Barks Birds and Billabongs

The National Museum’s recent International Symposium exploring the Legacy of the 1948 American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land demonstrated the research and educational efforts, government funding and institutional support urgently needed to rectify indigenous and non-indigenous political relations in Australia.

The first and most important foundation, exemplified at the conference due to the diplomatic skill and vision of the steering committee Margo Neal, Sally May and Martin Thomas, is of course to allow indigenous communities to direct all matters concerning its members and the land, flora and fauna encompassed.

Only then is the true cultural exchange, desired by so many non-indigenous Australians, possible. Examples of such exchanges presented at the conference shone with inspirational clarity through the clouds and dispersed them. Yirrkala’s Mulka project is a Yolgnu multimedia archive dynamic in content. Both past and present expressions of cultural knowledge warrant this digital keeping place initiative, owned and orchestrated by the Buku-Larrnggay community.

Gunbalanya’s vision for a Arts and Cultural Innovations Centre where important material culture chosen by the community from museum and gallery collections such as paintings, sculptural and fibre forms or recordings of dance and song cycles, can be exhibited. Where current creative and cultural practice can also be valued and encouraged, and the cultural educational experience of children supported.

Databases used by museums to record indigenous material culture can only be enriched by the knowledge of indigenous people, therefore communities need such databases in their own cultural centre. Then work such as that carried out by Sabine Hoeng with artists of Croker Island, are enabled. Families can be reunited with items made by or connected to their ancestors and their histories remembered in the correct and most respectful ways.

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