At the Centre: AMaGA National Conference 2019

By Victoria Esson, Head of Sector Development | Pouwhakahaere National Services  Te Paerangi

It’s a long way into the middle of Australia, so I discovered on the flight from Brisbane to Alice Springs – which took as long as the flight from Wellington to Brisbane. Mparntwe (Alice Springs) sits on the country of the Arrernte people who have continuously inhabited the area for over 30,000 years – it is old country with plenty of stories and lots and lots of red sand.

It is surrounded by miles and miles of desert as far as the eye can see and for anyone like me, travelling from wet, green and quite cold Aotearoa, is almost like another planet. It is well over 1000km to the closest beach – a bit different from this motu where you are never further than a couple of hours away from the ocean.

The reason I was in the “red centre” was to attend the Australian Museums and Galleries Association (AMaGA) National Conference which was held from 13 – 17 May 2019. It was the first time the conference has been held in such a remote location, the conference is usually in the larger coastal cities where bigger cultural organisations are located and where transport routes are more affordable.

The majority of the delegates I talked to had never been to Mparntwe before, so I wasn’t alone. The main kaupapa for the conference, and rationale for locating the event in the heart of Australia, was the launch of Australian Museums and Galleries Association 10-Year Indigenous Roadmap.

Terri Janke introduces AMaGA conference delegates to the Indigenous Roadmap. Photo Victoria Esson, Te Papa

The Indigenous Roadmap project is a partnership between legal firm Terri Janke and Company and AMaGA. The roadmap itself is the result of an extensive consultation and review process to create a comprehensive 10 year plan to guide museum and galleries across Australia in how to work more closely with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Download the Australian Museums and Galleries Association 10-Year Indigenous Roadmap

The Indigenous Roadmap aims to achieve the following outcomes:

  • Reconciliation of Australia.
  • Stronger engagement with Indigenous people in the representation of their cultures in galleries and museums.
  • Increase Indigenous voices and Indigenous stories.
  • Provide Indigenous people with the opportunity to connect across institutions and sectors.
  • Deeper and more representative range of Indigenous arts and culture will provide audiences will more entry points to experiences and learning – invite diverse participation.
  • Institutions will develop a better understanding of their collections, staff, and programs – the Roadmap will reveal options for activities that support more mature content and exhibition policies and protocols.
  • Improve jobs, income and economic development.
  • Substantially improve Indigenous training, employment and leadership pathways. Including meeting job targets.
  • Enable the creation of culturally safe spaces.
  • Diversify Indigenous participation in museums and galleries – as collaborators, consultants, employees and audience.
  • Improve levels of engagement of Indigenous communities in the cultural sector.
  • Help drive the revitalisation of some Indigenous communities and strengthen relationships between volunteer run smaller galleries and museums and their local areas as well as guide and inspire larger institutions.
  • Audiences will benefit from richer and more authentic collections, education.
  • Visitor programs and exhibitions; deeper emotional and intellectual engagement with art, history and continuing cultures; stronger museums, galleries and art centres with connections to local communities.

While much of what is outlined above is second nature to museums and galleries in Aotearoa – it is important to note that a critical pathway, guidelines, targets and defined next steps give the Australian cultural sector a really robust mechanism to measure progress. This builds the case for the possible development of cultural policy to help give shape to how we expect publicly funded museums and galleries in our country to engage with iwi, hapū, whanau, and how we can demonstrate that we are improving in that regard.

The roadmap was warmly welcomed by the AMaGA delegates and gave the framework for the entire conference that included numerous presentations by Aboriginal and Torre Strait Islander people working in partnership with museums and galleries. The ones that really stood for me were those who acknowledged the difficult histories and weight of responsibility they felt as they worked hard to protect traditional knowledge, language and lift the economic outcomes for their people.

Two elders Bobby West Tjupurrula and Matthew Pinta Tjapanati, who had both contributed to the selection of artwork for an exhibition held at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory in Darwin, gave their presentation in their own respective languages, with their words translated into English by a translator. A delegate sitting next to me commented it was the first time she could recall a presentation at AMaGA being given in an Aboriginal language.

Giving language space to grow and thrive was a common thread and there were many examples of language being used as a mechanism to unit divided communities. An engaging and honest presentation from Lynette Nilaweera and Brooke Wandin, from the Yarra Ranges Regional Museum, described an exhibition Dhumba-njan (speak I) dhumba-njarr (speak you) which tells the story of Woiwurrung, the language of the Wurundjeri of South Central Victoria.

Learn more about Dhumba-njan (speak I) dhumba-njarr (speak you)

The curators described their discomfort at times of sharing aspects of their language which are not well known by their own people. Brooke who is a Wurundjeri woman said that her focus now will be building her own and her family’s language capabilities and only when they are feeling strong again will she feel ok about sharing more with others.

I gave a presentation about National Services Te Paerangi and how we work with the diverse organisations and communities around Aotearoa. There was clear respect for museum practice in this country and lots of questions including questions about iwi, hapū, and whānau seeking the repatriation of collections held by cultural organisations, and how many museums are actively working to enable that outcome.

There were also some memorable social functions and various welcomes which included a welcome to country and a smoking ceremony assisted by two very lovely Arrernte women held at the Araluen Arts Centre on the outskirts of town.

Smoking ceremony at Araluen Art Centre. Photo courtesy of Victoria Esson, Te Papa

Luckily I had borrowed the hotel bike so could get myself back to a bed at the end of the day. I had imagined everything much closer together, but I guess if you have heaps of space you use it. Mparntwe is small but spread out and the bike and I became quite good friends.

The other really awesome social event was the conference dinner at the Earth Sanctuary – about 20km out into the dessert. It was an amazing night under the incredible stars reminding us how far we were from – well pretty much everything. The night was made even more memorable as the news of former Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s passing reached people via their phones and a tribute was given by the AMaGA Chair.

Earth Sanctuary outside of Mparntwe. Photograph Victoria Esson, Te Papa

While I’m not sure I’ll ever make it back to Mparntwe, I made some great connections (shout out to Kiah Buckskin-James, hope we see you in Aotearoa before long e hoa). I also reflected on our own bicultural museum practice. We might take it for granted, but in fact it needs to be protected, be fought for and be mindfully enhanced whenever we can.