Museums Australia revises indigenous culture policy

25 July 2003, Australia

Museums Australia has redrafted its 1993 policy document regarding indigenous cultural heritage, to reflect changes in areas like technology and reconciliation over the past ten years. The original document, Previous Possessions New Obligations has been renamed Continuous Cultures Ongoing Obligations (CCOO) and will undergo an extensive consultation process to influence a more detailed provision of guidelines. The major additional guideline included in the new document concerns the impact of new technologies on the museums sector. The clause addresses differences in terms of access to collections that new media such as the internet and CD ROM technology have brought about. The guidelines propose that museums need to work closely with indigenous communities regarding the use of digitised collections, but also, should support those communities in developing their own multi-media resources through outreach and appropriate training. Janey Dolan, who was commissioned by the National Council of Museums Australia to redraft the document, commented that the new guideline also recognises that not all indigenous peoples want their cultural material available on the internet. ‘It’s about making sure you work with your community to determine that the material that is put on the internet is material that they [the indigenous community] is happy to have there.’ Dolan, who is also the Vice President of Museums Australia WA and the Convenor of the organisation’s Reconciliation Working Group, also points out that the issue of ancestral remains and secret/sacred objects has been integrated more fully into discussions regarding collections. The document provides guidelines for museums to follow when dealing with issues of acquisition and repatriation of ancestral remains and secret/sacred objects, respectively. The framework also includes slight changes to the principles embraced by Museums Australia which then underpin the guidelines. Dolan says that the new Reconciliation principle drafted also relates to the guidelines under the Relationships and Communication section. The clause seeks to emphasise that relationships between museums and indigenous communities need to be ongoing, Dolan says. ‘The establishment of relationships, the maintenance of relationships, should occur throughout the museums sector and through the practices they engage in, not just when they need to,’ Dolan says. The language of CCOO has also changed dramatically, according to Dolan, who admits that the 1993 document was found to be aimed at, and most effective with, larger institutions like State and National museums. ‘That meant in some cases, that was at the expense of the other part of the museum sector which is the community museums sector, aboriginal keeping places and cultural centres,’ Dolan comments. ‘So what we wanted to do was to try and bring this into line with an approach that embraces all aspects of the museums sector. ‘In some places there has been a softening of language, but there has also been a recognition that for example, a lot of museums have no staff, or one staff member.’ In such cases, Dolan explains, the option to employ indigenous people or provide training may not necessarily be an option. ‘So what it’s saying is that it doesn’t matter if you are a 100 per cent volunteer organisation or if you’ve got 300 staff, there are things you can do that will improve your approach in dealing with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural material, communities and stories.’ Dolan is also collating and integrating the feedback process. Museums Australia is inviting feedback from the museums sector but also any interested individuals. The document is being distributed to about 150 individuals in the museums and cultural sector. The consultation process will contribute towards the fine-tuning of the document, before being ratified by the National Council of Museums Australia and adopted into national policy in early 2004. Dolan points out that there will also be a secondary phase whereby funds will be sought to properly implement the policy in the future. The policy draft is available on the Museums Australia website.