Australian Aboriginal History – Episode 1

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It is not uncommon in cultural heritage management to find yourself walking into the middle of a conflict. It’s usually a conflict that stems from misbalancing communication, time, money and stakeholder interest. Sometimes it is a conflict that is deeply rooted and resolving that conflict seems beyond the constraints of that commercial project. So, I’m going to go back to basics and try and be a bit more reflective about my practices at work. Hopefully this approach will help me improve my consultation and reporting skills, highlight some gaps in my knowledge and increase my engagement with archaeology, history and cultural heritage management.

So, back to basics. Lectures from Professor Richard Broome’s Australian Aboriginal History course at La Trobe’s University have been placed on ITunes so I had a listen to the first episode while sorting out my clothes closet. The lecture provided an introduction and overview of how Australia’s Aboriginal history has been told over the last two hundred years, touching on themes and theories such as the noble and doomed savage, paternalism, colonialism, political activism, the History Wars, cultural engagement and collaboration. Professor Broome emphasised the importance of thinking about how writing history can have a strong and wide influence on people’s identity and also our understanding of other people.

In a perfect world, a consultant archaeological and/or cultural heritage assessment report in NSW would capture all or most of the tangible and intangible cultural heritage values across time so that the stories behind these values can be told and impacts assessed. But how often does this happen as well as it could? Archaeological reports written by consultants often emphasise material evidence – the presence or absence of artefacts and sites – and written accessible evidence as it relates to specific parcels of land. This emphasis helps consultants identify the potential impacts to tangible values and hints at potential intangible values. One of the follow-on effects of this focus is perhaps a less comprehensive narrative of Aboriginal history after the 1900s and potentially a narrative that is unholistic – one that runs the risk of appearing to deny the identities and narratives of individuals who have a connection to that place. It’s not that consultants don’t have a framework for incorporating this information into their assessments and it’s not like there aren’t many excellent examples where multiple narratives have been brought together to work holistically. I think it would be rare to find a heritage consultant who didn’t have a genuine interest and desire in understanding people and place better. Consultants aim to look at the cultural landscape but pragmatism can sometimes constrain that goal. Sometimes I think when information is missing from an assessment it’s because of a lack of access to that information or that there were time and monetary contraints to chasing every lead in a place’s narrative. It’s why consultation with local Aboriginal communities is such an important part of the environmental impact/ cultural heritage impact assessment process. Consultants rely on local Aboriginal communities engaging in the consultation process and giving voice to the stories and connection to place. They rely on local input to provide local knowledge, local experience and to provide checks and balances to the pressures of the consultant industry.

It’s not a perfect system. There are numerous spots along the way where a cultural heritage assessment can fall apart and affect the quality of the history being told to its audience. It can fall apart because of a lack of research, experience and skillsets of a consultant, from a lack of communication or commitment between all of the involved parties and sometimes a lack of capacity (eg. Lack of funding, lack of support to provide those important check and balances). This is all before we get to questions of politics and who has the right to know what or be where, before we get to questions of working with individual and group identities, which change and grow with life’s experiences, before we think about managing conflicting agendas and before we even look at the other systems and models for undertaking cultural heritage assessment and management.

In summary, it is important to think about how my words can affect groups of people and my responsibility to write history in a collaborative, inclusive way. I think it would be good to understand the advantages and disadvantages of other models of cultural heritage assessment – do other models provide better opportunities for cultural knowledge holders to effectively manage heritage values in a place? Do other models result in better quality, more consistently inclusive historical narratives?

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Brahms and Strauss at the Opera House

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