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Evidently not!

Mike Pickering, National Museum of Australia, 9 November 2009

MICHAEL PICKERING: The title of this paper, ‘Evidently not’: a few people have asked me ‘What the hell does that mean?’ So I’ll get it over with quickly. It’s simply the idea that the evidence for Indigenous participation in colonial economies, in the National Museum at least, is actually very poor. That material evidence is just not there, when we go and look for it. So, you know, the evidence is not there.

The paper is an outcome of the Museum’s collaboration with the ANU [The Australian National University], under the ARC [Australian Research Council] Linkage project on Indigenous participation in the colonial economy. So the emphasis throughout this is on colonial economies. The Museum’s engagement was stimulated by the belief that the research would be useful for informing exhibition content on that topic of colonial economies and Indigenous participation, and for allowing the collection of objects that might be identified during that research.

An essential preliminary was to go through the Museum’s collections, searching for objects from the Australian colonial period that might reflect such Indigenous engagements. Surprisingly, there was very little that could be found. Little that is in the way of objects linked directly to Indigenous use in a western economic practice. Certainly we have extensive collections of traditional cultural objects, such as spears and boomerangs, bags, containers, tools and so on. We’ve got some massive collections with thousands of spears, thousands of baskets and everything else. These collections encompassed pre-contact Australia and the colonial period, and is continued through to the present day with modern boomerangs and modern cultural artefacts. They often reflect an economic exchange - thus participation in an economy - either between Indigenous people or between Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants.

Basically this means the items were bought, gifted or traded quite legitimately. They do reflect an engagement with economies, ancient, historical and current. We also have extensive collections of contemporary cultural objects, particularly arts and crafts in all their expressions, from bark paintings to contemporary glassworks. These works are often acquired not merely because of their aesthetic value but because of the strong narratives they represent. Sacred and secular histories, biographies, experiences represented through the object. In creating and selling these works, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have again engaged with Australian economies.

[shows images] These are collections from the Canning Stock Route collection which we’ve recently acquired. This is a work by Peta Edwards on the Stolen Generations. Peta did this when she was 16 years old, and we acquired that last year. And a Dennis Nona work on this skull from the Torres Strait. Coming of the Light - Torres Strait again.

What characterises such acquisitions is that there can be no doubt that the items are direct expressions of Indigenous cultures and histories. They are created by Indigenous makers and have a strong Indigenous narrative behind that creation. As you stroll through the galleries, you’ll see an object from afar and you’ll immediately know that it’s Indigenous and telling an Indigenous story. However, over its short 25-year life, the Museum has also collected more unconventional objects; objects used by Indigenous Australians but which cannot be directly assigned to an Indigenous creator. These are objects associated with an Indigenous engagement with making history, but the objects themselves may not have been made or modified by the Indigenous owner.

For example, we’ve got tools and clothes, and papers, documents and so on. [shows images] Alby Clarke’s riding suit; Alby Clarke from Framlingham cycled across Australia, for reconciliation. Jackie Huggins, her outfit which she used in a lot of her presentations and a lot of her meetings in Indigenous rights movements. Ted Simpson, first Indigenous mayor in New South Wales. Rodney Dylan’s wetsuit; one of my favourite objects, because people say, ‘How can a wetsuit have anything to do with Aboriginal history?’ All these people were strong characters, activists who have made history in their own right.

[shows more images] The Bowraville chairs – blurry, out-of-focus photograph – but the chairs at the back are the chairs that white visitors to the theatre would sit in; the chairs at the front were reserved for the Aboriginal members of the audience who had to sit down the front. Bowraville in the ’68 referendum was the only place to vote ‘no’.

This is Joe McGinness’s wharfies’ hook and his lunchbox. He worked as a wharfie. Joe McGinness again was an activist, fighting for civil rights. So these simple things, these simple objects, not Indigenous made, but nonetheless very iconic about Indigenous histories.

The frypan which anyone who’s worked with Nunia Balip will no doubt recognise, or anyone who has worked with batik. Again an icon for an industry.

Museums are about telling stories through objects, thus we require appropriate objects with appropriate stories. What happens, however, when those objects or stories don’t survive - or are separated over time?

