Authorisation, Australian Indigenous Heritage and the Politics of Digital Curation: A Case Study

Photo credit: Mario Purisic

Please click on this link if you would prefer to listen to an audio presentation of this article.

The relationship between heritage, identity, collection and curation has been a hotly debated topic in the GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives and museums) sector in recent years. In a world increasingly saturated with digital media and coming to terms with one of the most widespread anti-racism movements ever seen in Black Lives Matter, the issue of anti-racism, decolonialisation, accessibility, representation, as well as how to facilitate this within digital space, have been on the agenda for many sectors. These more traditional institutions have been reconsidering what roles they should play in the anti-racism and decolonialisation movement (see for example this statement by The Tate in London). As custodians of history and knowledge, heritage institutions have enormous power to shape the narratives which influence whole communities’ sense of identity. Scholar LauraJane Smith (2006) calls this ‘Authorised Heritage Discourse’ and states it is intrinsically involved with the ways in which people and groups make sense of their present through reference to their past and dreams of their future. Smith highlights a central fact; that those who have the power, the top-down authority, to decide for society what to preserve and what to discard also determine which narratives are considered legitimate and which not. Such actions for Smith also inevitably impact the perceived legitimacy of the identities to whom those narratives belong – such as people of colour (2006). Therefore, curators of heritage have a unique privilege and responsibility to make sure that all people in their community, particularly those with less power, receive fair, critical and balanced exposure and representation, while also ensuring that existing disempowering and false narratives about marginalised peoples are rectified and collections of the past decolonised. 

In many regions that have long and complex histories with colonialism and racism, like North America and Europe, this movement has been gaining traction in the cultural sector for some time now, though with less mainstream exposure than it has received since BLM’s 2020 success. However, one nation which has a less than stellar record with this movement is Australia. While marginalised people in many ‘western’ states have had difficulty gaining recognition from the white majority, this is particularly evident in Australia. Exemplifying this, archival researcher Rose Barrowcliffe (2020) states, ; “Archives like Documenting Ferguson, and Preserve the Baltimore Uprising 2015 (…) which advocate for Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) in US archives, simply do not exist in Australia” (Barrowcliffe, 2020). This critique of course highlights a central issues, one of representation. Speaking from personal experience, growing up I myself rarely saw indigenous narratives represented in Australian mainstream culture, museums, or media. In the majority of representations I was exposed to growing up, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were in my experience either (a) typecast into stereotypical roles appealing to ingrained white prejudices, (b) made into token characters who were not in any meaningful way allowed to express their own culture, express racial critique or perform their identity outside of the norms of white Anglo-Saxon social norms, becoming essentially invisible, or (c) most commonly, were simply absent from media representation all together. 

Considering the generations of violence, oppression, segregation and even concerted efforts of genocide committed against indigenous people in Australia, such representations are sickening yet hardly surprising. Only a handful of the hundreds of former nations survived the continent’s colonisation, and many of these groups are now in diaspora, being dispossessed of their land and separated from their culture (see Cole, 2016). Even for those nations that still live on in their homelands, much history and culture has been lost, due not least of all to the fact that their history and culture was spread through traditions of oral storytelling and physical practices carried on by Elders, who either did not survive to pass on their knowledge, or are too geographically far away from their scattered communities to communicate with them. First Nation people today express a feeling of being cut off from their heritage, leading to widespread social and psychological issues, which often only deepens the prejudice against them by white Australia. This experience of blackness in Australia is encapsulated clearly in indigenous musician and activist Ziggy Ramo’s song Tjitji.

This raises the question; if ‘authorised’ heritage institutions have a spotty-at-best history with preserving Indigenous Australian history, and their own traditional methods of doing so have become nearly impossible to continue on a large scale, how might these communities preserve their heritage today? The answer may lie in new media digital collection.

Dr. Rachel Ka’ai-Mahuta (2016) calls on indigenous people all over the world to use technological tools to preserve and spread their ancient and valuable knowledge and urges indigenous actors to familiarise themselves with and become active on popular digital platforms. Dr. Ka’ai-Mahuta states that Indigenous peoples must make sure their stories, traditions, practices, languages and histories are preserved, shared and represented online to assist those cultures’ recognition and survival.

Dr. Ka’ai-Mahuta on why indigenous people must make use of born digital content.

Preserving the traditional histories, languages, heritage as well as the contemporary stories of indigenous people in Australia is clearly important for both their own cultural identity and memory, as well as for promoting understanding and community with non-indigenous Australia. Indigenous people have been missing a mainstream platform where they can voice their concerns, share stories and experiences and preserve communal memory without the constraints of geographical space and using more than just the medium of text. I believe that the affordances of digital technologies, such as social media today, may offer these communities new opportunities in this realm. Oral histories and physical practices in particular, so important for First Nation cultures yet so difficult to preserve through the pen and paper heritage work often favoured by the GLAM sector, could actually be saved, shared, remixed and accessed by indigenous people anywhere with an internet connection. This could be a huge boon for the goals of both indigenous heritage work and indigenous representation.

