2019–2020 has been a year of achievement, as well as challenge, for AIATSIS.
The Ngulla Wellamunagaa exhibition at the National Museum of Australia was one such achievement, emblematic of how AIATSIS works to preserve, research and promote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and heritage in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Curated by AIATSIS, this exhibition told stories that affirm connections to country and celebrate the survival of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. Material in AIATSIS’ collection joined new acquisitions and items loaned by cultural centres and community members, all backed by deep and rigorous research. It was my great pleasure to open the exhibition on 5 December 2019 in Canberra.
AIATSIS also continued celebrations for International Year of Indigenous Languages 2019. Activities included the Ngalipa Nyangu Jaru: Pirrjirdi Ka Ngalpa Mardani Our Language, Keeping Us Strong exhibition in the AIATSIS foyer gallery, the Paper and Talk Summit for community language researchers, publication of four more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language dictionaries, ongoing development of the Austlang database and digitisation of language materials in the AIATSIS collection, particularly fragile audio recordings on magnetic tape.
The preservation and propagation of Australia’s wealth of Indigenous languages has always been part of AIATSIS’ business, and the International Year shone a spotlight on the institute’s longstanding efforts and precious collection. We welcome the United Nations General Assembly resolution on 18 December 2019 proclaiming the International Decade of Indigenous Languages 2022–2032, which will help keep attention and resources focused on this important work. Languages are a living thing, and their resurgence is ongoing.
AIATSIS’ work to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities as they claim, preserve, and celebrate their heritage in the face of historical dispossession made great strides this year. After laying the groundwork with research and relationship-building in 2018–19, the Return of Cultural Heritage Pilot Project secured the return of 85 culturally significant objects to five Aboriginal language groups. The announcement by the Minister for Indigenous Australians, the Hon Ken Wyatt AM, MP, on 15 July 2020, of $9.99 million over four years for the Return of Cultural Heritage initiative means that AIATSIS can continue this inestimably valuable work.
A number of new Council members joined AIATSIS in 2019–2020 and we are very fortunate to have each of you with us. I welcome Bart Pigram (WA), Sue Kee (WA), Ashley Walker (NSW), Henrietta Marrie AM (QLD), Judith Ryan AM (VIC) and Murray Saylor (QLD), who now lend their expertise and experience to the stewardship of the institute. I offer my sincere gratitude and appreciation to departing Council members Rachel Perkins, Stephen Kinnane, Donisha Duff and Geoffrey Winters, for their work and collegiate support over recent years.
Australia’s terrible bushfire season, which peaked in December and January, disrupted business for AIATSIS in Canberra, and affected a number of our community partners. The emerging COVID-19 pandemic then transformed AIATSIS’ operating environment, as well as that of communities, peer organisations and colleagues around Australia and the world. I want to acknowledge the hard work of AIATSIS CEO Craig Ritchie and AIATSIS’ management and employees in adapting to these challenges, and their flexibility and good grace in finding ways to continue AIATSIS’ important functions in the face of such obstacles.
In 2019–2020 we saw AIATSIS deliver on a commitment to increase accessibility to its collection and further deepen our valued relationship with our primary stakeholders, Aboriginal people and communities. The changing environment, including the ongoing impact of the pandemic, means that AIATSIS will keep finding new ways to protect the collection, engage with our partners and reach out to the Australian community. Alongside the other Council members, I look forward to meeting this challenge in 2020–2021.