- Archival Returns: Central Australia and Beyond ed. by Linda Barwick, Jennifer Green, and Petronella Vaarzon-Morel
edited by Linda Barwick, Jennifer Green, and Petronella Vaarzon-Morel
SYDNEY UNIVERSITY PRESS AND LANGUAGE DOCUMENTATION & CONSERVATION, 2020. 372 PP.
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 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 Clint Bracknell and Kim Scott and their intention of claiming, controlling, and building Noongar language, stories, and song while reuniting them with Country (326), I realized that what I had gained from this book was so much more than specialist or technical knowledge. The authors explore many different layers of meaning, providing the opportunity to reflect on why the process of returning knowledge back to Country and the decolonization 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 catalogs. For example, Georgia Curran writes about the material of the Warlpiri women held at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), describing the [End Page 217] 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, Jason 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). According to Anna Kenny, "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" (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, which was "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...