Aboriginal digital archival project picks up international award in Washington, DC

11 September 2015

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A South Australian Aboriginal digitisation project has today received an Outstanding Project Award for Guardians of Culture and Lifeways from the America’s Association of Tribal Archives Libraries and Museums in Washington, DC.

More than 20 years ago the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Land Council - an Aboriginal organisation in South Australia’s Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands - asked historian John Dallwitz to compile a photographic exhibition in celebration of the 10th Anniversary of Pitjantjatjara Land Rights.

The community were so moved by the collection, it sparked a world-first digital archival project containing early film, letters and artefacts documenting the lives of the Anangu people and repatriating them to the community.

Ara Irititja (Stories from a long time ago) was born and Dallwitz began digitising boxes of private collections - mostly letters and photographs - taken by the nurses and teachers who worked on the mission stations in the early 1950s.

“They were pioneers out there. They knew they were doing something historic and they took photographs of the people, but the Aboriginal people never saw those photographs,” said John.

“Our mission, in the early days, was to collect those private collections which were sitting up in people’s attics getting ruined, and make digital copies for the Anangu people who had had never seen photos of their mothers before.”

With the support of the South Australian Museum, Dallwitz and his partner Dora set up office in Adelaide and the collection grew from an initial 5000 images stored on 40mb computer, to a rich interactive website containing up to 160,000 items.

“One of the big revolutions that happened when we took the project online was the fact that people could suddenly interact with it,” said Dora Dallwitz.

“They could be looking at an artwork or a photo of themselves, and make a real time movie of themselves speaking to the painting or talking about the day that photo was taken, and they could do that in text or audio or movie, and click save and it became part of the database.

“There was no ‘one truth’ in the whole thing, people could give their interpretation of an event,” she said.

With the advance of technology, and the community’s access to cameras, internet and computers the website now has a significantly larger contemporary collection.

“It’s changed a lot, from 100 per cent white people’s photography to a much higher percentage now of Anangu people’s personal photography as well,” said Dora.

“The percentage of people in those early photographic collections might have been five or 10 per cent and the rest of it would have been of the mission buildings and the landscape, the beautiful wildflowers...now a digital collection coming from a community or school is all about the kids - sports days, Inma [traditional dancing], and rock and roll concerts – that’s what they want to record.”

John and Dora Dallwitz together with Sally Anga Scales, an Anangu woman from the APY lands, will be presenting the project in Session 511 on Saturday, 12 September, as part of the International Conference of Indigenous Archives Libraries and Museums.