Racist Material in Archival Collections
Nathan Sentance on Racism in Archival Collections
Guest First Nations writer Nathan Sentance offers suggestions about how historical collecting institutions can provide access to racist collection material without causing harm.
WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that this page contains images and/or audio of deceased persons.
'The position that Australia is not a racist country is a rather new invention; it came in around the time of Howard... whereas the position that Australia is a racist country is quite literally one of the core values on which the modern nation state was founded.'
Between Joy and Anger
As a Wiradjuri person working in historical collections, there is often a tension I feel looking at the material in these collections – a tension between joy and anger.
I can feel the sun on my face, even in an archive's basement, when reading reminders of First Nations people’s ingenuity, humour and resistance. My mind accelerates like Cathy Freeman’s legs when I think about how certain material can support cultural resurgence and truth-telling efforts.
But my teeth nearly break when I see the racist stereotypes and depictions in material. My body gets squeezed at the sight of all the slurs written throughout records. These are the moments when I try to figure out how to throw a punch through time. And there is a tension in myself between wanting some of this material to never see the light of day and knowing how important access to it can be.
Take for example the 1928 silent film The Birth of White Australia (Phil K Walsh). This film’s title is potentially paying homage to the phenomenally successful but incredibly racist 1915 film The Birth of a Nation (DW Griffith, US), which provided a boost to the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) through its positive portrayal of them . Similarly, The Birth of White Australia paints the white settlers involved in anti-Chinese riots that occurred at the Lambing Flat camps (around the present-day town of Young) in a good light as heroes.
This of course is not a film you would want to promote. It is racist. I felt fire coming out of my nostrils when reading the title card stating, 'The ethnic age has passed away. The primal race is with the dead, and visitants of yesterday, the WHITE invaders rule instead', which accompanied archival footage of Wiradjuri Elder Jimmy 'King Billy' Clements.
Why Preserve Racist Material?
However, it can be argued that it is a film that should be preserved as it helps us understand who we are. It documents particular viewpoints at a particular time. It reminds us that less than 100 years ago, a film called The Birth of White Australia was screened privately for the Governor of NSW and was considered to be a 'good advertisement for Australia abroad'.
The first two laws Australia put into action after it was federated in 1901 were both racially motivated – the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, also known as the 'White Australia Policy' (which was still in effect when this film was made), and the Pacific Island Labourers Act 1901 . They show that racism was very much a part of Australian society. The film demonstrates that anti-Asian rhetoric spewed by contemporary politicians is part of a long history of racism and should be condemned, like many would condemn and dismiss this film.
When David Pilgrim, curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Imagery, was asked why he collected racist objects he said he wanted visitors, particularly white visitors, to be confronted with the visual evidence of racism. He felt that many white Americans thought racism was in the distant past and not in living memory and he wanted to challenge that. He believed these objects that are examples of intolerance could be tools to teach tolerance .
This all being said, The Birth of White Australia and archival material like it does dehumanise and can, and probably has caused, harm. This is something those of us who work with historical collections need to consider, so as not to replicate this. We need to face the tension of wanting to be open and provide access with the harm that may cause. It is something many collecting institutions need to address. I fully admit I do not have all the answers, but I do have some suggestions and provocations.
Context, Education, Interrogation and participation
Firstly, we should consider the power we give racist material with our collection. In regards to The Birth of White Australia in the NFSA collection, it is just one voice of many. However, if you have a small collection and only have a shelf that could fit five books, for example, providing space for a racist book is giving it a great deal of power and can help legitimise it, as well as potentially telling those who are dehumanised by the book that they are not welcome. This is something those of us who work in collections must consider.
We also need to provide context to help better understand collection users. Museums Victoria do this really well in my opinion. On some of their racist material they have a note at the start of the description stating, 'Certain records contain language or include depictions that are insensitive, disrespectful, offensive or racist. This material reflects the creator’s attitude or that of the period in which the item was written, recorded, collected or catalogued. They are not the current views of Museums Victoria, do not reflect current understanding and are not appropriate today.'
This is not a blanket statement, and it is individualised for individual objects. This not only provides context, it works to ensure Museums Victoria’s institutional power does not endorse this material. And it provides a notice to those affected so they do not incidentally engage with material that could cause them harm.
Another way we can provide context is through educating users to critically examine our collections, to have them ask questions about who is telling these stories and why, and whose voices are missing and why. It is also important to get them to question the authority of the institution and to understand that, even when we claim to be, we are not neutral. Our institutions are made of people who have biases and beliefs which do affect our collections.
Furthermore, we should interrogate our description practices. We cannot change the content of the material in our collection, and nor should we, but we can control how we describe them. We should ensure we use inclusive language to describe material and be careful of replicating harm or proliferating any bias. This can easily happen as widely-used classification systems like the Dewey Decimal System and Library of Congress Subject Headings have been critiqued for their embedded Eurocentric bias and racist terminology .
Institutions should also create participatory frameworks. The Indigenous Archives Collective has released its Position Statement on the Right of Reply to Indigenous Knowledges and Information Held in Archives which argues First Nations people have the right to challenge the depiction of First Nations individuals, objects or events presented in records by providing a self-determined response. They should have an opportunity to provide reinterpretation of objects – to set the record straight, by providing their truth to misrepresentations, and explaining the ramifications that such material has had on their life.
Lastly, institutions and the individuals who work in them must become advocates against racism in society. The reason we should document bad history is for it to be a tool to prevent more bad history from happening. We should see this as part of our roles.
Racist material is part of our history. Films like The Birth of White Australia serve as the visual evidence of racism. As such, they need to be preserved but this preservation, and subsequent access to them, needs to be considered.
 McFadzean, M, Moulton, K and Warmington, E 2013, Cultural stereotypes & racism in Museums Victoria Collections, Museums Victoria, retrieved 18 May 2023.
 Indigenous Archives Collective 2021, Indigenous Archives Collective Position statement on the right of reply to Indigenous Knowledges and information held in archives, Indigenous Archives Collective, retrieved 18 May 2023.
About Nathan Sentance
Nathan 'mudyi' Sentance is a Wiradjuri librarian and creative history practitioner who grew up on Darkinjung Country and who writes about critical librarianship and critical museology. His writing has been previously published in The Guardian, Cordite Poetry, The Lifted Brow and Sydney Review of Books and on own his own blog, The Archival Decolonist.