Go to top of page

Strategic Priority 1



The AIATSIS Collection contains over one million items, including film and video, photographs, audio, art, material culture objects, manuscripts and published materials.

The majority of the collection consists of unique materials—stories, oral histories, language, songs, ceremony and traditions.

These materials are invaluable, not only to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities but also to the national and international community.

AIATSIS continues to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities to grow this collection and ensure it is preserved, discoverable, understood, accessible and valued by all.

KEY OUTCOMES 2018–2022

  • Ensure that our collection is representative, relevant and diverse
  • Optimise appropriate accessibility
  • Maximise opportunities provided by digital innovation

Key action: Implement a strategy to grow the collection and conduct research to promote the value, significance and understanding of the collection

A refocused Collection Development Strategy 2017–2021 was endorsed by the AIATSIS Council in March 2018, aligned with AIATSIS’ legislative functions. This new strategy has guided the assessment of donations and priorities for acquisition in 2018–19.

The strategy has been designed to ensure that material is acquired for the collection in accordance with best practice ethical guidelines, and builds on the strengths of a representative national collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and heritage. Donations of artworks, cultural objects, and unpublished materials are assessed for their provenance, significance and access potential over time. Extensive curatorial research and community engagement was carried out in preparation for a major exhibition that will open in late 2019 on the theme of ‘resurgence’— the way in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture has continued and flourished in contemporary Australia.

Research has focused on the selection of stories and items which will feature in the exhibition, and the identification of supporting material. AIATSIS staff have visited communities in Queensland and New South Wales, and held workshops at AIATSIS with visiting artists and family members as part of the development, consultation and engagement process. Creators, community members and knowledge holders have been involved in the development of the exhibition and the display and interpretation of their stories and collection items. This approach has allowed our understandings of the collections to transform and further reflect the continuity of cultural knowledge and ongoing connections to collection materials.

Additional information resulting from research and consultation has been incorporated into upgraded catalogue records, in particular for the 1982 Rom ceremony materials (see the feature about digitisation of the Rom poles at page 36), enhancing discoverability of these highly significant collection items.

The Native Title Research Unit (NTRU) continued to support access to the AIATSIS collection by individuals, claimant groups, Native Title Representative Bodies, government departments and lawyers to assist in native title processes. During 2018– 19 the NTRU received seventy-two requests for access to the AIATSIS collections to research native title claims, and twenty-two visitors to the collection. Ninety-three per cent of requests were processed within one week.

Examples of collection development and research during 2018–19 to extend the accessibility and value of the collection include the pagination, digitisation and indexing of the heavily used Jackomos genealogy collection, providing better access to three volumes of family trees so important to family history research, and the Betty Meehan collaboration outlined in the following case study.

Betty Meehan collaboration — extending the value, significance and understanding of the collection

Betty Meehan collaboration

Ongoing collaboration with donor Dr Betty Meehan regarding her film, video and audio collections have resulted in several collection development opportunities. This has included auditioning of over ten hours of audio recorded with Frank Gurrmanamana by Meehan and her husband, Dr Rhys Jones, between 1972 and 1974, featuring Gidjingali language elicitation, music and place names. Film footage from these collections has also created the basis for a collaborative paper presented at the Australian Archaeological Association meeting in Auckland, New Zealand and a presentation at a symposium commemorating fifty years of archaeological research at the Australian National University. This film footage shows anthropological and archaeological research undertaken between 1972 and 1980 with the Anbarra community, which led to the internationally renowned publication Shell Bed to Shell Midden.

Image of Still from film footage of Betty Meehan collecting diyama (shellfish) at Lalar-Gujirrapa in 1973
Still from film footage of Betty Meehan collecting diyama (shellfish) at Lalar-Gujirrapa in 1973


Marella Mission Farm Collection

The Marella Mission Farm was an independent foster home for Aboriginal children in the Sydney area, operating between 1948 and 1986. An extensive collection (approximately 30 linear metres) of archival material and contextual documentation has been transferred to AIATSIS from Moore Theological College Archives. Processing of this collection has been prioritised to ensure that former residents are able to access relevant information.

Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation

Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR) donated an extensive collection of archival materials relating to the early years of ANTaR’s operation. Notably the collection includes the Citizen’s Statements on Native Title, which accompanied the Sea of Hands installation in its earliest incarnation, a key event in the reconciliation movement of the 1990s.

Frances Calvert Collection

A collection of audiovisual and other material created by film-maker Frances Calvert was transported to AIATSIS from Berlin, following her passing in 2018. The collection includes outtakes and production documentation of her three well- regarded films on Torres Strait Islander cultures, Talking Broken (1990), Cracks in the Mask (1997) and The Tombstone Opening (2012). Inventorying and assessment of this large collection will continue in the next financial year.

South-eastern art acquisitions

South-eastern practices have been identified as a key area for targeted acquisitions. Purchases in 2018–19 included ceramic works by local Ngunnawal Elder Loretta Halloran (nee Bell). These bowls reflect the textures and movements of the water of the Yass River, connecting the artist back to memories of fishing with her father as he told her stories of country. A painting by Lynnice Church, commissioned for the International Year of Indigenous Languages foyer display, was also acquired, and the artwork Jowalbinna ‘Red Bluff’ by significant Wiradjuri artist Karla Dickens was purchased from the collection of Gordon Syron and Elaine Pelot Syron.

Torres Strait Islander Art

Our Torres Strait Island representation was enhanced with the purchase of two major works by artist Brian Robinson, Ocean Guardian (2017) and Containment of the Seven Seas (2018). Brian Robinson is of Maluyligal, Wuthathi and Dayak heritage, and his bold, graphic artworks reflect these cultural connections. These magnificent pieces are to be displayed in the AIATSIS building.


Two paintings, Mat Weaving (2005) and Syaw / Fish Net (2015), were acquired from artist Regina Pilawuk Wilson, Ngan’gikurrungurr Elder and community leader from Peppimenarti, NT. Some of the first paintings created by the artist, these works depict the iconic woven forms that Regina is known for and complement her significant Sun Mat, already held in the collection. A purchase was also made of Greg Semu’s photographic portrait featuring dancer Hans Ahwang wearing Grace Lillian Lee’s body sculpture Acceptance, which was acquired for the collection in 2016.

A collection of 187 drawings created by Kuninjku-speaking artists and children in 1983 was donated by anthropologist and former AIATSIS staff member Dr Luke Taylor. The collection of drawings depicts important cultural stories from Western Arnhem Land from the perspectives of different age groups, visually documenting the transmission of knowledge in these communities.

Miriwoong Language Cards

Mirima Dawang Woorlab-gerring Language and Culture Centre donated an extensive collection of illustrated magnetic stripe cards containing short recordings of community members speaking in the Miriwoong and Ngarinyman languages. The illustrations of the words recorded on the cards have been drawn and coloured by children in the communities and are used to enrich the meaning and effectiveness of the cards. While magnetic stripe language cards have been used all over the world, as far as AIATSIS research has ascertained, this innovation is unique to a number of remote communities in Australia.

An image of a lady unboxing magnetic stripe language cards from the Mirma Dawang Woorlab-gerring Language and Culture Centre.
Unboxing magnetic stripe language cards from the Mirma Dawang Woorlab-gerring Language and Culture Centre

An image of some illustrated language cards tied together in a bunch with a white ribbon.
Illustrated language cards


Walter Barry Wood collection

The Walter Barry Wood collection comprises 1347 images taken during the excavation of the Broadbeach burial site in Queensland, a significant event in Australian archaeology. The site was accidentally discovered in June 1963 by local soil contractors who were illicitly removing soil for sale. The police, landowners and eventually the University of Queensland became involved. The excavation took three years from 1965 to 1968 and was managed by Dr Walter Barry Wood, lecturer in anatomy at the university, with archaeologist Laila Haglund. The images document the archaeological process and the burial practices of communities in south Queensland. After lobbying by the local Aboriginal community and university, the excavated remains were returned and reinterred close to the original site in what is now known as Kombumerri Park.

