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First Nations, Museum Responsibilities: History, Truth and Symbols

On 29 April 1770, HMS Endeavour sailed into Botany Bay in the country of the Gweagal and Bidjigal peoples of the Dharawal Eora nation, as part of Lieutenant James Cook’s broader exploration of the Pacific. When a small party (including Cook) came ashore, they were threatened by two men with spears. Cook ordered one of the men to be fired on. The men disappeared. Communication having failed, Cook and his men entered the Gweagal camp and took artefacts leaving trinkets in exchange. Cook’s journal recorded, ‘All they seem’d to want was for us to be gone.’[1]

One of the items taken was a shield. A shield from the British Museum’s collections, believed to be the one taken that day, was included in the 2015 exhibition ‘Encounters’ mounted by the National Museum of Australia in conjunction with the British Museum. The shield is perforated by a hole said to be made by the bullet Cook fired at one of the men.[2]

The shield is both an historical object and a symbol. Many Aboriginal people, especially of the Gweagal, have made clear they wanted the shield returned to Australia, indeed to the people from whom it came. That demand for return is a marker of the present state of the debate and the relationship between people, their history and culture and museums.

Shayne Williams, Dharawal Elder, has said, ‘That shield represents a whole history of this country. This country was annexed by the British and there’s questions as to whether it was rightful or not at the time… And I think the shield too represents all Aboriginal people because that very place where the shield was taken from is where the rest of Australia was annexed to the British. Aboriginal dispossession started there …’[3]


Meanwhile other important issues for Indigenous people were absorbing their attention in other places, especially in the far north and north-west of the country.

n 26 August 1975, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam had returned the title deeds to Daguragu (Wattie Creek), once part of the Wave Hill pastoral lease of the British-based Vestey Company, but now handed back to the Gurindji people.[4] This was the occasion of the famous photograph of Gough Whitlam pouring sand into the hands of Gurindji leader Vincent Lingiari, who had led the Wave Hill walk-off over dissatisfaction with wages and working conditions. But their concern was deeper: it was Gurindji country long before Vestey arrived.

The National Museum of Australia was opened 11 March 2001: Indigenous contributions were incorporated within it. Interpretive labels in the exhibits were criticised by some people as contributing to a ‘black armband’ view of Australia’s history, a view which considered accounts of massacres in frontier conflict to be exaggerated. The Gallery of Aboriginal Australia, recommended in a report published together with ‘Museums Australia 1975’ by a committee chaired by Peter Pigott, established by the Whitlam Government, did not eventuate.

The 1990s: from the High Court decision to Government response

In the 1990s, as the Indigenous struggles for land rights continued, important cases were heard in the High Court of Australia. In Mabo vs Queensland, in 1992, the Court overturned the old legal doctrine of terra nullius (‘nobody’s land’) which had characterised Australian law with regard to land use and title issues. The Court found that Eddie Mabo’s rights to his traditional lands in the Torres Strait had not been extinguished, and that Indigenous peoples had rights to land at the time of European settlement, rights that persisted to that day. In Wik Peoples vs The State of Queensland in 1996, the High Court found that pastoral leases did not confer exclusive possession on the lease holder. Issues then moved to the sphere of government.

In 1993, the Australian Parliament passed the Native Title Act. This legislation established a native title tribunal, and a land fund to assist a claims process in recognition of Aboriginal dispossession. The third component of the Mabo response from the federal government was intended to have been a social justice package addressing health, economic and social disadvantage. It was never delivered.[5]

In 1993, the Coalition parties – then in Opposition – considered the Native Title Act to be an act of shame. Under the Howard Government (March 1996–December 2007) the Native Title Act was amended to limit title rights. Instead of legal rights and funding to support Native Title case outcomes, Prime Minister John Howard preferred a 10-point plan of ‘practical reconciliation’.

*  *  *  * *

Past Truths, Whose History? From Colonial Propaganda to First Nations Forums

Museums over the last several centuries collected and exhibited the material culture of Indigenous people from all over the world. Those items were displayed mostly as curios; the people were presented as objects of study rather than participating human subjects. Their culture of conquered peoples was shown as rare and curious, represented by ‘artefacts’ from societies disappearing with the advance of ‘civilisation’.[6] Their art was considered ‘primitive’, though of significant interest to leading artists.

