Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies

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Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
Lineup in front of AIATSIS building.jpg
The queue to go into the National Museum of Australia.
Established 1964
Location Acton, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) is an independent Australian Government statutory authority. It is Australia's premier institution for information about the cultures and lifestyles of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It is located on Acton Peninsula in Canberra, Australian Capital Territory.


The Institute may not have existed without the foresight of William Wentworth. W.C. Wentworth MP proposed the idea of an Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (AIAS) in 1959.[1] The proposal was considered by a sub-committee of Cabinet in 1960.[2] A working party was formed at the Australian National University (ANU) to look into the possibility of setting up this organisation. The working party asked W.E.H. Stanner to organise a conference on Aboriginal Studies,[3] to be held in 1961 at the ANU. The report on the conference indicated agreement that an Institute was needed.

The Prime Minister, Robert Menzies appointed an Interim Council in 1961. The role of the interim Council was to plan for a national Aboriginal research organisation. The Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies was established under an Act of Parliament in 1964. At the time, its mission was "to record language, song, art, material culture, ceremonial life and social structure before those traditions perished in the face of European ways."[4]

AIAS had a twenty-two member Council and a foundation membership of one hundred and its work increased cross disciplinary interaction leading to 'Aboriginal studies' beginning.

Major changes occurred early in the 1970s. Aboriginal people were demanding a voice on Council, consultation with communities and projects relevant to the needs of Indigenous people.[5] From then on Council has had Aboriginal membership.

Aboriginal Studies Press is the publishing arm of the Institute and was established in 1964, initially for white academics to publish works about Aboriginal people. It took until 1977 for the press to publish the first book written by an Aboriginal. That book was The two world of Jimmie Barker : the life of an Australian Aboriginal, 1900-1972.[6]

The AIAS Film Unit had its beginnings in Sydney. The unit was moved to Canberra in 1975 with David and Judith MacDougall, ethnographic film makers heading up the team.[7] Films produced by the unit include: Waiting for Harry directed by Kim McKenzie with anthropologist Les Hiatt, a prizewinning film and the most popular to be produced by the unit. Waiting for Harry starts out as a documentary of a funeral ceremony, capturing the mortuary rituals of the Burarra people. The film ends up as a record of the complexities surrounding both the rituals and the cultural processes which must take place in their own time and order.[8] The Film Unit was disbanded in 1991.[9]

The Wentworth lecture has been presented since 1978 as a tribute to W. C. Wentworth for his role in establishing the Institute.[10] Every two years, a lecture is presented by a prominent person in Aboriginal studies. A number of these have been given by Aboriginal people.

The Rock Art Protection Program (RAPP) commenced in 1986 following a request for such an initiative by the then Minister of Aboriginal Affairs Clyde Holding. The aim of the RAPP was to protect Australian Indigenous rock art. Grants were approved by the Institute to fund various projects related to rock art protection.[11]

The library, the bibliographic section and the resource centre (which looked after audiovisual material) were separate sections of the Institute up until 1980. By 1987 all three sections were combined under the Library.[12] The Audiovisual Archives split from the library to become its own section in 1997.

The After 200 years project aimed to fill some of the gaps in the AIATS photographic collection. Aboriginal involvement in photographing and documenting the collection was a major part of the project. The project culminated in the publication of a book containing hundreds of photographs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Many of the photos in the book were taken and selected by Indigenous people. The book is arranged in groupings of photos by communities. This emphasises the diversity of the people and their ways of living in Indigenous communities.[13]

The AIAS Act was replaced by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Act in 1989. This new Act created a Research Advisory Committee and reduced the size of the Council to nine members.


The functions of AIATSIS under the Act are:

(a) to undertake and promote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies;

(b) to publish the results of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies and to assist in the publication of the results of such studies;

(c) to conduct research in fields relevant to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies and to encourage other persons or bodies to conduct such research;

(d) to assist in training persons, particularly Aboriginal persons and Torres Strait Islanders, as research workers in fields relevant to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies;

(e) to establish and maintain a cultural resource collection consisting of materials relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies;

(f) to encourage understanding, in the general community, of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies;[14]


The Council consists of nine members, four elected by the Institute's membership and five appointed by the Minister. One person appointed by the Minister is a Torres Strait Islander, four other people appointed by the Minister are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders.

Current AIATSIS Council Chairperson:

  • Professor Mick Dodson, AM, is a member of the Yawuru peoples the traditional Aboriginal owners in the Broome area of the southern Kimberley region of Western Australia.

The first Aboriginal Chairperson of AIATSIS Council:

The first Aboriginal woman to be Chairperson of AIATSIS Council:

Research Advisory Committee[edit]

The Research Advisory Committee is responsible for overseeing the quality, independence and ethics of AIATSIS research projects and programs, including research grants.

