Deaths in custody: What can museums do to effect change?
Dr Sandy O’Sullivan is a Wiradjuri person and a professor in the Department of Indigenous Studies at Macquarie University.
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I am writing this as we are witnessing protests across America and internationally that challenge a system of abuse that’s led to yet another Black man – in this case father, brother, son, George Floyd – die brutally at the hands of police officers. We are also seeing protests in Australia, both in physical locations and across social media. They are calls to action for our own horrific crimes against First Nations’ Peoples and other People of Colour in Australia.
So, what can a museum do to change this? It can tell peoples’ truths. With many shuttered due to COVID-19, it is important to remember that social history museums have a continuing role to play in how we understand and know one another because museums are far more than bricks and mortar, they are places with a staff and a constituency that provide, and expect, to see a lens into the lives of others. And, since museums have also been historical sites of colonial inquiry, many museums are recalibrating that through the appointment of Indigenous curators that remind the visitor that we are here, and we are telling our own stories.
Over the last decade Australian museums have been crucial in highlighting the impact of key colonial events, not the least of which is because of the increase in Indigenous curators helming these exhibitions. This reckoning has included the ongoing horror of the deaths of so many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in police custody. The Australian Museum, in particular, had a strong showing with their Indigenous Australians First Peoples exhibition 1996-2015, and parts of which can be viewed here. The museum is now undergoing a major update, and in its new iteration will redouble the telling of our stories and achievements, as well as the ways in which First Nations’ Peoples have had our agency denied through the ongoing actions of colonisation.
With over 400 deaths in custody, and not one person convicted, it’s relatively easy to see a parallel with the outcry following the death of George Floyd. Yet, there are still many today describing Australia as lucky and decrying the actions of police and the state across the US. While much of this is a lack of understanding, a lack of education and a failure to connect the colonial ‘dots’, it is also the ‘colonial project’ in action.
For the last few years I’ve been working on a project called The Colonial Glaze: Icing on the Bitter Cake of Empire (due for release 2021). It delves into all the ways in which a colonial state – like Australia – fails to see its own inequities, by focusing on ‘bad’ behaviour in other countries and colonial jurisdictions. An example are the denials that the horrors of slavery were ever visited on Indigenous Australians. In Lousy Little Sixpence - a film made 37 years ago and shown on television multiple times over the proceeding decades - we hear the experience of 20th Century Aboriginal People forcibly removed from their home, compelled to work in circumstances not of their choosing, required to seek permission to travel, marry or move, punished by these same people, and whose money was controlled and withheld. This is slavery. This is one of the ways in which cultural interpretation, in museums, in media, can help us see the connections. But for all that they are available, they require us to engage openly and hear these stories and reflect on their truths. We need the support of institutions and our colleagues so that stories like those found in Lousy Little Sixpence, are persistently available and do not slip from the public imagination.
The Colonial Glaze: Icing on the Bitter Cake of Empire plays on the term: Colonial Gaze, the idea that the state is always observing and controlling us, as we saw in Lousy Little Sixpence and as we see – as just one more example - in the ways in which we are over-represented in the criminal justice system. Gaze is swapped out with glaze as a reminder that Australia and other colonising countries will find ways of sweetening the power of these actions by imagining other colonial players as worse. When I was growing up, I often heard people say that the British were kind and caring compared to the colonising force of other countries. Either that or they did a better PR job. For the Colonial Glaze project, at large, the focus is on understanding how Australians can see problems in other countries but fail to see our own complicity in the ongoing colonial control of First Nations’ Peoples. Ultimately, you can’t have your cake (seeing badness in colonisation) and eat it too (the benefits of the colonial system and control over people and land).
Across this year we will see a reckoning in major museums as they find ways to acknowledge the 250th anniversary of the invasion of Captain Cook. In her IndigenousX article last year, Australian Museum Assistant Curator Dr Mariko Smith (Yuin) forecasts the role that museums and cultural spaces will take in telling an accurate history of these events and the expectations from our communities. We will begin to see uncomfortable truths surface, and while they may be difficult for some who have only contemplated an easier path, in the end who really benefits from eating a bitter cake? And knowing the cake is bitter is the first step.
What does this have to do with ensuring no more Black deaths in custody and that the people and the state responsible are held to account? It has everything to do with it, but there are also some ways that we can all challenge and hold this same system to account. Information, interpretation and revealing the truths of these situations is what social history across museums can do. They craft stories and experiences in ways that allow multiple visitors to understand and form their own strategies, and in revealing those who have been kept voiceless, they provide the tools we need to understand the impact. As individuals we can share this knowledge and these ideas and amplify these voices. This matters because just as the museum is more than bricks and mortar, our governments and our systems of inequality are supported or challenged by us as individual players.