Museums in Australia in the 19th and early 20th centuries collected examples of Aboriginal material culture, and many carried out anthropological and archaeological research. Some of the material was obtained without agreement of their owners, and worst of all even by exhuming human remains from burial sites. Museums in Europe became participants in international networks of exchange; some were collecting secret and sacred material even though staff involved could never understand its real significance. Australia was an active agent in these networks.

As the twentieth century drew to a close, increasing interest in Indigenous peoples, their art and culture, led to fundamental reconsiderations of the place of material culture in museums, and sought involvement of appropriate representatives of First Peoples themselves in museum programs. Indigenous peoples were asserting themselves also and proposing their own measures for change.

Simply displaying objects in glass cases was no longer satisfactory. These changes increasingly recognised the important knowledge and intellectual property rights at stake in ensuring Indigenous people guided representations of their culture. Purely ‘advisory roles’ were no longer adequate to ensure restoration of full rights of self-interpretation and respect for knowledge-holders entailed in the representation of customary cultures. Art museums meanwhile were increasingly collecting and exhibiting the latest flowering of artistic creativity that came to be recognised as ‘contemporary’, no longer ‘primitive’ art.

New museum policies driving change

In 1983, the Council of Australian Museum Directors (CAMD) adopted a policy of not displaying or acquiring human remains, and of returning those of known persons, and those whose direct descendants could be identified. Museums took an active role in researching and reconnecting records, so that the appropriate Aboriginal representatives could be informed about material that might be relevant to their community. The first task that Australian museums undertook in the 1980s was focused on active efforts to provenance and assist wherever possible the return of all ancestral remains to rightful descendants and communities. In the 1980s, heritage legislation was enacted by the Commonwealth Government, and in 1991 the Australian Archaeological Association placed obligations on archaeologists, which required views of Indigenous peoples to be respected.

There had been controversy over return by Museum Victoria of remains of ancestors of Pleistocene age from Kow Swamp, in the Murray Valley in the lands of the Yorta Yorta people, and intended to be reburied.

Other museums such as the Australian Museum and the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery had instituted policies of consultation and return of ancestors and secret/sacred items.

Internationally there were changes also. In Canada Turning the Page, a report jointly sponsored by the Assembly of First Nations and the Canadian Museums Association, published in 1992, ‘developed an ethical framework and strategies for Aboriginal Nations to represent their history and culture in concert with cultural institutions’. In the United States the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), passed by the Congress in 1990, established the ownership of cultural items excavated or discovered on federal or tribal land after 16 November 1990 and led to the establishment of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) opened on the Washington Mall in 2004. In New Zealand the amalgamation of existing museums to form the National Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, opened in Wellington in 1998, incorporating a renewed commitment to ‘biculturalism’ that recognised the rights of Maori people to speak for their culture and tradition.

In the late 1980s, the Council of Australian Museum Associations (CAMA), representing people working in and associated with museums throughout Australia, commenced discussions initiated by the South Australian Museum, which had developed close relationships with communities in that state. The discussions eventually led to the co-cultural drafting and adoption in December 1993 (in Hobart) of a first national policy for the Australian museums sector, ‘Previous Possessions, New Obligations’.

Although the first concern was the return of human remains (ancestors), which had rested in many museums in many countries, not just Australia, a much broader agenda was developed. The new policies that were developed covered all aspects of relations between museums and Indigenous Peoples. The primary rights of Indigenous Peoples were explicitly acknowledged in respect of all aspects of the way in which museums dealt with their cultural material. The importance of self-determination was emphasised, and guidelines set down on how that might be achieved within museum practice. Increased employment of Indigenous people and inclusion of representatives on governing bodies were both urged as important objectives for change.[7]

Previous Possessions, New Obligations: Policies for Museums in Australia and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (1993)

Recalling the development of the first new national policy concerning museums and Indigenous peoples in the early 1990s I acknowledged, as Director of the Australian Museum and President of the new national body, Museums Australia, some possible future tensions and even conflict that might arise through efforts of return:

But in the end, even if ownership of cultural material is decided on the basis of who has the right to tell the stories about it, decisions made by museums are decisions which have to be negotiated between parties from a position of mutual respect including respect for freedom of speech and the dignity of the human being. … Politics is not something that is outside the door of the museum but a part of everyday life, a way of balancing conflicting but legitimate demands as much as a way of marginalising and eventually suppressing identity.

