AIATSIS: the great keeping place


Voice over: Aboriginal lore says that all the Ancient and Sacred Song Lines pass through Uluru. A place deep in the hearts of every Australian. Now these timeless stories and rich history is captured in the digital song lines which holds them for all generations.

Luke: And right in the heart of Canberra, the Song Line takes us to this very special Keeping Place. This is AIATSIS - the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. Now that’s a bit of a mouthful. But believe me, this place is a treasure trove.

Professor Michael (Mick) Dodson AM: It’s the biggest collection of Aboriginal and Torres strait Islander materials on the planet. And that’s kept here in a place that’s the state of the art. What needs to be appreciated about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures is that they’re the oldest continuing culture in the world. They’ve been around a long long time. And that’s something that I think isn’t as appreciated as it ought to be.

Voice over: What lies within the walls of AIATSIS are the stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, traditions and livelihoods spanning hundreds of years. These stories are intrinsic to our national identity. So let’s explore it and appreciate the unique place of the oldest continuing culture in the world. And here is a great starting point, the Stanner Room, the main library.

Luke: These are the stacks, there’s some much information and so many important stories… right here.

Voice over: It’s the place where people come to begin tracking down their personal stories. There’s so much stuff here. This is fascinating. An amazing Keeping Place of our Cultural heritage ….and ….our history. The Library holds more than 170,000 items of the most comprehensive research collections of print materials in Australian Indigenous studies in the world.

Russell Taylor: These records are made up of photographs, films, audio tapes, that date back a considerable period, cover all aspects of Indigenous histories, Indigenous languages, Indigenous customs, traditions, practices and Indigenous peoples. They tell very important stories.

Professor Michael (Mick) Dodson AM: And it’s ideally placed here because this building is built for that purpose…to make sure …not only these things are preserved and maintained and looked after, but are available for future generations.

Voice over: For these old magazines going back a long way they chronicle Indigenous hopes and aspirations across the decades. 

Rod Stroud: The Dawn Magazines were published from the 1950 through to the 1970s and whilst the time they were source of government propaganda (so to speak) in today’s eyes they’re an invaluable source for family history. Hundreds and hundreds of pictures, all of them captioned, and we’ve digitised them and they’re on the web and its one of our most valuable websites. So It’s essential for people doing their family history research.

Voice over: All the Koori Mails are here and online. Australia’s oldest Indigenous newspaper. An incredible record of the past and a record of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander events across the nation. The Libraries’ Collections are of great research value especially for personal and community use, language renewal and native title research. And family history….

Patricia Wall: I thought OK I'll put in Cowal Creek and it came up. All the old houses all the old shacks and to my surprise I found my fathers photos when he was 10 years old and his name was at the bottom his name was at the bottom, Nicholas Boyd. Ah I felt so excited, I didn't know whether to scream but I felt I was crying inside and I was just kept repeating my father my father and hitting the next button and there he was again at the age of 19 outside of the church at Cowal Creek he was the altar boy and he always talked about that and here we saw it, never saw these photos before. He's talked so much about all this stuff, and here it was all on this information data and I would say to anyone if you're looking for something you must contact AIATSIS because they've got it all.

Voice over: The Library’s Family history Unit assists Link up case workers in Family tracing and reunions for members of the stolen generations. The role of AIATSIS is important because it is the major repository for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and societies, materials about those cultures and societies and the fact that those collections are accessible - not just to the Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander peoples that it’s about -  but also for people who are interested in Aboriginal culture and Torres Strait Islander culture, their societies and their language and a range of other things.

Voice over: The Institute holds the Australian Indigenous Languages collection which is inscribed on the UNESCO, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s Memory of the World register – this means the languages collection has world significance and is of outstanding universal value to all. This collection has been gathered by our researchers  working with communities and is often accessed by historians, teachers and students. Not to mention film makers, and material for Native Title Research.

Keeping culture means honouring and respecting culture. Some of the cultural stories shared with AIATSIS researchers or the manuscripts, articles and artefacts housed within AIATSIS are culturally sensitive and these items are not readily accessible.

Luke: Down here is the film and sound archives, they say there’s some amazing stuff in here.

