Ms Barbara Bynder
I am a Balladong Nyoongar woman with Badimia connections on my paternal side. I have spent my life involved in the Arts as a practicing artist and later teaching Art to local communities. During my years as a parent I participated in community Arts projects, working with Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women of various ages. I began my own teaching class where we spent many days painting outside making use of natural light source and getting reconnected with country.
I studied Art through various TAFE institutions depending on where I was living at the time. Having lived all over Western Australia I have developed a fondness for painting outdoors, in particular painting on country.
Once my youngest child could attend school, I decided to extend my education by studying a Bachelor of Arts Degree at Edith Cowan University, completing a double major in Social Science and Writing.
I have worked in various jobs over the years before arriving at the Berndt Museum of Anthropology. These have produced a myriad of life experiences. My role at the Berndt Museum of Anthropology has given me the opportunity to voice my concerns regarding the issues facing contemporary Aboriginal Australians whilst having the pleasure of educating the wider community to the diversity and richness of Aboriginal culture in today’s world.
I look forward to a long and prosperous relationship with the Berndt Museum of Anthropology, The University of Western Australia and those of you who are genuinely interested in making changes for a better future for all of us.
I recently attended the Museums Australia (WA) Conference held during the first week of October 2009, discussing the practical changes that museums may implement by allowing Aboriginal Australians inclusivity in exhibitions to promote the representation of contemporary Aboriginality. You can read my paper below.
The Apology: A Changing Landscape
Berndt Museum of Anthropology
The University of Western Australia
I would like to acknowledge the Wadjuk people whose traditional lands we stand upon. The Wadjuk people are members of the Nyungar nation.
Good morning. My name is Barbara Matters. I am a Balladong woman from Nyungar country. I am currently the Assistant Curator at the Berndt Museum of Anthropology at the University of Western Australia. My presentation today is titled ‘The Apology: A Changing Landscape‘.
The Apology to the Stolen Generations was delivered by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and tabled in Parliament on the 13th February 2008. And I have to say it continues to move me. The Apology in itself, whether symbolic or practical, has created a changing landscape for Aboriginal Australians. I say this because it was the first time in Australian history that an Australian leader had acknowledged Aboriginal people as the ‘first Australians‘ and conceded that past legislation and policies affecting the lives of so many Aboriginal people were oppressive and laced with discrimination and racism. However, I believe the apology has a much broader impact on the lives of contemporary Aboriginal people.
In the past, victims of the stolen generations were considered to be people who were either whinging or not telling the truth. Systematic removal of children because of their race was denied by past governments causing the stolen generations to become invisible within the community. Their lives seemed unimportant. Many times in my community I had heard Aboriginal people say:
‘Nobody believes us because government will not tell the truth‘.
Imagine how these people felt, when their stories of displacement and torment were not acknowledged, yet they knew what had happened to them was real, they had lived through it and survived. For the stolen generations the apology has given credence to their lives. Suddenly what they had been saying all along was now being acknowledged as truth and for the first time in Australian history the Federal government had acknowledged that what they had lived through was real.
The apology was an emotional moment and a pivotal time in the making of Australian history. Aboriginal people where excited, cautious and some were distanced from the effects of the apology. Aboriginal leaders and academics went into overdrive in their response to the apology. Noel Pearson wrote an academic paper about the contradictions that clouded the apology, Marcia Langton, always the cynic admitted to putting her cynicism aside and wrote an emotional response acknowledging the apology would help to heal the wounds of those who were taken. However, for me Mick Dodson‘s opening sentence in his response to the apology is what it I believe the apology is all about and it went like this:
‘The apology to indigenous Australians is not about dwelling on the past, it’s about building a future‘. (Dodson, M., The Age, February 13, 2008).
This suggestion, I believe is the ideal example of the changing landscape of Aboriginal Australia. Dodson went on to say ‘The Apology was right for Australia because it created a foundation to build respectful relationships needed to produce better outcomes for all of us ‘ and it is this point, the building of respectful relationships that we should strive to achieve as employees of Museums who house Aboriginal collections.
If we are to honour the apology and in Prime Minister Rudd’s words ‘write the new page of Australian history‘ then we must re-evaluate our relationship with Aboriginal communities. If we are to honour the apology we must begin to work closely with Aboriginal people in matters of representation, identification, culture and heritage. Therefore part of the process for exhibiting Aboriginal collections should entail working in partnership with the traditional owners whose cultural material and objects we house. We must put aside our pre-conceived notions of Aboriginality and allow the contribution and accept the guidance of the descendants of the collections we house. For culture continues to be practised and maintained despite the changes that have occurred through the colonisation process.
Museums are safe-keepers of culture; therefore, it is not our role to tell Aboriginal people how they should identify or how they should be represented. I believe the role of contemporary Museums who exhibit, research and document Aboriginal cultural material and heritage, is one of social change through education. Museums are in the unique position of presenting a ‘living culture‘ to the wider community and possess the ability to change the thinking process of so many people, purely by representation, interpretation and education. Museums today, if we so choose, can create a unique and powerful exhibition of evolutionary change within Aboriginal societies Australia wide. However, to do this with credibility means we need to let go of our fear of losing control; we need to let go of our fear of losing what we think we own. For we cannot own Aboriginal culture that has always been owned by Aboriginal people.
