The aim of the Indigneous Photography Portal is to return photographic collections currently housed in European insititutions to their living descendants today. The collections are currently housed within four European insitutions – namely:- The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) at Cambridge University; The Pitt Rivers Museum (PRM) at the University of Oxford; The Musee de Quai Branly (MQB) in Paris; and finally the Museum Volkenkunde in Leiden.

The international context

The Indigneous Photograpahy Portal explores the important role played by photographs of Australian Aboriginal people within transnational debates about identity and culture during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This visual imagery contributed significantly to the development of science and anthropology on a global level, and the project will explore the images’ reception and circulation within international visual economies of popular, evangelical, scientific or administrative discourse. Instead of seeing ideas, resources and people flowing outwards from the ‘metropole’ to be reflected by colonial developments, the postcolonial theoretical project of ‘provincialising Europe’ has instead addressed the ways that coloniser and colonised were linked by dynamic, interactive, reciprocal relations, as colonial experience and knowledge shaped the European social order.

Indigenous collaboration

Images of Indigenous people by white photographers were often captured for exploitative reasons: whether it was for commercial gain, government surveillance, or scientific investigation, these photographs frequently represent relations of great inequality between photographer and photographed. Nonetheless, research has shown that many Aboriginal communities greatly value historical photographs of their ancestors. Such images represent otherwise unknown ancestors and relatives, who have often been lost as a result of official processes. Photographs can also provide information about places and relationships which are unavailable from other sources. In this sense, the research from the AVH project aims to re-connect photographs of Indigenous people with their descendents.

In the aftermath of colonialism, one of the major steps toward reconciliation between former colonists and Indigenous peoples has been acknowledgement of its effects and concrete attempts at restitution. Australian institutions have been world leaders in repatriating historical artefacts, records and skeletal material held in museum collections – yet no wide-ranging formal analysis of returning Australian photographs exists.  In addition, there are very few analyses of current Indigenous (re)valuations of photography. This project addresses Indigenous uses of the medium and aims to explore the distinctive ways photographs are seen by Aboriginal people.

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