Australia’s Oldest Culture Enters the Digital Age – One Image at a Time

19 August 2013


A selection of artefacts for digitisation from the Australian Aboriginal Cultures Collection.

The South Australian Museum is strengthening cultural links with remote or fragmented Australian Aboriginal communities through a new digitisation project, supported by Newmont Asia Pacific and the Department for Manufacturing, Innovation, Trade Resources and Energy (DMITRE).

The Aboriginal Material Culture Collection held at the South Australian Museum is recognised as the world’s largest and most comprehensive, as it includes objects from all regions of Australia across history. These include many artefacts collected during the mid-19th century, as well as the Norman Barnett Tindale Collection archives, which were recently inscribed onto UNESCO’s Australian Memory of the World Register.

For the first time, a digital record of every object will be made within the Museum’s Aboriginal Material Culture Collection. This will provide open, global access to the stories of Aboriginal Australians and give families a chance to know their ancestors’ histories. With tens of thousands of objects to record and photograph, it is an ambitious project with local, national and international significance.

South Australian Museum Acting Director, Professor Andrew Lowe says “This project illustrates the significant achievements that can be made when the Museum creates strong partnerships with corporate and government sponsors. It will provide an essential historical record for Aboriginal Australians that will be easily accessible to them. This project will also broaden the possibilities of research and new discoveries for scientists around the world.”

Museum Anthropologist Professor Peter Sutton says “This important project is not just about spreading knowledge more effectively. It also offers connection. Relatives and descendants of those who originally made so many of the artefacts will be able to see these works by family or group members and download images of them. They will be able to do this no matter how remotely they live from Adelaide.”

Researchers and the general public will be able to search the digital database by object type, language group or region and view photos and object information online.

Minister for Mineral Resources and Energy Tom Koutsantonis said that the digitisation project was an example of how mining benefits South Australian communities in different ways.

“This project allows us to preserve the history of Aboriginal Australians and make it available to the regional communities to which it is most significant,” Mr Koutsantonis said.

“This important historic and cultural work would not be possible without the support of the mining industry and in this case Newmont Asia Pacific.”

Newmont Asia Pacific Group Executive Environment and Social Responsibility, Ken Ramsey, said the digitisation project was an innovative leveraged research and learning initiative opening doors to a global audience keen to discover the richness of Australia’s Aboriginal heritage.

“Digitisation of the Australian Aboriginal Cultures Collection is one of five key projects that form the foundation of Newmont’s renewed partnership with the South Australian Museum. We are delighted to see the Museum’s longstanding commitment to Aboriginal culture enabling new levels of learning, and more importantly, providing local Aboriginal communities greater access to their cultural heritage.”

Volunteers digitally photograph artefacts from the collection.

Volunteers photograph artefacts from the collection.

Project Officer Eleanor Adams is leading a team of Museum staff and volunteers to digitally photograph and database each item in the collection.

“Thanks to the sponsorship, we’ve been able to purchase top-of-the-line photography equipment and dedicate a full-time staff member to coordinate this important project. This would not have been possible without that financial support,” said Ms Adams.

The size and diversity of the collection represents a significant challenge for the enthusiastic team, which is tasked with recording everything from bark paintings and wood carvings to canoes, sound recordings and emu feather plumes. 

“Our team of 20 volunteers provide a day of their time each week and help us to catalogue up to 40 objects each time. Pieces that are fragile or large – like weapons – take longer, as we need to take multiple photos and then piece them together,” said Ms Adams.

As part of the Museum’s commitment to sharing its collections, the digitisation project will help reinforce Australian Aboriginal identity in communities that have been fragmented since European contact. Interaction with knowledgeable elders will undoubtedly result in new documentation for the collection, enhancing the long-term value of Australia’s cultural heritage.

“We started with objects from the Yuendumu region of the Northern Territory and are now expanding into photographing objects from the APY lands and the Western Desert areas.

“The Museum already has strong relationships with communities like Yuendumu to preserve their cultural history and this project will strengthen those relationships as well as help us to build new ones,” Ms Adams said.

Through digital repatriation, the South Australian Museum can take images of objects back to communities as a record, while preserving valuable cultural materials for communities who are unable to protect the items themselves.

The digitisation project will make collating and accessing the collection more efficient.

Cultural sensitivities will continue to be respected throughout the digitisation project. The Collection contains culturally sensitive objects like ceremonial objects to which access is restricted. The Museum holds the license to software which will enable them to manage how sacred objects and information are shared to ensure cultural sensitivities are preserved at all times.

The South Australian Museum is a trusted and respected guardian of Australia’s natural and cultural heritage. It is committed to working in partnership with Aboriginal communities and industry to preserve the story of Aboriginal Australia and share it with the world.

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The South Australian Museum

The South Australian Museum is a natural and cultural history museum dedicated to the conservation and study of nature and culture for the benefit and enjoyment of current and future generations. We advance knowledge through scientific research derived from collections in order to support life-long learning in our community. We contribute to the global understanding of human cultures and the natural world.

The Australian Aboriginal Material Culture Collection

This collection is globally recognised as one of the most comprehensive collections of ethnographic objects, and the most significant of its kind in the world. It consists of items from all regions of Australia and boasts an unparalleled depth, both historically and geographically.

The Australian Aboriginal Cultures Gallery

The Australian Aboriginal Cultures Gallery at the South Australian Museum celebrates the cultural achievements of Australia’s Aboriginal people, one of the world’s oldest continuous living cultures. This object-rich experience features over 3,000 items across two floors. It successfully tells the story of a way of life to an appreciative audience annually of more than 800,000 national and international visitors. Principal Sponsor: Newmont Asia Pacific.