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About the Collection

For more than 50 years, AIATSIS has developed and been the custodian of a unique collection that has contributed to building understanding and appreciation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ culture and heritage.

The Collection includes academic research materials and works by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge keepers, artists, film makers, storytellers and writers.

It also includes important work by non-Indigenous people documenting the cultures, lives and experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. 

The Collection reflects both continuity and change in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures in Australia.

  • Art and object
    • The art and object collection includes over 6000 items and continues to grow through donations and purchases.

    The collection reflects the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural expression. It has a strong connection with the work of AIATSIS dating back to the early 1960s with particular strengths in late 20th-century and contemporary materials.

  • Books and printed material
    • 175,680 titles, including 1380 reference texts.
    • 3740 serials titles with 34,000 individual issues.
    • More than 18,000 books, including 4000 rare items. 

    We collect printed material relating to all topics about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies including languages, culture and society, family history and biography, visual arts, creative arts, performing arts, songs and music, history, health, education, land rights, native title, business and economics, media, film and communications, environment, cultural heritage protection, sport, government policy, law and justice and Australian parliamentary reports.

  • Film
    • 5000 video titles
    • 6.8 million feet of film 

    Our film collection includes published film and video titles, including prints of historical ethnographic films and other documentaries.The Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (AIAS) Film Unit, which operated between 1961 and 1991, produced many of the films in the collection; one of the largest assembly of ethnographic films created in the world at that time.

    Our film collection reflects changes in attitudes to anthropological filmmaking over time and includes more recent works of drama or documentary by directors like Rachel Perkins and Warwick Thornton. 

  • Languages
    • Austlang is an online database about Australian and Torres Strait Islander languages with over 1200 records of language varieties.

    Most of the estimated 250 Australian languages and 600-700 dialects are represented in our unrivalled language holdings including forty endangered languages recorded by Luise Hercus between 1963 and 1999 which have been inscribed on the National Film and Sound Archive's Sounds of Australia.

    The Australian Indigenous languages collection was established early in 1981 to bring together printed material written in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages. It now includes over 4500 titles and has been deemed to be of such world significance that it was placed on the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Register in 2009.

  • Manuscripts and rare books
    • 2,600 rare books
    • 12,800 manuscripts
    • 2,200 pamphlets
    • 1,700 serial titles (14,650 issues) of significance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies. 

    The collection is highly significant due to both its historic and research significance. It includes the Sorry Books, which are inscribed on the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Register, and the WEH Stanner papers. There are thousands of unpublished primary sources in the collection which include evidence on most of the crucial events, people, and developments relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples throughout the twentieth century.

  • Photographic
    • 700,000 photographs relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, dating from the late 1800s to the present day. 

    The photographic collection is the world's most comprehensive photographic record of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with more than ninety per cent of the collection consisting of unique materials.

  • Sound
    • 40,000 hours of audio, most of which is unique and unpublished. 

    The recordings in our sound collection document Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, ceremonies, music, and oral histories. The collection also includes a small number of copies of significant historical recordings held in overseas and interstate collections, selected published recordings, and broadcast materials.


The late Emeritus Professor, WEH Stanner, was the main initial contributor to our collection. Professor Stanner was instrumental to the establishment of AIATSIS and his maps, sketches, notes, diaries, photographs, audio recordings, and publications are still greatly used.


Our collection is highly significant both as a keeping place for culturally significant objects, and as a resource for anybody looking to improve their knowledge of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and culture.

Our collection promotes a unique understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, past and present, and many items cannot be found anywhere else in the world. A large part of the collection is a result of our fieldwork and film production activities, and donations from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians have steadily helped to grow the collection.

In 2014, Significance International conducted an independent assessment of the entire AIATSIS Collection to determine its significance to cultural heritage.

  • Statement of Significance - AIATSIS Collection

    Over its fifty years of life the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) has nurtured and safeguarded a unique understanding of Indigenous Australia through its collection. The core of the collection derives from research funded directly by the Institute through its long-running grant program, which supported ethnographic fieldwork and filmmaking. Indigenous contributions to the collection have increased since the 1989 revision of the original 1964 Act. Legislative requirements include enhanced connections between AIATSIS collection and research functions and the provision of policy advice to government.

    The primarily visual and oral forms of Indigenous Australian knowledge transmission are well documented in the audio, art and artefact sub-collections, with many graphic renderings of nuanced worldviews and understandings of natural world workings. Aspects of this knowledge have also been captured in moving and still imagery shot by Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers. The outstanding AIATSIS moving image, audio, pictorial and manuscripts sub-collections are an ‘inexhaustible’ source of insight for contemporary and future Australians. These items hold some answers to complex environmental and social challenges ranging from reducing suicide rates through language and family reclamation to evidencing and potentially halting biodiversity losses.

    Most of the estimated 250 Australian languages and 600-700 dialects are represented in the unrivalled AIATSIS language holdings from which the ‘Australian Indigenous Languages Collection’ has been registered with UNESCO Memory of the World Australian Program, and 40 ‘endangered languages’ recorded by Luise Hercus between 1963 and 1999 have been inscribed on the National Registry for Recorded Sound. Language is a key to much of this specialised Australian knowledge and also to the future aspirations and opportunities of Indigenous Australians. The founders of AIATSIS would be pleased to see the collection being used for contemporary creative production by Indigenous Australians as directors rather than subjects. Historic imagery, music and language are reworked in new and distinctively Australian forms of understanding and expression, which simultaneously serve more urbanised lifestyles.

    W E H Stanner was a founder of AIATSIS and shaper of its collecting remit. His maps, sketches, notes, diaries, photographic negatives, audio recordings, publications and the paintings of his research assistant then friend, Nym Bandak, are a fine example of meticulous anthropological work in collecting and linking information across material formats. The Stanner collection is a microcosm of the whole AIATSIS collection. This attention to meaningful detail was continued by expert anthropologists, archaeologists, collection managers, linguists and musicologists when they produced deep information records and finding aids for all future professional and personal collection data miners.

    As an intergenerational keeping place for Indigenous Australians the AIATSIS collection is significant across all four categories – historic, artistic / aesthetic, research / scientific, and social / spiritual – and remains the most extensive and best contextualised collection of Indigenous Australia in the world. It is a site of pilgrimage.

    Veronica Bullock
    21 August 2014

Last updated: 04 August 2022