Interview with Nathan Sentance

Interview with Nathan Sentance

Nathan ‘Mudyi’ Sentance is a Wiradjuri librarian, archivist and essayist who grew up on Darkinjung Country on the NSW Central Coast.

Nathan works to ensure that First Nations stories being told in cultural and memory institutions, such as galleries, libraries, archives, and museums are being told and controlled by First Nations people. He has worked at the Australian Museum and the State Library of NSW, was a participant in the 2017 NGA Indigenous Arts Leadership program and was previously the convener of the Australian Society of Archivists, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Special Interest Group. Nathan is a member of the Indigneous Archives Collective, and writes the Archival Decolonist blog, in which he aims to balance the biases and misinterpretations of Aboriginal culture and people that has been previously set by GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) institutions.

An archive, regardless of its form, is a fount for the construction of memory and for the transmission of knowledge, and therefore a powerful tool. The manner in which an archive is presented and made accessible can determine popular understandings of a community, a history and a culture. Nowhere is this better understood than amongst Indigenous Australian communities. On his blog Archival Decolonist, Nathan Sentance, a Wiradjuri man from the Mowgee clan, actively exposes and criticises Australian GLAM institutions, and the historical and ongoing impact of colonial classifications and analyses of Indigenous Australian peoples and cultures. 

In our conversation with Nathan, he discusses with us his personal experience within the GLAM sector in Australia and his understanding of the role of the contemporary archive and archivist. Nathan is a strong proponent for the ‘activation’ of or interaction with archives, to allow the contents of an archive to be accessible by the communities represented in them, and re-interpretable by new generations of the public and artists alike. Artistic interventions on archives have the potential to open up new worlds and introduce new perspectives to historys considered resolved or dissociated from contemporary life.

Archival and found footage films have the express purpose of recontextualising and reformulating the contents of an archive or video collection. The 4-channel video installation project proposed by Sipakatuo is a work created from the DSTV video archive. Since this discussion with Nathan, we’ve gained a deeper appreciation for the archive as a potential apparatus for misrepresentation, prejudice and injustice. This conversation helped us refine our vision for our video work, prompted us to consider our positionality in relation to the material of the archive and how to best represent and engage with those that created the archive in the first place. 

We would like to thank Nathan for his openness and generosity in taking the time to speak with us.

Sam: What drew you to the GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums) sector in the first place?


Nathan: I think it's an important sector to work in. But for the main part, I actually sort of fell into it. I used to work at the Darkinjung Local Aboriginal Land Council, and they needed the business records archived. So they got a professional archivist to do that, and I got to work as an archive assistant, which is really cool because that's a community archive. 

Then because of that, I was actually very lucky and was able to get a cadetship at the State Library in New South Wales, which is the oldest library in Australia. But it really quickly showed me how big archives, mostly state organised archives are very colonial and have a history of colonisation. They're very much based on state records. A lot of state records, especially of Aboriginal people and Torres Strait islanders are based on surveillance, so a lot of Aboriginal knowledge in archives basically comes through the surveillance of anthropologists, mostly state officials, especially during that protection era, like the Stolen Generations. So I wanted to work within them to work on decolonising those archives, to disrupt the inherent colonialism of them. 

In History, archives are considered primary sources, so people go to the state library and archives in New South Wales and use them to write history books or do historical research with. It's a very one sided history and though there may be First Nations history in there, it’s usually written by non-Aboriginal people talking about Aboriginal people. Even in cases of well intentioned non-Aboriginal people, they sometimes simplify Aboriginal culture, their lens influences how they write about Aboriginal people and it affects how Aboriginal people are represented. So I just want to empower self representation. That's what I still do now at the Australian Museum. That's where I work now. I’m trying to work on a concept called the ‘right of reply’, which is having Aboriginal people reply to records and give a response to it so they get their voice heard in the same way as these archives get heard. 

