Archival Returns: Central Australia and Beyond

edited by Linda Barwick, Jennifer Green, and Petronella Vaarzon-Morel, Sydney University Press and the University of Hawai'i Press, 2020, 372 pp. Paperback, AUD$45.00 ISBN: 9781743326725

Written by a diverse group of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal community members, knowledge holders, artists and researchers, the book Archival Returns: Central Australia and Beyond presents examples of projects, negotiations, and technology used by and with Aboriginal communities from Central Australia. The invisible line that joins the essays in this book directs readers to the opportunities and challenges knotted in the processes of digitally returning archival material from Australian collecting institutions back to their communities of origin. 

Before starting, I assumed this book was solely a technical tool for experts, but I was only partially correct. Reading the last chapter by Bracknell and Scott and their intention of claiming, controlling, and building Noongar language, stories, and song while re-uniting them with Country (326), I realized that what I had gained from this book was so much more than specialistic or technical knowledge. The authors explore many different layers of meaning, which provide opportunity to reflect on why the process of returning knowledge back to Country, and the decolonisation of archives, libraries, and museums, are vital steps for sovereignty and self-determination of Aboriginal peoples and communities. These knowledges, histories, and information have been taken, stolen, exchanged and—very rarely—acquired from Aboriginal communities in the turmoil of Australian colonialism. The existence of this knowledge itself, which has been purposely displaced to implement a well-defined colonial project of genocide, dispossession, and human trafficking, is evidence of interconnected and invisible power structures of domination and communities’ resilience. The experiences described in this book focus on cultural knowledges belonging to specific communities in Central Australia, reminding the reader that one solution does not fit all contexts of return. But each case study in this book shows the opportunities and challenges that are shared by other communities across the globe whose knowledge has been separated and stored in Western collecting institutions. 

These “cultural records” are dispersed across Australian collecting institutions, far away from their communities of origin, and hard to access through physical and digital catalogues. For example, Curran writes about the material of the Warlpiri women held at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), describing the research in the archive as an “almost endless,” “daunting task” (91). The importance of this material and its return for Aboriginal peoples is described by many authors in this book. For instance, Gibson addresses the importance of the return of akiw and anmanty songs to Anmatyerr communities for intergenerational transmission and revival of contemporary cultural practices, emphasizing “the deep sense of pride [which these recordings sparked] among these community members who had maintained their essential ceremonial practices” (74). A common thread of Archival Returns is the richness of Aboriginal knowledges and the fluidity of the processes of recontextualization of this information in communities today. Knowledge contained in digitized archival material can be used for contemporary cultural production and can be repurposed or reused, such as in the case of cultural mapping (111). “In some instances, these archived materials are even viewed as ancestral voices of the past. At other times [however] the realisation surfaced that it is not possible to reproduce knowledge as it was formerly” (Kenny, 276). Writing about Arrente language held in archives, Joel Perrurle Liddle says that [communities] “need to enrich it . . . to the point that we’re totally satisfied and that the next generation inherits this house that is in order” (38). 

Archives can also participate in the colonial process of dehumanizing Aboriginal peoples. Gurindji/Malngin/Mudburra artist, academic and curator Brenda Croft takes the reader through the excruciating journey to find out information about her family: “subjected to abject debasement, dehumanised, stripped of dignity, savaged by and through the lens. My eyes burned with anger, my heart ached for her, for me not being able to see her face in full. My hope had been to see my father and myself reflected in her face, but that was denied me” (184). Reading about the embargo imposed on the Berndt Field Note Archive (176), one can distinguish clearly and loudly Croft’s silent scream of sorrow and forced mourning for an institutional power structure that perpetuates itself again and again. As many authors of this book reiterate, to prevent the perpetuation of this colonial model, relationships and Indigenous standpoints need to be at the heart of the process of digital return of archival material to communities. This book is a reminder to researchers working with Indigenous Knowledges of their responsibility to and the importance of supporting Aboriginal leadership and self-determination during the process. It also highlights the importance of knowledge translation according to the local context. 

Reflecting on the formation and the ongoing growth of the content management system Mukurtu, Christen shows how technology was not a replacement for kin and territorial relations, but “it was the networks of kin, country, and ancestors that animated the design and development process” (158). The software Ara Irititja has also been utilized by Aranda community members, starting with Janet Inyika, in unanticipated ways, such as “incorporating the medium into their own drives for change in their communities” (275). Inyika asked to record her wills into the archive, in which she requested (and convinced) her family to change the cultural protocols then in use: “the archive [became] an instrument that they imagine will keep their work going after they’re gone” (275, 276). 

This book is a recommended reading for archivists, anthropologists, curators, and any other professional working to promote sovereignty and self-determination of Aboriginal peoples within the information sector. What this volume does well is to emphasize that technology, while being an important part of the process of archival returns, represents just one aspect of the pushing for knowledges to go back into communities—a process Christen defines as the “dynamic, coexisting spaces, histories, and networks in which archival returns take place, move, and are negotiated” (156). 

Monica Galassi, University of Technology Sydney