Sydney Boomerangs and the Power of Description

My blog post about how flawed collection and description of cultural heritage has informed misconceptions about First Nations Culture.

The Gadigal people of Coastal Sydney most likely did not use boomerangs before invasion. Instead, using wooden swords (pp: 128-129) along with other pieces of technology. Gadigal people adopted boomerang making in the early 1900s from the First Nations people of the Blue Mountains region. However, nationally and internationally, collections still hold “Sydney boomerangs”

Collection and description

The reason why the notion of the Gadigal Boomerang is not really challenged is because most First Nations cultural heritage material was collected by trade or theft without further enquiry about the cultural information that surrounds the material and the material’s creator. In lieu of this, many collectors took cultural heritage material at face value or made their own assumptions about the material. Usually, ignoring the complexity of the First Nations knowledges of this land mass. Undoubtably, this wilful ignorance was part of White Europeans considering themselves rational and enlightened and those who were different as inferior.

These collecting practices have informed the description of cultural heritage material once they have entered collections. Therefore, many collection records regarding First Nations cultural heritage material contain erroneous information.


Hider has previously discussed the impact of poor description of collection material, this is predominately discussed in terms of how it affects discoverability. For instance, I might want to search Wiradjuri cultural heritage material, however records and databases might not specify what Aboriginal Nation material is from, thus making my search term Wiradjuri useless.

However, there are many other effects of poor description in regards to First Nations material other than discoverability. For example, because of the effects of colonisation, much of Sydney’s First Nations knowledge is lost, this leaves the cultural heritage material in collections, like the “Sydney boomerangs” and their records being some of the only aspects culture left. The erroenous description of this material hampers research on culture and worse yet, devastatingly hinders attempts to revitalise culture.

Furthermore, the way cultural heritage is and has been described continues the simplification of First Nations knowledges by only proving simple narratives. Consequently, many cultural heritage objects are only thought of in terms of a simple application, such as throwing at animals for hunting. Despite this, many First Nations cultural heritage objects are considered multifaceted by First Nations people and contribute to First Nations’ social, moral , spiritual and scientific way of living. However, these aspects of culture and knowledge have rarely been captured and/or described in collection records about First Nations cultural heritage objects.

Additionally, this simplification of culture has assisted in dehumanising First Nations people which in turn has helped justified colonisation and the inhuman treatment of First Nations people which continues today with the N.T. intervention and our alarming overrepresentation in the Australian prison system.

In addition to the above, interesting stories of how culture has been impacted and changed and the creation of culture outside the “traditional” have not been captured and described in collections. Sydney boomerangs were being made in early 1900s, but why? Was it because boomerangs were of interest to Europeans, therefore Gadigal people starting making them for economic benefit? Or were Gadigal people desperate to adopt and learn Aboriginal culture, even if it was not their own, because colonisation forcefully separated them from their own Gadigal culture? Or both? Answers to questions may tell complex narratives about First Nations people trying to survive.


The “Sydney boomerangs” are symbolic for the flawed collecting and describing practices of memory institutions. This example, along with countless others, is something which needs to be rectified in collaboration with First Nations people and something that needs to be acknowledged so to not happen again.

By Nathan Sentance

On being an First Nations worker in GLAM

I would like to start by saying that I love working in GLAM. It given me so many experiences, friends and opportunities. That being said, there some issues that I have experienced being a First Nations GLAM professional.

  1. You’re one of few. The State Library of NSW recently done a survey of public libraries and found employment of Aboriginal staff has decreased in the last ten years. This isn’t uncommon. In America, 87% of archivists are white. And out of the 13% POC archivists, First Nations people make up a small minority
  2. You’re asked to do everything related to First Nations culture. This includes a lot that isn’t related to your job description. For example, whenever, there’s an First Nations enquiry, you’re asked to answer it even though other staff have the capable skills to also do so. Or instead, of getting a First Nations curator, they ask for your assistance with First Nations content in exhibitions. While this presents opportunities, it also is more work and something rarely asked of non Indigenous GLAM professionals
  3. You’re afraid to let go of control. Alternatively, to my previous point, sometimes you want to control everything First Nations related out of fear if you relinquish control to non Indigenous GLAM professionals the same issues that have always been around would persist in GLAM institutions. There are many very well intentioned people don’t understand how different aspects of GLAM work can negatively impact First Nations people.
  4. You’re the communty’s face/ access point to the organisation. Just as the the things you do can reflect poorly on your organisation, the things your organisation does can reflect poorly on you, especially in eyes of community. This is because many community members see you as the face of the organisation. Therefore you can get blamed for the actions of institution, even though you weren’t involved in the decision making process. This part of the privilege and burden of First Nations identified role, which is something organisations need to recognise.
  5. Sometimes colleagues think you’re crazy. To be honest, this has not happened to me, but other First Nations GLAM professionals have told me stories about them being in meetings and people looking at them like they’re crazy, not understanding why they’re fighting for something so much or why they are making “a mountain out of a mole hill” Again, this is because many people, even those who are well intentioned, are ignorant about the impact GLAM work can negatively have on First Nations communities as well as the issues First Nations people face.