Previous Possessions, New Obligations’ is a basis for action [we maintained in 1993]: for it to have meaning will require commitment. The outcomes will have to be meaningful acts. That will be the test.

A review of the first policy a decade later (by Tim Sullivan, Lynda Kelly and Phil Gordon)[8] concluded that the policy had largely achieved its goals so far as major museums were concerned. However, smaller museums varied in their responses. A revision of the 1993 policy in 2005 (which produced Continuing Cultures: Ongoing Responsibilities) reassessed the relationships between museums and Indigenous people, expanding the issues to be addressed, and adding some new ones.

Differing approaches have been taken to interpretation by different museums: art museums, Bernice Murphy says[9], have approached Indigenous art as ‘as human creativity manifested directly’ whereas anthropologists in museums have tended to use ‘the speech and thought-patterns of the dominant culture’.

The contributions of museums in Australia, whether from art or non-art orientations, were now gathering pace, expanding and diversifying. These differences (and some crossovers) were examined in a series of recent essays.[10]

*  *  *  * *

Recent museum presentations and transformed relationships

By the mid-1990s all major museums in Australia were presenting exhibitions that no longer merely showed collections of artefacts, or presentations of Indigenous Australia as exhibitions about Others. Increasingly there were consultations with Indigenous peoples, especially in developing new exhibitions, and Indigenous people were reshaping interpretations and adding new ways of engaging museums more directly with their audiences. On the commitment to returns: significant material was returned to communities from within Australia, and some overseas museums began returning material through an Australian Government-supported program.

Museums themselves wanted to confront the shameful past: Indigenous people should not have to come to museums; instead, museums should go to them. Much progress has been made, but more needs to be done, as the new Indigenous Roadmap recognises (below).

The Australian Museum’s new displays, 1997

The renewed long-term Indigenous exhibition at the Australian Museum, opened in early 1997, having involved extensive consultations with Indigenous peoples in developing the narratives to achieve an exhibition that spoke in their terms: of the contemporary cultural life and histories of Indigenous people.

The new displays highlighted Indigenous voices in the selection and telling of stories that had emerged from the growing body of new historiography that arose from a succession of events marking national change: the Bicentennial in 1988; the reports of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody; the Inquiry on Forced Removal of Children; and the many issues raised in wake of the 1993 High Court’s decisions on Native Title. These changes in Australian Museum presentation also reflected extensive audience research during the concept development phases, which revealed the deep interest of non-Indigenous audiences in understanding the perspectives of Indigenous peoples that had been steadily building during the highly politicised debates taking place nationally.

Museum Victoria’s new First Peoples gallery, 2013

At Museum Victoria, one of the new exhibitions at the Melbourne Museum in its new building in Carlton Gardens strongly acknowledged Aboriginal peoples and first contact.[11] The redeveloped First Peoples exhibition (opened 2013) in the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre, incorporated a space where Indigenous people can gather to view collection material and meet Indigenous staff. The First Peoples display ‘tells the story of Aboriginal Victoria from the time of Creation to today [and] celebrates the history, culture, achievements and survival of Victoria’s Aboriginal people’. The impressive results achieved were driven by significant involvement of those people and Elders in guiding all that was accomplished.

Art museums, in every state capital as well as smaller art museums and public galleries in community spaces and regional centres, have been especially active in promoting the contribution of an ever-expanding number of individual artists: some drawing on traditional themes; others on urban and rural experience, while confronting contemporary social issues as Indigenous people have steadily reasserted their rights. General interest has steadily expanded, from more isolated ventures some years ago, to a steadily growing and now expanding presence in our national cultural life, as witnessed in so many truly beautiful and sometimes challenging presentations.

Indigenous advisory groups play an increasing role in shaping institutional developments. For instance, QAGOMA in Brisbane has an Indigenous Advisory Panel that ensures appropriate protocols are incorporated into collection and exhibition documents, to advance resolution of specific cultural issues.[12]

In the first two decades of this century, many museums have developed important exhibitions. The following are just some of the recent developments

The Australian National Maritime Museum, in Sydney, staged several programs and exhibitions involving First Nations people, in particular concerning Indigenous watercraft. The ANMM opened in 2017 the exhibition Gapu-Monuk Saltwater: Journey to Sea Country, telling the story of Yol?u people of North-East Arnhem Land and their fight for recognition of Sea Rights (especially in the Blue Mud Bay legal case involving lands and waters at Yirrkala).

