Elder Assessments of Early Material Culture Collections from Arnhem Land and Contemporary Access Needs to Them among Their Source Communities

Over 2007 and 2008 the ARC Indigenous Fellowship holder Dr Gumbula, his co-project recipient Dr Aaron Corn, and the University of Sydney Archives worked together to on a significant project assessing some of the earliest photographs and other records materials from the north-eastern Arnhem Land communities of Miliŋinbi (Milingimbi) and Galiwin’ku.

The ARC project is the first research project of its kind to be led by a Liya-Ŋärra’mirri (Learned, Wise) Yolŋu Elder from Arnhem Land. Dr Gumbula was a leading authority on material culture from Arnhem Land and was able as a duly-appointed Yolŋu Elder, to identify, interpret and re-assess their holdings within Indigenous legal and intellectual frames of reference.

Project Aims

The first aim of the project was to assess collections of material culture from Arnhem Land held in the University of Sydney Archives, in particular photographs of Miliŋinbi and surrounds taken by the anthropologist William Lloyd Warner in 1927-29, and the missionary T.T. Webb from 1926-1939, as well as records created by Professor AP Elkin and Dr Annie Margaret McArthur. Dr Gumbula has also explored collections of Warner and Webb materials worldwide to elicit the broadest perspectives possible on the early decades of the establishment of the Miliŋinbi community.

The second aim of the project was to set out to consultatively determine the access needs of contemporary communities in Arnhem Land to these collections, considering how developing digital technologies can be deployed to facilitate remote regional access, and what new access protocols can be implemented in partnership by host institutions and source communities to ensure secure data transfers and protect against unauthorised uses.

To this end, the project team visited Miliŋinbi and Galiwin’ku and met with key elders whose family are depicted in the images. The photographs were categorised into garma (open), dhuni (elder mediated) and ngarra (restricted) access groups according to Yolngu way, and the information about the images entered into a database.

In 2012 the Darlington Press and the University of Sydney Archives published Mali Buku-Runamaram: Images of Milingimbi and surrounds, 1926-1948 primarily for use of Yolngu community libraries. It is available for sale by wider public at Sydney University Press.

For further reading see Matjabala Mali’ Buku-Ruŋanmaram: implications for archives and access in Arnhem Land, Archival Science, Vol 9, No 1 -2, June 2009.

Project Leader

Dr Gumbula, Koori Centre, The University of Sydney
Dr Gumbula was an eminent Yolŋu elder, artist and intellectual. He was descended from a long line of prominent Yolŋu leaders whose contributions to dialogue and understanding between Indigenous and other Australians date from the 1920s, and a foremost authority on international collections of material culture from Arnhem Land. He frequently advised major state collection including Museum Victoria, and was a key figure in the development of Indigenous Knowledge Centres in remote Australia. As a leading authority on Yolŋu law, knowledge and culture, Dr Gumbula contributed to numerous studies and cultural survival initiatives including the ‘National Recording Project for Indigenous Performance in Australia’ and worked extensively with Dr Aaron Corn (now at the ANU School of Music) on collaborative projects. From 2003 to 2005, he worked as a Senior Fellow in Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne. He toured internationally as a director and lead performer with traditional companies such as the Gupapuyŋu Dancers, and was awarded the Doctor of Music honoris causa by the University of Sydney in 2007. Dr Gumbula was Indigenous Research Fellow in Curatorial Studies at the University of Sydney 2007 - 2009, and in 2010 received an Australian Research Fellowship - Indigenous grant for a further 3 years to address broad Indigenous community concerns in Australia surrounding rationales, policies and processes for the repatriation of Indigenous cultural heritage materials in the contemporary global context.
Dr Gumbula passed away on 19 August 2015.

Contact information

General enquiries about the project can be directed the University of Sydney Archives Archivist.