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Build and preserve a national collection and make it accessible

Progress on ensuring our collection is representative, relevant, diverse, accessible and digital.

In 2020–21 AIATSIS delivered the following initiatives in line with our mission and functions. Our actions focused on reporting against our Corporate Plan 2020–2024. Additionally, at its May 2020 meeting, the AIATSIS Council reaffirmed the 2018–2023 Strategic Plan and priorities for AIATSIS, in particular collection accessibility.

  • Collection growth
  • Collection accessibility
  • Collection digitisation

Feature 1: Collections growth

Refer to TABLE 1: BUILD AND PRESERVE A NATIONAL COLLECTION AND MAKE IT ACCESSIBLE and Table 1a: Collection growth for statistics on growth of the Collection.

Notable achievements include:

  • the accessioning of 65 photographic collections comprising 12,971 items. Highlights of these additions are listed in Appendix A
  • an array of new art and object collection additions including those from Jenna Lee, Sooty Welsh and Samuel Doyle highlighted below.

Jenna Lee: A New Translation. Twelve works (AIAS782.160621) by artist Jenna Lee from her exhibition A New Translation, the latest iteration of her artistic practice in which she seeks to reclaim the act of recording, translating and listing words published in ‘Aboriginal Language’ dictionaries. Through the deconstruction and reconstruction of these dictionaries Lee has created woven vessels and coolamons, sculptures and collaged works on paper.

Jenna Lee is an emerging artist who has rapidly garnered national and international recognition through creative practice and expression of her Larrakia, Wardaman and Karajarri identity.

Sooty Welsh: Linear Nation. Three ceramics by artist Kevin ‘Sooty’ Welsh, acquired from the exhibition Linear Nation. Welsh is a Wailwan man who has emerged as a talented and prominent figure within the art world, winning awards such as the Orana Arts Indigenous Art Prize and Art Unlimited Exhibition (Highly Commended).

Samuel Doyle: Scorched Country. The painting Scorched Country by Samuel Doyle, an emerging Kamilaroi artist. Doyle’s painting reflects his experience of the 2019–2020 bushfires which affected the South Coast of NSW.

Other notable additions include:

  • a collection of 10 contemporary jewellery pieces by Biripi artist Wayne Simon
  • Mugaru (hand-held fish net) design shield with sword and Jubu (hunting boomerang) design paddle (AIAS747.181220), created by Yidinji artist Michael Boiyool-Anning
  • Kungkarangkalpa (AIAS755.120121), a stoneware pot by Pitjantjatjara artist Tjunkaya Tapaya OAM relating to a version of the Seven Sisters (Pleiades constellation in the Southern Hemisphere) creation story which takes place in the country near Pukatja (Ernabella)
  • the newly accessioned Willis collections offering a fascinating insight into the Kununurra community during the 1960s and 1970s. Accessioning of the 4,808 black-and-white negatives was completed in June 2021, and nearly 40 per cent of them are now digitised
  • a collection of photographs created by Dr Dorothy Tunbridge during academic research in the 1980s and 1990s. Accessioned this year, the collection contained 342 slides and 154 negatives and was part of a larger donation of Tunbridge’s papers by Mary Gilmore in 2018 (AIAS294.100418). This valuable information has been incorporated into item-level records on the photographic database and used to enhance the collection-level records in the Mura catalogue. This information will make the collection more discoverable to clients. Digital preservation of this material is nearly complete and a large proportion of the photographs have been captioned and uploaded to the photographic database.

Feature 2: Collections accessibility

Refer to TABLE 1: BUILD AND PRESERVE A NATIONAL COLLECTION AND MAKE IT ACCESSIBLE and Table 1b: Collection accessibility—accessibility to Table 1e: Collection accessibility—requests accessed within service standard for statistics on increasing access to the Collection.