At the National Museum of Australia (NMA) Encounters: Revealing Stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Objects from the British Museum, opened in November 2015, placing Australian items from the collections of the British Museum in the company of contemporary cultural responses and new items produced by diverse Indigenous communities of today. The exhibition, as NMA board Kimberley member Peter Yu (Yiwarra) said, provided ‘a portal for more informed understanding of the historical truths of first contact, enabling serious questioning of the relationships between first peoples and cultural institutions in the 21st century’[13]

Then Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route (National Museum of Australia, 2010) exhibited the beautiful contemporary painted canvases depicting Dreaming stories of the country through which the Canning Stock Route passed in Western Australia. These vibrant paintings reasserted contemporary creativity and showed, ‘People are still connected to the land and still pass down the story.[14]

The third remarkable NMA exhibition project, Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters, opened in 2018 after some years of work and resulted from an even greater contribution by First Nations people than before. Margo Neale, Senior Curator, described the background:

The epic exhibition, Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters was an Anangu initiative. The museum responded to their urgent plea [from Anangu elders] that ‘the Songlines are all broken up and we want you to help put them back together’. It took many years of travelling the songlines on Country across three deserts, and listening to what they wanted saved of this knowledge system, for both the archive  and to gain public support through an exhibition… Together with the traditional owners we formed a curatorium co-led by a senior law woman and custodian of the Seven Sisters, Inawinytji Williamson… They were not an advisory group or a reference group, they too were the curators along with us from the western institutional world. This enabled us to respect each other’s knowledge and skills … To share this history and continent we need to know the stories of its creation beyond the last 240 years.[15]

The National Gallery of Australia (NGA) has staged three major National Indigenous Art Triennials, each comprising the works of some 30 artists, commenced in 2007 with the remarkable Culture Warriors (curated by Brenda L Croft). The third edition of the Indigenous Triennial, Defying Empire, which opened in May 2017, coincided with the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum – which one writer described as both shocking and a celebration of endurance.[16]

In March through September 2018 the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) presented Colony, Australia 1770-1861/Frontier Wars which explored the period of colonisation in Australia from 1788 onwards and its often-devastating effects on First Peoples. It had a positive objective: ‘By bringing together different understandings of Australia’s shared history, this exhibition also offers a pathway towards recognition.’ A parallel exhibition, Australia 1770-1861, offered an ‘experience of the colonisation of Australia’ from a non-Indigenous perspective.

The planning of new and more diverse projects is ongoing.

At the Australian Museum, a First Nations response to the 250th anniversary of the visit to the east coast of Australia by Captain James Cook during 1770 is being developed to culminate in a special exhibition in 2020. The 2020 Project, led by First Nations curators, has already sought community opinion through a survey: 805 First Nations people from 176 nations responded with views about the Museum, the visit of Cook, and topics they would like addressed. Substantial negative perceptions of the Museum through the survey were also accompanied by a trend to a more positive perception. Negative views of Cook’s visit were predominant through the survey’s results. Overwhelmingly, respondents wanted to see colonisation and its effects, and Australia’s origins and foundation, addressed by truth-telling through First Nations Voices.

Achieving the 2020 Project will inevitably involve some controversy, as different stories will emerge that depart from the single storyline the public has come to accept. Yet support and leadership at a high level in the Museum has been evident in the advancement of this project’s realisation.

The National Museum of Australia and other museums are also developing 2020 programs on Captain Cook for the 250th anniversary. Some will deal with the important contribution the voyages made to western science in cartography, natural history and astronomy. Recognition of Cook’s real maritime achievements, however, may be obscured by the entirely fanciful circumnavigation of Australia by the Endeavour replica – suggesting a voyage that never occurred historically.[17]

The recent programs described of these capital city institutions and some other museums have demonstrated steady commitment to improved practices, a thoughtful reconsideration of history, and the development of goodwill between museums and Indigenous peoples which, if progressed and built upon, will undoubtedly make a positive contribution to public recognition that over 65,000 years in Australia diverse peoples had developed critical relationships with the land, waters and Country, described by distinguished anthropologist W.E.H. (Bill) Stanner as a ‘marvel’ of successful adaption to environment, guided by a sophisticated social structure and set of laws within the ‘Dreaming’, a narrative for which Stanner coined the term ‘everywhen’.

