Cultural Conservation: a Two-way Consultation

Grace Koch
Archives Manager
Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
Canberra, Australia

Audiovisual archives hold unique materials that document the world’s intangible cultural heritage. Stories, ceremonies, songs, and, in some cases, languages which have been recorded may no longer be known, but the audiovisual records and their documentation remain. These records are irreplaceable documents of a cultural tradition. In her definition of indigenous heritage, Professor Erica-Irene Daes of UNESCO includes "documentation of indigenous peoples' heritage on film, photographs, videotape and audiotape." [1]

In comparison to print media, photographs, sound recordings, films, and videos provide more immediate access to material documenting oral traditions. The meanings of the contents of such audiovisual material are easily understood by the relevant Aboriginal owners; however, if non-Aboriginal people are to appreciate the importance of these audiovisual documents, there often needs to be supplementary interpretative documentation of a cross-cultural nature. Such documentation allows the knowledge of the “culture community” to be passed on to the scientific/research community, the nation, and the world.

A two-way process needs to be developed between Aboriginal sharers of knowledge and archivists and fieldworkers (who may also be Aboriginal) whereby guidelines are established for collecting and documenting. Various countries have different types of needs.

In Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are obtaining copies of audiovisual recordings, using them for cultural revitalization in many forms. In order to facilitate this process, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) is actively disseminating copies of its holdings to Indigenous keeping-places and communities. Such repatriation of material meets aspects both of protection and research. For protection, the owners of the materials within the communities can advise on proper access and use for the material. For research, documentation will be enhanced for future consultation.

Dissemination of this audiovisual material and its control in culturally acceptable ways are vital issues for safeguarding intangible cultural heritage. Dissemination is important for enriching Indigenous knowledge, educating the wider community, and promoting research. Within the past decade, several events have raised the public profile of Indigenous cultural materials:

It is vital that the traditional owners of this material participate in deciding what can be accessible and how it may be used. It is also crucial that a workable solution be found between collecting institutions and traditional owners for proper care and control within present structures.

Access and handling of audiovisual documents containing Australian Indigenous cultural material has become an issue of concern for the major collecting institutions within Australia. Using examples drawn from my experience as media archivist within the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, I will discuss:

Use of Audiovisual Material for Cultural Revitalization

Reclaiming Rights to Land

The claim to protection of cultural knowledge and rights is deeply connected with the recognition of the interests of Indigenous peoples in their traditional lands. Audiovisual recordings have served as evidence in Aboriginal land claims within existing legislation.

1976 Act

The Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 gave Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory of Australia a mechanism to claim freehold title to land that had been taken away from them. For them, land title exists in the form of songs, myth, and ritual. Traditionally, people who own the songs own the land and maintain the rights to perform the rituals that nourish the land and its creatures. Evidence has been accepted by the Land Commissioner in the form of knowledge of the songs and the geographical places named in the songs. Recordings of the songs and the ceremonies performed as evidence are held by archives. These have been accepted as exhibits in formal hearings.

Native Title

In 1992, the Meryam people of Murray Island in the Torres Strait questioned the right of the Queensland State Government to control the use of the island without considering their rights. They claimed ownership on the basis of maintaining their customs and laws. Part of their proof consisted of reference to archival materials -- wax cylinder recordings, photographs, and films made by the Cambridge Expedition to the Torres Strait in 1898.

As a result of the High Court ruling of 1992 on this case, a new type of land rights known as native title was recognized throughout Australia. Freehold title would not be granted through native title, but recognition of prior ownership and connection with the land would make traditional owners equal partners with developers and others. Sacred sites would be recognized, and any profits from that land would be shared with traditional owners. Native title legislation and procedures are in flux; however, Aboriginal people now have the hope of lodging claims in States where land rights did not exist before. Proof includes recordings of songs, and lawyers and anthropologists work with archivists in locating evidence of cultural continuity. [2]

Stolen Generation

In 1997, a government-funded report, “Bringing Them Home,” [3] was issued showing the hurt and social damage caused by an Australian Government policy of removing mixed-race children from their families to orphanages and training colleges. Many of these children did not know the identity of their parents. The poignant testimonies given by the victims of this policy at the hearings were seen to be of such special value that a recommendation was made

that the Council of Australian Governments ensure the adequate funding of appropriate Indigenous agencies to record, preserve, and administer access to the testimonies of indigenous people affected by the forcible removal policies who wish to provide their histories in audio, audio-visual, or written form. [4]

Language Revival

Before Europeans came to Australia, there were over 250 languages spoken throughout the continent. Now there are only about 25 that are being actively passed on to children. [5] Language, as the primary medium of cultural transmission, is vital to cultural identity. In areas where languages have been lost and populations were most decimated by white contact, Aboriginal people are seeking early recordings to use in language-learning kits. AIATSIS has provided substantial help in supplying these recordings.

