Within the hallowed halls of galleries, libraries, archives and museums (GLAM), Indigenous voices echo with stories that transcend time and space. As an Indigenous person, working within these spaces is a profound exploration into unravelling the remnants of colonial legacies, rediscovering Indigenous perspectives and championing a way to understand our now shared histories. As an art curator, researcher, writer and cultural advisor, some might call the work I do a decolonising practice. I have always had a problem with the term ‘decolonisation’ as it implies the undoing of colonisation. Our colonial legacies are so considerable it is unimaginable we could ever undo them. However, we can move forward by ‘embedding Indigenous ways of knowing’ or ‘revisiting our colonial pasts’ to really understand how to focus on unravelling our exceedingly entangled and complicated histories. For want of a better term, we are stuck with the term decolonisation. However, in some contexts, the term ‘Indigenisation’ is gaining popularity.
The colonial narratives in institutions have perpetuated Eurocentric perspectives. For Indigenous people navigating these spaces, the echoes of historical injustices are palpable. At the nucleus of decolonisation we work as agents of change, challenging colonial frameworks that have historically framed collections. Indigenous voices are often excluded from the discussions surrounding materials and objects originating from our communities. This omission perpetuates historical erasures, deepening the void between Indigenous perspectives and the interpretation of our own heritage.
However, our presence signifies narratives, challenging deeply ingrained biases and reimagines stories that outsiders have long dictated. At the very heart of Indigenous presence within GLAM institutions lies the reawakening of Indigenous knowledge systems. We infuse these spaces with the wisdom of our ancestors and the hope of our future generations. Our work aims to revitalise traditions, reintroduce ancient practices and provide alternative lenses through which history and culture can be comprehended. Our systems honour the interconnectedness of Country, culture, ancestors, family, and animals in ways that may seem foreign to non-Indigenous people.
For example, much of our work within GLAM institutions is in recontextualising historical documents with a nuanced understanding of Indigenous cultures, worldviews, and experiences. Materials collected during the ‘colonial period’ echo our family and ancestors’ voices. Many people interpret the term ‘colonial record’ or ‘colonial materials’ as those records and materials pertaining to the colony. In the Australian context, this may be anything related to the Colonial Secretaries Office, anything up to Federation and, in some cases, into the 1920s. However, as an Indigenous person working within these spaces, colonial records and materials can be anything up until the 1967 Referendum, even beyond. My family and thousands of others lived under draconian ‘protection’ legislation that has its foundation in colonial rule. Therefore, when I talk about our colonial past or colonial records, I am tracing our steps from the 1800s to the 1960s. To avoid a rehashing of history, our Indigenous voices are needed to contextualise these records more fully.
Recontextualising records and colonial spaces is a long, complicated process that can be approached in a myriad of ways. I have been very privileged to work in galleries, museums and libraries, and to witness the challenges involved. What struck me most is the amount of research being undertaken in our institutions, with the voices of our ancestors, long hidden, now breathing life through exhibitions, research and projects. Even though colonial records carry vestiges of our ancestors, the task of unearthing information about them has proven exceedingly challenging. Merely undertaking research in a library or archive requires a level of education my 17-year-old self would have balked at. In this instance, we cannot return to old ways; the structures in place require that we work toward a shared history. To progress in acknowledging our intertwined histories, it is essential to integrate Indigenous ways of knowing into the very foundations of our structural systems.
Reparative descriptions are bridging this gap for Indigenous peoples. As the consultant researcher for the Guidelines for First Nations Collection Description (a joint project with the Australian Library and Information Association, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Council of Australian University Librarians, CAVAL and National and State Libraries Australasia), it was a delicate balance of incorporating two different knowledge and cultural systems within the confines of strict non-Indigenous hierarchies of knowledge. Indigenous Cultural Intellectual Property (ICIP) as defined by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples assisted with framing the Guidelines. ICIP recognises that Indigenous people have rights over their traditional cultural expression, knowledge, and heritage. This also means Indigenous peoples have the right to mediate access to objects, records and information.
For an outsider, it can be a challenging concept to understand that specific objects or records are accessible only through adherence to cultural protocols. In today’s digital world, where most online information is readily available in an open environment, comprehending the intricacies of cultural protocols can be difficult. Indigenous staff in GLAM institutions frequently find themselves bridging the understanding of why it is crucial to safeguard culturally important, secretive, sacred and ceremonial heritage. Respecting and preserving this heritage is not only a matter of cultural importance but also an essential aspect of promoting diversity, understanding and sustainability on a global scale. Furthermore, to genuinely pay respect to Indigenous wisdom, it is crucial to go beyond surface-level actions and actively integrate Indigenous knowledge systems into the fundamental structures of our society. It is important to recognise that there are forms of understanding that go beyond what we can fully grasp.
As a guest curator at the Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA) in 2021, I was invited to curate a collection of works by Indigenous artists from around Western Australia. For me, this was a return to old ways of knowing, a trust in my ancestors. I am a city-dwelling Indigenous person. How I see the world varies vastly from someone who lives regionally or remotely. The only thing I could rely on was a return to trusting old ways. It was a process of deep listening and deep looking.
The exhibition called Collective Ground was about Country, the different Aboriginal groups in Western Australia, and their unique connections to Country, lore and old times. A large-scale painting, Kungkarungkalpa (2020), by the Spinifex Women’s Collaborative, was the catalyst to bring me into old ways of thinking and trusting my ancestors. The painting about the Seven Sisters Songline drew me into a world I hardly knew, but I felt its energy.
I curated artworks according to men’s and women’s stories because you cannot place these directly next to each other. These paintings have an energy that represents Country. For cultural reasons, men’s secret places were never near women’s secret places. It was important that when I placed the works it reflected the practice of Aboriginal people. It is a vastly unique way of looking at Country, rather than a Western vision of the landscape. The curated works imbued the space with an energy that AGWA’s old brutalist building had long ago forgotten. The paintings sang in the gallery as a translation of Country onto canvas.
The first time I saw all the works together, it took my breath away. All together, they were a beating heart, singing languages I could not translate, but the energy needed no words. These are the Indigenous voices in spaces we talk about, the unfathomable that frequently cannot be translated. Indigenous voices in exhibitions, museums, and artworks stand as a reminder that not all knowledge can be neatly translated, and not all experiences can be captured in words alone. Instead, they beckon us to engage with humility, openness, and a willingness to listen — to allow the energy, the stories, and the cultural richness to wash over us, transcending language and enriching our understanding of the world.
When Indigenous knowledge becomes woven into the very fabric of societal structures it has the potential to catalyse transformation that respects the environment, embraces holistic methodologies for addressing challenges, bridges the divide between traditional knowledge and contemporary science, and considers the long-term impacts of actions on future generations. Returning to old ways holds a deep significance, rooted in our collective wisdom and ancestors’ experiences. It connects present generations with their cultural heritage and provides a foundation for understanding the world and one’s place within it. I am deeply convinced that integrating Indigenous knowledge offers individuals a profound sense of serenity and purpose.