Recent additions to the substantial literature on Aboriginal uses of natural resources have been the demonstrations of careful land management and advanced agricultural practices, notably by Bill Gammage and Bruce Pascoe.[18] In both of these studies it is amply revealed that the diverse land-use practices were recorded by early settlers but then ignored in later histories.

*  *  *  * *

Return of Mungo Man to Country

In November 2017, Mungo Man and other ancestors, more than 40 thousand years in age, were returned with much ceremony through the country of many peoples to the Willandra Lakes region, a World Heritage site in the country of the Muthu Muthi, Nyiampaar and Barkinji. This fulfilled a long-intended plan for return to local elders and present custodians, at last accomplished with appropriate ceremony and respect[19]

*  *  *  * *

The Indigenous Roadmap, A Museums and Galleries Initiative

It is encouraging to museums people who have worked over decades for improved relations and museum practices that the Australian Museums and Galleries Association (AMaGa), the successor to Museums Australia, commissioned the Indigenous Roadmap Project and engaged Terri Janke and Associates in 2017 to steer this initiative and undertake consultation with communities. The completed Roadmap and Project Report – detailing surveys, workshops, meetings, teleconferences, submissions, and related documents – were presented by Terri Janke to the Association’s 2019 Annual Conference in Alice Springs/Mparntwe. The Indigenous Roadmap provides five important Key Elements serving as a framework for action:

The 2019 Project Report also contains many valuable comments of respondents about the history of change, the role of museums, and particularly the desires and needs of Indigenous peoples. It is absolutely clear that First Nations people, artists and elders, want visitors to experience exhibitions in which they share their culture and their stories, to know these practices are still being passed on, to close the spaces still existing between the cultures in national experience, and especially to recognise the ongoing connections to Country.

The progress of the last 20 or 30 years in museums has not been without tensions, and things have seemingly come to a halt in some areas. Some people trace this loss of momentum to the disbanding by the Howard Government of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Commission (ATSIC). Others point to ongoing reductions in funding and sometimes unhelpful government interventions.

Meanwhile an overwhelming number of respondents to a survey for AMaGA’s Roadmap admitted they lacked any policy for interpreting Indigenous cultural material; few museums have Indigenous people on their boards; and most were unaware that there has long been a policy on museums and Indigenous peoples.

AMaGA is now pursuing programs to encourage awareness of the Roadmap: and these programs will be essential.

*  *  *  * *

Conclusions: Voice, Treaty Truth

Museums deal with people’s lives, identity and futures, both through relationships with Indigenous peoples and communications with wider society whose attitudes in the end influence government policies. Museum presentations (exhibitions, programs and other services) must be placed in the context of both the present and the past of Indigenous experience. And also pointing to the future.

After all the Royal Commissions and Inquiries, which governments have mostly ignored, and land rights legislation leading to greater economic participation, especially on Country, life for Indigenous/First Nations peoples continues to be circumscribed. In regional areas especially, housing, often constructed by non-Indigenous enterprises, is of poor quality. Education and health services are inadequate and employment opportunities poor. The outcomes are chronic illnesses usually seen in third world countries. Policing and incarceration are severe problems: deaths continue tragically to seem inevitable. Yet in other areas, there have been significant gains, especially in education and in the arts.

The ‘Closing the Gap’ programs of State, Territory and Commonwealth governments attempts to remedy disadvantage. They have mostly failed! Because of continually changing policies and lack of consultation.[20]

Inequality drives poor health and an inability to feel in control of one’s life.[21] The consequences are social dislocation and substance abuse. Despair leads to suicide, especially among youth. Mothers facing poverty cannot provide a satisfactory level of care in early childhood: when the children grow up and rear their own children, they likely also provide inadequate care. The impacts are heritable through epigenetics.

