The 20th anniversary in June 2012 of the Mabo decision overturning terra nullius in Australia has justifiably been marked and celebrated.

But the question of indigenous land rights is very much alive among several of our Pacific neighbours.

Kirk Huffman’s story ‘Making Land Work?’ in Explore 34(4) demonstrates this issue in Vanuatu extremely well, telling of the tension between traditional village custodianship of land and the temptations of modern Western, tradeable land ownership. Some argue that loss of connection to land resulting from sale or lease jeopardises the preservation of customs and cultures, while others argue that financial gains from land sales or leases can enable positive development and self-determination.

Pros and cons
To me the key underlying issue is how groups living a more traditional (perhaps ‘not modern’ is a better expression) life obtain enough information about the pros and cons of change to make an informed decision, and whether this is done equitably to enable all members of a group or community to have a view. A more insidious risk than a lack of information is ‘outsiders’ purporting to speak for or represent the traditional groups. We have seen this too often in Australia with missionaries or government-appointed ‘protectors’ speaking for Aboriginal people.

On the other hand some people can be very honest and effective spokespeople for traditional groups, enabling their views to be heard. It is a dilemma for museums like the Australian Museum too: are we observers and chroniclers of change, or advocates of positions about the pros and cons of change?

Our role
The wider issue of the intrusion of the modern world onto societies living a traditional, relatively unchanged life is present right through the developing world. It can manifest as tribes and communities fighting loggers in the Amazon or Indonesia, or electoral violence in Papua New Guinea. Going again to the role of museums of indigenous cultures, we need to avoid the trap of being concerned only with what went before, that pre-dates some (ill-defined) point of modernisation, after which the culture is somehow devalued by being no longer ‘traditional’.

Our role is to record, think about and discuss all that happens, the good and not so good, to facilitate the debate and, sometimes, from a position of knowledge, offer trustworthy advice, just maybe to lessen the likelihood of society repeating past mistakes. And we have to do that while acknowledging the views of pro-development lobbyists, cultural preservationists and more importantly the people whose futures are at stake.

Frank Howarth
Director of the Australian Museum

This article first appeared in Explore 34(3), Spring 2012