Introduction to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultural Material in the Australian Museum Research Library
The Australian Museum Research Library holds a large collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural material in published works dating from soon after First Contact up until the present day. This includes books, journals, conference papers, pamphlets, theses, and educational resources and kits.
Many of these works are the Australian Museum’s own publications, written by Museum staff. Material about or by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people held by the Library also reflects the Museum’s changing institutional approaches to researching and presenting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures.
To assist researchers, the Library has produced six subject guides on the following topics:
- Aboriginal Sydney Resources
- Aboriginal Words as Place Names
- Australian Archaeology Resources
- Conference Papers
- Cultural Material in the Mel Ward Library Collection
- Theses and Museum Catalogues
A note on content and language in works and catalogue records
Please note that the Library's catalogue and holdings may contain images, voices or names of deceased persons in photographs, film, audio recordings or printed material.
Library users are advised that some items in our collection may contain culturally offensive words or descriptions, which reflect the author's attitude or that of the period in which the item was written that may not be considered appropriate today. Some subject terms used in the Library catalogue may now be considered outdated or inappropriate. Subject reclassification using AIATSIS thesaurus terms is underway but may take some time to complete.
The AM Archives and Library endorse Article 31 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which states that Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions. Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property (ICIP) refers to the right Indigenous peoples have over their heritage and culture. This includes cultural heritage and knowledge recorded in published works, such as those held in the Australian Museum Research Library's Collection.
The Archives and Library endorse First Nations Peoples' ownership of their ICIP held in our collections, and work proactively with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and Pacific staff members and communities to provide access to our collections. We are guided by the following protocols:
Access to some works held by the Australian Museum Research Library, particularly those containing secret sacred material or other sensitive material, may be restricted. Where material is in copyright and/or for reasons of cultural sensitivity, copying may also be restricted. Under the Australian Museum Research Library's policy you may be required to seek clearance from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities as well as the copyright owner before reproducing or re-using material.
- Aboriginal – in an Australian context, the First People of mainland Australia including Tasmania and other islands. This term is generally not inclusive for Torres Strait Islander people; the term Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander is used when referring to all Indigenous Australian people
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander – people of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent who identify as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and are accepted as such by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities
- AIATSIS – Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
- Ancestral remains – human remains of Aboriginal ancestors, many of which were taken from their communities and placed in institutions and private collections both in Australia and overseas
- Anthropology – the study of human languages, cultures and behaviours. In the context of the Australian Museum, this disciplinary approach has been supplanted by a focus on First Peoples, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, leading their own culture
- Archaeology – The study of the material traces of the human past
- Australian archaeology – a large subfield of archaeology that encompasses Aboriginal Archaeology (the archaeology of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people before and after First Contact with Europeans)
- Cultural objects – physical, human-made objects for a practical or spiritual purpose
- Ethnology – a branch of anthropology that focuses on comparative study of human groups. In the context of the Australian Museum, this disciplinary approach has been supplanted by a focus on First Peoples, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, leading their own culture
- First People – in an Australian context, the original inhabitants of the Australian continent
- Indigenous Australians – the original inhabitants of Australia; always capitalised. Includes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
- Language Group – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from a geographic region who share the same language, customs, and general laws. Also known as Nations
- Records of the Australian Museum – a scientific journal published by the Australian Museum
- Restricted material – material in the AMRL that has limitations on who may view it, generally because it contains secret sacred or otherwise sensitive knowledge
- Secret sacred – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and cultural material that is limited to specific individuals, groups, or communities
- Self-determination – the right of First Nations peoples to freely govern their identity, sovereignty, movement, and economic, social and cultural development
- Torres Strait Islander – First Peoples of the Torres Strait Islands, as distinct from Aboriginal people of mainland Australia
The Australian Museum was established in 1827. Like many early Sydney institutions, its foundation was, in part, an attempt to assert the legitimacy of British occupation of Australia. Indigenous Australian, and Pacific, cultures were approached via the transplanted disciplines of anthropology, ethnology and, later, archaeology, which placed these cultures in a Eurocentric context. Numerous publications about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people held by the Australian Museum Research Library from this period fall under these disciplines, reflecting the Museum’s research focus in these areas.
Many of the works in the Library from First Contact until the mid-20th century reflect a colonial mindset, depicting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and cultures in terms that are no longer considered appropriate today, and are generally written by white Europeans rather than from the perspective of First Nations peoples themselves. However, this is not true of all works from this period – key outliers include David Unaipon’s Native Legends (1929), the first published book authored by an Indigenous Australian, and the 1938 pamphlet Aborigines Claim Citizen Rights! A Statement of the Case for the Aborigines Progressive Association by J.T. Patten and W. Ferguson.
As white Australia's attitudes changed towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, so did the Australian Museum’s research focus and the Library's collecting priorities. From around the 1960s onwards, more works came into the collection that reflected the self-determination movement, as did research that presented Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as part of living, breathing cultures. Today, the AMRL collects research on areas relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples including archaeology, art and history, museology, and science.
The following list of materials is a thematic summary of works pertaining to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures held in the Library. It is not exhaustive.
- Aboriginal Sydney and New South Wales
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander support groups – 1900s-1950s
- Annual Report / The Aborigines’ Friends’ Association (Adelaide SA)
- The AFA Missionary and Educational Review/ The Aborigines’ Friends’ Association (Adelaide SA)
- Australian Archaeology (including theses)
- Community publications (including those published by governments for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities)
- Aboriginal News, 1973-1980 (Commonwealth Department of Aboriginal Affairs)
- Aboriginal Quarterly, 1978-1982 (Commonwealth Department of Aboriginal Affairs)
- Dawn, 1952-1969 (Aborigines Welfare Board, New South Wales)
- Identity, 1971-1975 (Aboriginal Publications Foundation)
- New Dawn, 1970-1975 (Department of Child Welfare and Social Welfare, New South Wales)
- Cultural heritage and museum conferences
- Culture and technology (including anthropological and ethnological research)
- Dictionaries and word lists of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages across Australia
- European expeditions and exploration of Australia – (primary sources – first-hand accounts)
- Government reports relevant to institutions with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stakeholders (e.g. Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody)
- Melbourne Ward Library Collection – of the 878 catalogued items donated by Melbourne Ward in the Library's collection, about 200 relate specifically to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander topics
- Natural history material which includes a focus on Aboriginal culture
- Walkabout [Variant title: Australian geographical walkabout magazine] (1934-1978)
- Theses and catalogues on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collection objects at the Australian Museum