Accessibility of the AIATSIS Collection remained a priority in 2020–21, with a number of teams undertaking initiatives designed to increase the discoverability and accessibility of this significant collection. Data on increasing discoverability aids is in Appendix A, Table 15 because this information does not contribute to performance targets published in the Corporate Plan or Portfolio Budget Statement. Notable achievements include:

  • creating 65 collection-level records and 19,815 item-level records in the photographic collection, contributing to the now 422,063 images available on the collections platform through the terminals in the Stanner Reading Room in the Maraga Building (AIATSIS). They are also discoverable on Trove
  • creating catalogue records for 30 audio, 2 film and 8 video collections, with a further 154 catalogue records upgraded to increase discoverability
  • creating 60 new and upgraded collection-level catalogue records for manuscript collections that were relocated to the National Archives of Australia (NAA) storage at Mitchell
  • creating finding aids for 7 audio and 2 moving image (film and video) collections
  • with the combination of the AIATSIS Peoples Thesaurus and Austlang in the first quarter of 2021 the platform is now available as the AIATSIS Collection Thesaurus for Languages and Peoples.
  • a number of pilot projects were undertaken to produce new finding aids and catalogue records and explore procedures to re-associate collections that were previously fragmented across different formats, making them discoverable as related material.
  • progressing work on the Identity Online project, designed to increase the accessibility of the Aboriginal Publications Foundation magazine Identity by making digitised versions available through an online platform
  • promoting the story of Collections staff collaborating to work on the Peter Worsley: Fieldwork with Anindilyakwa People on Groote Eylandt, 1952–1953 (MS 1857) manuscript collection
  • documenting the collaborative work on the Peter Worsley: Fieldwork with Anindilyakwa People on Groote Eylandt, 1952–1953 (MS 1857) manuscript collection
  • a number of presentations by collection staff, including a ‘Lightning Talk’ to Charles Sturt University Collections students about cultural competency and collections and Indigenous data sovereignty in relation to manuscript collections.
  • continuing specialist access services and support to native title clients seeking materials to support their legal claims.

Viewings of the Collection

Collection accessibility is also supported by viewings of Collection material. In 2020–21 there were multiple viewings by staff from other government departments and galleries, libraries, archives and museums (GLAM) sector institutions, with a view to increasing opportunities for the AIATSIS Collection to tell the story of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia and have people encounter, engage with and be transformed by that story.

The following activities provide further insight into our work on making the Collection accessible:

  • over 1,000 visitors per year to the AIATSIS Reading Room
  • over 2,000 access requests submitted to Collections Access
  • almost 5,000 items from the AIATSIS Collection provided to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across Australia
  • over 3,000 items sent to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals/communities across Australia via the Return of Materials to Indigenous Communities program
  • 1,024 requests to assist with searching for information about family
  • 43 requests for research assistance from Link-Up organisations (assisting Stolen Generations)
  • access to 323 items from the AIATSIS Collection to clients facilitated by Family History.

Notable achievements also include:

  • presenting the Collection to Cherrybrook Technology High School students.
  • Thank you so much for today. The students have been so focused today. The guidance you have given them in the presentation and the notes has been specific and very helpful and we really appreciate your ongoing support of our students in completing this project. Teacher
  • working collaboratively with the Cairns Museum to access and digitise a scroll from the Percy Trezise manuscript collection
  • promoting access to the Collection at a variety of forums, including at Converge, the First Nations Media Australia Conference; and to 23 librarians, library technicians and e-learning staff from the Canberra Institute of Technology (CIT).
    • Thank you so much for organising the visit yesterday. The passion the AIATSIS staff have for the work they do came across strongly in their presentations. I think all of us were able to take something away from the visit. CIT participant

Multiple gatherings in the Stanner Reading Room included:

  • ​​viewing the Alf Stafford collection donated by Michelle Flynn in 2014 by Michelle and 10 family members
  • hosting the Australian National University (ANU) Indigenous Heritage Management and Debates in Digital Heritage course
  • guiding the Geelong Leadership community program with an overview of the photographic collection and searching through our Mura catalogue for published material of the history of the Geelong region.

Family history

Family History is a dedicated team whose purpose is to assist Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are looking for information about their families.

