Recently I was privileged to receive a guided tour of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. The Institute is situated near the National Museum of Australia, and is a world famous institute for research into indigenous matters, as well as housing an amazing collection of artefacts, including film, photographs and printed materials.
AIATSIS commenced in 1961 with a conference, attended predominantly by white male academics, which sought to record the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and cultures, before they disappeared for good. An Act of Parliament in 1964, by Robert Menzies, established the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies. It was interesting to see that from such humble non-indigenous beginnings, the institute has flourished, and continues to grow under the current leadership of Craig Ritchie, the Chief Executive Officer. It now houses an impressive collection of artefacts, including 13,500 manuscripts, 130,000 items of published materials, including 3,000 rare books, and 6.5 million feet of film.
We were given a tour through the Institute by John Paul Janke, the Institute’s communications and engagement officer. John was passionate and knowledgeable about the collections, and was able to relay many interesting stories in relation to the many artefacts the Institute houses. A highlight of this tour was viewing one of the rare books – from 1801, which includes the only recorded transcript of a letter written by Bennelong, a Wangal man from the south shore of the Parramatta River, to Governor Phillips in 1796.
One of the key functions of the Institute, both originally and continuing, is to preserve indigenous cultures and heritage, which includes the collection and publication of indigenous dictionaries. During our visit we heard from Dr Michael Walsh, Senior Research Fellow with the Institutes’ Centre for Languages. Michael shared with us an in-depth look at how language was revitalised, using both past and current sources. The process for each word is extremely complicated and can include as many as 13 to 15 sources, many dating back to the earliest surveyor records.
The Institute were a key contributor to the development of an acknowledgement to country for the Ngunnawal speaking people in their language, as has been used by the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, when speaking on the Closing the Gap in recent times. Whilst it would appear this to be an easy matter, Michael shared that finding the right words, such as for the word ‘acknowledge’ is not easy, as often there are not equivalent words.
The exciting opportunities of revitalising the languages for the local Canberran Aboriginal peoples, goes beyond the welcome to country however. It includes the opportunity for books to be printed in that language, traditional stories to be re-published, and for local school students, including non-indigenous students, to learn the language, and so to learn more about the first peoples and the land in which we live.
The Institute houses an impressive resource, one which is accessed by many indigenous and non-indigenous people, who come in from across Australia, but is a hidden treasure for the people of Canberra. One hopes that by having the collections open to such display, visitors from across Australia, and indeed globally, could begin to really understand the rich heritage we have as a nation and which we share with our first peoples.