and compete with them.
GORDON SYRON: I just wanted to say. You say you are never going to stop people manufacturing Aboriginal artefacts or something like that. What do they sell them at? If a non-Aboriginal person will make some boomerangs and sell them in Sydney, I see planes pick up foreign people from the airport and bring them down to the shops where they are selling Aboriginal artefacts and they are made in factories by some of our migrants. Why don’t the authorities do something about it? It must be against the law. There must be something you can do.
MICHAEL AIRD: My comment was yes, I agree it’s wrong and I agree maybe it should be against the law. But I don’t think the solution is through law, it is through just doing a better job and convincing people not to buy that rubbish. I know it is not going to be easy. I don’t think you can legislate, so many people have tried. Bronwyn, you have had a lot to do with copyright.
GORDON SYRON: I said can I buy that Aboriginal artefact and I asked him what tribe it come from, where it come from. He gave me all that in writing. Now you have told me a lot of hog wash. Surely I have some come back. I think it is something that big-time lawyers need to look at and do something about it.
BRONWYN BANCROFT: I think the problem is that it’s a moral question, because at the end of the day if you are ripping off another culture to make money. They get stuff done in Bali and Indonesia and they bring it back here. At the end of the day foreign affairs should be stopping all of that stuff from coming in. That would be a procedural thing that governments could do. But my big biggest degree in being involved in copyright, for almost 15 years since the inception of AAMA [Aboriginal Arts Management Agency], is really the fact that we need to self-educate. We need to know the provisions of this mammoth superstructure called copyright, which is a non-Aboriginal structure. At the end of the day what it does is it gives us 70 years plus after our death, the use of copyright to our family? It won’t accept communal ownership because that is not their structure. But we have to fight for legislation which will adapt and change copyright to fit in to more of a group ownership thing. They have been stalling on this for years because they just don’t want that. At the end of the day it’s a moral issue and it has to do with moral rights. That is where the arguments before with Stephen and yourself are really saying, we need non-Aboriginal people to come in and help us because at the end of the day my agent is a QC in copyright. When I go to do - what he has done is he has taught me how to do all of my contracts. I don’t even go to him any more because I know all the moral rights. I know the tenets and clauses. He has taught me that.
Why can’t every Aboriginal person in this country stop copying other Aboriginal people doing dots to validate a tourist market, which at the end of the day is debilitating our work and stopping us from going forward. We should be working our way through the structures of ownership of cultural material. That is a personal responsibility of every Aboriginal person in this country to learn that. Cultural ownership of property means your own and your family’s and then you go into the wider field. I don’t think you can legislate to change it because obviously they are just going to keep ignoring us. You can’t go out and bash everyone in Darling Harbour just because they are peddling black stuff that is not black. I would have loved to have been a thug in another life but it isn’t going to happen.
MICHEAL AIRD: It is across the board, even Christine’s talk of picking something as mundane as a teacup and then educating everybody about how important that teacup is in Aboriginal culture. It’s our job.
CHRISTINE HANSEN: Part of my point is that tourists who go to Darling Harbour might have come to a museum and seen boomerangs in a case in the section called Aboriginal. This place telling stories of what aboriginality is has a role to play in that end of the tourist art market. It also has a role to play in the fine art market where the really big money is.
BRONWYN BANCROFT: An American own the patent rights on the boomerang over and above Aboriginals.
MARGO NEALE: That wouldn’t stand up to a challenge.
BRONWYN BANCROFT: It does with this government.
BARBARA PAULSON: I have two questions to Christine. It is also regarding Phil’s question he asked earlier, which is how is it that Indigenous people, how are objects that are Indigenous in the NHC being interpreted in the Museum and is that interpretation done by Indigenous people? The other part I want to talk about, I have had discussions with you before, Christine, which I think are really interesting about objects in urban Indigenous culture, contemporary objects which talk about that historical experience such as a teacup and how you actually, when you went out into the community that you are working with and actually look for stuff to put into a museum to represent that culture of those people and what you actually found could be used. Can you talk about that a bit more?