Personal Use

Individuals seek copies of photographs and tapes made of their relatives. In some cases, images and tapes preserved in archives are the only ones available of family members. These provide a sense of collective and personal cultural identity and self-esteem.

Importance of Consultation

Regarding Conditions for Conservation of and Access to Intangible Cultural Heritage

Indigenous people are aware that their arts and cultural expression are often being used without their knowledge or permission, sometimes inappropriately or offensively. This also is true for the audiovisual records of this knowledge. Some examples of inappropriate usage of Aboriginal audiovisual material will show why consultation is of the utmost importance.

A film project recorded the language, stories, and history of a particular Aboriginal group. One of the stories was a creation myth applying to one particular tract of land. Unfortunately, the film used the story to describe a different tract of land. The filmmakers did not consider the issue to be important because most viewers would not recognize the difference. The Aborigines, however, feared two outcomes:

With the help of the Australian Film Commission, which held a copyright interest in the film, the Aborigines were able to persuade the filmmakers to remove the offending segment, replacing it with something more suitable.

Consultation is vital for the proper care of culturally restricted information. Some objects, songs, and ceremonies should be seen or heard only by initiated men, some others only by women. In Aboriginal tradition, if persons of the wrong gender were to see or hear the information, they could be physically harmed. This harm could come from beliefs about the dangerous nature of the material or from punishments delivered by traditional enforcers of traditional law. A significant amount of motion picture film, photographs, and recorded sound materials collected in Australia did not include reference to the cultural rules of access.

The Internet brings up a host of issues concerning safeguarding traditional cultural materials of an audiovisual nature. A question arises as to how much information should appear and in what form. There is also concern about how Indigenous cultural material is listed in cataloguing records within databases.

For example, earlier in this century when some researchers documented ceremonies, the people recorded did not understand what could happen to the information. Technology did not exist to publicize it far and wide. They did not realize that many people would be able see films and listen to audio recordings of ceremonies, some of which could be dangerous to certain groups of people. Without proper consultation, people developing Web pages for institutions may choose video or audio clips of potentially hazardous material. [6]

These and other questions are examined in detail in the discussion paper, Our Culture Our Future: Proposals for Recognition and Protection of Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property. Approximately 3000 copies of this paper, which describes present copyright protection for Indigenous cultural materials, asks a number of provocative questions and invites comment, were distributed to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organizations and individuals. Terri Janke, an Aboriginal lawyer specializing in Indigenous copyright issues, wrote up various reform options, including examples from responses to the circulated questions. A final publication should be available this year.

In summary, Indigenous people are aware that their arts and cultural expression are often being used without their knowledge or permission, sometimes inappropriately or offensively. They want to be consulted to ensure that information is used within the proper context. If such information is published, they want to be consulted about its use, to be recognized as the owners of it, and to be paid properly for such use.

Considerations for the Re-Drafting of the 1989 Recommendation

First of all, the term folklore is problematic to Aboriginal Australians. Although UNESCO defines the term in a way that includes most aspects of traditional and popular culture, Aboriginal Australians have been using the term "Indigenous cultural property"(ICP). For this section of the paper, I shall use the abbreviation ICP for "folklore."

Identification of ICP

National Inventory of Institutions Concerned with ICP

Any such inventory for Australia needs to have Indigenous people involved in decision-making and policy formation. An Australian Indigenous Cultural Network identifying collections of Indigenous cultural heritage material in institutions is being established by the Australian Foundation for Culture and the Humanities. This “virtual” organization, with the distinguished Aboriginal elder Patrick Dodson as its Director, will concentrate on linking community-based collections, archives, and museums internationally. A coordinated effort also needs to be made with multicultural groups.

But this and other initiatives need proper financial support. UNESCO provides for funding for tangible cultural heritage, such as the restoration of the frieze at Angkor Wat. Intangible cultural heritage needs a similar funding source. Also, there needs to be some sort of wording within the Recommendation that specifies government or other continuing support.

Identification and Recording Systems

The International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives (IASA), which is a Category B NGO within UNESCO, will have completed its manual on Cataloguing Rules for Audiovisual Materials by September of this year. Issues of cataloguing ICP are dealt with by specialists, including a French ethnomusicologist, Daniele Branger. The rules are designed to be used internationally. This is a major step in standardizing cataloguing conventions.