Key action: Optimise digital platforms for improved online discoverability of, access to and use of the collection

Work to combine three different Art and Object databases into a single dataset on the new digital platform has been completed, culminating in online release of the beta version of the Art and Object catalogue in late September 2018 for user testing and feedback. There are now 2034 records available to the public, representing 39.5 per cent of the total art and object collection. Work is ongoing to make more catalogue records available.

This means that the public can now access the Art and Object catalogue, the AUSTLANG database and datasets, and Mura®, the AIATSIS Collection catalogue, online.

The photographic collection is also now on the AIATSIS digital platform, but can as yet only be accessed on site because most images require permissions for uses other than private research. Nevertheless, transfer to the new platform has made searching much simpler and quicker—searching can now be done by place, name and other filters, using the captions for individual photographs. Previously users had to request access to proof sheets of images and work through them with separate caption lists containing the metadata for the images.

There were 10,115 additional images and descriptions uploaded to the AIATSIS Collections platform in 2018–19, meaning that 52 per cent of the photographic collection is now discoverable via the database.

Getting inventive with digitisation

Despite climate-controlled vault storage, the AIATSIS tape-based audio collections have inevitably deteriorated over time. While 88 per cent of the tape-based audio collection has been digitised (as at the end of June 2019), deterioration makes the digitisation of what remains slow and difficult. Some tapes are affected by ‘soft binder syndrome’, where the binder on the audiotape softens, causing the tape to grip the play head. This generates an audible squeal which is transferred to the digital audio file, affecting its quality and audibility.

The literature indicated that application of carefully controlled quantities of a non-toxic silica oxide solution to the affected tapes could minimise or remove the noise created and clean the tape surface, improving the quality of audio digitisation capture. Traditionally the solution would be laboriously applied to the running tape with a cotton bud.

Instead, AIATSIS engineering staff designed a machine that applies the solution evenly and removes excess residue through forced evaporation of the volatile component. An audio cassette format version of this device is in final testing, and a version to treat ¼ inch open reel format tapes is in development. This new device has potential application to yet more formats and to widespread use across the cultural collections sector.

AIATSIS technicians also developed a new process for lantern slide digitisation. Lantern slides are large glass photographic transparencies that were in use from the 18th to mid–20th centuries. Flatbed scanners had been used previously with mixed results and did not allow the complete exterior detail of the lantern slides to be captured. The new process uses a light table to illuminate the transparent window of the lantern slides while all areas except the transparent image are masked and the top surface is evenly illuminated using a reflector card. This method allowed the entire AIATSIS lantern slide collection to be digitally rendered sympathetically and efficiently. This innovation has been presented to interested audiences at conferences and online.

Key action: Develop, implement and maintain a single platform for the discovery of and research into Australian Indigenous languages

AUSTLANG is now the one authoritative international resource on Australian Indigenous languages. After several years of development, it became the single comprehensive platform for language discovery and research when the alternative languages thesaurus component of Pathways on the AIATSIS website was decommissioned in April 2019.

In October 2018 AIATSIS, with the National Library of Australia, successfully applied to the Network Development and MARC Standards Office at the Library of Congress to have the AUSTLANG codes used in Machine Readable Cataloguing (MARC). The AUSTLANG codes identify the most comprehensive range of Australian Indigenous languages, far more than any other code currently recognised, such as ISO 693- 3 and Glottocodes. Using them in catalogue records enables cataloguers to more accurately describe collection materials in or about Indigenous languages, and will make it easier for users to discover this material in collections all over the world.