I think something like the archive that you are working on is really cool because that's kind of a personal archive, but it's also a community archive, and community archives have that power, too. A few years ago, I was lucky enough to get invited to speak in England and when I was in England, I got invited to the black the black British archives. They started that archive in the 70s when they were starting to fight for more equal rights and against the horrible pay and discrimination the were facing in places like Brixton, what the Caribbean diaspora were facing. They started protesting for better conditions, more rights. When they did that they found that the newspapers were just calling them riots and calling the protests troublemakers. So they started those archives after that to say “Well, no one's going to tell our history or tell our story properly, so we're going to tell them ourselves”. That's what’s exciting about those community archives, that telling of history. They often come about very organically, it's just like a collection of things that a particular person or particular family is starting to accumulate over the years, and they may not be deliberately trying to respond to colonial history or colonial narratives but just by asserting and telling their own stories, they kind of are.


Sam: The archives that we're working with, like you said, was never intended to be an archive, it just so happened that [Victor] kept making videos and then he became employed to make videos and record local ceremonial and social events. These videos were then kept side by side with some of his personal footage. And then our intervention has made it something that it perhaps wasn't necessarily intended to be. What can you say about this kind of intervention?


Nathan: Those interventions enliven archives. That’s one issue that happens with archives in big institutions, they just become archives for the sake of preservation. They’re not about interaction, and interaction is actually what they need. They need to be valuable to people, they need to be reinterpreted, reacted. 

I wrote a review for a book that came out a couple of years ago called Archival-Poetics by Natalie Harkin, an aboriginal poet from South Australia. She would talk about her experiences trying to look at things like family history through archives, and she just had this poetic response to it. She takes excerpts out of the archives and places them in the book to tell the stories of her family. Another artist is a Queensland Aboriginal artist called Judy Watson, she did this artwork where she made a giant X with scanned copies of archival records that talked about massacres that happened to Aboriginal people in Queensland. So, it's enlivening archives and drawing people to the stories within these archives. 

But also, as a person who works in History, one of the things I always get worried about is when I talk about History, I get worried that people think of it as solely in the past when it's very much a part of our present. I think archival interventions and artistic responses contextualise History so people understand it in today's context and how it connects to them personally or connects to the world they live in or a perspective they don't know but does exist in the world they live in.


Sam: What was the name of that first artist you spoke about?


Nathan: Natalie Harkin. She also made copies of archival records and has made weavings with them. She made the paper in such a way that she can weave baskets and stuff like that, so she's made physical artistic objects based on archival records. 

And then there's also people like Joan Ross, who's not Indigenous, but she's done artworks where she's gotten colonial paintings that are now out of copyright and she does these video works with them where she adds things like animals eating colonists and stuff like that. So they're kind of like archival interventions because even though those colonial paintings are artworks, they're still considered records. And people will look to those paintings of early Australia as records of early Australian life, and so she plays around with that.


Sam: There’s quite a strong history in filmmaking and a video culture of repurposing old found footage. I'm not so familiar with that taking place in other mediums like painting or weaving.


Nathan: I like the idea of creating archives, again as I said, that allow actions that enliven them, but are also participatory. I like the idea that the archives are not static, that they're ever evolving and that people can be take part in their evolution, not just seeing them growing, but also enlivening them, recontextualising them, reinterpreting them, not only talking about why they're historically important, but why they're important to you now.

I wanted to work within them to work on decolonising those archives, to disrupt the inherent colonialism of them.

Sam: The exhibition that you're taking part in, ‘Unsettled’, would you say that that's part of this intention, an extension of your interest in doing that?


Nathan: Yeah, definitely. We got the money to ‘Unsettled’ originally because 2020 was going to be the 250th anniversary of James Cook coming to the East Coast of Australia. So, many big institutions were doing something about James Cook and that Endeavour trip. We at the Australians Museum realised that no matter what you did, it would be controversial, and so I think to mitigate the controversy actually allowed the First Nations team to take over. 

In particular a First Nations curator, Laura McBride who I work with, said she'd only do it if we could have six months to consult. So, we got to talk to about 805 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. We asked them “what do you want to see in the exhibition? What don't you want to see? What do you think of the Australian Museum? What do you think of James Cook?” From there, we built the exhibition based on those 805 responses. 

I had lots of trepidations about doing the exhibition. The first suggestions that came up about doing an Aboriginal exhibition on the Endeavour trip was to focus on Aboriginal art that's very anti-Cook. There are great artists that have worked with Cooks iconography, people like Jason Wing who put a balaklava over Cooks bust. There's Michael Cook, who’s done a lot of self-portraits of him as Cook. 