The committee vets applications made to AIATSIS for research grants and membership of the Institute. Recommendations are then made to Council in relation to research activities.

Membership of the committee numbers eleven. Three Council members are appointed by the Council and eight members of the Institute are elected by the members.[15]

Ethical research[edit]

AIATSIS is a leader when it comes to research ethics.[16] "Ethical research is about ensuring responsible conduct in research." Originally written in 2000, the AIATSIS guidelines for ethical research were updated in 2010. Many changes have occurred in the last 10 years, particularly in the area of intellectual property and the rights of Indigenous people. It is important that research projects include appropriate rights management.[17]

Family history research and the Biographical Index[edit]

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Biographical Index had its beginnings in 1979 as a Biographical Names Register. The AIAS Council agreed to a proposal that Library staff commence work on a biographical names register. The aim of the register was to provide a record of the achievements of Aboriginal people and it was hoped that it would be seen as a "source of pride for generations to come".[18]

Today the index continues to be updated, using references from both historical and contemporary works held by the AIATSIS library.[19] Knowing who you are, where you come from and how you fit in is an important part of identity. The index is used as a research tool for people conducting family history research.

Due to funding changes the Family History Unit at AIATSIS is no longer able to answer requests for detailed family history searches from the public.[20]

The AIATSIS Access and Client Services Unit can assist with searches of or accessing an item in the AIATSIS collections.

AIATSIS produces the Family History Research Kit as a resource to guide users on tracing their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage.

The Native Title Research Unit (NTRU)[edit]

The NTRU began in 1993 after an AIATSIS Council decision, following Mabo v Queensland in 1992.

The role of the NTRU is to provide advice and assistance on native title claims and to conduct research into the issues surrounding native title in general. Initially funded by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), currently the NTRU is funded by the Indigenous Programs Branch of the Dept. of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA).

The NTRU runs an annual conference on native title and related topics. Current projects of the NTRU include The Commonwealth minimum connection threshold project. Where research is being conducted into policy, law and attitudes of stakeholders towards the government connection tests for negotiating native title consent determinations.[21]

2012 is the 20th anniversay of the Mabo decision, the first successful native title claim.

The Collections[edit]

It is the collections at AIATSIS that grab your attention. Foremost of the world's collections of materials relating to Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and cultures, are held within the Library and the Audiovisual Archives. More than 500 Australian Indigenous languages and/or dialects are referenced in the collections. The collections are a result of and support research in the fields of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.[22]

Open to the public, the Library holds in its collections, printed materials in a range of formats. Including, manuscripts, journals, readers in language, dictionaries and grammars, books, rare books, maps, posters kits, microforms and CD ROMS.

A collection close to the heart of many Indigenous people is the Australian Indigenous Languages Collection. The collection includes material in Aboriginal languages across Australia and also contains Torres Strait Islander publications in Meriam Mer, Kala Lagaw Ya and Creole. It is calculated that prior to 1788, over 250 separate languages with 500 dialects were spoken by Australia's Indigenous peoples.[23] The collection, along with the Sorry Books have been cited in the register for the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World. In 1998, thousands of Australians, the famous, to the everyday, wrote messages of apology to the Australian Indigenous peoples for past treatment and injustices.[24]

The Audiovisual Archives holds collections of moving image, audio and photographs. Currently the archives has in approximate numbers, 45,000 hours of recorded sound, 650,000 photographic images, 1000 artefacts and 6 1/2 million feet of film. "The Archive’s strength lies in the unique and irreplaceable nature of its audiovisual collections, and the immediate and emotional link they provide between past, present and future generations."[25]

Significant collection items in the Audiovisual Archives includes copies of an ethnographic wax cylinder recordings made in the Torres Strait Islands in 1898. The Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to the Torres Strait, led by Alfred Cort Haddon, recorded songs and speech from Mer / Murray Island, Mabuiag / Jervis Island, Saibai Island, Tudu Island and Iama / Yam Island.[26]

Along with its own catalogue, AIATSIS adds records to other organisations search platforms such as the National Library of Australia’s Trove. Further enhancing discoverability of and access to its collections.[27]


Digitisation of material in the collections at AIATSIS is essential in preserving fragile unique items such as manuscripts, photographs, sound recordings and films. Access to the collections beyond the analogue formats is crucial for current and future generations.

