Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
A Sea of Hands outside the AIATSIS building on Acton Peninsula. The Sea of Hands was created in 2014 with the help of local communities, to commemorate the sixth anniversary of the National Apology to Australia’s First Peoples, 2008.
|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 a collecting, publishing and research institute and is considered to be Australia's premier resource for information about the cultures and societies of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The Institute is a leader in ethical research and the handling of culturally sensitive material and holds in its collections many unique and irreplaceable items of cultural, historical and spiritual significance. The collection at AIATSIS has been built through over 50 years of research and engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and is now a source of language and culture revitalisation, native title research and family and community history. AIATSIS is located on Acton Peninsula in Canberra, Australian Capital Territory.
- 1 History
- 2 Governance
- 3 Research
- 4 Collections
- 5 Publishing
- 6 Events
- 7 Location of the Institute
- 8 References
- 9 External links
The proposal and interim council (1959–1964)
In the late 1950s, there was an increasing focus on the global need for anthropological research into ‘disappearing cultures’. This trend was also emerging in Australia in the work of researchers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, leading to a proposal by W.C. Wentworth MP for the conception of an Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (AIAS) in 1959.
The proposal was made as a submission to Cabinet, and argued for a more comprehensive approach by the Australian Government to the recording of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and cultures.
In 1960, a Cabinet sub-committee assessed the proposal and formed a working party at the Australian National University (ANU) to consider the viability of the proposal. One of their first actions was to appoint W.E.H. Stanner to organise a conference on the state of Aboriginal Studies in Australia, to be held in 1961 at the ANU.
Academics and anthropologists in the field of Aboriginal Studies attended the conference, and contributed research papers published in a conference report in 1963. No Aboriginal people were present at the conference.
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 and establish how this organisation would interact with existing research and scientific bodies. The Interim Council was also tasked with immediately developing a programme that would identify and address urgent research needs.
The Interim Council consisted of 16 members and was chaired by Deputy Vice Chancellor of the ANU, Professor AD Trendall, officially recognised as the first Chair of the institute now known as AIATSIS.
In August 1962, a draft constitution for the institute was submitted to the Menzies government, and rejected. The Interim Council completed a revised constitution in July 1963. Amendments to the document included the change from the title ‘director’ to ‘principal’ of the institute.
This version of the constitution would go on to form the basis for the creation of the new Australian Institute for Aboriginal Studies the following year.
AIAS early years (1964–1970)
The Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies was established as a Statutory authority under an Act of Parliament in June 1964. The mission of the Institute at that time has been described as "to record language, song, art, material culture, ceremonial life and social structure before those traditions perished in the face of European ways."
This notion is also reflected in the Institute’s official functions, as recorded in the Reading of the Bill in Parliament. These were:
- (a) to sponsor and to foster research of a scientific nature on the Australian Aborigines.
- (b) to treat as a matter of urgency those studies for which the source materials are disappearing.
- (c) to establish and conduct a documentation centre on the Aborigines, and a library of books, manuscripts and other relevant material, both for the use of scholars and for public education.
- (d) to encourage co-operation with and between scholars in universities, museums, and other institutions engaged in studies of the Aborigines, and with appropriate private bodies.
- (e) to publish and to support the publication of the results of research.
- (f) to co-operate with appropriate bodies concerning the financing of research, the preservation of sites, and the collection of records.
- (g) to promote as and when necessary the training of research workers.
- (h) to establish and maintain relations with relevant international bodies.
AIAS had a twenty-two member Council, composed mainly of academics, and had a foundation membership of one hundred. The founding Principal of the newly formed institute was Frederick McCarthy, a professional anthropologist and graduate of Sydney University who had spent nearly 30 years working in the field.
The creation of the AIAS provided an opportunity for greater cross-discipline interaction in fields relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies in Australia.
The Institute’s founding principal, Fred McCarthy, was an advocate of film as an important part of research methodology as early as his tenure as curator of anthropology at the Australian Museum in Sydney in the 1940s. This was evident in the contributions he made during his involvement in establishing the AIAS and also as its principal, in continuing to support the development of the AIAS Film Unit and championing ethnographic film in global forums.
In the early years of the AIAS, the Film Unit largely outsourced early filmmaking work to other companies, or worked in collaboration with the Commonwealth Film Unit (as early as 1962). But over the next 30 years, the Film Unit would go on to produce “one of the largest assembly of ethnographic films created in the world”.
In keeping with the AIAS official function “to publish and to support the publication of the results of research”, a publishing arm of the Institute was established in 1964. Publishing under the name Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, the publishing arm released a range of papers and research findings, including in the fields of linguistics, demography, physical anthropology, history and musicology.
