Phil coordinates the AM's Repatriation policy to support return of Indigenous remains held in museum collections around the world.

Phil Gordon
Phil Gordon Image: unknown
© Australian Museum

"We have been, for over 30-odd years, trying to return objects to community. And it can be a very difficult and complex process. But we are fortunately going to be, in conjunction with the Strehlow Centre, looking at some material from Central Australia and getting traditional owners in here (to the AM) again over the next 12 months to hopefully speed up some returns of objects back into the Central Australian region."

"The collection covers a lot of areas," says Phil.

"In the ethnographic collection – material collected after contact with Europeans – there are about 20,000 objects, most from the northern parts of Australia. Then there is the archaeological collection, which is well over 1 million objects and that is basically New South Wales.

"Then we have the special collections. Our sacred and secret collections which deal with usually mens ceremonial material. Our ancestral remains collections and our carved tree collections which are all very sensitive in very different ways."

Kim McKay: Hello, welcome to AMplify, the Australian Museum's weekly podcast where we get to chat to some of our fantastic scientific researchers, collections managers and curators right across the Australian Museum. I'm Kim McKay, the director and CEO, and today I'm thrilled to have Phil Gordon as my guest. Welcome Phil.

Phil Gordon: Afternoon Kim.

Kim McKay: Phil is an Aboriginal Heritage Project Officer working in our anthropology research department of the Australian Museum. But it really means that Phil oversees our Indigenous collections, and we have one of the most significant Indigenous collections in the nation. But Phil, you've been working at the Australian Museum for quite a long time.

Phil Gordon: Yes, I started about 30-odd years ago, straight out of school.

Kim McKay: Straight out of school? That's amazing. What made you think about the Australian Museum?

Phil Gordon: In those days there weren't too many Aboriginal people doing HSC, there was only about 20 of us I think, and we had a week in town to talk about careers and all that sort of thing, and somebody mentioned the museum and I put my hand up because I was always interested in history and those sorts of things, and the rest, they say, is history.

Kim McKay: Isn't that fantastic. It's funny how those sliding doors happen in your life, you go through one at a particular time, and people forget when you're a kid at school that careers advice you get can send you off in a direction that you didn't anticipate.

Phil Gordon: Definitely, I certainly wasn't thinking of a museum style of career, I was probably going to go in the army.

Kim McKay: And going in the army would be a logical thing maybe for you because your dad was actually in the military, wasn't he.

Phil Gordon: Yes, dad was in the navy, he spent nine years as a stoker in the Royal Australian Navy.

Kim McKay: That's amazing. And that made you travel a lot as a child, yeah?

Phil Gordon: Yes, we certainly travelled through Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, and of course we had two years in Singapore during Confrontation.

Kim McKay: Do you remember any of that?

Phil Gordon: I remember it was just after the riots. I can remember machine-gun nests at the bottom of the street and Royal Marines with big bayonets on the end of their rifles.

Kim McKay: That's extraordinary. I mean, there aren't too many people who can say that they were there and had that experience. What impact did that have on you?

Phil Gordon: It's hard to say but certainly it's an awareness of Southeast Asia and the cultures and the British empire, and that's certainly a history…Australia's history in Southeast Asia is not known by a lot of people. We were there well over 10 years fighting…there was the Malay emergency to begin with and then Konfrontasi against Indonesia, and then of course we were into Vietnam straight after that. And Dad almost went to Vietnam but decided to get out.

Kim McKay: You were all from Rockhampton originally, is that right?

Phil Gordon: Yes, certainly that's where we originally grew up, but the cultural area that we really come from is Gurang Gurang which is down near Bundaberg, that's the Aboriginal area that we come from.

Kim McKay: And is that where your dad is from and his family?

Phil Gordon: Yes, his family and extended family, all the way down through there.

Kim McKay: So one of the extraordinary things…and I've been through our Indigenous collection with you on a number of occasions, and you always start by showing people that great map of Australia that shows over 300 language groups, which really helps define properly our Indigenous peoples and that they were in these family groups or communities and did have very different languages.

Phil Gordon: Certainly, and it reflects the different cultural differences that went right across Australia, because the distance between Sydney and Perth is the distance between Moscow and London, and people accept cultural variation in that area. And young Australia is Aboriginal, and even Sydney has a grand Aboriginal history. And to try to get those things through into the broader population is sometimes not as easy as it sounds.

Kim McKay: Of course the Australian Museum's Indigenous collection covers a number of areas. Can you tell us about what are the major elements of that collection?

Phil Gordon: Certainly our ethnographic collection which is, for want of a better way of putting it, material that was collected after contact with Europeans. It's about 20,000 objects, mostly from the northern parts of Australia. Then there's our archaeological collection which is well over a million objects and that's basically New South Wales…

Kim McKay: A lot of stone tools.

