The historical image has never held a more significant place in our online engagement with the cultural record. In the digital environment, the research and publication value of images competes much more closely with the heavy material significance of the object and the traditional pre-eminence of the historical narrative. Colonial photographs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders possess a unique power to both demonstrate European colonial myth-making and corroborate Indigenous experiences that are otherwise unrecorded.
The majority of colonial photographic portraits and tableaus of Indigenous subjects were sent to Europe with family letters or for scholarly exchange. They were produced for scientific, documentary and commercial purposes – to document a ‘dying race’, as visual evidence for theories of evolution and as picturesque representations of the noble savage to feed the commercial taste for the exotic. They were prized for capturing reality, whilst simultaneously peddling myths of the other. Thus, much of the original descriptive metadata is absent or inaccurate, revealing the prejudices of these purposes.
For many Indigenous Australians today, they are also extraordinary family photos of mostly unknown ancestors. Their great value lies in this capacity to so immediately render our national history in terms of these dialectics of engagement.
Our digital delivery services offer great opportunities to restore these photographs within local domestic spheres and to be reconciled with oral family histories. There are, however, many particular discrepancies between the value in increasing access, and various Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander traditions surrounding the power and cultural relevance of visual imagery. This is exacerbated dramatically as our institutional pursuit for increased digitisation and online discoverability makes them easily viewable to a mass audience.
This paper will examine the challenge of absent and fabricated metadata in these photographs as they are discovered, delivered and published online. It will draw on my research into the role these collections play in European anthropological museums, including the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford University and the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, to consider their transactional provenance. I will also explore cultural rights and the value of photographs to Indigenous communities. I will consider the seminal Ara Irititja and new Indigenous databases and ask how we can best connect with experts in Indigenous communities to fill gaps in the descriptive metadata of our national memory.