The early work of the AIAS is credited with increasing interaction between academics in different fields, as well as establishing the foundations for the extensive collections AIATSIS holds today. But before 1970, there had never been an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander member on the AIAS Council.
Self-determination and the Institute (1970–1989)
"Money and other resources are in short supply for Aboriginal control of their livelihood, but not, it seems, for discussing it." - Eaglehawk and Crow letter, 29 March 1974
The 1970s marked a period of change for the AIAS. This began with the appointment of the first Aboriginal member of the AIAS Council in 1970. Phillip Roberts, an Alawa man, served on the Council from September 1970 until June 1972.
This was followed in 1971 with a second Aboriginal Council member, Senator Neville Bonner, who served on Council until 1974 and for a second term in the late 1970s. And again in 1972, with the appointment of Dick Roughsey to replace Phillip Roberts at the end of his term.
The appointment of Phillip Roberts to the Council reflected a growing pressure for an increase in Aboriginal representation within the Institute. But the move did not allay the belief held by some Aboriginal activists that the AIAS was engaging in ‘tokenism’ in the extent to which Aboriginal people were involved in the administration of Aboriginal Studies.
The changes to the Institute that would take place in the following decade were also influenced by the shifting social and political landscape in Australia. The Aboriginal rights movement was growing and Aboriginal people were demanding a voice on Council, consultation with communities and an increased focus on projects relevant to the needs of Indigenous people.
In 1972, the Whitlam government was elected. Their policy of Self-determination for Aboriginal people echoed calls for greater Aboriginal involvement in the administration and functions of the AIAS. The new government was also responsible for a significant boost to AIAS funding.
The appointment of Peter Ucko in 1972 as Principal of the AIAS has since been described as the beginning of an increase in involvement of Aboriginal people in the workings of the Institute.
In his time as Principal, Ucko was responsible for implementing a policy later labelled “Aboriginalisation”, which was aimed at opening up the Institute to Aboriginal involvement and representation. This policy was influenced by a document circulated in 1974, called the Eaglehawk and Crow letter, which criticised the current model of academic research. The letter asserted that anthropologists "should not pretend that their studies are objective when the overwhelming factor in the lives of Aborigines is our oppression by the society of which the anthropologist is, to a greater or lesser extent, a part of." Its authors called for increased participation of Aboriginal people in the running of the Institute and for greater control over commissioning and funding of research into their cultures.
The policy and structural changes to the Institute continued throughout the 1970s.
The Aboriginal Advisory Committee was established in 1975, and consisted of the six Aboriginal members of the AIAS Council. Early recommendations including increased representation of Aboriginal people on committees and the AIAS Council as well as employment at the Institute. The committee was renamed in 1978, to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Committee.
In 1975-1976, a category of research grants for Aboriginal researchers was introduced. The emergence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people filling the role of ‘cultural practitioner’, travelling to the AIAS to provide advice on projects and research being undertaken, was also documented from around 1976 onwards.
The time Peter Ucko spent as Principal of the AIAS saw a phase of “rapid expansion” for the Institute.
The AIAS Film Unit that had operated in Sydney until 1973 was re-established in Canberra in 1975. Prominent American-born ethnographic filmmaker David MacDougall was appointed as the Director of this new AIAS Film Unit. With his wife and filmmaking partner Judith, and Kim McKenzie, the Film Unit operated until 1988 when its functions were absorbed back into the Institute.
During the MacDougall/McKenzie era, a new style of ethnographic film was explored. One that moved away from film as a scientific record in favour of telling the story of individuals lives. The filmmakers also practiced a more collaborative approach to their films, and chose to use translations and subtitles to give direct access to the subjects voice and thoughts rather than the dominant ‘voice of god’ narration style.
One of the most notable films produced towards the end of this period was Waiting for Harry, a prize-winning film directed by Kim McKenzie with anthropologist Les Hiatt and now considered to exemplify the “style of collaborative filmmaking” the Film Unit favoured in their work.
The power of film to “influence opinion” was becoming increasingly recognised and with this, the lack of representation of Aboriginal people telling their own stories. In 1978, a meeting chaired by prominent activist and academic Marcia Langton expressed these concerns, arguing for greater access to film and video in Aboriginal communities, and training in film production by the AIAS.
The AIAS began presenting a biennial Wentworth Lecture in 1978, named as a tribute to W.C. Wentworth for his role in establishing the Institute. The lecture is presented by prominent person with knowledge or experience relating to issues affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia today.
The expansion of the Institute continued into the 1980s. The Aboriginal Studies Press began publishing the Australian Aboriginal Studies Journal in 1983, a peer-reviewed journal aimed at “promoting high-quality research in Australian Indigenous studies.”