There are people who have played around with Cook’s iconography, but I was worried that that would centre Cook and that he would still remain the main focal point. That was one of my concerns, and my second concern with the exhibition was that even if we go really negative on Cook. I fear that people who may be sympathetic to the causes that we're talking about would still think of Cook and his actions as in the past. They would think about it like “oh, yeah, colonisation, it's really bad” but they wouldn’t connect it to today. So, I'm very glad that in these consultations, the legacy of colonisation came up a lot. Lots of mob responded to “what do you want to see in the exhibition?” by saying things like Stolen Generations, massacres, contemporary deaths in custody and over incarceration of Indigenous people, all of which technically Cook wasn't physically involved in, but that's what Cook and these events represent. That was the start of the flow-on effects. I'm very glad that that got to be part of the exhibition, and that's what we did focus on. 

This one bit that I got to work on, we got a wall of newspaper articles about Aboriginal people which shows the history of racist racism and racist representation in newspapers. We did that with articles from the early 1800s right up to 2020. All these articles show the continuation of that. This is also playing with the archives. We're compiling all this information so you can see it's not just one racist article, it's many racist articles and they're all put together. We’re reinterpreting these sources. I just used Trove, the newspaper website, through the National Library website for that. With ‘Unsettled’ we’ve really tried to connect everything to today and reinterpreted a lot of our collections. 

We have a very large Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island collection, but a lot of it's based on anthropological research, and the way it's represented is through anthropological research. Working on this exhibition we collaborated with a lot of mob and tried to get some mob to reinterpret that collection, re-examine it and connect it back to their own personal stories, so we could share those personal stories and say that whatever the collection object is, it's not just important because it's in the Australian Museum collection but because it's connected to living people and their living culture. So we tried to do stuff like that for the ‘Unsettled’ exhibition, we tried to make our collection accessible, but also tell particular stories with a collection that was not designed to do so. 

One of the issues we had is our collections are designed based on anthropological wishes or anthropological research, which had been very narrow in focus. Archaeologists and anthropologists call our culture “prehistory”, which is pretty offensive, and they had these ideas that we're savages. So, they collected a lot of weaponry to connect to that theory. Our culture doesn't naturally speak to First Nations resilience and survival. But it can tell those stories, we just have to connect the collection object back with the community members so these stories can be told.


Sam: So what's the what does that process look like, this intervention on these archaeological, anthropological, colonial materials? How do you reinterpret it to centre the First Nations voice?


Nathan [00:19:43] In some cases it's difficult, in some cases it's very easy, so it's really about thinking about connecting the material back to country, the country that it originally comes from and connecting it to the communities from that country, and then just asking them what they think about this material. Some of those stories can be very complex in First Nations knowledges. Like the importance of how materials connect Aboriginal climate science or Aboriginal spirituality and stuff like that. Other times it's just people's personal stories. Like “I remember my grandfather making these shields. We never learnt how to make the shields because we got taken to the missions, but I remember my grandfather making those shields.” It's stuff like that. 

The challenge, of course, is about respecting Indigenous intellectual and cultural property. How can we tell these stories without trying to claim ownership over them? We're still not there exactly, we're still working through it. We're trying to get very fair licensing agreements. I think the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, I think it's called the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences now, I think that museum is much better. They have these agreements where they now loan the cultural heritage of communities. So those communities can take back the permissions they've given for these cultural heritage objects so they can go back to community at any time along with the stories they're providing. 

They're some of the challenges we have to face, as well as ensuring that our budget can fairly compensate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people. Some communities have had so much taken from them that their knowledge, their stories are some of the few things that they have to themselves that we have to respect. They sometimes do want it to go to a wider audience, of course, it's not just us wanting to tell the story. It's that community that maybe wanted these stories to get to a wider audience. But at the same time, we do need to respect the value of that legacy and we need to respect it financially.


Sam: That seems like a big step for a sector that comes from a colonial 19th century system.