Notable achievements in 2020–21 include:

  • over 500 people across Australia registering for three online family history training sessions during August, Family History Month. The training provided an insight into the AIATSIS Collection and its value to researching family history. Feedback surveys determined that 93 per cent of attendees would use AIATSIS to assist with family tracing in the future
  • an interview with CEO Craig Ritchie on ABC Radio hosted by Trevor Chappell during NAIDOC Week, Craig provided an overview of AIATSIS as ‘the only national institution focused exclusively on the diverse history, cultures and heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia’. The CEO discussed ‘the importance of talking to the people closest to you, particularly older relatives whose memories might span four or five generations. In the early stage of your family research these conversations are fact-finding missions and they might hold the key to opening more research avenues for you’.

Family History has a number of memorandums of understanding (MoUs) with record-keeping institutions that assist in our research. An example of our work under these agreements is delivering unaccredited training to 18 new Link-Up caseworkers, providing an introduction to the services provided and supporting them in their work. This engagement has been incredibly productive, with one participant commenting, ‘The training was well, organised and explained. The session was deadly, we learnt so much. Very informative and valuable for our team, thank you!’

Feature 3: Collection digitisation

Refer to TABLE 1: BUILD AND PRESERVE A NATIONAL COLLECTION AND MAKE IT ACCESSIBLE and Table 1f: Collection growth and accessibility—proportion of collection digitised by format for statistics on increasing digitisation of the Collection.

Digitisation of the AIATSIS Collection remains an ongoing priority. Notable achievements in 2020–21 include the digitisation of the:

  • Trezise and Worsley collections
  • Pallotine Mission and Tardun Schools Collection
  • Gerhardt Laves Collection.

The Trezise and Worsley collections

Digitisation of the Trezise and Worsley collections presented an interesting set of technical challenges, resulting in opportunities for the digitisation teams to develop innovative workflows for oversized and extended-length materials.

In 1952 and 1953 Peter Worsley undertook fieldwork with Anindilyakwa people on Groote Eylandt. The collection contains handwritten fieldwork records and includes 37 fragile and oversized rock art sketches and 17 genealogies hand-drawn on translucent kitchen paper that required rehousing.

During the 1960s and 1970s Percy Trezise worked with Ang-Gnarra people of Far North Queensland to document the Quinkan rock art located across the Laura Basin. These internationally significant 15,000 and 40,000 year old rock art galleries are included on the Australian Heritage Estate and the National Heritage List. UNESCO recognises them to be among the top 10 rock art sites in the world.

With the permission and help of the local community, Percy Trezise and his research assistants made tracings and painted replicas of the rock art on canvas. Even at one-quarter scale of the originals, some of the canvases are 15 metres in length.

The Cairns Museum requested access to the canvases to stage an exhibition about Percy Trezise in late 2021. In collaboration with the Ang-Gnarra people, the museum decided that one of the five-metre long canvases would be printed as a full-scale replica as a wall display. The selected canvas was digitally photographed at high resolution in the AIATSIS photographic studio.

Both the collections contained extra-long items, which required multiple high-resolution digital photographs, each capturing small sequential segments of the items. The resulting multiple images were then digitally composited and stitched together to create a single, highly faithful, high-resolution image of the canvas’s or scroll’s entire length.

The Pallotine Mission and Tardun Schools Collection

This collection includes media of every category. The past year has seen several components of the collection successfully digitised. This included 203 audio cassettes in which mould had developed, requiring complete hand-cleaning prior to digitisation. In addition, digitisation of 25,590 pages of records and 4,000 photographs of the Tardun School was completed. Digitising this collection has involved input from all digitisation technical staff at various times.