In 1982, the AIAS established a task force that identified the prevailing need for further ‘Aboriginalisation’ of the Institute’s workforce. At the time, there were four Aboriginal staff members, making up around 7% of the total staff. This was followed in 1985 with the creation of the role of Aboriginal Studies Coordination Officer within the AIAS, whose responsibilities involved improving access for Aboriginal people to the research and resources of the Institute.
The ‘After 200 Years’ project was launched in 1985, aiming to fill some of the gaps in the AIAS photographic collection; particularly images of daily life in the southern, urban parts of Australia. Aboriginal involvement in selecting subject matter, photographing and documenting the collection was a major part of the project. The three-year project culminated in the publication of a book containing hundreds of photographs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and selected by them to represent their community.
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.
The collections were also expanding, and by 1987 the AIATSIS library encompassed the print collections, a special Bibliographic Section and the Resource Centre (which contained the Institute’s audiovisual materials).
Between 1987 and 1989, the survival of the AIAS as an independent statutory body was tied to a proposal for a new statutory commission that would take over all aspects of the Aboriginal Affairs portfolio. This commission would become the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), conceived in an Act of Parliament in 1989. The AIAS would not be folded into this commission; instead it would be recreated under a new Act with a new name.
The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) Act was passed by parliament in 1989, replacing the AIAS Act. The newly established AIATSIS had a reduced Council consisting of nine members, with the AIATSIS Act specifying that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people hold a minimum of five of these Council positions.
In 2001, the Institute launched a two-year Library Digitisation Pilot Program (LDPP). Among the items digitised, catalogued and made available online were 267 volumes of the Dawn and New Dawn magazines held in the AIATSIS collection. AIATSIS also distributed over 2000 free copies of these magazines on CD-Rom, to Indigenous organisations, schools and libraries in New South Wales.
Throughout this period, AIATSIS continued to undertake projects focused on the digitisation of collection materials, including their holdings of the complete back catalogue of Koori Mail. This involved scanning over 35,000 pages from 500 editions of the newspaper, with searchable copies launched on the AIATSIS website in partnership with Koori Mail in 2011.
As part of their research functions, AIATSIS also initiated a number of public programs and research related events during this time that are still run today. The Institute has convened the National Indigenous Studies Conference every two years since 2001 and the National Native Title Conference every year since 2002.
The ‘After 200 Years’ photographic project was revisited in 2014 with an exhibition of images at Parliament House, to coincide with AIATSIS’ 50 year anniversary.
The main 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.
The AIATSIS Act 1989 also established a Research Advisory Committee and sets out the framework for the AIATSIS Council; specifying the number of members and the minimum representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members on Council.
Other legislation that governs the operations of AIATSIS are the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013 and the Public Service Act 1999.
The AIATSIS Council is a governing body designed to oversee and steer the functions and direction of the Institute. The role and responsibilities of the Council are mandated in the AIATSIS Act 1989 and detailed in the AIATSIS Council Charter.
The Council consists of nine members, four are elected by the Institute's membership and five appointed by the Minister.
According to the AIATSIS Act 1989, one person appointed by the Minister must be a Torres Strait Islander and the four other people appointed by the Minister must be Aboriginal persons or Torres Strait Islanders. The four Council members elected by the Institute’s membership must be members themselves.
Current AIATSIS Council Chairperson:
- Professor Michael (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:
- Mr Ken Colbung AM MBE, a Nyoongar elder from WA. He served as Chairperson of the AIATSIS Council from 1984 – 1990.
The first Aboriginal woman to be Chairperson of AIATSIS Council:
- Professor Marcia Langton AM, a descendant of the Wiradjuri and Bidjara nations, served as Chairperson of the AIATSIS Council from 1992 – 1998. She is the first Aboriginal woman, and the only woman of any descent, to have held the position of AIATSIS Council Chairperson.
Research Advisory Committee
The Research Advisory Committee (RAC) is responsible for assessing and advising on AIATSIS research projects and programs, including research grants.
The functions of the Research Advisory Committee are established in the AIATSIS Act, 1989. They are:
- (a) to assess applications for research grants made to the Institute and to make recommendations to the Council in relation to such applications;
- (b) to advise the Council in relation to research matters; and
There are twelve members of the RAC. Three Council members are appointed by the Council and eight members of the Institute are elected by the members. The final RAC member is the AIATSIS Principal.
Research Ethics Committee
The Research Ethics Committee (REC) is responsible for advising AIATSIS on the ethics of the research proposals by staff or grantees of AIATSIS, as well as research carried out through the Institute’s external collaborations.