If we are to create changing landscapes for Aboriginal Australia in Museology, then we need to allow participation in the development of exhibitions, we need to allow participation in repatriating the bones of our ancestors and we need to listen to the concerns of Aboriginal communities. Museums for too long have created the representation of Aboriginal people without consultation and without maintaining the cultural etiquette of Aboriginal societies in regard to secret/sacred objects. Cultural etiquette in our exhibitions and working in partnership with Aboriginal communities will allow us to become the voice for the story that Aboriginal people want to tell. And yes we will no longer be the narrator of a story that is not ours but the vessel to convey the story of Aboriginality. By doing this we will be able to provide an authentic more accurate picture of Aboriginal societies in contemporary Australia and create a much broader understanding of the diversity and complexity of Aboriginal social, economic and political lifestyle. And it is this understanding of Aboriginal societies, which will eventuate in the future of changing landscapes for Aboriginal people.
The apology has set the foundation for a changing landscape in Australia the effects of which is already being felt. For example Aboriginal people are beginning to feel more confident in participating in mainstream society without losing our connections to country. We are voicing our concerns about the misconceptions and myths that have dogged our people for the past 200 years. We are beginning to feel more comfortable with the notion that change is possible. The Apology has given us hope for our future and has provided a new sense of awareness amongst non-Aboriginal Australians. But the most important change from the apology is the confidence of Aboriginal people to participate in our own culture freely and openly without the shackles of the past.
In the past we were manipulated, controlled and manacled to the whims of changing governments. In the past we were identified, labelled and categorised by inherited ideology based on skin colour and social Darwinism, the lasting effects of which continue to exist in contemporary society. Aboriginal societies today have evolved, grown and adapted which is as it should be with ‘living cultures‘. So it never ceases to amaze me how many people continue to say the words ‘but that’s not real aboriginal’. In contemporary Australia the perception of Aboriginality continues to exist steeped in inherited ideology that is no longer reality. Aboriginal Australia has changed, our culture has changed and there is no going back. In today’s world we are a ‘living culture‘ therefore it is only natural that we will adapt, grow and evolve. It is only natural for our culture, our language and our art to adapt, grow and evolve. Regionally depending on the amount of contact between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people can the effects of change be seen. In Australia today, different regions of Aboriginal societies are practising, maintaining or piecing culture back together. This is the reality of Aboriginality in today’s world, and we are all Aboriginal, we are all ‘real aboriginal‘, we are just doing it differently.
As Aboriginal people begin to participate in the changing world, so too must Museums. Museums must begin to participate in the Aboriginal world because if we do not how are we going to be accountable for the exhibits of culture and heritage we so proudly display as the ‘real’ Aboriginal Australia. What message are we sending if we do not invite participation from Aboriginal communities? How are we going to express the diversity and the complexity of contemporary Aboriginality and how are we going to express the changing landscape of modern Aboriginal societies? As keepers of culture these are the questions we must ask ourselves.
I believe it is time for Museums to re-examine the collections housed of all Indigenous peoples, all ‘living cultures’. We need to tell the true history of Australia, I don’t deny that, however it is time to tell the story of cultural evolution. It is no longer appropriate to keep Aboriginal culture secured in the past as relics in the dungeon and being represented as motionless, timeless entities. We are a ‘living culture’ and it is time to express the changing face of Aboriginality through accurate authentic interpretation. It is time for Museums to take stock of the changing landscape of ‘living cultures’ and bring our culture and heritage out of the dungeon and into the light. It is time to reconnect the past to the present taking it into the future. It is time to voice ‘Aboriginality’ in its entirety. And let’s not forget it is an entirety borne from the effects of colonisation therefore it is time to redress the ideology of the ‘real’ Aboriginal and it is time for Museums to take responsibility in the representation of modern Aboriginal Australia.
The apology to the Stolen Generations has far broader implications than just saying sorry. It is acknowledgement of the wrongs of the past and it has created visible Aboriginal people and visible Aboriginal culture and heritage. The apology has given Aboriginal Australians the confidence to ‘voice’ the true story of Aboriginality and it has given us hope for change.
To reiterate the words of Mick Dodson now is ‘the perfect opportunity to work together and to build respectful relationships needed to produce better outcomes for all of us’.
On that note let us walk this journey together and face the changing landscape of Aboriginality with truth, honesty and integrity.
Rudd, K. (2008) Apology to Australia’s Indigenous Peoples, House of Representatives, Parliament House, Canberra Aust http://www.dfat.gov.au/indigenous_background/rudd_speech.html
Dodson, Prof. M. (2008), Hands across the Nation, The Age, February 13,
Pearson, N. (2008), Contradictions cloud the apology to the Stolen Generations, February 12,
Langton, M. (2008), Even the Hard Men know, it must be said, February 9, The Sydney Morning Herald