While there are many great aspects about working in GLAM as a Wiradjuri man, exposing people to different parts of culture and diverse stories, that does not mean there are not many, many parts of working in GLAM that could be improved for First Nations workers.

by Nathan Sentance

Thoughts on the Gweagal Spears Repatriation

My blog post about the repatriation and cultural property

Cambridge University Museum of Archeology and Anthropology has refused to repatriate the Gweagal spears request of  Rodney Kelly,descendant of the Gweagal warrior Cooman

Doing so, contradicts parts of the United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was/ is supported by the United Kingdom. Particularly Article 31 which states “Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect
and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional
cultural expressions, as well as the manifestations of their
sciences, technologies and cultures, including human and genetic
resources, seeds, medicines, knowledge of the properties of fauna
and flora, oral traditions, literatures, designs, sports and traditional
games and visual and performing arts. They also have the right to
maintain, control, protect and develop their intellectual property
over such cultural heritage, traditional knowledge, and traditional
cultural expressions.”

Two of the reasons given to why the request was denied were that repatriation would affect the integrity of their Cook-Sandwich collection and the cultural heritage items’ conservation​ and that there was no clear proposal for the housing and preserving of the spears once returned.

In regards to the integrity of the collection, the case could be argued that keeping the collection whole and professionally preserved would be for the greater good. But who benefits from this greater good? Researchers? As Dudgeon (2008) notes, research using Western frameworks have consistently denigrated First Nations culture and people and enforced colonisation as well as excluded First Nations people from discussions about their own culture. Along with these spears being stolen, what research on these spears achieves is the theft of the narrative that surrounds the spears and the claiming of ownership of First Nations knowledge.

In response to the inherit colonial biases of previous First Nations research and its exclusion of First Nations input, many organisations and institutions have made guidelines to ethnically conduct research. For example, AIATSIS’ Guidelines for Ethical Research in Australian Indigenous Studies. Guidelines like this promote the idea of collaboration between researchers and the First Nations community whose people or culture  are being researched. Therefore, if collaboration is necessary for ethnical First Nations research, then it can argued that any future research on the Gweagal spears will be unethical as it won’t have the consent of Rodney Kelly, never mind his collaboration.

Turning to repatriation, fears of the effects of repatriation on the integrity of collections and research that takes place with collection items is not new. In America, when The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was introduced, many researchers were worried about the effect that would have on the provenance of material as well as it’s conservation. As Smith (2010) states, this a very Western viewpoint on conservation which obsesses that collection objects must always stay the same not realising that this process is unnatural and not recognising that much of First Nations tangible heritage was created to not live forever. As a community organisation representative once said to me “some stories run their course” If you truly believe First Nations should control their heritage and narratives, this means they have choice in what gets preserved and how.

In addition to this, the integrity of the Cook collection is not of importance to many First Nations people as he is a symbol of invasion and colonisation. Having these spears continue to be part of his collection, centres a white man in a story of First Nations cultural heritage.

As for the second reason used to refuse the repatriation of the Gweagal spears, the lack of  information pertaining to the housing and preserving of the spears once returned. I believe that, if First Nations people truly should control their own cultural heritage and manifestations of their cultural heritage, then Rodney Kelly should be able to do whatever he wants with the spears, this includes not preserving them. I know as a museum worker the idea saddens me and I hope if Rodney Kelly ever did get the spears to return home he will choose to appropriately house them by museum standards. However, that should be up to him and Gweagal people. If returning the stolen items home would be only under certain stipulations then support for Indigenous intellectual property rights is shallow and disregards the ideals of First Nations self determination.

By Nathan Sentance

Diverse Voices in Diversity

My blog post about the construction of memory and need for more in depth diversity in our collections. The post will be from a predominantly First Nations perspective.