The roles in the Research Ethics Committee are based on guidelines published by the National Health and Medical Research Council. There are eight members appointed by the AIATSIS Council, with at least four being Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people, as follows:
- a chairperson
- a lay man and lay woman
- at least two members with knowledge of, and current experience in, the areas of research that are regularly considered by the Committee
- at least one member with knowledge of, and current experience in, the professional care, counseling or treatment of people
- at least one member who is a minister of religion or a person who performs a similar role in the community such as an Indigenous elder
- at least one member who is a lawyer
The functions of the REC are governed by the AIATSIS Research Ethics Committee Charter.
Native Title Research Advisory Committee
The Native Title Research Advisory Committee (NTRAC) was established by the AIATSIS Council to oversee the work of the Native Title Research Unit and provide advice to the AIATSIS Principal.
There are ten members of the NTRAC, held by people fulfilling the following criteria:
- two AIATSIS Council members
- the Principal
- the Deputy Principal
- four experts in the field of Native Title
- a representative from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet
The NTRAC shares oversight of the quality, independence and ethical research of the Native Title Research Unit with the AIATSIS Council and the Research Ethics Committee.
Publishing Advisory Committee
The Publishing Advisory Committee (PAC) is responsible for making recommendations to the AIATSIS Principal on the selection of manuscripts for publication by the Aboriginal Studies Press.
Manuscripts are first submitted to and read by Aboriginal Studies Press staff and are then subject to peer review by scholars and professionals before being assessed by the PAC.
The PAC members contribute the following range of skills: academic credentials; Indigenous community and language knowledge; and writing and publishing expertise.
The Indigenous Caucus is a working group within AIATSIS providing a forum for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff to meet and discuss workplace issues. The Caucus also provides advice to the AIATSIS Principal, as well as the broader Institute and its Committees.
Caucus also has representatives on the AIATSIS Consultative Committee, a forum for staff and management of the Institute to discuss issues.
The Indigenous Caucus was revitalised in 2003-2004 and contributed to the development of policies and procedures in that year, notably AIATSIS’ Indigenous Training and Career Development Plan.
In 2013, the Indigenous Caucus developed a formal Service Charter and elected an Executive consisting of three members.
The AIATSIS Act sets the organisation the task of conducting, facilitating and promoting research in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies and training Indigenous researchers. For over 50 years, AIATSIS has conducted research across a range of areas of study relevant to Indigenous peoples, culture, heritage, knowledge and experiences. This has led to a diverse research history; from languages and archaeological research, land rights and political engagement to contemporary topics in health and commerce.
The AIATSIS collections not only contain priceless records of Australia’s Indigenous cultural heritage, but provide a significant national and international research infrastructure for research by, for and about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
AIATSIS is one of Australia’s Publicly Funded Research Agencies, alongside organisations such as CSIRO and the Australian Institute of Marine Science. AIATSIS is Australia’s only non-science PFRA.
Currently AIATSIS undertakes research in six priority areas.
- Native Title and traditional ownership
- Land and Water
- Governance development and public policy
- Languages and Cultural Expression
- Health and Wellbeing
- Education and cultural transmission
“Indigenous people are also researchers, and all participants must be regarded as equal participants in a research engagement.”
AIATSIS publishes the Guidelines for Ethical Research in Australian Indigenous Studies (referred to as GERAIS), a document considered to be the leading ethics guidelines for conducting research in and with Indigenous communities in Australia.
The guidelines consist of 14 principles. These principles broadly fit under the following themes:
- rights, respect and recognition
- negotiation, consultation, agreement and mutual understanding
- participation, collaboration and partnership
- benefits, outcomes and giving back
- managing research: use, storage and access, and
- reporting and compliance
The GERAIS document is required reading for researchers applying for Ethical Clearance for research sponsored by AIATSIS. However, the guidelines are also intended by AIATSIS to inform all research in the field of Indigenous studies.
Originally published by AIATSIS in 2000, the latest version of the GERAIS document was published in 2012. This update was made to reflect legal and technological developments that had occurred since original publication. In particular, in the area of intellectual property and the rights of Indigenous people in their traditional knowledge and cultural expressions as well as progress in digitisation technologies and data and information management.
These changes reflect AIATSIS’ support for the importance of research projects involving appropriate ethical conduct and rights protection for both the way data is collected during research and the findings and materials generated through that research.
The GERAIS document is the first point of reference in the ethical review process researchers must undergo before AIATSIS will sponsor a research project. All research projects are reviewed by the Research Ethics Committee for approval, using the following project documents:
- an ethical clearance proposal, using the GERAIS document as a guide,
- a plain English statement to explain to participants what the project is and how it will be conducted, and
- informed consent forms, that are completed by participants of the research.
Native Title research
AIATSIS began undertaking Native Title research activities through the Native Title Research Unit in 1993, following the 1992 Mabo v Queensland High Court decision. Native Title research at AIATSIS is primarily funded through the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet but research has also been conducted in partnership with other departments and organisations including the Australian National University, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Federal Court of Australia.