This is thrown into sharp relief when looking for evidence, in collections, of Indigenous participation in the colonial economy, particularly when that engagement was through participation in western economic activities; that is, when an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person entered western employment. In taking up western economic accoutrements – clothing, housing, tools, transport and the like – Indigenous workers become increasingly invisible in the material record. Typically when the objects they utilised are located, they are automatically assigned to western colonial collections. Indigenous participation in the colonial economy, beyond that which produce readily identified Indigenous cultural material, is virtually invisible in museum collections.

Now, enlightened by this observation, we can proceed to look at collections a little bit differently - however we’re still constrained. When using an ‘authentic’ Indigenous cultural object I can say ‘used by’: I have a spear which was used by Aboriginal people to hunt or to trade. But when I’m using a western object with no documented use by an Indigenous person – that’s no documented use; it doesn’t mean it wasn’t, it just means I can’t prove it – I must still say ‘of the type used by’. There’s a degree of separation which isn’t popular in museums. It can have objects which are so far separated from the stories they’re trying to tell, they just don’t engage audiences. No matter how strong the historical and sometimes circumstantial evidence of people within the industry represented by that item, confirmation of actual use will always be speculative.

How might we address this invisibility? How could we raise the profile of these engagements? The material record - the collections of objects - stand in stark contrast to what we know about Indigenous lives in both colonial and post-colonial Australia. There are strong written and oral histories, and in particular we have the recorded image both graphically and photographically. I have to use the standard cliché here, which is that more research needs to be done. Objects and materials need to be identified that museums can utilise in the telling of stories of that Indigenous engagement in the nineteenth century.

This is not a failing of research as historical researchers. Great work has been done, as we’ve seen today, and as through our own lives, experiences and readings. There’s a wealth of information out there about engagements with Indigenous people in economies in the nineteenth century. But it’s a failing of museums not to recognise that objects may have alternative histories and not to take that into consideration in their collecting strategies.

So what might we look for, both in our collections and in future collecting that might help us tell these stories?

Look at this image by Augustus Earle. It’s a famous image of the convict era. Looking at the characters, I began to query whether some of them may or may not be Aboriginal. I have no evidence apart from appearance, its physical features. There’s also in many of the characters represented a general disregard both of the situation and of the clothing they wear. There’s not enough information here to conclude the characters there are Indigenous. But Augustus Earle was not a caricaturist; he was effectively a documentary artist. He travelled with [Charles] Darwin and made important documentary images through the 1830s, 1840s. So I don’t think he’s exaggerating the features. I’m thinking he’s actually producing what he saw.

Whether or not there are Indigenous people in this image, it raises the issue of: how were Aboriginal people in developing urban centres represented in the jail system? When I was writing this on Saturday it was all speculative but thanks to what we’ve heard this morning it is no longer speculative; we’ve had strong evidence of Indigenous incarceration. So it’s a bit of coincidence. There’s a lot of coincidence in this paper, by the way.

Quite clearly we know Indigenous people were represented in the prison system in colonial Australia and it’s right through to the 1900s. We know that they were arrested, tried, transported and executed, but they were often the most famous cases. The identities of the less famous - the drunk and disorderly, or the loiterers, the beggars, the petty thieves, the immodestly attired or those who were just sort of offensive to the public - are not so easy to determine. Accepting that Indigenous people were imprisoned, what happens next? Certainly, as we again heard this morning, our convicts were put to work in breaking rocks, building roads, walls, and making bricks.

We can look at this image [shows series of images] and extract material culture. We have the chains, convict uniforms. Notice the cap on this individual. Some of the coats and jackets people are wearing. Chains down here and in particular the pipe. We’ll get to the smoking theme as well. You’ll notice a few people here have pipes. Then we leap. This is a convict cap, which is held in our collections. We know it’s a convict cap, but we have no other information about provenance. It may have been, or may not have been, worn by an Aboriginal person, we don’t know.

A convict jacket, a convict shirt, a broken clay pipe, convict-made bricks, convict period axe, a pit saw, and conveniently a harpoon, which comes in later again. These are all tools; they’re assigned to the convict period; they were found in convict services. There’s no written evidence to support that they were used by Aboriginal convicts, but there’s nothing to say they weren’t. Again, these are objects of the type that ‘may have been used by’. But in another way the convicts, the people using these tools, were involved in activities relevant to economic development; building the communications system, buildings, houses, roads, and such.