People look to memory institutes such as galleries, libraries, archives and museums to tell them their history and therefore these institutions are an important part of constructing memory and identity. However, many times these collections do not tell the whole story. There are silences and distortions of our own history in these collections as voices from oppressed minorities were often not collected and when stories of oppressed individuals or communities were included in collections, frequently their story was told by someone else who was part of the dominant, oppressive mainstream (and numerous times they would centre themselves in telling the stories of oppressed others). This was because previous collecting practices were part of the colonial agenda or at least influenced by it. Subsequently, historic collections worldwide are mostly filled with the voices of rich white men.

These silences and distortions contribute to the dehumanisation of certain community groups as well as proliferation of stereotypes. Both of which assist in continuing these groups’ oppression.  Fortunately, many memory institutes recognise this and are working toward amending their collection gaps and biases with the aim to be more inclusive.

However, there’s one area in which collecting practices and strategies need to improve and that’s in collecting and conveying diversity within diverse voices.

Looking at this from a First Nations perspective, because there are so few of our voices and perspectives in collections only a number of our stories are told which causes many people to think of us as a monolith, a big homogeneous group, not individuals with many perspectives, ideas, opinions and experiences.  This causes some of our identities to be denied and not included in history which consequently leads to others and ourselves questioning our identity if they do not match of one identities or stories being conveyed.

Liddle (2016) highlights this in her article about Miss Australia where there were three Indigenous finalists, however only one of the three was talked about in terms of their Aboriginality. Liddle hypothesises that this is because only one of three match the white defined archetype of what an Aboriginal is.

This does not capture the complexity of First Nations communities and people, instead it simplifies them.

Furthermore, this also leads to a misrepresentation of history. If your inclusion of diverse voices means only including Stan Grant and Noel Pearson because of their profile and how articulate they are by Western Anglo standards, is that real inclusion?  It leaves out many First Nations voices, especially those at grassroots level. It also continues to populate collections with what white mainstream society deems important and interesting, not considering what communities want. A micro version of the previous collecting practices, that did not value the input of First Nations people.

This favouring of high profile First Nations voices over grassroots ones was very noticeable in the discussions over Constitution recognition as many mainstream media outlets framed it as recognition is what First Nations communities want and only the government was in the way. Whereas, the real discussion was more complex and a majority of First Nations people did not want Constitution recognition. This asks the question, in the future, would those researching the 2010s find that complexity in our collections or only the high-profile advocates for recognition telling the one story?

In addition to this, there is also a tendency to try and collect “traditional” cultural knowledge, and while that is important and should be a priority because those knowledges and the cultural practices that stem from them are part of what makes this country unique and teach us much about the science of the land and our connection to country and each other, but this focus excludes the voices of many urban First Nations people. Particularly, those on the east of this land mass, whom, because of colonisation, were forcefully separated from culture and what is considered “traditional”.

Of course, it is impossible to collect everything, there will be many, many voices that will not be captured in the constructed history conveyed by collections. However, there are some suggestions I have, that can help ensure inclusion of diverse voices within First Nations Voices (Note: this is mainly aimed at bigger institutions).

  • Collect social media

Aboriginal people are one of the biggest users of Facebook on this land mass and prominent users of other networks too. Consequently, social media is where a lot of First Nations discussions are taking place.   Luke Pearson recently noted that social media has amplified many First Nations voices that would otherwise be unheard and has also highlighted the diversity in our opinions.

  • Engage with communities.

A lot of memory institutes do Indigenous community engagement​. Although, this is usually done in terms asking permission or dictating a project. For example, you may have First Nations content going in an upcoming exhibition that you’re seeking approval for or you have an idea for an oral histories project and for it you want to record the stories of Uncles and Auntys in a certain community.  However, that’s not asking community what they want.

If you ask community what they want and keep a consistent dialogue with them after the completion of projects, you may be informed what First Nations voices community want collected or hear about important community events and activities, you were unaware of. Additionally, you may realise that some First Nations voices you thought were influential are not considered so by community.

  • Empower First Nations collection hubs

There are many First Nations knowledge centres, cultural centres, art galleries and Elders groups across this land mass that are already collecting a wide range of First Nations voices. Many of these hubs would love guidance and resources from bigger institutions.

A helpful idea would be if big cultural institutions adopted a program like Jawun secondment program where private sector organisations (mostly banks) pay for one of their staff member to borrowed short term (6 weeks) by an Aboriginal community organisation that needs their skills. It works because it gives an Aboriginal community organisation a highly skilled person that may not afford otherwise and it gives that person an experience they wouldn’t get otherwise.  After the secondment, that staff member also returns to with new skills and perspectives.

I’m sure there is a program like this, I’m just not aware of it.