Afifah: I’d like to take it back to the GLAM sector, if that's OK, because I really don’t understand the whole history of colonialism in Australia, though I'm very much eager to learn. I know your work entails ensuring the narratives of First Nations people are being told authentically and controlled by them in cultural institutions such as museums and archives. Can you talk about the representation of Indigenous people in the GLAM sector currently in Australia? The term GLAM sector is new to me, because in Indonesia we don't have these kinds of institutions of museum archives and galleries.


Nathan: It depends on the different institutions. I reckon archives, libraries and museums seem to be the ones that are more challenged because they have more of these historical collections and have previously collected very one sided items and material. I think art galleries are a little bit better. But I know they also have challenges with First Nations representation. 

Previously, a lot of First Nations exhibitions were created by white curators and so they would tell the stories. There are issues with that where falsehoods would be written about Aboriginal people. For example, in the Australian Museum magazine in 1921, in one of the articles our head anthropologists at the time wrote that Aboriginal men and women had the minds of small children and implied that Aboriginal people were inferior intellectually. As well as being false it is damaging because the Australian Museum is the oldest museum in Australia and we had one of the strongest anthropology departments so he was considered the expert on Aboriginal people. 

That's one of the things we're trying to break down now, and there's still a long way to go, but we're trying to break down the idea that people outside our communities can be the experts on our communities. They can bring skills into our communities and be collaborative. There are lots of initiatives that are very collaborative, there are non-Indigenous archaeologists that work very closely with Aboriginal communities to make sure that the research that they do benefits everyone where previously the research has been more just in the interest of the anthropologists and archaeologists without any sort of concern about the results to Aboriginal people, what it does to Aboriginal people. 

Considering that 1921 example, at the same time we had the Protection Era policies, which led to the Stolen Generations, where Aboriginal children were being taken away from their parents and put on missions. So, if you were just a normal non-Aboriginal person in Australia at that time and you read that Aboriginal men and women have the minds of children and at the same time hear that Aboriginal children are getting taken from their parents, you're probably not going to be angry about that. You’d think that would be justified. It does have that flow-on effect where stuff that happens in museums and representation affects policy and affects the way people see us and what they think about us. 

The representation of Aboriginal people in remote communities is always of abject poverty and horrible domestic lives, and because of that, there's a lot of government policies that intervene in Aboriginal people's lives where they don't intervene in other people's lives. In the Northern Territory, Aboriginal communities were the first place they tested out the basics card, so if you’re getting any sort of government subsidy, the government could basically control that subsidy or that cash that you're receiving from them, in a very micromanaging kind of way. 

That's one of the things that we're trying to do in the GLAM sector, we’re trying to make sure that people can hear a diversity of voices in regard to history. I'm also trying to make Aboriginal knowledges more well-known because a lot of Aboriginal knowledges were very much connected to climate and very much connected to sustainability. With how those things are going at the moment, some of that knowledge may be useful in dealing with the future or considering how we impact the environment and how we can be better.

I think archival interventions and artistic responses contextualise History so people understand it in today's context and how it connects to them personally or connects to the world they live.

Afifah: I read your article on your blog on the topic of objectivity and the myth of neutrality and in the GLAM sector, I also read an article from Archivist Magazine Australia. I'm very interested in this myth of neutrality and objectivity that exists in the GLAM sector. Can you tell us a bit about this?


Nathan: Now, it's not as bad as it was, but when I first started working in the library, when I started studying to be a librarian, one of the things I was taught was actually how librarians have to be neutral and how libraries exist and have to be neutral. At the time I couldn’t articulate why I thought that was weird, but as I got more involved in those spaces, I understand why I think that's impossible. 

Firstly, I think museums, galleries, archives, they're all created and governed by people with inherent biases and their legacies have not had neutral effects. It's not neutral to erase Aboriginal history, but that's what museums have been doing for ages. People say it's political activism or advocacy to go out of your way to talk about Aboriginal issues. I said on my blog, things like the Djab Wurrung trees down in Victoria, because they have so much cultural heritage attached to them and their very important to history, our museums and archives and libraries, people who say they care about history, should be advocating for their safety and to be considered sacred. 