Next, the police. We’re all aware of native police and police trackers. Take these images from Oscar’s sketchbook, nineteenth century drawings by [a] Queensland Aboriginal youth who was moved to a station. Again, these are native police. Notice again the pipe is a common theme. Clothing – the suits, the swagger sticks, and such. And here we have more aspects of clothing, more pipes, guns. In our collections we certainly have guns. We have rifles and pistols, and they’re certainly of the type that were issued to the native police, but again I can’t prove that they were used by native police simply because that documentation doesn’t exist. They were moved across into the Western collections.

The pastoral industry I don’t think needs any great description here. Everyone knows the great contribution that Aboriginal people have made, and continue to make, to the pastoral industry. We have holdings of stockworkers’ equipment, branding irons, saddles, bridles, harnesses. Most of them are recent however, and their provenance is well known. Any evidence for similar materials in the pre-twentieth century is poor. A rusty branding iron, a scattered horseshoe, picked up from any cattle or sheep station from across Australia may just as likely have belonged to an Aboriginal worker as to the white pastoralist or a stockman.

This is a Wave Hill spur which is currently on display downstairs in our civil rights exhibition. It’s from about the 1960s, and we know its history. It was issued to Aboriginal stockmen. But again, finding a spur on a station without that provenance, we would be confused. And a horseshoe - they’re common, but who owned the horse they came from? Who was driving?

Pearl diving - pearlers and sailing crews. Again, we have good, strong histories of Aboriginal people working in the pearl diving industry and working on ships. We have in our collections this lovely image fully dressed, kitted out – it’s a ‘diver’s helmet’ - but we have no proof. This diver’s helmet doesn’t go into our Indigenous history collections; it goes into Western European economic history collections. Again, the same with the pearl diver’s bag and the lugger [pearling boat]. It’d be nice to have a lugger on display as an Indigenous object. One’s been offered to us, by the way. [laughs] Ships’ crews - not just divers but ships’ crews, as we’ve also seen this morning. Libera Rob painting up inland from Borroloola, of a steam ship. It’s actually got the boiler, and behind Jackie Green’s head there’s the rudder and everything else. So it’s obviously having an impact on people and probably reflects serving on those vessels. I’m going through dozens of these sorts of examples now.

Farmers – look at these photographs of Corranderrk in Victoria. This is where photographs have such a great value, and even drawings. While it’s entitled Fishing Scene, here in the background are the Corranderrk farm’s hop plantation. The Corranderrk community had fantastic success growing hops; so much so, that they were complained about and there were attempts to shut them down, because they were competing with European settlers in growing hops, and they were much more effective. But again, all the farming tools, all the farming implements, would normally not be associated with this engagement with the economy.

Again more guns, camping equipment, billies, cooking equipment, the house itself, ploughs used by the farmers, shearers. These are the children of Aboriginal shearers working in the sheds – this is such a great photo I had to throw it in.

This is in domestic service where we have this Aboriginal person watering the horses, and this person is offering water to the customers. So this is at the Canning post office in Western Australia; it’s a scene of the Aboriginal people who were associated and worked for the post office to provide this support to passersby.

[An] Aboriginal nanny in domestic service. And again, here’s an Aboriginal domestic servant putting out the tea, where is it – Government House somewhere; but well-documented.

Teamsters. So here we have Aboriginal teamsters and again look at the material culture surrounding them. Here’s this lovely dray. Here’s the hooks, the shackles, the bridle on the horse, on the donkey, and the ubiquitous pipe; again, we have this tobacco-based theme emerging. This is a dray in our collection, but it’s not in any way associated with Indigenous teamsters. Again, same thing: harness equipment well shined in this case but part of the general horse tack. It’s classified under ‘horse tack’.