Voice over: They say that in these vaults there is about eight million feet of film footage. That’s enough to reach from Canberra to Perth. I want to see for myself some of the images that show my people in times past.In these vaults there is about eight million feet of film footage. That’s enough to reach from Canberra to Perth. I want to see for myself some of the images that show my people in times past. What we’re talking about here is amongst the oldest continuing organised human societies. That’s something that ought to be very much appreciated in Australia...that we ought to all as Australians feel very proud that’s part of our country and the history of our country.

Waiting for Harry: It was my idea to bring these film makers. All is now finished and I am filled with pride.

Voice over: Tom Eccles and the staff know this footage like the back of their hand. 

Tom Eccles: Well we’ve got some of the oldest film footage in Australia as part of the collection dating back to 1896, We’ve also got materials 20s and 30s and very importantly we’ve got collections of Indigenous painting that Geoffrey Bardon filmed in the 1970s… most of which was going to be trashed…we salvaged it…restored it..and made it available through digitisation.

Voice over: There is footage of so many poignant moments. In 1984, the government cleared people off the land at Maralinga, in south Australia,  so that they could use this Sacred Country to test nuclear bombs those fateful events were captured on film. This is gut wrenching stuff to see. It makes the whole thing so immediate. So many things that must never be forgotten. It makes the whole thing come alive. 

Alana Harris: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people just are more connected to audio visual materials than they are to written material. So I think hearing and seeing images or voices are so much more emotive than reading a document.

Voice over: It’s a treasure that we are the custodians of. We have a duty that’s our role…we have a duty to look after that. Not just for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples but all peoples across the planet who are interested in these things.

Goeynaw Isua: Dad likes taking pictures of the cultural whether its dancing or performances or any other traditional activities and this is one of my favourites because you can actually see him as he's in his prime at the moment and this was taught to him by his parents and his grandparents. I'm really proud of this photo, I see him dancing with his dari on in and the traditional gear on he's no longer with us but his memory lives on.

Voice over: So many of the old ways and the old stories are at risk of being lost. Time is the enemy and even though AIATSIS keeps many items in its collections in the best possible environment, items may deteriorate over the years. And there is a lot of material that is very old and needs urgent attention. So what can be done?

Russell Taylor: It is a race against time and at the moment I have to say to you that we are losing that race and there is now doubt that unless things change, unless our resources are enhanced there is no doubt that elements of our wonderful, irreplaceable audio visual records are at serious risk.

Voice over: Analogue material is disintegrating and so it is very important that we can digitise that before it actually comes away from tapes and things like that. It would be nothing short of a tragedy for this nation if materials in the collection deteriorate beyond repair.  They all come in different formats, over time they deteriorate and the only way we can preserve them, not just for current interests, but also for our children and their children, so they can access these records in the future, we need to make sure that we protect and preserve them by digitisation processes.

Voice over: UNESCO estimates that there is little more than a decade to save this material for future generations or it will be lost forever. Though AIATSIS may be hampered by limited funding and resourcing they continue to work through 47,000 audio recordings, carefully digitising the files. 47,000 audio files - it would take more than 22 years to listen to all of these recordings. So many unheard stories, too precious to lose.

Luke: So Cameron, Talk us through, what do you do here? Alright Luke we have this collection of 7 inch reels of audio tape, we have to make sure that we get this process as correct as we possibly can, put these on, and these bits of metal are shields that protect the replay head from electro magnet interference….again to give the heads the best possible chance of going thru without anything going wrong. If I turn this up, and listen to this speaker here…. Awesome.

Voice over: It gives me a chill...and a thrill. To hear the voices. The singing. To hear what we have lost in the physical world. Yet through the digital songlines preserved here at AIATSIS, it allows us to connect with our stories, to feel pride and respect for our ancestors. This really is a gift – a treasure for the nation.

Alana Harris: If we don’t get the collections digitised we’re going to lose huge amounts of material.

Voice over: There is no doubt that the loss of those irreplaceable records, invaluable records, about our songs, our history, our dance, our language, our people, there is no doubt the loss of those records will represent a serious loss not only to the Indigenous community of Australia but also to Australia as a nation and also to the international community.

Voice over: Just down the hall is this place. Here are hundreds of thousands of photographs and important keepsakes. This mob look after more than a million items altogether. 650,000 of them are priceless photographs. I can’t get my head around that. 

