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Recording real life stories for a museum exhibition
Producing video stories for the From Little Things Big Things Grow exhibition – or any museum exhibition – involves managing many relationships. Here, interviewer and producer Suzanne Gibson and one of her interviewees, Dr Linda Payi Ford, share their experiences.
A Museum perspective
Video stories interviewer and producer Suzanne Gibson reflects on her experience recording life stories of discrimination for the exhibition.
We know that telling first person stories in the Museum is often the best way to communicate history, so the first thing I had to do was to make contact with a range of people to ask them if they would consider sharing their personal stories with us.
Finding people willing and able to share their own or their family's stories involved talking to many people. The Indigenous and non-Indigenous people we approached were invariably polite and generous. However, being part of a museum exhibition is not something that appeals to everyone. For some the very idea of being in front of a camera was completely out of the question. Others did not feel that they could share their stories in such a public place.
I also needed to work with the exhibition designer to decide on the finished look of the stories. How long would they run? Would they be single shots or group interviews? Would the screen be in a portrait or landscape orientation?
It was only when I knew the answers to these questions that I could begin to talk to people who had stories that they were willing to share with the Museum. I needed to be able to give these people a clear idea of the exhibition I was asking them to be part of how their stories would be presented in the exhibition and of what would happen to their stories after the exhibition. Some people felt they could not tell their story in the short three or four minute fomat that was required.
Recording stories with respect
We found 13 wonderful people able and willing to share their experiences from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s and we brought them together for filming in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Canberra and Brisbane. With Museum film director Jeremy Lucas we all worked to develop and record each story in a way that met the brief of the curators and designers, and which also respected the storytelling of each of our interviewees.
While we had talked with each of our interviewees many times about their stories, it wasn't until we all sat together for the filming that we could really imagine how the stories and the filming would come together. Not everyone is familiar with video and the particular demands of being filmed, and it is not something that you can easily prepare people for. However, all our interviewees were great storytellers who rose to the challenge of a particular format for a particular audience.
It was an incredible privilege to meet and talk with this group of elders, leaders and activists. Their lives – lived with dignity and determination – in the face of very real discrimination and racism are an inspiration to us all.
By Suzanne Gibson, video stories interviewer and producer, National Museum of Australia
An interviewee's perspective
Interviewee Dr Linda Payi Ford, whose mother undertook a long and dangerous journey to keep her daughter, tells curator Karolina Kilian about the experience of having her story recorded for the exhibition.
How did you decide which story to tell?
This wasn't too difficult. Suzanne rang and asked if I would like to contribute a story about the era of Indigenous civil rights and I said: 'Yes, I think I have a story to tell.'
It is a story that we tell every time we go out to our Country, because we have to travel on the same roads that my mother walked with me when I was a baby.
It is an important story for me, but more importantly it is a story that my mother used to tell. I actually think that it is an important story for all Australians and visitors to this country, so that they understand what actually happened to Aboriginal people and the crucial impact that colonialism had on Aboriginal Australians.
It is also a significant story for me to tell my children and my husband. My husband, who is a white Australian, is always touched by this story, and now that my children are getting older, they are able to understand a lot more about the issues and struggles faced by Aboriginal people.
One day they will understand the significance of the fact that the situations that I describe in my story didn't happen to all Australians, but only to Indigenous Australians.
How did you feel about telling this story?
I felt empowered that I had the opportunity provided to me to share such an important part of my history.
The story brings home to me the importance of being a mother and a parent. My Mum was just such an amazing mother and an amazing person. To have such faith in her children and her family to continue our cultural traditions under the circumstances that she grew up in, and that I have grown up in, makes it even more awesome and empowering. She has given me and my siblings – and our children, and their children – a gift that is so unique.
She gave us this gift of culture and now we were recently able to give back to her by fulfilling her final request to have the traditional mourning and burial ceremonies done for her. That was her final request. She gave me all the instructions prior to her passing and I was able to pull it off. We just had her final funeral arrangements last week  on our traditional lands, just outside Batchelor [in the] Northern Territory. We did a traditional burial and we had the right ceremony people come help us lay Mum down in her final resting place. This event was filled with dignity and pride and was really powerful.
The last time that we had these ceremonies on our Country was back in the 1970s and we haven't done a traditional burial, a platform burial, since the early 1960s. On reflection, the story that I tell in the interview is even more powerful now because, had my mother not saved me for our Country, I wouldn't have been able to take part in this huge burial ceremony that we had for her. Having been able to do that is a special gift that I received from my mother.
Telling this story also demonstrates to me the importance of being able to record a lot of our stories and cultural information for future generations of the Mak Mak Marranunggu Finniss River people, but also for wider Australia. As part of my Australian Research Council grant – Bringing Indigenous Knowledge into Early Childhood Settings – I was able to capture a lot of that information and now Professor Allan Marett, on behalf of the National Recording Project for Indigenous Performance in Australia, is going to come out and record a lot of our people's ceremonies and dancing. We will then archive these recordings at AIATSIS [the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies]. Had my mother not made that journey with me, I wouldn't have been able to partake in any of these projects.
How did you feel about being approached by the Museum to do this interview?
I was a bit nervous and I wasn't quite sure why they were asking me to participate in this project. However, after I came over to the Museum and met with Suzanne for the first time, I felt at ease to tell my story. My family and I had actually previously spent some time at the Museum working on our display in the Gallery of First Australians, so this made things a little easier.
Did you understand what the Museum was after before coming in for filming?
Yes, we got that sorted out when I met with Suzanne and some other Museum staff earlier on. When it came time for the interview, the story was separated into 'scenes'. This prepared me for the events which happened to me and my family during the 1960s.
How did you feel about being filmed?
I was comfortable with being filmed, although I don't particularly enjoy listening to my own voice.
Also, in our tradition we have stories with big pauses. However, this project required me telling a story without these long pauses, so I had to condense it and make it shorter and sharper. I think I almost got there eventually, though not quite.
Did you feel that you could say no?
Yes, I felt that I could say no and when I wasn't happy with some of the shots, I asked to do them again.
What was it like to have Museum staff edit your interview?
I thought it was quite an exciting thing. Suzanne was pretty flexible. I thought she was great, actually. She was easy to talk to and was quite approachable. We made connections about living in Darwin and Cairns, so she made me feel at ease and comfortable throughout the interview.
Also, sections of the story were a bit lengthy, so Suzanne suggested that it could be made into two separate stories.
Do you have any suggestions for the Museum in regards to undertaking similar projects in the future?
We could have done the interview on the Country itself – that would have made it much more powerful. Then I could show the place where I was born at Batchelor, the old site of the Royal Darwin Hospital, where we were sent by the Batchelor Police, and then on to Bagot Aboriginal Reserve – all the icons that still fit in my head as part of that story.
I wanted to retrace the journey while my mum was alive, but she said it was too painful and that she couldn't go through it. The events that I describe in the story had a very profound effect on her, though of course they didn't stop her from loving my siblings and me.
By Dr Linda Payi Ford
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