First Nations knowledge and 21st century technology
First Nations knowledge and 21st century technology: Preserving The Strehlow Collection
WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that this page may contain images and/or audio of deceased persons.
Preserving The Strehlow Collection
The NFSA has been working with Traditional Owners and the Strehlow Research Centre in a co-designed project to preserve and digitise at-risk films and audio recordings from the Strehlow Collection, one of the most important collections relating to Indigenous ceremonial life in the world.
The digital preservation of this collection is vital for continued cultural maintenance within Central Australian Aboriginal communities and the revitalisation of cultural practices and traditional language.
Learn more about the Central Australian Aboriginal Digitisation Project in the video below:
Recordings at risk
In 1932, Theodor George Henry (TGH) Strehlow – the German-Australian anthropologist, linguist, and ethnographer – returned to his place of birth in Central Australia clutching a government grant to fund a study of the Indigenous communities he had grown up alongside. By the time he died in 1978, he and the Central Australian Aboriginal Communities he worked with had amassed a collection of film, sound, archival records and objects of enormous significance.
The films and audio recordings from the collection were deposited with the NFSA in 1990 for safekeeping and stored in our restricted environmentally controlled vaults in Canberra. But the days of analogue formats were coming to an end and the need to digitise the materials became pressing.
The collection consisted of 16mm films and audio recordings comprising a range of formats, including ¼ inch reel-to-reel tape, lacquer discs and extremely rare wire recordings. Without digitisation, Traditional Owners risked losing access to the ceremonies, songs and cultural practices that their Elders had worked with Strehlow to record.
UNIQUE Protocols for Cultural Safety
In 2019, the NFSA and the Strehlow Research Centre in Alice Springs entered a partnership to digitise and preserve the at-risk film and audio collection material, and to free up ongoing access to it by Traditional Owners on Country.
Much of this material relates to 'men's-only' sacred and secret ceremonies. Under guidance from Senior Men, and in a unique illustration of technical and cultural co-design, we developed cultural safety protocols so we could undertake digitisation of the material at our preservation technical facilities in Canberra.
The NFSA dedicated two preservation areas to be temporary restricted spaces. While we were digitising the content, access to these areas was restricted to male staff who had been approved by Senior Community Men to view and handle the content.
In 2020, we digitised 400 at-risk reels of film and in 2022, we digitised over 1,000 at-risk audio recordings. The ‘men’s-only’ sacred and secret collection material we have digitised and preserved includes 800 ceremonial acts and 150 hours of traditional language, stories and songs.
We have been working with Senior Men and the NFSA to give access to this living collection and bridge knowledge with future generations.
Digital Access Studio
Crucially, the NFSA provided training to Aboriginal Heritage Officers from the Strehlow Research Centre in audiovisual conservation, preservation, digitisation, archiving and digital access. The NFSA is committed to creating professional skills expansion for use on Country and providing ongoing training and support.
We have repatriated the digital files and in 2022, with support from the Australian Government Indigenous Language and Arts program, the NFSA then purpose-built a digital access studio and transported it to Mparntwe (Alice Springs). The studio creates a culturally safe place on Country for Traditional Owners to access digital versions of their material.
The image gallery below features Strehlow Research Centre staff visiting the NFSA in Canberra in 2022 and then NFSA specialists installing the new studio at Mparntwe:
A Window Onto the Past
The studio, which opened officially in April 2023, opens a window onto the past for Traditional Owners. They can now have unprecedented access to these recently digitised recordings of their traditional language and cultural practices on Country.
The Senior Men of the Community can now identify and contextualise people, places, ceremonies and events recorded decades ago, ensuring the survival and protection of this extraordinary collection of secular and ‘men’s-only’ sacred and secret cultural practices. The studio's ongoing use will help to revitalise cultural learning and traditional language and empower younger men and future generations to maintain links with their cultural knowledge.
The unique intersection between First Nations knowledge and 21st century technology highlights critical issues of preservation and access facing Indigenous communities and archival institutions around the world as analogue formats deteriorate and disappear.
But it illuminates a potential pathway for long-term protection and care of material such as the Strehlow Collection, whose worth is incalculable and whose loss we cannot countenance.
Main image: Franky Gorey in the digital access studio at the Strehlow Research Centre.