Phil Gordon: Yes, stone tools and archaeological material. And then we've got our special collections, our sacred and secret collections which deal with usually men's ceremonial material, and our ancestral remains collections and our carved tree collections, which are all very sensitive in very different ways.

Kim McKay: So first of all let's talk about the repatriation of those objects, the human remains that museums right across the world hold because of course back in the late 1700s, early 1800s, through the mid-1800s, people regarded Indigenous peoples as sort of a novelty and collected their skeletons, didn't they.

Phil Gordon: It was a huge international trade, it just wasn't Aboriginal ancestral remains, it was North American Indians, it was Maori, the Ainu in Japan, certainly South African various populations were traded and sold and were deposited in museums and universities around the world.

Kim McKay: In the time you've been at the Australian Museum, over 30 years, you've actually led our repatriation efforts, haven't you.

Phil Gordon: Well, certainly in the initial stages I was assisting people, and the Australian Museum has a very proud history of returning ancestral remains and ethnographic objects to Aboriginal people and Pacific Islanders. It was people like Dr Jim Specht and Dr Ron Lampert were here and certainly pushed the idea, against quite considerable opposition by academics around Australia, that ancestral remains should be returned. And people like Dr Jim Specht, the return of objects to the South Pacific Islanders in the late '70s and early '80s as part of the decolonisation process that was going on in that period, they really pushed the boundaries, and it certainly made my work later on easier. They fought the battles and confronted the issues.

Kim McKay: So it's made it a much more accessible process now of you working with other indigenous communities, as you said, both here in Australia and internationally on those repatriations. I know you went to America recently on a repatriation project in Washington DC.

Phil Gordon: Yes, it's interesting to see how the debates overseas are unfolding, they sound very similar to those that were here 30 years ago. But certainly in Europe, in parts of North America there is a feeling that these ancestors should be returned. I went to DC and accompanied a couple of traditional owners from the Kempsey region and a skull was handed back to them. She was a famous dentist I think from memory, an Australian who was given that skull in the '30s or '40s, I think it was the '40s. And as you did in those days, you just took it and didn't think about it. And later in life as issues were raised, as the conversation with indigenous people around the world was undertaken and she heard these voices and understood the voices, and one of her last requests was that the ancestor be returned and reburied. I think it's an education process, I think it's an understanding that there are moral and cultural rights that people have. And certainly when it comes to the return of ancestral remains, people can understand that. It's not like land rights or things like that where people can have difficulties, but humans naturally have a feeling towards the dead, their dead, and wanting them secured and…

Kim McKay: And buried properly.

Phil Gordon: Exactly.

Kim McKay: To show respect to their family. So that's been a big part of your work I know in terms of repatriation. But also, just explain to us a bit about the secret and sacred stores, because a lot of people wouldn't realise that in Australian museums particularly with our Indigenous artefacts, that we actually have special storage facilities for those secret and sacred objects.

Phil Gordon: As part of Aboriginal culture there are materials and knowledge and ceremonies that are controlled by both men and women that other people can't participate in.

Kim McKay: This is what we know as secret women's business or secret men's business.

Phil Gordon: Exactly. And as part of that, objects are produced. Sometimes those objects were destroyed straight away, but other objects were not and they were continually used. And as part of the colonisation process a lot of these objects were taken away or given for safekeeping to missionaries and those sorts of things. And these objects still have power, both of a cultural and political too, because certainly certain objects from central Australia are the deeds to the land, and people can use them in native title and those sorts of things. But these objects still have power, and as a way of acknowledging that power and the sensitivity we actually have separate storage areas for these sorts of objects. And we have been involved over 30-odd years in trying to return some of those objects to community. It can be a very difficult and complex process but we are fortunately going to be, in conjunction with the Strehlow Centre, looking at some material from central Australia and getting traditional owners in here again over the next 12 months to hopefully speed up some returns of objects back into the central Australian region.

Kim McKay: That's fantastic, and of course we've got a very progressive digital repatriation project here at the museum as well where elements of the collection are able to be digitised and then remote communities can access them and study the materials. A lot of young modern artists use them as inspiration, don't they.

Phil Gordon: It's a really exciting area of the collection these days, and as resources are becoming scarce, our ability to service Aboriginal cultural objectives are diminished slightly. And the digital realm allows us to supply material and information to communities that in some respects may help them achieve 70% of their cultural objectives. Maybe the objects back would be better but not in all cases. And we've been fortunate to partner with various Aboriginal organisations in Yirrkala, in the Pitjantjatjara country, through the Strehlow Centre and numerous other places to get the material back into the communities. I think over the next four or five years as the style of technology develops we will be able to do a lot more in that area.