The productive approach to Indigenous issues is not to continue with a deficit model that places everything within social welfare and invites continual judgement by non-Indigenous people, but to recognise that the productive approach is within social justice measures. Not further intervention, but increased self-determination.[22]

Despite much current rhetoric about small government, previously formed views prevail: there are problems which ‘government needs to fix’. But change only occurs when it is driven by those who will be most affected, those most intended to benefit: when shared views and commitment are developed, and culturally appropriate practices are pursued. Maintaining connections with traditional cultural practices including language, with family and country, reinforcing identity, drives economic and social gains. [23]

The Uluru Statement, An Invitation

European occupation of Australia was by right of ‘superior force’. Indigenous people were written out of the Australian Constitution of 1901. Various Indigenous consultative and advisory bodies have been short-lived and disbanded by government.

The Hawke Government on its election in March 1983 committed to land rights. On January 26 1988, commemorating the landing of Captain Arthur Phillip in Sydney Cove 200 years previously, some 40,000 Indigenous people from all over Australia and supporters marched from Redfern to Hyde Park and then Sydney Harbour chanting for land rights. In June 1988 Prime Minister Hawke, having accepted a Jawoyn community invitation to their annual Barunga Sport and Cultural Festival (NT), was presented with the Barunga Statement by Galarrwuy Yunupingu AM and Wenten Rubuntja AM, chairs respectively of the Northern and Central Land Councils. It asked for recognition and respect for ‘rights’ of Aboriginal peoples and compensation.

Accepting the Statement, Prime Minister Hawke said, ‘There shall be a treaty between Aboriginal People and the government on behalf of all Australians. You Aboriginal people should decide what you want in that treaty.’ But it never came to pass. It vanished ‘like writing in the sand’ as Yothu Yindi’s song Treaty says.

We need to keep good memory of important events in our recent history. On 10 December 1992, Prime Minister Paul Keating delivered his important ‘Redfern speech’ in Sydney, acknowledging the destructive impacts of European settlement. On 13 February 2013, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, in the Australian Parliament, with thousands gathered in the public galleries and outside, delivered a national Apology on behalf of the Government for past wrongs.

Since these events, scores of speeches, lectures, books, articles and films by Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, activists and academics have tirelessly traversed the same crucial issues: Recognition of past wrongs. Remediation. Building of better practices to shape a stronger future for all Indigenous peoples. Ensuring their stake in improved opportunities that all Australians should experience so as to thrive.

In the Mabo judgement of 1992, Justice Brennan had stated:

To treat the dispossession of the Australian Aborigines as the working out of the Crown’s acquisition of ownership of all land on first settlement is contrary to history. Aborigines were dispossessed of their land parcel by parcel, to make way for expanding colonial settlement. Their dispossession underwrote the development of the nation.

Galarrwuy Yunupingu AM provided an eloquent expression of contemporary Indigenous aspirations a quarter-century later (in his essay ‘Rom Watangu’, in The Monthly of July 2016):

What Aboriginal people ask is that the modern world now makes the sacrifices necessary to give us a real future. To relax its grip on us. To let us breathe, to let us be free of the determined control exerted on us to make us like you. And you should take that a step further and recognise us for who we are, and not who you want us to be. Let us be who we are – Aboriginal people in a modern world – and be proud of us. Acknowledge that we have survived the worst that the past had thrown at us, and we are here with our songs, our ceremonies, our land, our language and our people – our full identity. What a gift this is that we can give you, if you choose to accept us in a meaningful way.

A year later, in May 2017, following 12 regional dialogues around Australia, a constitutional convention of over 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders gathered at the foot of Uluru-Kata Tjuta in Central Australia, on the lands of the A?angu people, and issued a Statement from the Heart. By this time, a mere statement of recognition in the Constitution and removal of some clauses was no longer satisfactory. It was rejected as a minimalist gesture that would not bring the change in relations sought.

The Uluru Statement was a call for voice, treaty, truth: a Voice to Parliament enshrined in the Constitution; a treaty process or Makarrata (a coming together after conflict); and a truth-telling traversing the history of interaction. The Uluru Statement asked that Indigenous voices be heard on matters concerning them, and issued an invitation to all other Australians to join with Indigenous Peoples in achieving their aspirations for justice and progress.

The call for a Voice was subsequently endorsed by the Referendum Council, established by agreement of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, to advise on ‘how to best recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution’.[24] A Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition was appointed by the Australian Parliament in March 2018 to consider the Uluru Statement. It recommended that following a process of co-design, the Australian Government consider, in a deliberate and timely manner, legislative, executive and constitutional options to establish The Voice.