The Native Title Research Advisory Committee, the Research Advisory Committee and the AIATSIS Council oversee the work conducted in Native Title and traditional ownership research at AIATSIS.
AIATSIS conducts a range of research projects relating to Native Title and traditional ownership, including Native Title and cultural heritage, Native Title and fresh and sea water, and Prescribed Body Corporates.
The role of Native Title research at AIATSIS is to monitor outcomes of Native Title and through research and study, provide advice on Native Title policy development. The Institute publishes a range of materials relating to Native Title including books, discussion papers, research reports and a Native Title Newsletter.
AIATSIS also provides a Native Title Research and Access Officer, who is responsible for assisting Native Title claimants to access materials from the AIATSIS collections in support of their claim.
AIATSIS also contributes to Native Title policy and research by co-organising the Annual National Native Title Conference.
Family history research
AIATSIS publishes a number of resources for anyone wishing to undertake research into their own family history.
The Family History kit is aimed at providing the basics for tracing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage. It contains guides to AIATSIS’ own resources, including the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Biographical Index (ABI) and digitised collection materials, as well as guides to external resources that may help with family history research.
General guidance is also provided regarding research resources specific to Indigenous family history research, historical name conventions and usage and confirmation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage.
AIATSIS is the only Commonwealth institution responsible for collecting and maintaining materials documenting the oral and visual traditions and histories of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The Institute identifies its collection as a “keeping place for culturally significant objects” that is “a resource for anybody looking to improve their knowledge of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and culture.” The Institute's holdings represent thousands of years of history and more than 500 Australian Indigenous languages, dialects and groups. This collection supports, and is a result of, research in the fields of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.
An independent assessment in 2014 confirmed that AIATSIS holds over 6 million feet of film, over 40,000 hours of audio, 12,800 unpublished manuscripts and record series, 653,000 photographs, and 120,000 print and published materials (3,000 of which are rare books) among other miscellanea.
There are a number of items within the AIATSIS collection that have been both nationally and internationally recognised as significant:
- The Australian Indigenous Language Collection – registered in the UNESCO Memory of the World Program. This is a collection of printed materials in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages that represents 200 of the estimated 250 languages spoken before European colonisation, including 40 endangered languages. It is recognised by UNESCO as the “only one of its kind housed in one location and catalogued as one collection.”
- Sorry Books – registered in the UNESCO Memory of the World Program. AIATSIS holds 461 Sorry Books, representing hundreds of thousands of signatures and messages, from the 1998 campaign estimated to have generated around half a million signatures in total. The books are considered to have “powerful historical and social significance as the personal responses…to the unfolding history of the Stolen Generations.”
- Luise Hercus (linguist) recordings of Aboriginal languages – added to the National Registry of Recorded Sound in 2012. This collection was made between 1963 and 1999 and includes over 1000 hours of recordings of 40 endangered Aboriginal languages, some of which are no longer spoken.
The Audiovisual Archives also holds copies of the first audio recorded in Australia; a series of 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.
The AIATSIS collection is housed and managed through the Library and the Audiovisual Archive, and is broadly categorised into the following groups:
Art and artefact: a collection of items including ritual objects, folk art, children’s art and modern or ‘high art’ and span from the late 19th century to the present day. This sub-collection comprises around 600 artworks and 500 artefacts, acquired either as a result of AIATSIS-sponsored field research or through donation or purchase.
Books and printed material: a collection of books, pamphlets, serials including magazines and government reports, reference publications such as dictionaries and other published material. This sub-collection holds over 175,680 titles, including 16,000 books and 3740 serials consisting of 34,000 individual issues and is used to support research, especially in Native Title cases and Link-Up services for members of the Stolen Generations.
Film: a collection of historical ethnographic films, documentaries and other published film and video titles, consisting of over 8 million feet of film and 4000 videos. Many of the films in the collection were produced by the AIAS Film Unit, which operated between 1961 and 1991.
Manuscripts and rare books: a collection of more than 11,700 manuscripts, 2,600 rare books dating from 1766, 2,200 rare pamphlets and 1,700 rare serial titles consisting of 14,650 issues held in secure, environmentally controlled storage. Items are included in this classification on the basis of their age, rarity, value or sensitivity of the content for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Among these items are the Sorry Books and the WEH Stanner papers.
Pictorial: this collection contains roughly 650,000 photographs that date from modern day as far back as the late 1800s, and more than 90% of images in the pictorial collection are unique to AIATSIS, making it the most comprehensive record of its kind relating to Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Sound: a collection of many unique and unpublished sound recordings totalling approximately 40,000 hours of audio. The recordings represent a breadth of cultural and historical information including languages, ceremonies, music, oral histories and interviews with participants in significant events such as the 1965 Freedom Rides and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generations.
