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Dr Sandy O’Sullivan, Director of the Centre for Collaborative First Nations’ Research, Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education, Northern Territory, 17 March 2016

MODERATOR: Sandy O’Sullivan is the Director of the Centre for Collaborative First Nations’ Research, at Batchelor Institute, in the Northern Territory of Australia. Sandy will be discussing the issues that arose from the Australian Research Council-funded project, involving First Nation communities, visitation of 150, out of, I think, a total of 462 museums, over three countries.

The project asked a single question of museum staff, ‘What works?’ Sandy, over to you to enlarge on that.

SANDY O’SULLIVAN: How long do we have to engage in that? [laughter] It’s been a remarkable process. Thank you for introducing me, and thank you for having me. I’m so sorry about not being there in person. I want to start, as I’m sure many have, by paying my respects to elders past and present, from the country on which you’re meeting, and also from which I’m speaking today, in Brisbane.

I’d like to acknowledge, also, the First Nations peoples in the room, and those who share this community of practice that we’re engaged in. I’m from the Centre for Collaborative First Nations’ Research. We’re based in the Northern Territory. This project has been both a national and an international project. It’s really interesting.

If you’ve read the abstract, you’ll see that there was a hiccup that happened along the way. I’ve got to spend most of the time giving the background to it, so that there’s a context for it. I’m sorry, I know some of you will already be aware of this project. It started in 2010, but it actually started a little earlier than that.

I was at a major university in the US, giving a series of presentations, not around museums. I went to the museum that they have there. As I walked in the front door, I saw the lead curator run out the back door when they saw me walking in. I like to think of myself as a fairly nice person.

Apparently, this kind of reminder, that for those of us who’ve worked in the area of repatriation, and those of us who’ve worked in that space where we’re representing a group of people who are sometimes seen as at odds with the process of the museum and with the practices of the museum, whether it’s historical or contemporary, we’re kind of a problem.

I’m not sorry about that. This project wasn’t meant to address that directly, but it got me thinking about the process of getting a museum like that to think that seeing me wasn’t going to result in something that would take a lot of time, would take a lot of energy, and have nothing at the end of it.

It will take time. It will take energy, but there actually are some really positive outcomes. Part of that formed the idea of asking what works. I’d written, and a lot of other people have written, about what didn’t work.

Museums, even though, when I was doing repatriation, were very happy to tell me what was working fantastically, and why we should be very proud to have materials in the museum, if not human remains. But there was still this very difficult space that was about not wanting to have conversations that went beyond that process of who best manages.

The idea of asking what works, and asking the museum what works, not the community, came from a range of community consultations. The community consultations were done in 2010, just as the project started. It was very interesting, because two things happened out of it.

One of them is a really important one. That’s that, when you ask questions, you sometimes don’t get the answers that you want. I think that’s true for museums. It was certainly true for this project as well.

The other thing is that one central question, I assumed I’d be talking to communities as well as museums. But the community was very clear that they wanted me to talk to museums because, as many of them said, ‘Communities know what they want from museums. It’s the museums that don’t know what communities need.’ They want to find out what they think is working, and see the evidence base that they’re providing.

This project’s called Reversing the Gaze. That’s what it’s about. It’s about that idea of reversing this and saying, ‘OK, the gaze has been on First Nations people. What happens when it’s removed and centred in a different way?’

There was a range of communities, including my own Wiradjuri community, communities in Brisbane. In fact, there was one elder who came up to me. What I just mentioned before, about sometimes you get answers that you don’t want, she provided one to me.

At that stage, I was looking at maybe 100, 150, museums that I’d start with. It actually in the end was 462 museums that were examined as part of this, and visited as a part of this project. It did go for five years.

The two countries were going to be Australia, which didn’t have a national system that supported a First Nations Museum, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander museum that was a national museum – and I didn’t know whether it needed to.

There was a whole lot of discussion at the time. I’m sure there’s been discussion there, around this. This was part of the existing rhetoric.

