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Chief Executive Officer’s report

There is no doubt that 2019–2020 has been a challenging year. In spite of the environmental and other challenges, this year has seen AIATSIS achieve many goals, including the celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, engineering, agriculture, art and culture. We have also seen the departure of a number of AIATSIS Council members, and the commencement of new members.

The July 2019 launch of the educational resource Our Land, Our Stories, has created unprecedented opportunities for school students to engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures through the stories and contributions of 36 Indigenous Australians, supplemented with hundreds of items from the vast AIATSIS collections.

Our program of activities to celebrate the International Year of Indigenous Languages 2019 was incredibly successful, concluding with the high-level event for the closing on 17 December 2019 at the United Nations headquarters in New York. As co-chair of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) steering committee for the International Year of Indigenous Languages 2019, I led a delegation to Mexico for the  UNESCO high-level event ‘Making a decade of action for indigenous languages’ and the International Congress of Endangered Languages at Risk in February 2020. The resulting declaration of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages 2022–2032 recognises that the rejuvenation and advancement of language—an essential element of culture—is an urgent and long-term enterprise.

In 2019–2020 AIATSIS continued to lead the evolution of ethical best practice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research and cultural collections with the development of a new draft Code of Ethics for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research. After a highly engaged consultation process, the new code will be released early in 2020–2021, replacing the Guidelines for Ethical Research in Australian Indigenous Studies, which have set the standards for ethical research for more than 20 years.

December 2019 also saw the launch of the first AIATSIS-curated exhibition installed in the National Museum of Australia, Ngulla Wellamunagaa: Trees That Have Survived and Revived. The exhibition told stories of the survival, continuity and diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, using materials from the extensive collections at AIATSIS and generous contributions from communities around Australia. 

While the second half of the year presented a series of challenges, many important events occurred before these disruptions. These included the Australian National Indigenous Research Conference in July 2019, the Paper and Talk Summit for community language researchers in September 2019, the Ngulla Wellamunagaa exhibition, the AIATSIS Art Market in December 2019, and the Nyiyanang Wuunggalu Policy Symposium in February 2020.

The Return of Cultural Heritage Pilot Project was a success founded on our growing international relationships and deep community partnerships. This two-year project enabled AIATSIS to pursue the return of cultural heritage materials held overseas to their custodians in Australia. At the completion of the pilot project term on 30 June 2020, 85 culturally significant objects had been returned to five communities from two international institutions: the Museum of Manchester, University of Manchester (United Kingdom); and the Illinois State Museum (United States of America).

Consistent with the AIATSIS theme for 2020, ‘Brilliant: Indigenous Genius Then and Now’, we celebrated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language, engineering, agriculture, art and culture. One example, only now receiving recognition, is the story of Jimmie Barker and his remarkable innovations in sound recording, brought to light through AIATSIS research in collaboration with Jimmy’s family. With the resources of our collection, our research expertise and our rich partnerships with other organisations and community, we look forward to celebrating many more such stories, both past and present, in 2020–2021.

Even in the face of the year’s challenging events, the critical everyday work of AIATSIS continued in the workplace, and in people’s homes. I want to thank all the staff of  AIATSIS once again for their dedication, perseverance and teamwork. I also thank AIATSIS Chairperson Jodie Sizer and all the members of the AIATSIS Council for their leadership and contribution throughout the year.

Craig Ritchie
Chief Executive Officer