Metropolitan Collections: Reaching Out to Regional Australia




Australia, Collecting, Colonialism, Consultation, George Augustus Robinson, History, Indigenous, Proclamation Board, Tasmania

How to Cite

Webb, D., & Franks, R. (2019). Metropolitan Collections: Reaching Out to Regional Australia. M/C Journal, 22(3).
Vol. 22 No. 3 (2019): regional
Published 2019-06-19

Special Care Notice

This article discusses trauma and violence inflicted upon the Indigenous peoples of Tasmania through the processes of colonisation. Content within this article may be distressing to some readers. 


This article looks briefly at the collection, consultation, and digital sharing of stories essential to the histories of the First Nations peoples of Australia. Focusing on materials held in Sydney, New South Wales two case studies—the object known as the Proclamation Board and the George Augustus Robinson Papers—explore how materials can be shared with Aboriginal peoples of the region now known as Tasmania. Specifically, the authors of this article (a Palawa man and an Australian woman of European descent) ask how can the idea of the privileging of Indigenous voices, within Eurocentric cultural collections, be transformed from rhetoric to reality? Moreover, how can we navigate this complex work, that is made even more problematic by distance, through the utilisation of knowledge networks which are geographically isolated from the collections holding stories crucial to Indigenous communities? In seeking to answer these important questions, this article looks at how cultural, emotional, and intellectual ownership can be divested from the physical ownership of a collection in a way that repatriates—appropriately and sensitively—stories of Aboriginal Australia and of colonisation. 

Holding Stories, Not Always Our Own

Cultural institutions, including libraries, have, in recent years, been drawn into discussions centred on the notion of digital disruption and “that transformative shift which has seen the ongoing realignment of business resources, relationships, knowledge, and value both facilitating the entry of previously impossible ideas and accelerating the competitive impact of those same impossible ideas” (Franks and Ensor n.p.). As Molly Brown has noted, librarians “are faced, on a daily basis, with rapidly changing technology and the ways in which our patrons access and use information. Thus, we need to look at disruptive technologies as opportunities” (n.p.). Some innovations, including the transition from card catalogues to online catalogues and the provision of a wide range of electronic resources, are now considered to be business as usual for most institutions. So, too, the digitisation of great swathes of materials to facilitate access to collections onsite and online, with digitising primary sources seen as an intermediary between the pillars of preserving these materials and facilitating access for those who cannot, for a variety of logistical and personal reasons, travel to a particular repository where a collection is held.

The result has been the development of hybrid collections: that is, collections that can be accessed in both physical and digital formats. Yet, the digitisation processes conducted by memory institutions is often selective. Limited resources, even for large-scale digitisation projects usually only realise outcomes that focus on making visually rich, key, or canonical documents, or those documents that are considered high use and at risk, available online. Such materials are extracted from the larger full body of records while other lesser-known components are often omitted. Digitisation projects therefore tend to be devised for a broader audience where contextual questions are less central to the methodology in favour of presenting notable or famous documents online only. Documents can be profiled as an exhibition separate from their complete collection and, critically, their wider context. Libraries of course are not neutral spaces and this practice of (re)enforcing the canon through digitisation is a challenge that cultural institutions, in partnerships, need to address (Franks and Ensor n.p.). Indeed, our digital collections are as affected by power relationships and the ongoing impacts of colonisation as our physical collections. 

These power relationships can be seen through an organisation’s “processes that support acquisitions, as purchases and as the acceptance of artefacts offered as donations. Throughout such processes decisions are continually made (consciously and unconsciously) that affect what is presented and actively promoted as the official history” (Thorpe et al. 8). While it is important to acknowledge what we do collect, it is equally important to look, too, at what we do not collect and to consider how we continually privilege and exclude stories. Especially when these stories are not always our own, but are held, often as accidents of collecting. For example, an item comes in as part of a larger suite of materials while older, city-based institutions often pre-date regional repositories. An essential point here is that cultural institutions can often become comfortable in what they collect, building on existing holdings. This, in turn, can lead to comfortable digitisation. If we are to be truly disruptive, we need to embrace feeling uncomfortable in what we do, and we need to view digitisation as an intervention opportunity; a chance to challenge what we ‘know’ about our collections. This is especially relevant in any attempts to decolonise collections.

Case Study One: The Proclamation Board

The first case study looks at an example of re-digitisation. One of the seven Proclamation Boards known to survive in a public collection is held by the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, having been purchased from Tasmanian collector and photographer John Watt Beattie (1859–1930) in May 1919 for £30 (Morris 86). Why, with so much material to digitise—working in a program of limited funds and time—would the Library return to an object that has already been privileged? Unanswered questions and advances in digitisation technologies, created a unique opportunity. 

