‘The best day for me, looking at these old photos’: Returning photographs to Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

Jane Lydon, Donna Oxenham

Research output: Chapter in Book/Conference paperChapterpeer-review

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Photographic archives have only recently come to be recognized as an important form of Australian Indigenous cultural heritage. Because of historical collecting practices – which entailed the appropriation and ownership of cultural materials, especially secret or sacred objects – Australian government departments and museums have not always had amicable relationships with Indigenous peoples Australians. Until a few decades ago, Indigenous interaction with institutions such as museums and state record departments was limited and one-sided. Indigenous peoples were the object and subject of collections historically collected and archived by non-Indigenous people. In this essay, two Australian scholars, one Aboriginal (Oxenham) and one non-Aboriginal (Lydon), discuss work they have conducted over more than a decade to research four major European historical photograph archives and share the collections with descendant communities. Except where an individual voice is identified, we write collaboratively, presenting ideas and conclusions that have emerged through our research partnership over the life of our project. We examine changing attitudes towards these Australian photograph collections over the last fifty years, and Lydon introduces a research project aiming to decolonize four major European archives, its progress and outcomes. Oxenham explores the significance of these archives to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as a resource for supporting culture and memory in the face of historical colonization and assimilation, as well as her own role in returning them to descendant communities. Lydon then reviews the outcomes of this project, particularly for the participating museums. Finally, Oxenham examines the ways that historical photographs can serve as evidence for the past and continuing violation of Aboriginal peoples’ rights, focusing on the example of the notorious case of her relative Ms. Dhu, a young Aboriginal woman who died in police custody in 2014.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationAdjusting the Lens
Subtitle of host publicationIndigenous Activism, Colonial Legacies, and Photographic Heritage
EditorsSigrid Lien, Hilde Nielssen
Place of PublicationCanada
PublisherUniversity of British Columbia Press
ISBN (Print)9780774866613
Publication statusPublished - 15 Nov 2021


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