Alana Harris: We see how it affects people that have access the material because it’s so emotive, it’s not like reading a book form a library so we have people who have come through and they’ll be in tears cause they’ve seen photos of their grandparents.

Voice over: The materials and collections housed in AIATSIS it’s like a time capsule that speaks to us powerfully now. It is so important that future generations can also have this experience. The film footage held at AIATSIS is as diverse as it is breath taking. Like this vision recorded on Murray Island in the Torres Straits in 1898. This film is the world’s first field footage of Indigenous peoples in Australia. There’s home movie recordings shot in the 1960s showing canoe making in the Aurafura sea.

Voice over: Films which capture some of the most poignant moments in our national history. Priceless. And if AIATSIS is to continue growing, we must support its important work in preserving our materials… today and into the future. So how has AIATSIS collected the stories and materials?

Voice over: Over the years, many people have handed in material to AIATSIS because they feel it should be kept safe, like the amazing 26,000 audio-visual items brought in. It funds researchers to get to the very heart of stories, to sit down and listen to Elders, who are the custodians of the wisdom and stories of the Dreamtime, the culture, the language, their country. The Institute has an established and multi discipline research program of world class. This program contributes to policy formulation in priority areas and supports Australian Indigenous Studies, teaching and trains researchers it alsopublishes many works in academic journals and on the AIATSIS web site.

Lisa Strelein: We work really closely with all of the Land Council, the Native title rep bodies and develop a research program that really tries to identify the emerging issues in the recognition of Native Title rights. Try and really interrogate those and make sure that practice in native Title, policy in Native Title is really reflective of the best thinking we can have around native title.

Voice over: AIATSIS has become an incubator for Indigenous researchers providing training, facilities and support for Indigenous trainee researchers and visiting and honorary scholars. Like Researcher…. Ray Lovett. 

Ray Lovett: AIATSIS is really encouraging the development of Indigenous researchers right across Australia, along with myself there’s a number of other Indigenous visiting research fellows and we’re from all over Australia.

Lisa Strelein: We want to make sure that Indigenous people’s intellectual contribution, and cultural contribution is fully respected by researchers when they engage research with Indigenous communities. The AIATSIS Guidelines for Ethical Research really frame the way that we conduct research at AIATSIS but they’re also a leading global example of how to conduct research appropriately in Indigenous context. What we try to do with our guidelines is make sure that it is really clear to researchers how they should engage and reach agreement with Indigenous communities about their research – about how they conduct it, what kind of products they do, and how the community can actually benefit from being involved in their project.

Voice over: At the heart of what AIATSIS does, are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Some people experience the value of the AIATSIS collection by visiting the institute and other people experience that unique moment when AIATSIS visits communities.

Alana Harris: We do play a very vital part in returning materials to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Voice over: For more than 30 years, AIATSIS’s publishing arm, Aboriginal Studies Press, continues to publish important stories on the diversity of our culture and people to audiences from around the world. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous authors and academics work together, providing readers with access to stories and a view to Australian history that would otherwise remain invisible. You might know some of their work from the Aboriginal Australia Map, or the Little Red Yellow and Black book – it’s an invaluable introduction to Australia’s rich Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures.

Professor Michael (Mick)  Dodson AM: I can’t think of any organisation elsewhere on the globe that combines all these things in one institution. We certainly here at AIATSIS know that if we had more money we could do more things. Particularly in giving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, who afterall we hold all this materials for…we are the custodians essentially. We would like to make that access more readily available. Make the access easy to get. Do more on line and a range of other things. Do more community visits, getting communities to come here. Take materials out to communities…a whole range of things. We’d like to do more research…We’re ever expanding…we’d like a some more space.

Voice over: To know who you are and what your story is means you can walk this land with confidence and pride and hope. My time here, was like finding in the ashes a message stick from the past to pass onto future generations. AIATSIS is a keeping place in the very best sense where memories are treasured this is where the digital songlines are safe.

Russell Taylor: These wonderful irreplaceable records, that are of some considerable and significant value not just to Indigenous Australians… but to Australia as a nation an certainly to the international community… and as other people have said, if we’re not able to win this race against time, unquestionably the memory of the world will be severely diminished.