Since the establishment of the Institute in 1964, the AIATSIS collection has been developed through acquisition by donation, gift and purchase or, through materials created and collected during the work of ethnographic field researchers and filmmakers funded by the AIATSIS grants program. The collection has also been built through deposits of materials, an arrangement which permits the original owners to assign access and use conditions appropriate to the cultural information contained in the items.
AIATSIS’ approach to collection building is based on three primary criteria:
- 1. Comprehensiveness – the aim is to have the collection be as comprehensive as possible. Given limited resources, the Audiovisual Archive focuses primarily on unpublished audio and visual materials and the Library generally on published materials. Other items are collected where possible.
- 2. Significance – items that meet this criteria are considered to make ‘a lasting contribution to worldwide knowledge’, reflect current AIATSIS research areas, valued by a particular Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander community, are not well represented in other collections, have a link to AIATSIS’ own history.
- 3. Representativeness – when resources are limited, AIATSIS will focus on collecting items that are ‘representative of a particular class of creativity, research discipline or mode of cultural production.’
Once material has been acquired by AIATSIS, the Institute faces the challenges of maintaining a cultural resource collection. This is achieved through a collection management plan that involves processes of recording and cataloguing, and appropriate storage and handling to extend the life of physical items and preserving their content through format shifting.
Preservation of physical items in the collection is achieved in two key ways:
- 1. Assessment and monitoring for contaminants, such as insects and mould, as well as any potential deterioration through environmental factors or physical damage.
- 2. Storage of collection items in climate-controlled vaults, to maintain their integrity and to minimise contact with deteriorating agents such as moisture and light. The Institute also follows international archiving guidelines for the storage and preservation of materials.
There are a wide variety of analogue photograph, tape and film formats held in the AIATSIS collection, which pose special preservation and future access risks. The age of some of these formats and materials, combined with the varying conditions in which they were stored prior to their acquisition by AIATSIS, heightens the deterioration of the media. Another preservation issue inherent in these analogue materials is the machines that can play back that particular format, as in some cases the material and the playback device are no longer manufactured. To manage these risks and maintain future access to the collection, preservation of the actual content contained in collection items is also achieved through a program of digitisation.
Due to the potential issues of long-term archiving and storage of digital items, the opposite process is often employed to ensure access and preservation. In the case of digital publications and manuscripts, the originals will often be printed and incorporated into the print collections as an additional preservation measure.
The AIATSIS collection holds material that is sensitive and/or secret/sacred to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. In accordance with its founding Act, and as part of their collection management plan, AIATSIS adheres to strict protocols when handling and processing these sensitive items. The Institute also supports and adheres to the protocols developed by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Library, Information and Resource Network (ATSILIRN). Restricted visual media such as photographs and printed items are stored separately to the rest of the collection and audio and moving image items are not played until any cultural requirements are checked. Restricted material must also be carefully handled during digitisation, which means that the work is carried out in secured conditions such as enclosed booths and by staff that can meet the protocols of the item being digitised.
AIATSIS launched its Library Digitisation Pilot Program in 2001, before which the Library had no dedicated digitisation equipment or policies for managing digital materials. This two-year program was originally funded by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), and involved the creation of digital collections across the institution.
Since then AIATSIS has continued to incorporate digitisation of the collection into its management plan, but have publicly stated that an increase in funding is required for the Institute to digitise some of the at risk formats held in the collection before those items are lost.
Given these limitations, AIATSIS prioritises the selection of materials for digitisation using factors including significance of the item/s, the level of deterioration, cultural protocols, copyright status, and client demand. One of the identified priorities of the program is to digitise and preserve all of the audiovisual collection currently on endangered magnetic tape formats by the 2025 deadline set by UNESCO.
Access to the collection
The collection is housed in the AIATSIS building on Acton Peninsula and is accessible through a number of resources. The AIATSIS Library is open to the public and holds a range of printed materials including manuscripts, journals, readers in different Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, dictionaries, published books and rare books, maps, and posters.
Access to AIATSIS’ print and manuscript collections can be made through the Library’s Stanner Reading Room and the film, sound and pictorial collections by appointment through the Access Unit. These physical access points are open limited hours.
The AIATSIS Digitisation Program contributes to increased access to the collection; whether access is through on site resources, the provision of copies of materials or the sharing of the collection online. Due to increasing obsolescence of analogue formats, AIATSIS identifies digitisation as the way to preserve those items for future generations to access. This is considered to be particularly important for facilitating “remote access by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities” as well as for access by researchers and the general public.
The AIATSIS Access Unit runs a program called Return of Material to Indigenous Communities (ROMTIC), through which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clients are provided with up to twenty copies of collection materials that relate to their language group or family. This service is limited to items that have been preserved, so AIATSIS’ digitisation program has allowed an increasing number of digital items available to ROMTIC clients.