What happened after I’d done the presentation was that an elder came up to me and said, ‘I think you need to go to England.’ I was already doing Australia, and the United States.

One of the reasons that I was doing the US was that there are a lot of national museums, and museums from nations that had really significant collections, that were doing really interesting representation and engagement, and I thought the comparison would matter.

When this lady came up to me, this elder came up to me, and said, ‘I think you need to be looking at England,’ I said, ‘Oh, no, no, no. It’s not that repatriation work I’ve been doing. It’s work that’s about …’

She interrupted me and she said, ‘Yes, I know, I was there when you were presenting. I understand that you’re doing this on representation and engagement of First Peoples in their own countries.’

I said, ‘Yes, yes. Australia, I’m looking at representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The US, I’m looking at representation and engagement of First Nations people, there.’

She said, ‘Yes, you need to look at England, because you can tell a lot about how people represent others by how they represent themselves.’ I got a really big shock. I agreed immediately, and thought it sounded great. Then reality hit, and I had a sinking feeling for a couple of months afterwards, but it led to a really interesting journey.

Part of that journey was around the fear from a whole lot of museums across the UK, and fear, myself, in talking about that space of what First Nations peoples might mean, in the UK context. I won’t focus too much on that, except to say that in that process, I started to realise a few things about both the fear, and assuaging fear, in that engagement with museums.

One of those things was around the idea that the museum needed to stay relevant. There were concerns that it wasn’t going to be able to meet the requirements of communities, that it would be too costly, that it would involve too many resources. Interestingly, I think in the end, a lot of the answers from people were about costs, when they were concerned about their capacity to do that.

Of course when I asked what worked, they pretty much all told me what didn’t. When I went to certain places, I’ll mention the National Museum of the American Indian, part of the Smithsonian system, in the US. It was a wonderful series of visits. I talked to 17 different people across all sorts of areas.

I asked them, ‘What works?’ They all said different things. Of course they did. It was exhibitions. It was public programs. It was an event, a specific exhibition, a performance. It was a range of activities. Community engagement, obviously, was an important part of it.

Every single one of those 17 people said one thing worked, and it was the Mitsitam Food Cafe. It was the food cafe. It worked because it was an act of resistance. I think these acts of resistance are something that can help with that assuaging fear within the museum space, too. There’s ways that museums can be a part of that act of resistance.

What’s the resistance with the food cafe? Well, it’s not a McDonald’s. Famously, the McDonald’s was likely to be the cafe of choice for the museum, and there was resistance. There was a process that was this risky process.

What if it didn’t work? It’s next to the most visited museum in the world, Air and Space Museum. It’s there, opposite the Capitol Building. It’s the first space that you get to, hungry people, no entrance fee.

People have to go into the Museum to go to the cafe. There’s a cleverness to why it was articulated as important, but it was also that notion of … museums are important. We all know they’re important. But everyone has to eat.

Part of it was about what it means to be engaged in doing something that’s going to draw people in to have an experience that is a process of ingestion. It’s a remarkable process. It was interesting to hear that and to hear that some of this was about that space of resistance, as well.

Of course, the other thing about it is it’s been massively successful. I think that some of those things were the opportunity for investment and the opportunity for risk needs to be presented.

That’s the point of going and asking what works. It isn’t because somebody can then go, ‘Let’s have a cafe. That’s going to work,’ but rather, to go, ‘This is why they did it. This is what can happen, and this is what can work.’

Seeing that is a really important part of this. There was also a range of fears around, not just what does work, but around the idea that the museum not only needs to stay relevant, but it needs to really understand what communities want in this process.

Some of those concerns were institutional, but a lot of them were personal. A lot of them were variously informed. I was about to say, ‘weren’t very informed,’ but many of them were. They were informed by a range of experiences, and they really varied.