The Gerhardt Laves Collection

After 5½ years of intensive work, digitisation of the Gerhardt Laves Collection has been completed. It involved the preservation scanning, mastering and final quality assessment of over 27,500 pages, including over 19,000 handwritten cards and thin paper slips. Between August 1929 and August 1931 Gerhardt Laves undertook extensive fieldwork researching Australian Aboriginal languages. He was possibly the first person trained in modern linguistic fieldwork and analysis to study Australian languages. He intensively studied and documented six languages: ‘Kumbaingeri’ (Gumbaynggir) in northern New South Wales; ‘Karadjeri’ (Karajarri) at Lagrange Bay, north-west Western Australia; ‘Barda’ (Bardi) at Cape Leveque, north-west Western Australia; ‘Kurin’ (Goreng) near Albany, Western Australia; and ‘Hermit Hill’ (Matngele) and ‘Ngengumeri (Ngan’gimerri) at Daly River, Northern Territory.

We also focused on:

  • preserving all motion picture soundtracks
  • digitising the Warwick Thornton film Samson and Delilah
  • expanding our storage capability.

Motion picture separate magnetic soundtrack

Motion picture film cameras do not record audio directly onto the film, but on a separate magnetic soundtrack tape, or sepmag, which is edited with the film. The two are synchronised and combined by the film lab into the final motion picture film and soundtrack. Sepmag tended to use lower cost recording material, and as it becomes older it is prone to deterioration. After dedicated action over recent years, we have now preserved 100 per cent of the current holdings. However, it should be noted that this format category of the collection will expand in the future as motion picture film and soundtrack deposits continue to be offered and accepted. A focus will continue to ensure all of this material is digitised as a priority.

Digitisation of moving image materials

The digitisation of the film negatives of Warwick Thornton’s 2009 commercial film Samson and Delilah is now complete. Being a 35 mm cinema film, it was scanned at the industry’s best practice resolution of 4K (3840 x 2160 pixels per frame, or four times more data than HDTV), resulting in a highly faithful digital preservation master.

During the course of the year, 628 video tapes (489 hours) of small-format video (MiniDV, DVCAM, DVCPro) were successfully digitised via outsourcing, and the material has been returned to AIATSIS.

Storage capability

In December 2020, the rare book and reserve collections, totalling 460 linear metres, were transported to the National Archives of Australia (NAA) repository in Mitchell. Approximately 250 linear metres (roughly 75 individual manuscript collections) of unprocessed manuscript materials were also moved. In May 2021 the manuscript collection from Jon Altman was surveyed, listed and packed by AIATSIS staff in Melbourne and then transported to the NAA, totalling 46 boxes. During this move, the following materials were all successfully transferred offsite: 371 linear metres of audiovisual materials, including access 7-inch audiotape reels; access cassettes and duplicate archive CDs; the Kerry Reed Gilbert art and object collection; and old exhibition panels that were inventoried and rehoused by Registration.

Collections-based research

Our collections-based research included:

  • Preserve, Strengthen and Renew community partnerships
  • Yumalundi visitors program

Preserve, Strengthen and Renew

The Preserve, Strengthen and Renew program engages community partners in accessing, interpreting and adding to collections for which they have cultural authority. In this reporting period, Preserve, Strengthen and Renew: South Coast was the focus of the program. The South Coast Voices community resource is currently in the stages of consultation with local Aboriginal land councils. Due to the bushfires in 2019 and 2020 and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the South Coast phase was significantly delayed. A final project report has been completed for the pilot project with the Kiwirrkurra, Karajarri traditional owners and Wangka Maya Pilbara Aboriginal Language Centre and was published on the AIATSIS website on 21 December 2020, bringing the pilot to a close. Our work demonstrates the benefits of reinforcing ethical behaviour, supporting archive management practices and reinforcing knowledge generation and practice when connecting communities with archives.

Yumalundi Vistors Program

The AIATSIS visitors program includes internships, adjunct visiting fellows and collections based research fellowships, under the umbrella of the Yumalundi Visitors Program. ‘Yumalundi’ means welcome in the local Ngunnawal language.

In this reporting period Dr Valerie Cooms, Quandamooka historian, visited AIATSIS collection to interrogate the National Aboriginal Congress files. This collection includes detailed records of the ‘Makarrata’ consultations that were held in the 1970s to explore the options for a treaty process in Australia as well as insights into a critical period of Commonwealth administration of Indigenous Affairs.