For the First Peoples of Van Diemen’s Land (now known as Tasmania), colonisation by the British in 1803 was “an emotionally, intellectually, physically, and spiritually confronting series of encounters” (Franks n.p.). Violent incidents became routine and were followed by a full-scale conflict, often referred to as the Black War (Clements 1), or more recently as the Tasmanian War, fought from the 1820s until 1832. 

Image 1: Governor Arthur’s Proclamation to the Aborigines, ca. 1828–1830. Image Credit: Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Call No.: SAFE / R 247.

Behind the British combatants were various support staff, including administrators and propagandists. One of the efforts by the belligerents, behind the front line, to win the war and bring about peace was the production of approximately 100 Proclamation Boards. These four-strip pictograms were the result of a scheme introduced by Lieutenant Governor George Arthur (1784–1854), on the advice of Surveyor General George Frankland (1800–38), to communicate that all are equal under the rule of law (Arthur 1). Frankland wrote to Arthur in early 1829 to suggest these Proclamation Boards could be produced and nailed to trees (Morris 84), as a Eurocentric adaptation of a traditional method of communication used by Indigenous peoples who left images on the trunks of trees. 

The overtly stated purpose of the Boards was, like the printed proclamations exhorting peace, to assert, all people—black and white—were equal. That “British Justice would protect” everyone (Morris 84). The first strip on each of these pictogram Boards presents Indigenous peoples and colonists living peacefully together. The second strip shows “a conciliatory handshake between the British governor and an Aboriginal ‘chief’, highly reminiscent of images found in North America on treaty medals and anti-slavery tokens” (Darian-Smith and Edmonds 4). The third and fourth strips depict the repercussions for committing murder (or, indeed, any significant crime), with an Indigenous man hanged for spearing a colonist and a European man hanged for shooting an Aboriginal man. Both men executed in the presence of the Lieutenant Governor. The Boards, oil on Huon pine, were painted by “convict artists incarcerated in the island penal colony” (Carroll 73).

The Board at the State Library of New South Wales was digitised quite early on in the Library’s digitisation program, it has been routinely exhibited (including for the Library’s centenary in 2010) and is written about regularly. Yet, many questions about this small piece of timber remain unanswered. For example, some Boards were outlined with sketches and some were outlined with pouncing, “a technique [of the Italian Renaissance] of pricking the contours of a drawing with a pin. Charcoal was then dusted on to the drawing” (Carroll 7576). Could such a sketch or example of pouncing be seen beneath the surface layers of paint on this particular Board? What might be revealed by examining the Board more closely and looking at this object in different ways?

An important, but unexpected, discovery was that while most of the pigments in the painting correlate with those commonly available to artists in the early nineteenth century there is one outstanding anomaly. X-ray analysis revealed cadmium yellow present in several places across the painting, including the dresses of the little girls in strip one, uniform details in strip two, and the trousers worn by the settler men in strips three and four (Kahabka 2). This is an extraordinary discovery, as cadmium yellows were available “commercially as an artist pigment in England by 1846” and were shown by “Winsor & Newton at the 1851 Exhibition held at the Crystal Palace, London” (Fiedler and Bayard 68). The availability of this particular type of yellow in the early 1850s could set a new marker for the earliest possible date for the manufacture of this Board, long-assumed to be 1828–30. Further, the early manufacture of cadmium yellow saw the pigment in short supply and a very expensive option when compared with other pigments such as chrome yellow (the darker yellow, seen in the grid lines that separate the scenes in the painting). This presents a clearly uncomfortable truth in relation to an object so heavily researched and so significant to a well-regarded collection that aims to document much of Australia’s colonial history. Is it possible, for example, the Board has been subjected to overpainting at a later date? Or, was this premium paint used to produce a display Board that was sent, by the Tasmanian Government, to the 1866 Intercolonial Exhibition in Melbourne?  