I came across one, the lead curator at a major museum in Britain, who actually asked me if I thought that there would still be Indigenous people in a hundred years’ time. That’s kind of a shocking thing to say.

The most interesting thing was that my immediate response was, ‘Absolutely. Of course, there’ll be Indigenous people in a hundred years’ time, but I’m not so sure about museums.’ She genuinely looked shocked.

It was this moment where this idea, that somehow the museum might disappear, was more frightening to her than the idea that indigenous people would disappear.

It is important to understand that, even though I’m making a joke about it and it’s appalling, it’s still important to understand it because it’s part of the landscape that we work in. To try and bring someone like that along – that wasn’t a really good example experience. It was mostly people who were very engaged, and very interested, and very interested in finding solutions.

But there was also a lot of fear that was blocking that. Even people who had very good ideas and thoughts, were finding it very hard to engage. One of the things that it took is – the same as when you’re going into a community, we all know this – it takes time.

Communities are practice. It takes time. I’d come out of representing and engaging First Peoples. It takes time to change that relationship, to talk about what it means to move from repat into that engagement. It was OK, but it took that time.

It was an investment. These are, I think, why the work that’s happening over the last couple of days is so important. It’s so important to be bringing a project that came from the UK, back to where so much of this material belongs.

To see it in this context, to see our stories woven throughout it, is really important. It’s important to continue to network and to continue to have these conversations, and to find out not only what doesn’t work, but ultimately, what works. Just to deal with the fear and push past it.


MODERATOR:  Can you hear me?

SANDY O’SULLIVAN:  Yes, I can now.


MODERATOR: Thank you very much, Sandy. I was hoping that me standing here like an idiot would be a suitable substitute for a one-minute warning.

We’ve got time for just two questions. I know we could spend a lot of time talking with Sandy. Can I ask, for people who perhaps didn’t have a voice yesterday in the proceedings, if you have a question, put your hands up as first dib?

OK, anybody who did have a go yesterday that would like to have another go?

One of the things that came through quite strongly from a number of speakers yesterday, and I’m thinking particularly about Professor [Marshall] Sahlins invoking Levi-Strauss and Clifford in talking about how we come into being through our relationships with others.

When you were talking about the UK and learning how, first of all, you need to know how people make sense of themselves, before you can start thinking about why and what they’re doing when they try to make sense of others. Can you say a little bit more about that, in terms of what sort of pragmatic, practical things did that emerge into, in your project?

SANDY O’SULLIVAN: Well, I just spoke about a story that wasn’t so good, but I would never reveal who that was or where they were. That’s part of it. They weren’t engaged in the project, I have to say, in the end, because they didn’t have a ‘what works.’

The Pollyanna-esque part of this is part of it. It is what works. It is this positive. Tell me the good things. That’s what’s going to be reported on. I’m not going to the places or reporting on the areas that are incredibly problematic, or only in the way that they talk about it.

What I did find is that more robust places will tell you what doesn’t work as well as what works. Typically, the ones that are a little more fearful are only interested in telling you the things that work.

That’s partly about people’s relationship in the museum. I’m looking at national museum spaces and I’m looking at spaces that are important to nations. So many of them, government organisations, people are worried about their jobs.

Part of it, honestly, was protecting people, was protecting the informants in this, making sure that I wasn’t putting them at risk. You can imagine in the UK, particularly, there was a big risk. They were all worried that this was going to feed into the British Nationalist Party. They were concerned that this was somehow going to be used against them. I get that.

I had to let them know that I had the skill to be able to deal with that as a researcher, and that that wasn’t going to be a risk for them. I had to make sure that it wasn’t, too, which meant that there were certain things I couldn’t write about.

In the same way, as we do that for our own communities, it was important to do that for the community of practice, as well.

That’s also part of the learning, I guess, is for them understand that that’s why we do it in the first place, is that there are risks attached to sometimes revealing all information.