Against this background, critically thinking about how we curate collections becomes important. Curation is about more than just distributing, it must involve adding value to existing knowledge. This point is underlined by Khan & Bhatt (2019) who state that “curation describes the practices of harnessing preexisting content, transforming it through the application of criteria which assess and promote belief, and then directing the resultant packet of filtered information to a new audience.” (p.1). For these authors, curation is the act via which a collection becomes more than the sum of its parts. Due to the huge amount of information available online, many forms of digital curation exist both human and computerised, each possessing their own strengths, weaknesses and being appropriate to apply in some situations and not in others. Khan & Bhaat highlight the need for curators to exercise critical thinking and develop a robust skillset of digital media literacies in order to pick the most appropriate forms to spread their message (2019). Similarly to Smith these authors note that curating is a process of deciding what narratives and pieces are worth promoting and which are not, and therefore is intrinsically an exercise in power. For them however, digital media places this power in many more hands (though still to greater or lesser degrees), as every person with internet access and a social media account is now a curator of content. This is not without its problems, as Haskins (2007) also points out that the media environment of today, being built upon algorithms and platforms adhering not to fair knowledge distribution but to advertising and global capitalist agendas, often faciliate echo-chambers and filter-bubbles which can end up making the information people receive more partizan, biased and divided rather than less. Because of such considerations, Khan and Bhaat therefore call for greater literacy and awareness amongst users of their roles in curating information online, being more critical in choosing what to post, when and on what platforms to best add to and spread the pool of human knowledge.

One such online collection which has taken on the task of curating and disseminating First Nation digital content is ABC Indigenous. This Instagram page belong to a subdivision of the Australian National Broadcaster of the same name. The page’s bio reads “Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander content from around the ABC & Australia.” In terms of design and presentation, there is a consistency in the design aesthetically speaking, as it features bright primary colours and graphics reminiscent of traditional indigenous art. The page is very active, with new posts appearing almost every day, each boasting thousands of likes and numerous comments.

Many posts feature indigenous people sharing stories, talking about their struggles in life or their professions, such as a barber who reflects on the difficulties of being a black man working on the highstreet of his city and how he remembers that in his lifetime indigenous people were not allowed to drink inside with white people. Sombre stories such as these are usually injected with a glint of hope and taking pride in blackness and in overcoming the hardships indigenous people face is a common theme. Other posts give a platform to show off indigenous art, music, comedy skits, Tik Toks, and fashion. The mix of mediums between items such as photos with interview transcripts, memes, videos, reels, GIFs, stories and highlights makes good use of the affordances of this platform and allows a broad range of content to be posted. This means that next to educational posts and shout outs for indigenous projects, one can see protest clips, and next to those again there are tongue-in-cheek memes celebrating blackness and GIFs poking fun at well-meaning ignorant white friends and posters promoting events. Indigenous people from all walks of life are showcased; from young indigenous drag queens performing comedy skits, to elders who were part of the Stolen Generation reconnecting with their people’s language.Traditional practices, humour, language and artisanship are a central theme across the page, and both Indigenous slang in English and traditional languages are represented.

The self-purported theme of the collection seems to be to accentuate and give voice to a diverse range of people from First Nation backgrounds in a media landscape which does not give them much of a voice. However, considering that to be effective curation must be undertaken via platforms appropriate to the goals of that collection, there are several criticisms which one could levy against this Instagram page. Firstly, Instagram itself is a platform fundamentally oriented towards exploiting user content to promote and advertise for capitalist interests, interests which have of course been historically misaligned with those of indigenous people worldwide. Further, as a subsidiary of the ABC one could prolematise this pages connection to this network. The ABC is an organisation which possesses its own radio, TV and streaming platforms, meaning that content produced by competitors in these fields does not appear on Instagram pages under its purview. This limits the potential impact and reach of the ABC Indigenous’ purported goal to be a collection displaying and promoting indigenous content, as it cannot take stock of all that content, its filtering processes beginning and ending seemingly with what the ABC produces or can get rights to. If it is curated to exclude indigenous content which happens to be produced by ‘market competitors’ it cannot hope to be a complete collection of indigenous content, limiting its effectiveness as an archive and aggregator of their heritage, knowledge and voices. The ABC is also a government-funded institution, an institution that on one hand purportedly seeks to empower marginalised voices, while being funded by a government which just last year allowed Rio Tinto to destroy multiple sacred indigenous heritage sites, one over 46,000 years old. Indeed, the Australian government has often found itself in opposition to indigenous rights movements, refusing to recognise the legitimacy of claims that colonisation of Australia was an invasion of occupied lands until the 1970’s, claiming that settlement occurred on “Terra Nullius”. The currently elected political leadership shows little intention to change this pattern. Since the ABC is dependent on the government in power for its revenue, it seems likely that they are unwilling to take a strong stance against undesirable policies for fear of having their funding cut. Indeed, one notable omission from ABC Indigenous’ posts, particularly those taking a political stance, is the distinct lack of criticisms against any actual politicians such as the prime minister, state premiers, or national party leaders. 