2001 saw a pilot program for digitisation established in AIATSIS both for printed and audiovisual material. Originally funded by ATSIC, the program was extended with additional funding from Commonwealth agencies Department of Education Science and Training (DEST), and then Department of Innovation, Science and Research (DIISR).[28]

Ten years later, work continues on digitising, metadata, access, conservation and preservation. One of the aims of the project is to digitise and preserve all of the audiovisual collection currently in analogue formats by 2025.

The building on Acton Peninsula[edit]

The west wing of the AIATSIS building designed by Ashton Raggatt McDougall, is a black replica of Le Corbusier's iconic Villa Savoye

The architect, Howard Ragatt of the firm Ashton Raggatt McDougall designed the building for the National Museum of Australia and also the building for AIATSIS. Both buildings reside on the Acton precinct. Controversy also surrounds this building with the claim that part of the rear of the building is a copy of pioneer architect Le Corbusier's 1920's Villa Savoye. The building cost $13.7 million.

The building was officially opened in September 2001 with the Honourable W.C. Wentworth and Mr Ken Colbung, in attendance. A smoking ceremony was performed by the Ngunnawal people, the traditional owners of the land the building stands upon. As part of the celebrations, a friendship ceremony, known as Rom, was performed by the Anbarra people who came from Central Arnhem Land to participate in this important ceremony.[29]



  1. ^ Mulvaney, D. J. WEH Stanner and the foundation of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1959-1964, p. 58-75. In: An appreciation of difference: WEH Stanner and Aboriginal Australia. Edited by Melinda Hinkson and Jeremy Beckett. Canberra. Aboriginal Studies Press, 2008.
  2. ^ Chapman, Valerie. The Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies. p. 194-214. In: resources for Australian studies in the ACT. Canberra: CCAE, 1988
  3. ^ Bryson, Ian. Bringing to light: a history of ethnographic film making at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. Canberra : Aboriginal Studies Press, 2002
  4. ^ Mulvaney, D. J. Reflections. Antiquity. Vol. 80, no. 308, June 2006. p. 425-434.
  5. ^ Mulvaney, D. J. Reflections. Antiquity. Vol. 80, no. 308, June 2006. p. 425-434.
  6. ^ Heiss, Anita. Dhuuluu-Yala - To Talk Straight. Canberra : Aboriginal Studies Press, 2003.
  7. ^ Bryson, Ian. Bringing to light: a history of ethnographic film making at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. Canberra : Aboriginal Studies Press, 2002
  8. ^ Loizos, Peter. Innovation in ethnographic film : from innocence to self-consciousness, 1955-85. Manchester University Press, 1993
  9. ^ Bryson, Ian. Bringing to light: a history of ethnographic film making at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. Canberra : Aboriginal Studies Press, 2002
  10. ^ Chapman, Valerie. The Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies. p. 194-214. In: resources for Australian studies in the ACT. Canberra: CCAE, 1988
  11. ^ Ward. Graeme K. The role of AIATSIS in research and protection of Australian rock art. In: Rock art research. Vol 28, no. 1 (May 2011), p. 7-16.
  12. ^ Chapman, Valerie. The Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies. p. 194-214. In: resources for Australian studies in the ACT. Canberra: CCAE, 1988
  13. ^ Nadel-Klein, Jane. Picturing Aborigines : a review essay on After 200 years. In: Cultural anthropology. Vol. 6, no. 3, 1991, p. 414-422.
  14. ^ AIATSIS Act 1989
  15. ^ AIATSIS Act 1989
  16. ^ Janke, Terri. Writing up Indigenous research, authorship, copyright and Indigenous knowledge systems. Rosebery, NSW : Terri Janke and Co, c2009
  17. ^ Davis, Michael. Bringing ethics up to date : a review of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies ethical guidelines. In: Australian Aboriginal Studies. no. 2,2010, p. 10-21.
  18. ^ Parkes, Laurie and Barwick, Diane. Beginning a national Aboriginal biographical register at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies. Aboriginal history. Vol. 6 pt. 2, 1982. p. 135-138
  19. ^ "About the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Index". 
  20. ^ "Family history research". 
  21. ^ Native title newsletter. Canberra : NTRU, AIATSIS, 1993-.
  22. ^ "Collection Development Policy 2009-2012". 
  23. ^ "Australian Indigenous Languages Collection". 
  24. ^ "Sorry Books". 
  25. ^ "Audiovisual Collection management policy". 
  26. ^ "Sound recordings collected by Alfred C. Haddon, 1898". 
  27. ^ "Portfolio budget statement, AIATSIS, 2011-12". 
  28. ^ Lewincamp, Barbara and Faulkner, Julie. A keyhole to the collection. The Australian Library Journal. Vol. 52, No. 3, August 2003.
  29. ^ Native title newsletter. Canberra : NTRU, AIATSIS, 1993-.

External links[edit]