MODERATOR: What does work, in terms of cultural safety …? We think a lot about providing cultural safety for communities who are involved with institutions, but what about cultural safety for the interlocutors, for the people who take on that onerous task of retelling or passing on other people’s stories?

SANDY O’SULLIVAN: There’s another reason why I use the term ‘reversing the gaze,’ and that’s because there is a kind of inside joke with it as well, around First Nations curators, the idea that somebody who comes from a community can represent that community or every community is part of it. Being able to, I suppose, reveal some of the problems around that was really important.

I had a lot of people say, ‘Well, do you mean this is your perspective?’ I’d go, ‘Of course not. I’m one person. I’m not everyone.’ So often, that’s what people are actually being asked to do, so it reveals that.

I also noticed a really interesting thing. I think this goes back to the elder’s comment about finding a lot more about a community by the way they represent themselves. The moment that I talked about people having a cultural background, I got a lot of fear from some of those people who were their job.

I don’t mean they were their job. They had culture, but they didn’t connect it at all, necessarily, with their job. To do that, made them have to go through a whole process with it.

It also, for a few of the people, some of whom are featured in some of the work that I’ve published, they’ve talked about how that’s helped them. I hope it does. This is all about trying to make the processes better. I hope it helps.

MODERATOR: Thanks, Sandy. We have one question before we wind up this session. Richard West, he’s up in the top corner there, you can probably see him if he waves.


RICHARD WEST: Hi. Well, as you probably know, this is slightly self-interested, but I was curious about one of the things that you said, especially when you were talking about the Mitsitam is a point of resistance in the museum. It was exactly that.

Of course, the backstory for us was it was resistant in a very broad way, but was also rather specifically resistant. About a year before that opened, as you may recall, they attempted to move us toward installing another McDonald’s-type place there and we did resist that, successfully.

Here’s my question. As you were going through, I was interested in your use of the terminology, ‘resistance.’

I was just curious about what other points like that you found elsewhere in the NMAI, and I don’t know whether you’ve seen it through time – of course, it’s still a young institution but it’s been around a decade or so – and how you’ve measured that, if you’ve been able to observe it along the way?

SANDY O’SULLIVAN: Yes, I think one of the most interesting things with the NMAI is that there is a genuine honesty, in public spaces as well, about the difficulty of being able to constantly update, the cost of engagement, time, and investment.

I think that that’s very important so that people understand, in some ways, these operate as tasters. I think it was the strength of Infinity of Nations, as an exhibition, is that it knew that it was a series of ‘tasters’ and actually articulated that.

I think that’s important because part of what any visitor needs, when they go into a space like that, is to understand that there are thousands of communities.

Being Western Hemisphere, of course, there’s thousands of communities that are being represented. What do you do if the visitor’s community is never represented in that space? Does it mean that they don’t have a sense of belonging?

I think that there are some obvious tips and tricks that I think the NMAI has done very well. Part of it has been around the processes of using digital media, of keeping alive old projects through the touring programs, which have been very important, I think, in terms of linking up to various different mainstream institutions, as well, particularly across specific areas.

Something like IndiVisible, going into spaces that are both Native spaces and African American spaces, are very important. It stretches the boundary. They’re the obvious kind of moments. I think it does, in fact, stretch what’s possible. I think, for what is a relatively small space, it does remarkable work.

I think there’s a lot of criticism of the issues with being able to represent all. But I think that there’s increasingly a dialogue around that. I think that’s part of the strength of it.

MODERATOR:  Sandy, thank you very, very much for your contribution. I don’t know whether you can pick this up from the monitor that you’ve got sitting in front of you. If you were here, you would certainly sense a huge engagement with your presentation and the topic that you’ve raised with us.

Could I ask everybody to join me in thanking Sandy?


SANDY O’SULLIVAN: Thanks very much.

MODERATOR: Thank you to Mr and Mrs Skype for keeping this glitch-free. Thanks, Sandy. Bye-bye.


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Date published: 01 January 2018

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