The unfortunate truth is that this page’s connection to the ABC is a major source of its legitimacy, to use Smith’s words, its ‘authority’. This institutional connection helps them achieve a higher level of recognition in subtle ways, such as through Instagram’s blue tick verification feature, which may also help it gain followers. The ABC also undoubtedly pays their moderators to curate this page and post on such a regular basis. Yet is the ABC involvement in curation of indigenous media truly appropriate for promoting heritage discourse of indigenous people? ABC Indigenous Instagram page is not a tool owned by indigenous people, but seems rather to be one granted to them by the broader institution of the ABC, an institution belonging to non-indigenous socio-political elites. Can a tool not owned by indigenous people, but lent to them on the grounds that they follow the rules and don’t upset the status quo, truly help them gain recognition and achieve meaningful change? It was after all legendary black LGBTQ+ activist Audre Lorde who said:

“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” 

 On the other hand, the page’s moderators seem to have taken this platform and made it their own, which could provide a much needed diversity to the new media scene. After all, it seems that there are few indigenous collections or digital hubs with as much exposure as this one. While we cannot see what goes on behind the curtain, it appears that the page succeeds in amplifying indigenous voices who otherwise would not receive the attention. Undoubtedly, their process of selection is curated and laden with certain values, however, if the aim of this digital collection is to raise awareness for, spread the stories by, and record the history of the current generation of indigenous peoples in an open and accessible way, then it does seem to find some success. There are a multitude of indigenous voices, faces, stories and perspectives on display. The page is curated to ensure a variety of indigenous content is accessible and make an effort to give credit, name people and offer readers the chance to visit their social media, websites etc and see their work. The posts they produce are open to be reviewed, commented on, critiqued and shared from anywhere in the world which has access to the internet (although a certain digital divide must be mentioned, as stable internet access is not a given in some parts of remote rural Australia where indigenous populations reside). 

 Therefore, this page is able to collect some good indigenous resources and curate them appropriately, providing a platform which has up until now not existed for First Nation Australians online. However, it seems it’s impact is limited by its connections with the ABC in being able to provide a truly broad representational, empowering archive and hub of aboriginal heritage, content and collective memory. In a world much in need of decolonising institutions which have kept oppressed people down, these ties to the ABC weaken this page’s ability to take a strong, unified political position where they can call out unfavourable political decisions, hold politicians accountable and rally indigenous and non-indigenous Australians to do the same. BLM has proven this year that these kinds of targeted actions are vital for BIPOC people to be taken seriously politically. So while this collection offers indigenous creators and voices an avenue to be see and heard for now, it may be inadequate as a vehicle for change in the long run. Nonetheless, it is still a valuable archive and hub from which indigenous actors could gather resources, network and stay connected to elements of their culture. Hopefully, the inspiration and pride this grants indigenous actors may provide a springboard for them to congregate on platforms more able to facilitate critical political engagement, activism and effect meaningful change.

REFERENCES:

Barrowcliffe, R. (2020, June 17). #BlackLivesMatter and archives in australia. Retrieved January 24, 2021, from https://indigenousarchives.net/2020/06/17/blacklivesmatter-and-archives-in-australia/ 

Cole, M. (2016). Racism : A Critical Analysis. Pluto Press. https://web-a-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.ub.unimaas.nl/ehost/detail/detail?vid=0&sid=366137d1-a289-498b-b6a3-bcc2b002371c%40sdc-v-sessmgr03&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZSZzY29wZT1zaXRl#AN=1099143&db=nlebk 

Haskins, E. (2007). Between Archive and Participation: Public Memory in a Digital Age, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 37:4, 401-422. http://g20inmemoriam.pbworks.com/f/Between+Archive+and+Participation.pdf

Kahn, S., & Bhatt II, I. (2019). Curation. In R. Hobbs & P. Mihailidis (Eds.), The International Encyclopedia of Media Literacy (pp. 1-9). Wiley-Blackwell. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1002/9781118978238.ieml0047 

Smith, L. (2006). Uses of Heritage. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group. https://www-taylorfrancis-com.ezproxy.ub.unimaas.nl/books/uses-heritage-laurajane-smith/10.4324/9780203602263 

NSLA. (2016, August 9). Born Digital 2016: Indigenous voices with Dr Rachael Ka’ai-Mahuta [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QDocFXLhOCI&feature=youtu.be 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.