In seeking to see the finer details of the painting through re-digitisation, the results were much richer than anticipated. The sketch outlines are clearly visible in the new high-resolution files. There are, too, details unable to be seen clearly with the naked eye, including this warrior’s headdress and ceremonial scarring on his stomach, scars that tell stories “of pain, endurance, identity, status, beauty, courage, sorrow or grief” (Australian Museum n.p.). The image of this man has been duplicated and distributed since the 1830s, an anonymous figure deployed to tell a settler-centric story of the Black, or Tasmanian, War. This man can now be seen, for the first time nine decades later, to wear his own story. We do not know his name, but he is no longer completely anonymous. This image is now, in some ways, a portrait. The State Library of New South Wales acknowledges this object is part of an important chapter in the Tasmanian story and, though two Boards are in collections in Tasmania (the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart and the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Launceston), each Board is different. The Library holds an important piece of a large and complex puzzle and has a moral obligation to make this information available beyond its metropolitan location. Digitisation, in this case re-digitisation, is allowing for the disruption of this story in sparking new questions around provenance and for the relocating of a Palawa warrior to a more prominent, perhaps even equal role, within a colonial narrative.


Image 2: Detail, Governor Arthur’s Proclamation to the Aborigines, ca. 1828–1830. Image Credit: Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Call No.: SAFE / R 247.

Case Study Two: The George Augustus Robinson Papers

The second case study focuses on the work being led by the Indigenous Engagement Branch at the State Library of New South Wales on the George Augustus Robinson (1791–1866) Papers. In 1829, Robinson was granted a government post in Van Diemen’s Land to ‘conciliate’ with the Palawa peoples. More accurately, Robinson’s core task was dispossession and the systematic disconnection of the Palawa peoples from their Country, community, and culture. Robinson was a habitual diarist and notetaker documenting much of his own life as well as the lives of those around him, including First Nations peoples. His extensive suite of papers represents a familiar and peculiar kind of discomfort for Aboriginal Australians, one in which they are forced to learn about themselves through the eyes and words of their oppressors. 

For many First Nations peoples of Tasmania, Robinson remains a violent and terrible figure, but his observations of Palawa culture and language are as vital as they are problematic. Importantly, his papers include vibrant and utterly unique descriptions of people, place, flora and fauna, and language, as well as illustrations revealing insights into the routines of daily life (even as those routines were being systematically dismantled by colonial authorities). “Robinson’s records have informed much of the revitalisation of Tasmanian Aboriginal culture in the twentieth century and continue to provide the basis for investigations of identity and deep relationships to land by Aboriginal scholars” (Lehman n.p.). These observations and snippets of lived culture are of immense value to Palawa peoples today but the act of reading between Robinson’s assumptions and beyond his entrenched colonial views is difficult work.

Image 3: George Augustus Robinson Papers, 1829–34. Image Credit: Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, A 7023–A 7031.

The canonical reference for Robinson’s archive is Friendly Mission: The Tasmanian Journals and Papers of George Augustus Robinson, 1829–1834, edited by N.J.B. Plomley. The volume of over 1,000 pages was first published in 1966. This large-scale project is recognised “as a monumental work of Tasmanian history” (Crane ix). Yet, this standard text (relied upon by Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers) has clearly not reproduced a significant percentage of Robinson’s Tasmanian manuscripts. Through his presumptuous truncations Plomley has not simply edited Robinson’s work but has, quite literally, written many Palawa stories out of this colonial narrative. It is this lack of agency in determining what should be left out that is most troubling, and reflects an all-too-familiar approach which libraries, including the State Library of New South Wales, are now urgently trying to rectify. Plomley’s preface and introduction does not indicate large tranches of information are missing. Indeed, Plomley specifies “that in extenso [in full] reproduction was necessary” (4) and omissions “have been kept to a minimum” (8). A 32-page supplement was published in 1971. A new edition, including the supplement, some corrections made by Plomley, and some extra material was released in 2008. 

But much continues to be unknown outside of academic circles, and far too few Palawa Elders and language revival workers have had access to Robinson’s original unfiltered observations. Indeed, Plomley’s text is linear and neat when compared to the often-chaotic writings of Robinson. Digitisation cannot address matters of the materiality of the archive, but such projects do offer opportunities for access to information in its original form, unedited, and unmediated.

Extensive consultation with communities in Tasmania is underpinning the digitisation and re-description of a collection which has long been assumed—through partial digitisation, microfilming, and Plomley’s text—to be readily available and wholly understood. Central to this project is not just challenging the canonical status of Plomley’s work but directly challenging the idea non-Aboriginal experts can truly understand the cultural or linguistic context of the information recorded in Robinson’s journals. One of the more exciting outcomes, so far, has been working with Palawa peoples to explore the possibility of Palawa-led transcriptions and translation, and not breaking up the tasks of this work and distributing them to consultants or to non-Indigenous student groups. In this way, people are being meaningfully reunited with their own histories and, crucially, given first right to contextualise and understand these histories. Again, digitisation and disruption can be seen here as allies with the facilitation of accessibility to an archive in ways that re-distribute the traditional power relations around interpreting and telling stories held within colonial-rich collections.