The statement is important both symbolically, because it recognises Indigenous sovereignty, and practically, because it forms the basis for effective pursuit of Indigenous peoples’ lives through acknowledgement of First Nations agency.[25]

In early November 2019, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs the Hon Ken Wyatt established an advisory group to guide a co-design towards developing an Indigenous voice to Government.

*  *  *  * *

At the AMaGA Conference 2019 (in Alice Springs/Mparntwe, in May), Neil MacGregor, former Director of the British Museum and recently a key advisor for the Humboldt Forum development in Berlin, concluded his keynote address ‘Museums: Places for complex stories and diverse publics’, saying that the key question for museums was telling one story or several stories. The story, he said, was entering a new phase, driven by awareness of climate change. ‘We all inhabit and have responsibility for the same place, and it should be possible to construct a narrative which genuinely embraces everybody occupying that space.’ He claimed the insistence in Australia of the centrality of Country in all discussions of Australian culture was ‘an enormous contribution to the next chapter of that narrative, in which we can all play a part’.

In New Zealand Aotearoa, the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, resurgent since 1975, is the basis for all further agreements today in which Ministers acknowledge the past wrongs of Government, by personal testimonies and by return of cultural objects. Significant alienation of land over many decades, which led to extreme poverty, is being resolved under Treaty legislation. Meanwhile work to redress continuing problems of marginalisation and poverty is ongoing.

Australia is the only developed country that does not have a Treaty or similar mechanism expressing relations with its first peoples. It is the cause of ongoing grievances. It forms a gap in the social design of our interrelationships with each other, that all Australians need closed, to be able to express our three-stranded ‘story’: of our Indigenous history; our British institutions; and our immigrant history and influences that have created the rich diversity of Australia today.

Museums must play a meaningful role and be supportive of First Nations’ efforts to be heard and gain political recognition in this important period of our national life.

Dr Des Griffin AM is Gerard Krefft Fellow, Australian Museum, of which he was director from 1976 to 1998. He was the first President of Museums Australia, the forerunner of AMaGA.

Citation: Des Griffin, ‘Indigenous People and Museums’, Australian Museums and Galleries Magazine, Vol. 28(1), AMaGA, Canberra, Summer 2019, pp. *-*.


[1] Encounters: Revealing stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Objects from the British Museum (National Museum of Australia, Canberra, 27 November 2015–28 March 2016)

[2] An analysis of the shield has led to questioning whether the item included in the Australian exhibition is the item which Cook’s party retrieved from the beach, because the wood is of a species of mangrove not found further south on the eastern Australian coast than Richmond (Nick Miller (2019), ‘The gripping story of the Gweagal Shield’, Sydney Morning Herald, 11 May 2019; Maria Nugent and Gaye Sculthorpe (2018), ‘A Shield Loaded with History: Encounters, Objects and Exhibitions’, Australian Historical Studies, Vol. 49(1). The method of analysis has been questioned.

[3] In Lisa Chandler (ed., East Coast Encounter, One Day Hill, Collingwood, 2014, a group of artists, songwriters, historians and film-makers re-examine Cook’s visit through Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives

[4] Aboriginal workers had walked off the Wave Hill station in 1966. As he poured a handful of Daguragu soil into Vincent Lingiari’s hand, Whitlam said, ‘Vincent Lingiari, I solemnly hand to you these deeds as proof in Australian law that these lands belong to the Gurindji people, and I put into your hands part of the earth as a sign that this land will be the possession of you and your children forever.’

[5] Michael Lavarch, ‘Indigenous justice unfinished 25 years on from Native Title Act’, The Guardian, 6 June 2018.

[6] Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, delivering the third P.M. Glynn Lecture on Religion, Law and Public Life at the Australian Catholic University, in September 2019. On overcoming political tribalism, Archbishop Williams noted ‘a shrinkage of the scope of mutual recognition’ which views tribal people to have not adapted to modernity, an anachronism. But they are still here!

[7] Des Griffin (1996), ‘Previous Possessions, New Obligations:  A New Commitment by Museums in Australia to Indigenous Cultural Heritage’, Curator: The Museums Journal (Wiley online), Vol. 39 (1), pp. 45–62.

