Wondering about the future – Designing the Archive 2019

by Gavan McCarthy, eScholarship Research Centre, University of Melbourne


Credit: Australian Society of Archivists

Last week, 21 to 25 October 2019, I attended an international archives conference in Adelaide, Australia. Designing the Archive was presented by the Australian Society of Archivists (ASA), Archives and Records Association of New Zealand Te Huinga Mahara (ARANZ), the International Council on Archives (ICA) and the Pacific Regional Branch International Council on Archives (PARBICA). Workshops, tours, special interest group meetings and annual general meetings were held on the Monday, the conference proper was Tuesday to Thursday, and Friday was reserved for further tours and workshops but my focus that day was the ICA Indigenous Matters Summit.

Following an exemplary Welcome to Kaurna Country by Mickey Kumatpi Marrutya O’Brien, the opening keynote of the conference by Michelle Caswell established a clear theme for the conference looking at how archives and archival practice needs to adapt to meet the needs of a changing society. And this is not to say that archives until now have necessarily met the needs of society in its totality in the past.

By the end of the conference, I reflected that like just about every archives conference I have attended (since 1985), this one also revealed a community that could be characterised by the ICA logo – Janus. He has two faces, one looking forward and one facing in the opposite direction and is also known as the ancient Roman god of beginnings, gates, transitions, time, duality, doorways, passages and endings. But for our profession he seems to represent a community that has one group looking to the future and one group stuck in the practices of the past. The phrase in the hallways was ‘tin ear’ from those looking forward and tackling the issues of the decolonising/decolonialisation of the archive when referring to those with a gatekeeper and business as usual world view.

The highlight for me was the ICA summit on the Friday. The ICA Indigenous Matters Summit, See Us, Hear Us, Walk with Us: Challenging and Decolonising the Archive, had as its focus the Tandanya – Adelaide Declaration (which will be found on the ICA website in the near future). This four-page, carefully constructed document was the product of the leadership of the ICA Expert Group on Indigenous Matters, many of whom were present. All delegates were encouraged to sign the declaration and I think all did. The opening addresses including heartening statements from the Honourable Ken Wyatt, the Australian Commonwealth Government Minister for Indigenous Australians (appointed in 2019) and the Director of the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Dr Craig Ritchie, both Indigenous Australians. This in itself was a landmark moment. The day followed with breakout groups examining some of the details of the Declaration.

My hope is that by the end of the day there were far fewer tin ears in the room.

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