AIATSIS also makes the collection available through a series of online exhibitions and digitised collection material published on their website. These showcase different themes or discrete collections of material, including:
- A.M. Fernando Notebooks (London, 1929-1930) – the notebooks of Anthony Martin Fernando, an Aboriginal man living and working in London, written between 1929 and 1930.
- Remembering Mission Days – a collection of material relating to the Aborigines’ Inland Missions, including maps showing locations of missions and the magazines Our AIM and Australian Evangelical produced by the Aborigines’ Inland Mission of Australia.
- 1967 Referendum - a presentation of images, newspaper clippings, audio material and information about the 1967 Referendum to change the Australian Constitution.
- Freedom Ride – a series of collection items including photographs and diary extracts relating to the 1965 Freedom Ride through country NSW, protesting race relations and living conditions of Aboriginal Australians.
- From Wentworth to Dodson – an interactive timeline that explores 50 years of AIATSIS history from 1964 to 2014.
- Dawn/New Dawn – a complete set of the magazine published by the New South Wales Aborigines Welfare Board.
- Koori Mail – the entire back catalogue of the Aboriginal owned and controlled newspaper, it is a collection spanning over 20 years and representing over 35,000 pages of digitised material.
- To Remove and Protect – a set of Australian legislation from all states and territories that has since been repealed but which allowed control over Aboriginal lives and livelihoods. These provide historical and legal context for the Stolen Generations and Stolen Wages.
- Sorry Books – a selection of messages and signatures from the Sorry Books collection, a series of books containing messages of apology from ordinary Australians, prominent individuals and international visitors to the Stolen Generations.
- Maningrida Mirage – a selection of issues of the Maningrida Mirage newsletter, produced by the Maningrida community between 1969 and 1974.
Access to the AIATSIS collection is also dictated by legislation governing the Institute and in some instances by legal agreements outlining the terms under which collection materials can be used.
The terms for access to the AIATSIS collection are in the first instance set by the AIATSIS Act, Section 41. This section states:
- 1. "Where information or other matter has been deposited with the Institute under conditions of restricted access, the Institute or the Council shall not disclose that information or other matter except in accordance with those conditions.
- 2. The Institute or the Council shall not disclose information or other matter held by it (including information or other matter covered by subsection (1)) if that disclosure would be inconsistent with the views or sensitivities of relevant Aboriginal persons or Torres Strait Islanders."
The conditions referred to in Section 41(1) of the AIATSIS Act are usually covered in the agreement that AIATSIS enters into when material is deposited. These agreements, along with the section 41(2) of the Act, can govern the way that unpublished material can be accessed and used.
When a donation or deposit is being made, AIATSIS requests to be made aware of any sensitive items included in the material. The secret or sacred nature of information contained in many collection items is an important factor in access to the AIATSIS collection. To protect items of high cultural sensitivity and reflect appropriate cultural values, access to items that contain culturally sensitive information are restricted to groups or individuals who have the permission of the relevant Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander community and the depositor if restrictions have been applied by them.
AIATSIS also acknowledges the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and in particular Article 31’s recognition of the right of Indigenous people to “maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions.”
In response to these complex issues AIATSIS developed an overarching Access and Use Policy in 2014, to “manage legal and cultural rights over material while maximising accessibility.”
Since its inception, AIATSIS has developed and maintained a range of resources to enhance discoverability of the collection.
One of the most significant of these resources is the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Biographical Index (ABI). The ABI had its beginnings in 1979 as a non-selective biographical register of names, constructed using information on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from published material in the collection. In the early years of the biographical register, it was hoped it could “provide an important record of the achievements of Aboriginal people, and be a source of pride for generations to come".
Today the index continues to be updated, now containing over 70,000 records and searchable online through AIATSIS’ collection catalogue.
Other resources available on site include the Perfect Pictures Database, which contains over 140,000 digitised images from the AIATSIS Photographic Collection. This database is added to as more images are digitised and only includes images that are free of secret/sacred access restrictions.
AIATSIS also hosts or contributes to a number of online resources, aimed at facilitating access to and understanding of the collection. These include:
- Mura – this is AIATSIS’ collection catalogue, which can be searched online.
- Trove - the AIATSIS collection can be searched through the National Library of Australia’s Trove. AIATSIS uses this platform as a means to further enhancing discoverability of and access to its collections.
- Thesauri – there are three Thesauri that AIATSIS have created and make available through their website. These relate to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, place names and subject areas of study. The United States Library of Congress has approved these thesauri for use in bibliographic records worldwide.