Whaling. Whaling is a particularly interesting issue here because we’re so close to Eden [whaling town on the south coast of New South Wales]. These photographs come from Eden. There’s an image, blurry here, of a young Aboriginal man here on the windlass [cranking device] for hauling the whales up. Eden whaling museum fully acknowledges Indigenous contribution in the whaling industry. The title of this photograph is ‘Aboriginal Whale Crew’, from Eden again. Wouldn’t it be great to have a whaleboat in the Indigenous collections? This is that crew out on action, harpoon at the ready and again the harpooner in the bows. This is the owner of the whaling station and his son. But the equipment here is all the sort of equipment that the Indigenous Aboriginal whale crews would have used. And used - it’s not just a one-off, this is their regular [work], this is their life with 30 to 40 years of engagement.

I think I’ve got my message across. Many histories are implicit but invisible in museum collections. We need to go back and address Indigenous engagement with colonial society. There are important stories to be told, and it’s important for the museums because museums mediate between the public and perhaps the academy –so often the first place people will hear of these stories is through the museums.

So what do our collections need? We need Toyotas [vehicles], computers, pens, hats, tinnies [little aluminium boats], spanners, tools, medical equipment - you name it. If we don’t collect and provenance these items now documenting their Indigenous associations, then 150 years from now someone will complain that the Indigenous participation in the twenty-first century Australian economy - indeed in Australian society as a whole - is inadequately represented in museum collections. I look forward to acquiring a helicopter. [shows image] There is Richard Baker, one of three Aboriginal helicopter pilots in the Northern Territory working with a company up there in mining, cattle mustering and everything else - many economic activities.

And that’s the slide show. Thanks very much. [applause]

MAN IN AUDIENCE: Can you tell [inaudible]

MICHAEL PICKERING: That’s the sort thing that we need. Because we concentrate on provenance of material you want things that come with associated stories. If they don’t have the associated stories, the chance of them getting into the National Historic Collection is small. Although we do have another collection just called the Museum Collection, which is where a plough might go in. But it’s just a matter of recognising that Indigenous participation in the economy wasn’t always just selling art and craft, it was actually people working.

As I was mentioning out at coffee, probably by the 1860s and 1870s more Aboriginal people were employed, even if at a pittance, or engaged in western economic activities than are engaged in a traditional sort of lifestyle simply because the population is around the east coast. Once the frontier is passed, what are the survivors doing? They’re doing this sort of work, and I think the museums need to recognise that. The research is out there so no criticism to researchers - a bit of a criticism to [the] Museum and myself.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: I was just wondering if your issue is actually related to the objects - and I understand this idea of provenance - but more to the story? Are you going to duplicate things? Is the Museum going to purchase a helicopter in the Indigenous collection and a helicopter in the whatever else collection, because one is an Indigenous helicopter and the other one is a non-Indigenous helicopter?

MICHAEL PICKERING: Well, quite possibly, if the story was appropriate. We have several aircraft in our collection already. And by provenance I don’t just mean location, it also means that full history of use. One day we may see an Indigenous-owned helicopter company doing this sort of work. So yes, if necessary, multiples are not a problem.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: [inaudible]

MICHAEL PICKERING: Well - a hybrid of a plough with a dot painting on it or something?

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: [inaudible]

MICHAEL PICKERING: Yes, once they’re in the collection they become part of the National Historical collection and we don’t put them into separate stores so much, although we do have an ethno store. It’s a matter of how they’re documented, so the documentation can encompass both stories. ‘This plough was used on Coranderrk station or somewhere by Aboriginal peoples.’ The point is to write that Indigenous history into, or in conjunction with, the western economic history to make sure that those stories are being told simultaneously.

MAN IN AUDIENCE: Thanks a lot for a very interesting presentation. Do you think that historical archaeological sites may play a role in providing the materials – in the Northern Territory there’s some fantastic sites in association with pastoral stations that are from the Indigenous occupation, and they’re just full of all sorts of that material culture – spurs and stuff that’s been modified into points and from glass. So that might change the significance of these places if they’re underrepresented in your collections.

MICHAEL PICKERING: Absolutely. We’ve already had our eyes on buckets from the Canning stock route, which had such an important impact on Aboriginal lives there. The only thing is that museums can’t go out willy-nilly and loot sites because we have to abide by state and territory heritage laws. So provided we can get the state and territory to concede to us collecting, we’d happily find it.

Date published: 3 September 2010