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Dr Shayne Williams, Language and Culture Consultant, NSW Aboriginal and Education Consultative Group, 16 March 2016

Dr SHAYNE WILLIAMS: First of all, I’d like to thank Aunt [Margo Neale] for the welcome to this country this morning and acknowledge all Indigenous people that are here today.

I’d like to begin by making it clear that what I have to say this morning is going to be abbreviated. This is because I only have 15 minutes in which to speak.

I will apologise from the outset if it seems that I am skimming over serious issues. I’m not. I’m in fact deeply interested in exploring the roles of museums in terms of Indigenous cultural education.

Relationships between Indigenous peoples and museums nationally and internationally have never been easy because of the complex issues around the messaging embedded within exhibitions, as well as, issues to do with ownership, custodianship, and repatriation.

Repatriation certainly arose once again with the Encounters exhibition. Now, when I was asked to comment on the matter of repatriation in the media, I chose to take a conciliatory role, and approach. In doing so, I undoubtedly surprised, and maybe even possibly disappointed some of my own people.

I did say it, because at a spiritual level, my emotions were more directly aligned with amazement and gratitude, over and above any sense, that I had to argue, for the return of these items. I’ve always been told about these items, since I was little. I was absolutely floored when I actually saw them. It was like a surreal feeling for me.

I think we all need to stop and think about the unassailable fact that we are talking about cultural items that originate from a time in our history when we, Indigenous peoples of this country, were the sovereign guardians of country.

To explain my position more clearly, I need to refer back to my childhood.

I actually grew up on an Aboriginal reserve, at La Perouse, which is on the northern arm of Botany Bay, directly opposite Kurnell, on the southern arm.

From this position, you can actually see the monument dedicated to James Cook and Forby Sutherland which stand at Kurnell. We are also in very close proximity to monuments dedicated to the British and the French as well on the outside of the bay. It was the British and the French who arrived there in 1788, maybe weeks apart.

Growing up surrounded by these monuments, I couldn’t help but become conscious of the visibility and public primacy of our nation’s European history, and as such increasingly conscious of the invisibility and public inferiority of our own Indigenous history.

It is this chasm between being visible and being invisible that frames the core of an ongoing dichotomous relationship between Indigenous and non Indigenous Australia.

This dichotomy is well and truly entrenched in the symbolic difference between recognising Cook’s landing as the birthplace of modern Australia versus Cook’s landing as the beginning of dispossession.

Symbolism is important within our nation’s cultural character. If our nation and our national symbolism is to change, so that we are no longer diametrically opposed over the fundamental polemic between birthplace and dispossession, we need to look for new positively affirming avenues to create a reconciled national imagery.

For me, the artefacts from Botany Bay are one such avenue. Rather than continuing to symbolise the polemic between birthplace and dispossession, these cultural items can be rewritten as symbolic of their nation’s spiritual foundation.

This spiritual foundation may well be embedded with an Indigenous knowing of country but Indigenous knowing of country is surely meaningful to all of us as Australians, since it is our nation’s true beginning.

We need to look at the way our nation’s cultural institution frame our national persona. Museums have a key role to play in maintaining or changing national persona, because museums have the ability to create predetermined pictures of who we are as a peoples.

Museums can render Indigenous people invisible by exhibiting us as exotic peoples whose cultures are embedded in the past. Or they can render us visible by uncovering and explaining the ontological, epistemological and axiological foundations of our spiritual seasons of knowledge.

We need to ask ourselves, how do we create an experience for the museum visitor that moves beyond a shallow of impression of our foundational way of life? How do we impart a real sense of the spirit bedrock that embodies every inch of this country?

It’s only been in the last decade or so that museums have begun the change for the positive in terms of this. The Encounters exhibition exemplifies this because it has sought to move beyond the exotic by enabling us to express and share our spiritual voice and presence.

In many ways, this exhibition raises the question: what is the purpose of a museum? If we decide that a museum’s primary role is to educate a nation about itself, we need to look at museums not as sites of entertainment and recreation, but as sites of cultural education.