CHRISTINE HANSEN: What happened was I went out to the community and said, ‘Right I am working on this project from the National Museum and also from the university. In museums we tell stories using objects and that is really cool. You guys have all been there and seen how well that works. What do you guys have that tells your stories? We’re interested because we are a modern museum and we’re not interested in repeating those old kinds of methodologies. We want to engage with you guys’. They went, ‘We don’t really collect stuff and we are not that interested in your questions. What’s your next one?’
That was a really interesting moment, where the question and the idea of the research, the conception of it, actually didn’t match the reality of people’s interests out in the field. They are really interested in history. They just weren’t interested in telling it in the ways that museums tell it. But they are interested in being represented, particularly in the national institution, which this is. So there is a hole there. How do you fill it? It’s a creative question. It has to be through a conversation.
ANDY GREENSLADE: We have to get smarter at how we do it.
CHRISTINE HANSEN: We have to get smarter and more engaged with each other.
FEMALE (Visitor): I don’t want to cut across this discussion if it wants to go on. I will ask my question and you can see whether you want to take it up. I was interested in asking Peter’s question at the end of his presentation about whether or not that set of records in the New South Wales archives office that documents the taking away of the children should in fact be closed absolutely, or if people here would have any views on whether they should be closed or open under particular circumstances. To close off that whole story seems terrible and there are of course many terrible stories sitting in archives in many places and various protocols that have been developed to enable a sensitive and very careful access to those records that protect privacy. I don’t know if people would have any comments.
ELAINE SYRON: I was so upset when you read that story that I am still very choked. I think, just from my viewpoint and my experiences alone, you could have a whole conference just on that one topic. You should have the place packed out with people that care. All of the people who are here this afternoon, they really care. We are all committed that are here, especially the white fellas. We should debate that another time for several hours in my opinion.
PHILLIP YUGGABURRI BROWN: Just a second part - I know it’s a very controversial thing to have non-Indigenous people interpreting Aboriginal artefacts and I know a lot of people don’t know much about it because it’s an area that hasn’t been talked about much. It’s been taboo. It’s an area I know a lot of non-Indigenous people don’t want to touch it because it’s the actual fundamentals of the artefacts, because it’s telling the story. But I do feel that the Aboriginal people do need to be able to tell that story. I was wondering if any of the group here could give me a lead on where do people like myself - if I want to go and learn about interpreting Aboriginal art or Australian Indigenous artefacts - where is the place to go? Is there a university or somewhere you can go and learn about that?
MICHEAL AIRD: All I can say is I was bit idealistic. I went to university, started in 1987, wanting to learn about Aboriginal culture and I got there and soon found out my lecturers didn’t know much about Aboriginal culture. I was a bit disappointed in what they were teaching me. I was learning all about South America, North America, Papua New Guinea. But eventually I figured out that I was there to learn how to learn, not to learn about Aborigines. Then my real learning started once I had those skills. It also started when I was a kid. It started from the day you are born but you use those skills that you learn at university and you don’t have them. I am not saying you have to go to university to articulate yourself, to talk about Aboriginal culture, not at all, but it does help, especially if you want to secure a career and earn a living from it and to be able to do it and be invited to forums like this and articulate yourself so that people invite you back.
ANDY GREENSLADE: At the museum here we are really conscious that there are a lot of white staff. Apart from looking for more black people to work for us, with us, the idea is that we go to communities and we talk and we learn and they interpret through us.
Last question and then we will go to Peter who is going to give a summation of the day.
FEMALE: My question has to do with something Michael said but it is something I would like a response from all three of you if there is time. You said there will always be non-Indigenous people interpreting Indigenous culture. You might have been talking only in the context of museums and artefacts. But the idea is that authority to interpret or lack of authority to interpret Indigenous culture is something that spans a lot of disciplines. There are a lot of people working in Indigenous areas who aren’t Indigenous. I was wondering about the question of authority. You are all coming at it from different areas. I would like to know what you think about that.
MICHAEL AIRD: I definitely wasn’t just talking about history or museums. You are never going to stop the press writing and broadcasting horrible things about Aboriginal communities. That’s a tough one. They are going to keep on doing it. I was talking broadly. That is why I went from boomerangs to museums to everything - school teachers for a start.