But again, people would say that as a government organisation, we shouldn’t get involved in political issues. For a lot of Aboriginal people, personal issues are political, so for Aboriginal people, it's hard to be in a GLAM organisation and be neutral. Some of the stuff that we're asked to be neutral about actually affects us. Like mining on our lands and stuff like that affects us so it's hard to be neutral. When I was starting to be a librarian this was one of the things I advocated for a lot. 

In museums, there’s more advocacy in the sciences, as the sciences started a lot of misinformation about Aboriginal people which is considered objective or true. When talking to scientists, they have a very narrow view of science where it may be the search for truth, they'll act as if scientific research is completely unbiased, made in a vacuum. I was talking to someone today who works in an herbarium, which is kind of like a museum for plants, and she was saying that she now acknowledges that knowledge is still culturally produced, it's still produced through a particular cultural lens and that does affect that information. 

I don't think it’s a bad thing, I just think that we just need to acknowledge it so we can think about whose voice is missing from that discussion or ways that potentially biased information can affect certain communities or certain people. What's missing from our information? I think we have to declare that we're not neutral and objective and just be fine with it and just say where we're coming from, and say when doing research “This is my background, and this may affect how my research is done. I'm trying to the best of my abilities to be as bias free as possible, but I know that's impossible.” In social science terms, they call it positionality. 

As Aboriginal people, we do it naturally, it’s one of the first things we talk about when we see each other, you talk about where you come from. That’s pretty common with lots of Indigenous people, I know a lot of Maori people ask where you come from, and we do it too. Like, “how are you, who’s your mob?”. It’s just a way of asking who you are connected to and figure out how we're connected to each other. It’s also a way of figuring out your influences. 

I think that museums should be upfront with that. We've tried to do it more in the museum where we just name who's written exhibition text. That way we make sure people realise that this exhibition text is written by a person who is, of course, fallible, instead of written by the institution of the museum, which grants a lot of authority because a lot of people trust the museum and trust big institutions. We’ve got to be wary of how much authority and power that holds, but also to try and make visitors to our institutions more critical to think more critically. That's not to throw away institutions and say everything they do is colonial nonsense or colonial garbage, but just to look at them and think about whose voice is missing, who's telling this story, why are they telling it and what possible agenda could they have? Just general critical literacy and critical engagement and stuff.

It's really about thinking about connecting the material back to country, the country that it originally comes from and connecting it to the communities from that country.  

Sam: How do you think incorporating positionality changes the responsibilities and activities of an archivist both on a day-to-day basis and in the bigger picture?


Nathan: I think it makes them question some things. A lot of archivists in Australia will do things like consider the default language to be English, but some of these materials come from different communities. They serve all different communities. So perhaps being multilingual or considering other languages. 

Considering positionally makes you aware of potential biases. You should look for them, consider practices that have always been done and consider how they can potentially be exclusionary, like, say, with language. Previously in libraries, the Dewey Decimal System was the most prominent library organisation system in most of the world. In the Dewey Decimal System, Aboriginal stories were under 398, which is Australian Myths and legends. But Aboriginal creation stories are Aboriginal spirituality. No other spiritualities are considered myths and legends, you know? The religion section is the 200s, 200 to 289 deals with all different subsets of Christianity and 290 to 299 deals with all other religions, so that speaks to that Christian bias within the Dewey Decimal System. A lot of archivist's or librarians don’t notice that. Talking more bluntly about positionality makes them just slightly more aware of that. 

Of course, there’s still more work you have to do on top of that, but I think it does help them see where they could be like “the way we do things probably benefits me, but I'm not the default person.” I'm mostly talking about cis able-bodied white archivists and librarians. It makes them consider how different systems were built for people like them and potentially ways that they’re exclusionary.


Afifah: I would like to explain the idea of indigeneity in Indonesia, cultural identity in Indonesia. The idea of cultural identity in Indonesia is very complex because of the heterogeneity of Indonesia. We have hundreds of ethnicities and hundreds of sub-ethnicities and plenty of us come from different hybrids of them. 