Aboriginal Studies Press
In keeping with its mandated functions, AIATSIS publishes the results of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies through their publishing arm, Aboriginal Studies Press (ASP). The Institute began publishing in 1962 with A demographic survey of the Aboriginal population of the Northern Territory, with special reference to Bathurst Island Mission. This and other early publications were released under the imprint Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, the former title of AIATSIS. The ASP publishing imprint was trademarked in 2002, but was operating as the publishing arm of AIATSIS as early as the publication of Helen Ross’ Just For Living in 1987.
The AIATSIS Research Publications became an imprint in 2011 and its stated purpose is to publish scholarly research that is derived from the AIATSIS Research Program. Along with the Research program, ASP also publishes the Australian Aboriginal Studies (AAS) journal. All Aboriginal Studies Press-branded titles are peer-reviewed and the majority are published concurrently in print and several ebook formats. The first phone app was published in 2013, and was shortlisted for the 2013 Mobile Awards.
Titles published by ASP have included research reports, monographs, biographies, autobiographies, family and community histories, and children’s books. Since 2005 the list has aligned more closely with the Institute’s research focus. Most publications derive from academic research, some funded by AIATSIS. ASP publishes books by both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous authors who are writing in the field of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. In some cases Aboriginal authors, like Doreen Kartinyeri and Joan Martin, have chosen to write in collaboration with non-Aboriginal oral historians.
Cleared Out (2005) won two WA Premier’s Book Awards and inspired the multi-award winning documentary film, Contact. The creation of both the book and film reflect strong family and community engagement.
The Little Red Yellow Black Book (updated 2008, 2012) was shortlisted with its companion website in the Australian Publishers Association Educational Awards, and is a widely recognised as an educational and cross-cultural training resource.
Another widely used resource published by Aboriginal Studies Press is the Aboriginal Australia map. The Aboriginal Australia map represents the general locations of larger groupings of Aboriginal people, using research that was conducted during the development of The Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia, which was another significant ASP publication. Previous milestone publications included the book After 200 Years, a collaboration showcasing photographs and stories of Aboriginal people as selected by members of those communities. Both books are now out of print and only available in libraries.
ASP also publishes the Stanner Award winner for a manuscript by an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, which recognises the importance of being published to emerging academics. The prize includes mentoring and editorial support by ASP, as well as publication of the manuscript.
Aboriginal Studies Press has relationships with distributors and resellers for both national and international print and ebook distribution.
- Australian Aboriginal Studies Journal. ISSN: 0729-4352
- Aboriginal Australia Map
- Little Red Yellow Black Book
- Little Red Yellow Black Book website
- Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia
- National Native Title Conference (NNTC), which is an annual conference that is co-convened by AIATSIS and a native title representative body or native title service provider. The conference is hosted in a different location and focuses on a different theme each year. The NNTC is aimed at engaging “with native title as an active agenda for justice for people and country - both before and after the outcome of native title determination.” AIATSIS also publishes some papers and presentations from past conferences.
- National Indigenous Studies Conference (NISC), held every two years as a forum for sharing of multi-disciplinary expertise within the field of Indigenous studies. The program for the conference consists of debates, panel discussions and presentation of papers. A selection of past conference papers and presentations are made available by AIATSIS.
- NAIDOC on the Peninsula, a Canberra-based event that has been held each year since 2006 on the Acton Peninsula, outside the AIATSIS building. It is a free, community event that features local and national Indigenous musicians as well as activities for children and families. The aim of the event is to celebrate the cultural heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and it is held during NAIDOC Week.
- Wentworth Lecture, hosted by AIATSIS every two years and named after W.C. Wentworth, who was involved in the establishment of the Institute in 1964. The lecture has been presented by a variety of prominent individuals “as a means to encourage all Australians to gain a better understanding of issues that go to the heart of our development as a nation.”
Location of the Institute
AIATSIS is located on the Acton Peninsula in a building that was newly built for the Institute and opened in 2001. The building was officially opened by the Honourable W.C. Wentworth and Mr Ken Colbung. As part of the opening the Ngunnawal people, the traditional owners of the land on which the AIATSIS building stands performed a Welcome to Country and smoking ceremony, and the Anbarra people from North Central Arnhem Land performed a friendship ceremony, known as Rom.
The architect, Howard Ragatt of the firm Ashton Raggatt McDougall designed the building for AIATSIS and for its neighbour on the Acton Peninsula, the National Museum of Australia. The building cost $13.75 million and was funded by the Commonwealth Government’s Centenary of Federation Grants Program.
The design of the AIATSIS building has been the subject of differing interpretations. The rear of the building has been described as a black copy of pioneer architect Le Corbusier's 1920's Villa Savoye in France. The architect, Howard Raggatt, was quoted as confirming this influence but has also stated that it is designed to be reminiscent of Sidney Nolan’s famous paintings of Ned Kelly.
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