AIATSIS cataloguers worked from January to March 2019 to amend the AIATSIS catalogue accordingly, updating codes and creating 340 new and 764 updated language authority headings in the catalogue. Language headings in over 98 per cent of the 17,000 associated bibliographic records have also been upgraded, using automated and manual approaches. AIATSIS also worked with the National Library of Australia and Trove to deliver promotional material and to present at conferences and by webinar to help institutions address the system-wide implications of the changes and help cataloguers in agencies across the sector add AUSTLANG codes to catalogue records.

The AUSTLANG datasets will be updated in late 2019 with the results of the third National Indigenous Languages Survey (see page 48).

In a major step for public data access, in May 2019 three AUSTLANG datasets were made available on data.gov.au in one file, with an open licence. The AUSTLANG datasets will help people to distinguish Australian Indigenous languages and their context among the hundreds of Indigenous language varieties that exist in this country. Individuals or organisations are free to use the AUSTLANG datasets to build new resources, incorporating data to cross-reference material, find resources and ultimately make better, data-informed decisions when it comes to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages. The data includes the language name and code, the synonyms and the approximate location of each language variety. In the two months to June 2019, there have been 364 views of the data, and 51 downloads of the dataset. Response to the release of the data has been positive, and exciting developments in its use are expected.

Women from central Australia visit AIATSIS

AIATSIS’ partnership with communities includes demonstrating how AIATSIS cares for material in its collection and manages access to that material, building the trust that is essential for AIATSIS to hold and grow Australia’s nationally significant collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and heritage. Two visits by groups of women from central Australia demonstrate this partnership with community.

In December 2018, Arrernte women Samantha Laughton, Amelia Turner, Mia Mulladad and Rachel Perkins (AIATSIS Council member) visited AIATSIS with Myfany Turpin (University of Sydney, AIATSIS Council member). They wanted to know how AIATSIS would look after and manage access to recordings made, and legacy recordings digitised, under the 2015 Arrernte women’s song project, if they were to offer the material to AIATSIS. Myfany had collated information about the songs. The visit was supported by funding from the University of Sydney and an Australian Research Council grant.

In June 2019, April Campbell Pengart, Clarrie Long Kemarr and Emmanisha Pepperill Kemarr, from Ti Tree in the Northern Territory, visited AIATSIS with Jennifer Green from the University of Melbourne. The Ti Tree women, representing three generations of Anmatyerr and Warlpiri speakers, are all active in education and in language and culture documentation and have worked with Green for decades, recording spoken Anmatyerr, verbal arts (sand stories, string games, song) and sign language. Like the Arrernte women, they wanted to learn more about the destination of their records, and about future access to them. Their visit was supported by the Research Unit for Indigenous Languages at the University of Melbourne and by an Australian Research Council Linkage Project.

Both groups toured AIATSIS and the collection, observing collection storage, digitisation work areas and access facilities. They learned about how AIATSIS manages culturally appropriate access to and use of materials in the collection. Some of the women discovered photographs of family and community members. The women were reassured that material held by AIATSIS is in safe hands.

The experience convinced the Arrernte women that their material will be well looked after. As a result, Samantha, a custodian of legacy recordings made by her grandmother Ada Sylvia Laughton in the 1960s, offered this collection and a manuscript of the songs transcribed and translated to AIATSIS. This is one of the earliest recordings AIATSIS holds of traditional Aboriginal songs made by a solo Aboriginal person. The group also decided to offer the recordings they made in 2015.

Anmatyerr woman April Campbell Pengart from Ti Tree commented:

It was really important for us to go and see that place because we had never been there before. Elders has been asking where our things are and we told them. They said that was good as long as the next generation has access to them.

Image showing April Campbell Pengart, Emmanisha Kemarr Pepperill and Clarrie Kemarr Long at AIATSIS, June 2019. Image Jenny Green.
April Campbell Pengart, Emmanisha Kemarr Pepperill and Clarrie Kemarr Long at AIATSIS, June 2019. Image Jenny Green.