Kim McKay: Yes, it really is exciting I think that…especially for young Indigenous people, to reconnect with their culture by being able to at least visit it online, and then of course if they come to Sydney to see it here…we of course tour exhibitions as well of a lot of our different collections across the museum, so certainly within New South Wales. But a tragedy did happen in our collection, didn't it.

Phil Gordon: It certainly did, in the fire.

Kim McKay: So we are talking about the Garden Palace fire in the Royal Botanic Gardens. And as most people are aware, the Botanic Gardens is marking its 200th anniversary this year. It's just a little bit older than the Australian Museum because next year we turn 190. But 200 years ago there was an extraordinary structure in the Botanic Gardens called Garden Palace, a massive structure, but it burned to the ground. It was an exhibition centre that had a large slice of the Australian Museum's Indigenous collection in it, didn't it.

Phil Gordon: It certainly did, and it had all of our early material that we couldn't replace. You can imagine Sydney in those first 40 or 50 years, the people that were collecting material were taking it back with them when they finished their time in the colonies.

Kim McKay: Hence why the British Museum has such a big collection.

Phil Gordon: Exactly, and Dublin and St Petersburg and La Perouse's village. So all of that early material from Sydney and the areas around it went up in smoke. And so that's unfortunately why predominantly our collections, our strengths are the northern parts of Australia.

Kim McKay: And of course we also have quite a significant collection from Arnhem Land as well, from various expeditions.

Phil Gordon: Well yes, and there's the famous '48 expedition, which just has some real gems in it. You've seen the string figures, the string toys, the games, they're just wonderful pieces.

Kim McKay: I know you particularly like those, because people forget about children's toys and play when they are looking at Indigenous cultures, and of course play is such an important part of every child's life, so the fact that we have those string figure collections is extraordinary.

Phil Gordon: They are, they are just a special part of the collection.

Kim McKay: And this was a 1948 expedition undertaken by the Australian Museum in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institute and National Geographic, and so it is very well documented. In fact we'd love to look at that again at some point, wouldn't we, in terms of our anniversary.

Phil Gordon: It's a perfect opportunity. It was just one of a kind for us, and the material that we got out of that collection is just wonderful.

Kim McKay: Just popping back for a second to the Garden Palace at the Botanic Gardens and that massive fire, and they still don't know what caused the fire, by the way, there are many different theories; was it arson or not? But of course lighting had just been introduced, I think it was in the early 1880s, so it could have been a number of things. Most of the fabric of the building except for the pillars was timber, and so it really went up in smoke. Apparently you could view the fire from all over Sydney, it was so vast. So the philanthropist John Kaldor has commissioned the young Indigenous artist Jonathan Jones to create an artwork which outlines the footprint of that Garden Palace construction, and is having a series of seminars that are taking place at the State Library, one coming up soon, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and then the Australian Museum is hosting the third one soon, which is a really wonderful way of I think marking the impact on Indigenous culture that that fire, that occasion, but also the growth that the city has actually had.

Phil Gordon: And it's an untold story, it's a fascinating story and it's a story of empire and copying what happened in London, and Melbourne then had their equivalent.

Kim McKay: Yes, which still exists today, of course located next to the Melbourne Museum.

Phil Gordon: Yes, fascinating, beautiful building.

Kim McKay: Yes, so people should certainly look up the Garden Palace online and understand what an extraordinary building it was. But of course that Sydney and New South Wales Indigenous collection, a lot of it was lost at that time. But Jonathan Jones has actually created an installation for us as well in our new Bayala Nura Gallery, which means Yarning Country. We all like a yarn in Australia I think, so it's great. So Jonathan has created this extraordinary shield installation, showing all the different shapes and designs on shields that we hold. How many shields do we have? Thousands yeah?

Phil Gordon: At least 2,000, if not more, from all over Australia, but it is just a lovely simple way of showing the diversity of Aboriginal culture, to look at the diversity of shields and the art on the shields and the shapes of the shields. It just brings it together quite nicely.

Kim McKay: Well of course at the Australian Museum at the moment we have two relatively new Indigenous galleries, one called Garrigarrang: Sea Country, and the other being Bayala Nura: Yarning Country, so they are well worth visiting, they really give you a very interesting and deep perspective on Indigenous culture.

Phil Gordon, thank you so much for the work you do here, you are more than part of the furniture mate, I think your knowledge and the networks that you have and the connections you have have brought a lot to this institution, so thanks so much. We'll come and talk to you again I hope.

Phil Gordon: Thanks Kim.