  • Be mindful

Question if your collections only derive cultural heritage and First Nations history from a few sources. If you’re favouring an art form or medium or a writing or speaking style over others, does that exclude voices?
History is complex and diverse and we should try capture that in our historical collections have it influence how we convey historical narratives.

By Nathan Sentance


The Paternalistic Nature of Collecting

My blog post about the misconception that galleries, libraries, archives and museums are preserving First Nation cultural heritage 

Over my years working in memory institutes with a focus on Aboriginal cultural heritage, I have been involved in the facilitation of access to collections for Indigenous communities and community organisations who are working on revitalising culture or language as many First Nation Languages of this land mass and cultural practices have been lost.

For example, according to a Statement on Indigenous Australian Music and Dance endorsed by the International Council for Traditional Music, around 98% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander music traditions have already been lost. In addition to this, before invasion, there was 250-300 different First Nation languages of this land mass and now, it is estimated that only 20 languages are now spoken comprehensively.

Many have made the connection between the loss of language and culture and loss of identity . First Nations peoples who experience loss of identity and culture are more likely to have depression and respond negatively to education. Which is why Dockery (2009) suggests helping First Nations people forge a stronger attachment to culture as it may be key to solving several factors that disadvantage them. However, this is hard because they are languages no longer spoken and dances that are no longer done.

This is where memory institutes come in. For instance, libraries and archives have bibles written in language made to convert the local people which show the word and sentence structure of no longer spoken language. Museums have canoes which can show how they were built and what with.  Because of this, I always hear, “isn’t great these things are being preserved or they would have been lost forever”

I have a several issues with this concept namely

1) Memory institutes are part of colonisation and culture loss was not a problem before colonisation.

As Genovese (2016) notes, archives and museums, along with researchers, proliferated the colonial agenda which lead to First Nations people being seen as savages and subhumans which justified their mass displacement,  forced assimilation, and the stolen generations.

There are many examples of how this affected culture and knowledge transference, for example there are many stories that stolen children could only speak english on missions and reserves. Additionally, much cultural knowledge is localised and connected to country, if displaced from country it is harder for that information to be transferred. A personal example is my dad, who never learnt Wiradjuri, he theorises that it was because his mother wanted him to fit in more so she never taught him. While this is not obvious forced assimilation, you must understand that is/was so much disadvantage that came with being the other, that my grandmother was pressured into assuring my dad fitted in to mainstream white society as much as possible, this included not teaching my dad language.

While memory institutes are now assisting community strengthen culture, they need to acknowledge their role in the weakening of culture as well as the fact their existence and the cultural heritage in their collections is due to colonisation and colonisation is what tried/is trying to destroy First Nations culture.

2) First Nation people can preserve their own history and culture and did before memory institutes

Collecting and preserving history and culture has long been part of Western culture, however it is thought of only in terms of tangible heritage and in putting that heritage in big buildings. So when the West came to this land mass, they assumed because First Nations people did not have museums or libraries, they are not preserving culture.

This did not take in account or dismissed the strength of oral knowledge transference of many of the First Nations communities. For example, there are some First Nation stories that talk about events that happened 7000 years ago which have been proven to be true. If that is the case, First Nations people do not need help preserving culture.

3) Collecting of cultural heritage was flawed 

“Museums have the sticks, we have the stories. Without the stories, museums only have sticks.”

The above quote from an Aunty I know, encapsulates what the next section is about, the fact galleries, libraries, archives and museums did not capture contextual information about collections.  This could be because a lot of cultural heritage ends in collections because it was recorded by a white European or was stolen or taken without further enquiry about the knowledge that surrounds the cultural heritage.

This leads to paintings in galleries that may depict a ceremony, however does not understand what the ceremony was about. Or a shield in a museum that does not say the story it is meant to convey or from what localised knowledge it stems from. Or language manuscripts in archives that have misinterpreted language and may say the region it is from, but its a region that is shared by 2 or more Nations and does not specify what First Nation it is from.

All of the above, lead to those cultural heritage items not being as useful in culture revitalisation. This is because, collaboration with community was not done by memory institutes. This lead to only tangible heritage being preserved which is only a fragment of culture if the intangible heritage was not also preserved

This leads to my issue with memory institutes and repatriation (repat). When repat gets brought up, many people say that First Nations people do not have the capacity to properly preserve the cultural heritage items. Firstly, cultural preservation would not be as big of an issue if it was not for colonisation and secondly,  this way of thinking is very paternalistic, almost like institutes know better than First Nations people and is doing what is best for them. This takes away their agency and also means institutes’ collections are without consent. To move forward we can not think of preservation as just in its Western definition.

By Nathan Sentance