Image showing (L–R) Mia Mulladad, Samantha Laughton, Fiona Blackburn (AIATSIS), Rachel Perkins, Amelia Turner, Bonnie Faulkner (Blackfella films) Kazuko Obata (AIATSIS) and Linda Renehan (AIATSIS). Image Myfany Turpin.
(L–R) Mia Mulladad, Samantha Laughton, Fiona Blackburn (AIATSIS), Rachel Perkins, Amelia Turner, Bonnie Faulkner (Blackfella films) Kazuko Obata (AIATSIS) and Linda Renehan (AIATSIS). Image Myfany Turpin.

Key action: Upgrade and maintain capable digital infrastructure and appropriate physical storage for the expanding collection

Offsite storage space enables AIATSIS to accommodate collection growth, and mitigates the recognised risks associated with a sub-optimal on-site storage capacity. A secured, climate-controlled storage facility with custom-built infrastructure was procured in 2017–18, located in Hume, ACT.

In 2018–19, AIATSIS relocated additional items from the Art and Object, manuscript and publications collections to the Hume facility. Scoping was undertaken to move to an alternative, more cost-effective facility, with planning and relocation expected in 2019–20.

The Collections Disaster Recovery Plan was revised, and now addresses the risk of dissociation, the recovery of restricted materials and the potential for cultural harm during salvage operations.

A conservation survey of restricted material in the collection was undertaken, which included preparing condition reports, rehousing items into archival boxes, and non- destructive testing for hazardous chemicals.

Conservation treatment was also carried out on over 3000 language slips documenting Central Desert languages, produced by Ken Hale in 1959–1961. Washing and stabilisation has prepared this important language resource for safe digitisation and access.

To stay up to date with new National Archives of Australia standards and the technical support of manufacturers, AIATSIS has acquired:

  • updated book and page scanners, capable of delicately handling fragile bound documents while still offering improvements in workflow speed and handling for unbound/loose-leaf manuscripts
  • a vertical reprographic camera and lighting assembly optimised for smaller art/ object items, enabling a more rapid and less complex set-up process, while continuing to provide satisfactory options for preservation of larger print and manuscript materials (such as maps and posters)
  • a new-generation microfilm and microfiche scanner, enabling AIATSIS to again provide clients with a self-service capability for examining and printing microfilm materials while also enabling staff to digitise our microfilm collections.

Digitising significant and fragile artworks—photographing the Anbarra Rom poles

An image showing the Frank Gurrmanamana and Frank Malkorda Jambich Pole.
Frank Gurrmanamana, Frank Malkorda Jambich Pole (detail). Image copyright AIATSIS.
The Anbarra of northeast Arnhem Land call the ceremonies that formally recognise links betweenclans Rom. In 1979 two Anbarra Elders, Frank Gurrmanamanaand Frank Malkorda, expressed the wish to perform a Rom ceremony in Canberra. This took place at AIATSIS in 1982. AIATSIS houses the two Rom poles used in this ceremony in its collection.

In April 2019 AIATSIS digitised the Rom poles to address a number of concerns. The wooden poles are made from fragile, organic materials including feathers, tassels of hair, ochre and resin. Even under rigorous conservation and environmental controls, the poles will eventually degrade. Previous technology has not enabled comprehensive, accurate digital capture.

A composite image was created using the latest digital cameras and software technology to capture the poles in sections. Between the capture of each section the camera itself could not be moved without creating differences of exposure between each section. Nor could the pole be moved, as this would result in irregularities in detail elements such as hair and feathers. The solution was to secure the Rom pole to its background and move both between each shot, sliding it along an aluminium rail that was fixed to the floor as a guide.

When the resulting single image is viewed on a monitor, the viewer can see the pole at its full 3 metre length and then zoom in to see the finest details with absolute colour accuracy and razor-sharp clarity.