CHRISTINE HANSEN: Can I make a quick response to that. I see what I am trying to do is to forge something that is neither Aboriginal history or not Aboriginal history. The story I told today was my story. It’s the story of a white person. It wasn’t an Aboriginal story. I have the authority to tell that story because it was about myself. What I am trying to do is find a way to have a conversation that is inclusive, where we can participate in an outcome that we decide together.
MICHAEL AIRD: But how can every child - that’s been mentioned a few times today, education has to start with the primary school children - how are the primary school children going to learn about Aboriginal culture if the majority of teachers who are non-Aboriginal can’t teach it?
MARGO NEALE: One of the most basic premises on the question you asked about learning, how does someone learn about Aboriginal artefacts, I think that is how you put it. For example, it’s as basic as asking the people whose artefacts they are - and the same with art. If, for example, you did what Michael was saying and you learn how to learn, whether you do it through university, TAFE or through whatever - a process - there is a certain kind of process. But then to get down to the particularities you have an internship or job, something out at Mitchell store, for example, and you came across a whole bunch of artefacts and you then find out whose they were and then you would go and talk to the people about that. Or locate the people whose artefacts they are. It is that simple but that hard. The same with art. If you found yourself in a position where you were to interpret art, you again would find out whose art it was, whose people’s art it is or that kind of process. It’s really that simple in a way, no-one can teach you that. It’s really a practitioner’s process. It is just the principle of asking those who have the right to give an answer.
PETER READ: We are all pretty talked out. Very briefly this is my take on it. I think when first Aboriginal children came to Governor Macquarie’s school in 1814 half of them were part descent kids but nobody said, ‘Hey we don’t want those kids in here because they are not Aboriginal’, did they. Of course stolen generations were never told, ‘no you come from an urban environment you’re not Aboriginal we don’t want you here thank you’. If you think of the 1937 conference, the big one that put assimilation in place, except for what they called people of the full descent. They weren’t going to be assimilated. What they really meant, those legislators in 1937, were people in Arnhem Land. They didn’t say that but that is really what they meant - the big Arnhem Land reserves. You think what the other big divisions have been - Aboriginal people, as you know far better than me, have been afflicted by this quarter-caste, half-caste, octoroon, quadroon thing dividing people up all the time. That is yet another division as Wesley pointed out that has been foisted upon us, he said. Think of the young graduates, the first graduates in the 1960s going out into their communities and they were told - some of them even by their own people but certainly by white fellas - ‘You can’t speak for us. Because you have a degree you’re not Aboriginal either’.
The big go [division] in the 1960s was traditional and non-traditional. That is how the money was divided up when the NACC [National Aboriginal Consultative Committee] started in the 1970s, that was the same kind of thing; traditional and non-traditional. Then remember in the 1980s you had a new thing [new division] which was arguing about whether people on reserves, the small reserves not the Arnhem Land ones, the ones around here from Yass or somewhere, whether the people there were Aborigines or not. You think maybe it didn’t matter too much because it was something that anthropologists argued about it. Then the latest one now of course is urban or traditional or remote or regional. It really matters now unfortunately. In some ways everybody here has said of course we are bloody urban. What do you think we are? In some ways there is no dispute about it. Of course it is. What’s the big deal? Who is asking the questions? It doesn’t matter. Everybody has been convinced of that, except of course we can say, in a way it does matter in a way that it didn’t.
When the anthropologists argued about reserve Aborigines [in the seventies], who cares, it doesn’t matter. But now, as we have heard time and time again, it really does matter. It matters more, not just all the wonderful things that are coming from urban culture and the schools at Inala and La Perouse and the museums setting up, and the films, literature and all that stuff that is coming, that is wonderful. But it doesn’t solve the problem of the government prejudice against urban Aboriginal people. We have been coming at that from different directions all day. There is a real prejudice against it. I think it is actually a little bit like that old 1937 conference which privileges people living away as possible [in remote areas]. Why is that? One, I think it’s the great lure of the exotic. I am not saying anything against those doctors and people who are going out to help sexual assault victims in remote communities. I am sure they are wonderful people. But what reception would you have got if You [minister in charge of the NT Intervention] said ‘we’ll go to Picton now’. There has been such a rush of people. There is still a lure of the exotic isn’t there? We have seen it so much in the Institute of Aboriginal Studies. There used to be all the grants in the 1960s, 70s and 80s to remote regions. Why? Because the people down here, they didn’t really count. As Christine said the number of artefacts from southern Aboriginal Australia collected by the museum here in the last 30 years is minute compared to the ones from the north. Sometimes that has been conscious prejudice, sometimes unconscious. I think we still have to fight. That is what we didn’t really come to grips with. We just sort of thought about it during the day.