Conservation of ICP

The opening paragraph lists "researchers and tradition-bearers" being given access to data within archives. Since this section was drafted, there has been worldwide interest via catalogues and Indigenous Websites in ICP. There needs to be a set of statements referring not only to the preservation of ICP but also to its protection against improper usage. Traditional owners and archivists must work together to set clear guidelines. Within the guidelines, there should be agreed mechanisms for mediation when differences of opinions exist amongst groups of traditional owners.

National Archives Where ICP Can Be Stored and Made Available

Within Australia, a number of national collecting institutions hold different types of ICP with different conditions for access. Emphasis should be put on adequate funding to ensure both proper storage and Indigenous consultation in developing protocols for access and use. As I have mentioned earlier, such protocols have already been established in Australia for ICP, but need to be considered for other cultural material.

Central National Archive Function

Within Australia, the State archives, libraries, and museums are too well established to hand over cataloguing and dissemination to a centralized organization. There is a great need for a national working group made up of information specialists and Indigenous people to set standards for documentation and handling of ICP.

 Create Museums or ICP Sections at Existing Museums

Client services for such institutions must take into account the needs of all users. There may be conflicting aims and values between groups of clients, such as the general public and/or researchers versus the traditional owners. With this in mind, a set of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Protocols for Libraries, Archives and Information Services has been compiled for use within Australia. [7] Employment of Indigenous people is one of the recommendations of this document. Other possibilities can include Indigenous membership on steering committees of museums or institutions.

Presenting Traditional and Popular Cultures

Any exhibit or educational program must include indigenous consultation and approval by the relevant people. "Relevant" is the operative word in that the proper custodians must be involved. For example, an urban Aboriginal man born in Sydney would not be able to speak for a group in the north-west section of the Kimberleys in Western Australia. Mechanisms and firm guidelines need to be established for seeking approval for research and final publication.

Training Conservation and Collecting Staff and Arranging for Copies

Indigenous people should be encouraged and funded to receive such training. Effective mechanisms and policies need to be formulated in consultation with traditional owners according to regional requirements. One such mechanism might mirror that of the national park managements of Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Kakadu, where management plans set employment and training targets for indigenous community members. [8]

 It can be difficult to encourage Indigenous people to relocate to where the large collections reside, especially if they are far from home and family. One possible solution would be to persuade large collecting institutions, in conjunction with formal training schemes within universities, to fund and to conduct training and repatriation programs. Indigenous trainees would gain qualifications in their chosen field of conservation, participate in planning for a local keeping-place or working with existing ones, and arrange for archival copies to be sent there. They would have the freedom to relocate back to the community or to stay at the major collecting institution, arranging for further programs. Their qualifications would allow them to be mobile and advance along career paths rather than being stuck at lower levels.

Finally, staff within institutions holding ICP should undergo some cultural awareness training, especially if they deal with Indigenous clientele. The major collecting institutions within Canberra, Australia, have arranged for Indigenous people to present courses to all staff. [9]

Where to Go from Here

These suggestions raise points that could be included within the UNESCO documents either as parts of a new Recommendation or as operational guidelines for the 1989 Recommendation. In any case, the issue of consultation with appropriate people and groups should remain a guiding principle for any amendments to the 1989 Recommendation.


[1] Professor Erica-Irene Daes, Special Rapporteur of the Sub-Commission, “Principles and Guidelines for the Protection of the Heritage of Indigenous Peoples,” para. 11.

[2] Koch, G. “This Land is My Land: the Archives Tells Me So; Sound Archives and Response to the Needs of Indigenous Australians.” IASA Journal 6(November 1996):14-15.

[3] Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, April 1997.

[4] From

[5] R.M.W. Dixon. "The Endangered Languages of Australia, Indonesia and Oceania." In Robert H. Robins and Eugenius M. Uhlenbeck, eds. Endangered Languages. (Oxford and New York: Berg Publishers Ltd., 1991) 229.

[6] Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies: Our Culture Our Future: Proposals for Recognition and Protection of Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property. 1997. Written and researched by Terri Janke, Principal Consultant Michael Frankel & Company, Solicitors. p. 32.

7  See for the IASA cataloguing rules.

8  Australian Library and Information Association. Protocols for libraries, archives and information services. Compiled by Alex Byrne et. al. Deakin: Australian Library and Information Association for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Library and Information Resource Network, 1995.

[9]  The author is greatly indebted to Prof. Isobel McBryde for offering suggestions on tangible cultural heritage and for suggesting amendments to this paper.