Image 4: Detail, George Augustus Robinson Papers, 1829–34. Image Credit: Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, A 7023–A 7031.

As has been so brilliantly illustrated by Bruce Pascoe’s recent work Dark Emu (2014), when Aboriginal peoples are given the opportunity to interpret their own culture from the colonial records without interference, they are able to see strength and sophistication rather than victimhood. For, to “understand how the Europeans’ assumptions selectively filtered the information brought to them by the early explorers is to see how we came to have the history of the country we accept today” (4). Far from decrying these early colonial records Aboriginal peoples understand their vital importance in connecting to a culture which was dismantled and destroyed, but importantly it is known that far too much is lost in translation when Aboriginal Australians are not the ones undertaking the translating. 


For Aboriginal Australians, culture and knowledge is no longer always anchored to Country. These histories, once so firmly connected to communities through their ancestral lands and languages, have been dispersed across the continent and around the world. Many important stories—of family history, language, and ways of life—are held in cultural institutions and understanding the role of responsibly disseminating these collections through digitisation is paramount. 

In transitioning from physical collections to hybrid collections of the physical and digital, the digitisation processes conducted by memory institutions can be—and due to the size of some collections is inevitably—selective. Limited resources, even for large-scale and well-resourced digitisation projects usually realise outcomes that focus on making visually rich, key, or canonical documents, or those documents considered high use or at risk, available online. Such materials are extracted from a full body of records. Digitisation projects, as noted, tend to be devised for a broader audience where contextual questions are less central to the methodology in favour of presenting notable documents online, separate from their complete collection and, critically, their context. Our institutions carry the weight of past collecting strategies and, today, the pressure of digitisation strategies as well. 

Contemporary librarians should not be gatekeepers, but rather key holders. In collaborating across sectors and with communities we open doors for education, research, and the repatriation of culture and knowledge. We must, always, remember to open these doors wide: the call of Aboriginal Australians of nothing about us without us’ is not an invitation to collaboration but an imperative. Libraries—as well as galleries, archives, and museums—cannot tell these stories alone. Also, these two case studies highlight what we believe to be one of the biggest mistakes that not just libraries but all cultural institutions are vulnerable to making, the assumption that just because a collection is open access it is also accessible. Digitisation projects are more valuable when communicated, contextualised and—essentially—the result of community consultation. Such work can, for some, be uncomfortable while for others it offers opportunities to embrace disruption and, by extension, opportunities to decolonise collections. For First Nations peoples this work can be more powerful than any simple measurement tool can record. Through examining our past collecting, deliberate efforts to consult, and through digital sharing projects across metropolitan and regional Australia, we can make meaningful differences to the ways in which Aboriginal Australians can, again, own their histories.


The authors acknowledge the Palawa peoples: the traditional custodians of the lands known today as Tasmania. The authors acknowledge, too, the Gadigal people upon whose lands this article was researched and written. We are indebted to Dana Kahabka (Conservator), Joy Lai (Imaging Specialist), Richard Neville (Mitchell Librarian), and Marika Duczynski (Project Officer) at the State Library of New South Wales. Sincere thanks are also given to Jason Ensor of Western Sydney University.


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———Proclamation to the Aborigines. Graphic Materials. Sydney: Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, SAFE R / 247, ca. 1828–1830.

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Author Biographies

Damien Webb, State Library of New South Wales

Damien is a Palawa man (South-East Tasmania) and Aboriginal liaison/library professional currently managing the Indigenous Engagement Branch at the State Library of NSW. Damien previously coordinated the State Library of WA’s Storylines Project and has a passion for decolonising archives and library collections. He has extensive experience working with researchers in trying to understand the legacies of white explorers from an Aboriginal context and return authority over heritage materials to Traditional Owners and Aboriginal families throughout Australia. His academic background has been focused on human rights and developing frameworks within Australian libraries which embed international Indigenous protocols and frameworks.

Rachel Franks, The University of Sydney; University of Newcastle

Rachel Franks is the Coordinator, Education & Scholarship, at the State Library of New South Wales, a Conjoint Fellow at the University of Newcastle, Australia and is at The University of Sydney researching true crime. Rachel holds a PhD in Australian crime fiction and her research in the fields of crime fiction, true crime, food studies and information science has been presented at numerous conferences. An award-winning writer, her work can be found in a wide variety of books, journals and magazines.