How to fight against this major prejudice that governments have, one, because it is exotic and, two, because you are really encouraging aboriginality in the cities by giving proportionate funding to Aboriginal people who do live in the 70 per cent. That is the argument still. We have to fight against it in some way. We got three-quarters of the way there but that is still to be resolved, maybe in another conference. How do you fight against this prejudice? Prejudice, yes, bloody hell. You go out there and have a look. What is that vast expanse of concrete out there? What is this thing here, this empty space? It’s the garden of Australian dreams. Cold and windy in winter. In summer hot as hogs of hell like a school playground. Have a look out there, what is this written down? Bloody hell, Warramunga, Arrernte, Walpiri, what are they doing here? Why is the Northern Territory and Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory suddenly the garden of Australian dreams? Why is this the centre of Australia? Who said that was? It would be nice to think it was those American curators who did it, who just bought the current thing. Maybe it was a bit more than that. The government wants to get that emphasis off there. It is all around us. It is in this Museum. You go and look in that thing out there. You will see it. We’ve got things to do still in the future.
My last job what a fantastic conference. Thank you organisers, Margo and Barb today. Who organised it. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander program did it.
It’s a privilege for me to be here. It was just a terrific day. Margo wants to say a last few words. It was wonderful thanks for being here everybody and thanks organisers.
MARGO NEALE: I have the honour of thanking people as we do and should do. I have to say whilst I am on the team and modesty may restrain me slightly, I have to say, I thought it was fantastic today. I have heard from lots of people about this particular constellation. There are a whole lot of things that opened up today - blackfellas talking about blackfellas and opening the lid on a lot of things, which will lead I am sure to the debate pursuing into the future, as many people were suggesting it should. I don’t go to every conference in the universe so I can’t tell how common it is, but the feedback from people today was very direct. It was very honest and open. People felt entirely comfortable about saying what they had to say without a whole mob of people jumping down their throat and saying blackfellas aren’t allowed to say that. I think that’s a huge gain.
I know I mentioned this before but it is worth mentioning more than once. I am hoping that we can do something really valuable with the notes that come out of this, which of course we will send to the speakers involved first and have that kind of discussion. I think there is a lot more to be said, this shouldn’t just stay here. Everyone involved can work out what the next thing might be.
Thank you very much speakers, those who are present and those who are not. We can pass that on. Also a special mention, I have to make a special mention to Uncle Gordon Syron. In the urban context he is one of our elders and very much one of the pioneers of the urban Aboriginal art movement as it is known at the moment. I am really pleased he made it and to his lovely wife Elaine Syron, who supports him to the hilt.
[Thanks to team who worked on exhibition and on the forum] We all worked on the 70% Urban exhibition. I have to say I proposed this many years ago. For various reasons, some of which have been mentioned today, it was really hard to get up. There were always other priorities. It was not because of the directors but because of another layer of management at the time. Things have changed and it is up and once it got the go ahead it went very fast. Whether you think it looks fantastic or it doesn’t look fantastic or whatever you think about it, the important thing is that we got shown in a museum. We have heard about the historic bias to the north. We got up in the National Museum of Australia an exhibition devoted to the 70 per cent urban, acknowledging the importance of urban culture, whatever that is and whatever it isn’t. We found what we could find in this collection and added to it. It gave us an opportunity to buy extra stuff to build up that picture of how, in various ways, it’s urban Indigenous culture that is expressed through visual means one way or another, be it buttons, T-shirts, paintings or whatever. I would be really interested in people who get an opportunity to look at that, to give us some feedback. It is certainly new in a way, because my history has been mostly art galleries where you are dealing in some ways with a less complex range of histories.
That is all from me. Thank you very much everybody once again and everybody who helped. I am interested in your feedback.
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Date published: 3 March 2009