The escalating unrest in the US sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of police has drawn the whole world into a conversation about racism, human rights, police violence and the #BlackLivesMatter movement. In Australia, it has also sparked conversations around violence in the justice system, Aboriginal deaths in custody, the current status of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody recommendations and racial profiling of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, through the hashtag #AboriginalLivesMatter.
The current events have also fueled discussions across the cultural sector about how to bear witness and advocate for change. Archives are uniquely placed to do both, but foundational structures of white supremacy, discrimination and colonialism in the archival tradition present a substantial barrier to engaging in social justice work.
In the Australian GLAM sector, much of our practice is retroactive rather than proactive. We seek to decolonise rather than actively building collections that grow out of Indigenous voices and agency. Our institutional archives build contemporary collections with the aim of acknowledging the anniversaries of historical events or designing new exhibitions, but these historical events are rarely representative of Indigenous peoples (Sentance, 2019). The National and State libraries put out collection calls for ephemera during the 2019 federal election and again during the COVID19 crisis, but no such calls have been made for ephemera from the Invasion Day rallies or Black Lives Matter rallies. There are no collections for The National Apology or the Reconciliation Walk across Sydney Harbour Bridge, despite these events being listed as defining moments in Australian history on the National Museum Australia website.
At present, there are no archival initiatives in Australia that collect records of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ activism and agency available for the benefit of the overall public. Archives like Documenting Ferguson, and Preserve the Baltimore Uprising 2015 (see the list of US-based black activist archives below) which advocate for Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) in US archives, simply do not exist in Australia.
Recently Kevin Gover, Director of the National Museum of the American Indian, wrote that “The existence of our museum is a blow to racism.” Which one of our cultural institutions can say that? Which part of our GLAM sector is being anti-racist in their praxis? Why are we always looking backwards to rectify the past? What can we be doing now to give agency and voice to the Indigenous peoples of Australia?
What the current BIPOC led archival initiatives in the US demonstrates is that proactive, activist archive spaces are possible. Blackivists and Documenting the Now have shown that documentation and preservation skills can be utilised to support the social justice needs of Indigenous people. In Australia, we can create safe spaces for recording history and exhibit records of the social justice movements of, and for, Indigenous people and, in doing so, we will be doing our part to bear witness and advocate for change.
In this blog post members of the Indigenous Archive Collective have put together some resources for people to educate themselves about the Black Lives Matter movement, in Australia and internationally. We invite all readers to add additional resources and examples which have been created in institutional and community contexts and on Country.
- The Guardian. (2020. Racism pervades Australian society – and the effects can be lethal
- The Guardian. (2020). Deaths inside
- The Guardian (2020). Death in our backyard
- Why so many black deaths in custody and so little justice?
- Porter, A, (2016) ‘Reflections on the Inquest of Ms Dhu’, 25(3) Human Rights Defender.
- Whittaker, A (2020), “Despite 432 Indigenous deaths in custody since 1991, no one has ever been convicted. Racist silence and complicity are to blame”, The Conversation.
- Whittaker, A (2019), ”Dragged like a dead kangaroo’: why language matters for deaths in custody’, Guardian Australia;
- Longman, CD 2016, ‘Where is the Accountability for Aboriginal Deaths in Custody?’, Human Rights Defender, vol. 25, no. 3, pp. 5-7.
- Gibson, P, (2019) Inmates traumatised after Aboriginal man dies in NSW jail, SBS Online https://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/article/2018/09/18/inmates-traumatised-after-aboriginal-man-dies-nsw-jail
- O’Sullivan, S. (2010). Deaths in custody: what can museums do to effect change? In Australian Museum Blog.
Understand the history of racial violence and the Black Lives Matter movement:
- After the Apology: https://aftertheapology.com
- The Point’s Death in Custody special https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gtp3cKpgyBQ
- Pat Dodson: Aboriginal Deaths in Custody of the Police https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PNv-02P4ZUc
- Listen and learn with the Black Lives Matter collection at SBS On Demand https://www.sbs.com.au/guide/article/2020/06/04/listen-and-learn-black-lives-matter-collection-sbs-demand
View Gomeroi/Gamilaraay photojournalist, Aunty Barbara McGrady’s work at the Australian Museum. Aunty Barb has documented Australian Black Lives Matter protests since 2014.
View Aboriginal activist/academic Gary Foley’s collection of materials:
Want to hear first hand from victims of police violence in the US? These archives were created to preserve first-hand accounts of black people’s experiences with law enforcement and demonstrations that resulted from police violence:
- Documenting Ferguson
- Preserve the Baltimore Uprising 2015
- A People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland
- #blacklivesmatter Web Archive
Review your archival practice. You can assist those who witness injustices.
- Download Witness’s ‘The activist’s guide to archiving videos’ https://archiving.witness.org/archive-guide/
- Read, print and display for future reference ‘Easy to Print: Identifying and Dismantling White Supremacy in Archives’ by Gracen Brilmyer and Michelle Caswell (2016) https://escholarship.org/content/qt0zn923k8/qt0zn923k8.pdf?t=oydlbw
If you would want to contribute to the legal cases of families of Aboriginal people who have died while in police custody:
References (in addition to the resource list)
Sentance, N. (2019). “Anniversaries need to be uncomfortable, Archival Decolonist. Available at https://archivaldecolonist.com/2019/11/06/anniversaries-need-to-be-uncomfortable/
The Blackivists (2020). Five Tips for Organizers, Protestors, and Anyone Documenting Movements. Sixty. Available at https://sixtyinchesfromcenter.org/the-blackivists-five-tips-for-organizers-protestors-and-anyone-documenting-movements/