For example, I live in Makassar. Makassar is a city in the South Sulawesi province of Indonesia. In South Sulawesi itself, there are many many regions. My Dad came from this region called Sidrap, and my Mom came from this region called Bone. From their fathers and forefathers. But I grew up and have lived all of my life in Makassar as have my parents. In Indonesia if we grow up, let's say, in an urban place, we identify ourselves as urban people. So there's this identity crisis. So when asked, like, how can you identify your ethnicity, I would just say “my father is from Sidra, thus I'm from Sidrap.” But I don't know how to speak in the Buginese language that Sidra people would speak. But I identify myself with Sidrap people because of my father. But when it comes to indigeneity, because I myself don’t come from any Indigenous background, my father from Sidrap and my mother from Bone don’t have any Indigenous background. 

Indigenous people here in Indonesia call themselves Masyarakat Adat. Those who identify as Masyarakat Adat have this particular history of oppression, both in colonial and post-colonial Indonesia. They seek to regain their rights, properties and recognition in Indonesia. That's what makes it different from me, for example, because I come from many ethnicities, but I don’t identify as Indigenous people because I don't have to fight for land or fight for recognition from the government. The concept of cultural identity is very complicated in Indonesia. We have this motto, Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, which means wherever you come from, whatever ethnicity, we are still one in the same. It's very complex to study this symbol as well.


Sam: It's been really eye opening, learning with Afifah and from Afifah, comparing and contrasting, even the term indigeneity has different meanings in both countries, in both histories as well.


Nathan: I always find it fascinating to hear stories from other countries and hear other people's experiences. One of my friends is Mexican American, now Australian, and he was saying that in Mexico he's considered white, in America, he's considered brown, and when he came to Australia, he's considered like a tourist. It's different each place he went, he's ascribed a new cultural identity. In his home of Mexico, he's one of the people that's considered a coloniser. But once he went to America, he was considered a minority.

Think about whose voice is missing, who's telling this story, why are they telling it and what possible agenda could they have?

Sam: I have a question about the transition into a digital era and the way that that's affected the archival mission, or the archivists practice and what way that has created opportunities or limited opportunities, what the advent of digital has changed in the archival landscape?


Nathan: It's created lots of opportunities, it's created more access points. One of the issues we have, at the Australian Museum for example, we have cultural heritage from the Northern Territory, and there’s a geographical barrier to get access to those collections. The ability to put that stuff online helps people connect with it. 

The other issue with it is, of course, Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property. If we put cultural heritage up online, it could be taken, spread around where it might not belong, or in some cases repurposed for things. I know the stories of Aboriginal artists having their art ripped off and being made into mats overseas and stuff like that. 

In some ways the internet has been detrimental, but it has also been very democratizing. Aboriginal people, we can gather and get our voices heard more through things like social media where we regularly wouldn’t be able to. If we create video work, we now have YouTube and Facebook to share with many people and get our stories heard. Although we still are in many ways, we're not as reliant on gatekeeper organisations, like major media companies or major historical institutions, which have been predominantly non-Aboriginal. We have to prove our value to them so that they will accommodate us. Now, we can make our own things outside those spaces. 

The cool thing, too, is that a lot of digital work can never be finished. You mentioned my blog before and sometimes I look at those blogs now, and I know it's probably not a good thing to do, but sometimes I look at them and I'll tweak a word or something like that. And I wrote that blogpost in 2014, but I'll tweak it now. It's cool because it can sort of keep living. And I guess that's a challenge for an archivist because archivists like things to be kept the same forever. That's part of what an archive does, preservation, but I think life isn't designed to be that way, everything's always constantly changing and everything is always in a state of creation, in a state of flux, so I think that's just the world versus archives. I think the digital space is allowing that to happen more.


Sam: That's a super interesting dynamic between what an archivist is meant to do or is supposed to preserve, but then also having to constantly reinterpret or to update.


Nathan: I'll quickly share a link to a digital archive software I like. It’s called Mukurtu. It's specifically designed for Aboriginal archives and Native American archives. It's designed to have community permissions so that communities can control the archives themselves. It’s a free open source software, and I really like it. I suggest you investigate it. It's one of those systems that's designed to democratise archives, but also to facilitate Indigenous control of Aboriginal archives and stuff like that. So I think it's cool.


Sam: Awesome. That sounds amazing. Thanks so much.


Nathan: Thank you for having me.


Afifah: Yeah, thanks so much for joining us. We're really grateful for your time and for your knowledge.