Gaps in the descriptive metadata of our national memory: digital engagement with colonial photographs of Indigenous Australians

ALIA Library

Ross, Kathryn

National 2016 Conference, 29 August-2 September 2016 Adelaide: Engage Create Lead
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers should be aware that this paper contains images and names of people who are now deceased.
This conference paper discusses the value, relevance and role of historical images of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people along with the decriptive metadata that was recorded at the time of capture.
The historical image has never held a more significant place in our online engagement with the cultural record. In the digital environment, the research and publication value of images competes much more closely with the heavy material significance of the object and the traditional pre-eminence of the historical narrative. Colonial photographs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders possess a unique power to both demonstrate European colonial myth-making and corroborate Indigenous experiences that are otherwise unrecorded.
The majority of colonial photographic portraits and tableaus of Indigenous subjects were sent to Europe with family letters or for scholarly exchange. They were produced for scientific, documentary and commercial purposes – to document a ‘dying race’, as visual evidence for theories of evolution and as picturesque representations of the noble savage to feed the commercial taste for the exotic. They were prized for capturing reality, whilst simultaneously peddling myths of the other. Thus, much of the original descriptive metadata is absent or inaccurate, revealing the prejudices of these purposes.
For many Indigenous Australians today, they are also extraordinary family photos of mostly unknown ancestors. Their great value lies in this capacity to so immediately render our national history in terms of these dialectics of engagement.
Our digital delivery services offer great opportunities to restore these photographs within local domestic spheres and to be reconciled with oral family histories. There are, however, many particular discrepancies between the value in increasing access, and various Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander traditions surrounding the power and cultural relevance of visual imagery. This is exacerbated dramatically as our institutional pursuit for increased digitisation and online discoverability makes them easily viewable to a mass audience.
This paper examines the challenge of absent and fabricated metadata in these photographs as they are discovered, delivered and published online. It draws on research into the role these collections play in European anthropological museums, including the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford University and the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, to consider their transactional provenance. It also explores cultural rights and the value of photographs to Indigenous communities and considers the seminal Ara Irititja and new Indigenous databases and ask how we can best connect with experts in Indigenous communities to fill gaps in the descriptive metadata of our national memory.


Deakin, ACT: Australian Library and Information Association
National Library of Australia