[8] Tim Sullivan, Lynda Kelly and Phil Gordon (2003), ‘Museums and Indigenous People in Australia: A Review of Previous Possessions, New Obligations’, Curator: The Museums Journal (Wiley online), Vol. 46(2), pp. 45–62.  //putting these page nos. back in again [BM]//

[9] Bernice Murphy, ‘Transforming culture: Indigenous art and Australian art museums’ in Understanding Museums: Australian Museums and Museology, (eds) Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien, National Museum of Australia, Canberra, (published online) 2011.

[10] Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien, Indigenous people and museums, Introduction in Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien (eds), Understanding Museums: Australian Museums and Museology, National Museum of Australia, Canberra, (published online) 2011.

[11] Moira Simpson, Bunjilaka in, Chris Healy and Andrea Witcombe (eds), South Pacific Museums: Experiments in Culture, Monash University Publishing, 2006.

[12] Director Chris Saines (QAGOMA) is one of two Australian art museum directors with extensive experience in New Zealand.

[13] Peter Yu, in Encounters: Revealing Stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Objects from the British Museum, National Museum of Australia, Canbera,2015.

[14] From the communities, Nagarajan Tommy May, Mangkaja artist and senior cultural adviser and others, in Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route, National Museum of Australia, Canberra, 2010.

[15] Terri Janke and Associates, ‘First Peoples and Australian Museums and Galleries A Report on The Engagement of Indigenous Australians in the Museums and Galleries Sector, Written for the Australian Museums and Galleries Association, 2018’

[16] Paul Daley (2017), Indigenous art triennial: a haunting exhibition of shock, celebration and defiance, The Guardian 26 May.

[17] Cook’s claim of the east coast of Australia for Britain showed that he followed those parts of his instructions which assumed Australia was uninhabited and not those ‘that he should acquire territory ‘with the consent’ of the Natives.’ However, a Select Committee of the British House of Commons on Aborigines stated in 1837, ‘The land has been taken from them without the assertion of any other title than that of superior force.’

[18] Bill Gammage, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2012; Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu, Magabala Books, Broome, 2016.

[19] The remains are the oldest human remains found anywhere in Australia, and some of the earliest anatomically modern human remains discovered anywhere in the world. The items had been in various collections in Canberra for many years for detailed study which, amongst other things, revealed sophisticated burial practices: Jim Bowler, John Mulvaney and Rhys Jones of the Australian National University found that ‘Mungo Lady’ and ‘Mungo Man’ had been ritually buried, and the body sprinkled with red ochre. (National Museum of Australia Defining Moments)

[20] Mark Moran, Serious Whitefella Business (Melbourne University Press, 2016); Sarah Maddison, The Colonial Fantasy. Why White Australia can’t solve Black Problems (Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2019); Fred Chaney, ‘Can the world’s oldest living cultures survive the impact of dysfunctional government?’ Cranlana Governor’s Oration 2018.

[21] Michael Marmot, ‘Fair Australia: Social Justice and the Health Gap’, ABC Boyer Lectures, Australian Broadcasting Commission, 2016.

[22] The 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights Of Indigenous Peoples, to which Australia is a signatory, states at Article 18, ‘Indigenous peoples have the right to participate in decision-making in matters which would affect their rights, through representatives chosen by themselves in accordance with their own procedures, as well as to maintain and develop their own indigenous decision-making institutions.’

[23] Ciaran O’Faircheallaigh, ‘Mining royalty payments and the governance of Aboriginal Australia’, Distinguished lecture 2017, Griffith University; Alfred Dockery ‘Culture and wellbeing: The case of Indigenous Australians’, Social Indicators Research, Vol. 99, 2010, pp. 315-332;

‘What Works. Where. and Why? Overview of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development’, Harvard Project, 2010.

[24] The 2018 Annual Conference of Museums Galleries Australia passed a resolution supporting the aspiration of Indigenous Australians for a ‘Voice to the Parliament’.

[25] Film producer and director Rachel Perkins, in her 2019 Boyer Lectures, explains the Uluru Statement and its background, and references the 1988 lectures by W.E.H. (Bill) Stanner, After the Dreaming, especially his second lecture ‘The Great Australian Silence’.