From an Indigenous standpoint, cultural education is important. It’s well known that a vast majority of Indigenous peoples throughout the world have been systematically disenfranchised from mother tongue and mother culture through the deprivations of colonisation and paternalism. Therefore, cultural education is for us an urgent matter of cultural revival and survival.

If we are to secure the re-voicing of mother tongue again and the re practice of mother culture in our homes and the communities, we need to explore every possible avenue of cultural reconnection with our foundational ways of life.

Indigenous cultural items held within museum collections may well fulfill an aesthetic function in terms of exhibition. And undoubtedly any accompanying explanation gives more meaning to these items now when they’re exhibited, but for us Indigenous people of this country, these items are of immeasurable value because they carry spirit context that we need to understand in order to understand ourselves.

Whether we agree or not with the custodial role museums have in terms of the Indigenous cultural items they have in their collection, we need to recognise also that museums are a potential partner for us in terms of the development of Indigenous cultural educational programs.

We Indigenous peoples need to be able to work with museums at a direct and primary level so that we are in touch rather than out of touch with the tangible cultural items that museums hold.

I’m not naive enough to think that we can’t just brush aside the issues of ownership, custodianship and repatriation. These are vital issues for us, but they are complex.

It isn’t unreasonable to assert that cultural items held within museums may well have been taken without our forebears’ consent. And equally, it isn’t unreasonable to assert our right to repatriation either. We could for instance, mount genuine arguments for the repatriation of the Botany Bay artefacts.

But where will it land us in the end? We all know the process that begins with years of contestation, over who rightfully own the shields and spears, followed by more years of negotiation to determine repatriation.

At the end of that, more time will go while we wrangle over local politics. Should these items be returned to country? Whose country should they go to? Who is to be recognised as the rightful custodians of these items? The list goes on.

Meanwhile all of this is going on and we’re busy working through these complex issues, another year passes, and with it we lose yet more senior knowledge holders. And as we lose these people, the possibility of strengthening the chain between us and their spirit ancestors, is further broken.

It is our senior knowledge holders that hold for us the best chance of being enabled to interpret the ontological context of cultural items held in museum collections.

So when I look at these artefacts, I simply don’t see a set of utility items. I see a shield and a spear that inspired me to think about the ceremonial processes of gaining the status to hold and use these items.

And being close to these items brings me closer to our foundational context. They give me the spiritual impetus I need to think a bit more deeply about the spiritual heart of our country. And they are tangible connections between our forebears and ourselves. There is cultural emotion embedded in these items, and that’s something that we need to experience at a very emotional level.

What I have said thus far really only snapshots what I’m thinking about in terms of Indigenous cultural education. I’d like to see a situation develop when museums and Indigenous communities come together with the common purpose of enabling the future Indigenous and non-Indigenous generations of this country to learn about and experience their national heritage.

In closing I’d just like to say that, I hope I have inspired you a little bit to open up and to continue dialogue on the real purpose of a museum, and the role we have as collection stakeholders. Thank you.


HOST: Thanks very much, Shayne. We’ve got time now for a couple of questions.

I’ve got a question while we start to get people thinking. 2020 is the 250th anniversary of Cook’s landing. It will obviously be a significant event and anniversary in this nation’s history. How do you think it could be used to reinterpret that event? Also how to tell that story from Indigenous voice?

SHAYNE WILLIAMS: The nation needs to ensure that Indigenous peoples, cultures and our existence in this country are given equal status. In other words we need to become visible again, not invisible.

The way that we’ve been kept invisible is a deep, not just psychological but an ideological process that we’ve been subject to do for decades upon decades.

We need to be given equal status, as the owners of this country and our  true cultures, the ontological foundations, our epistemologies and our axilogies need to be brought to the floor again not swept under the carpet.

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This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.

The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy. Some older pages on the Museum website contain images and terms now considered outdated and inappropriate. They are a reflection of the time when the material was created and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Museum.

© National Museum of Australia 2007–24. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.

Date published: 01 January 2018

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