Indigenous Youth and Museums: A Report on the Indigenous Youth Access Project is available from the Australian Museum Audience Research Centre(www.amonline.net.au/amarc/) Sydney 2002.
"Indigenous youth are the future leaders of their community but often miss out because they are a [small] group of Australians. The more we listen, however, the more we learn just how interested and motivated a group they are."
This is how the director of the Australian Museum, Professor Mike Archer, introduces a first-of-its-kind research study Indigenous Youth and Museums, a report of the Museum's Indigenous Youth Access Project, supported by the Commonwealth Government's arts funding body the Australia Council through its Audience and Market Development Division.
The report, by Lynda Kelly, Allison Bartlett and Phil Gordon, found that "Youth and, specifically, Indigenous youth, expressed a desire for inclusion and involvement to both stimulate their learning and test their skills in a peer and adult arena."
But the question has to be asked, Do the museums have the will and the leadership in place to make the required "major shift in attitude ... to provide broad access to resources and collections, while taking a mentoring role and allowing Indigenous youth to control their own experiences through exhibition curation and progam management, as well as reflecting contemporary issues in their collection policies and acquisition programs?"
In the light of the recent High Court decision against the Yorta Yorta people, and the concerns about the renewal of Dawn Casey's contract at the National Museum of Australia, it is ironic that the NMA reports that "the use of Indigenous curators and community consultation about how communities were profiled at the NMA had helped draw Indigenous visitors to the Museum. The Gallery of First Australians is the largest and most popular of the Museum's five permanent exhibitions."
The NMA's emphasis on consultation with and involvement of the communities seen in the exhibitions is not restricted to Indigenous communities. The NMA represents the modern end of the museum spectrum for all Australian communities. At the other end, the Australian Museum writers asked of the general run of institutions "Will they change practices embedded in tradition?" and noted that "strategic decisions about audience focus are often made at managerial level and are usually resource-dependant", and they were "not sure that the will is there" for change even though operational staff showed a "keen interest and enthusiasm".
To bring the stories home, the report describes "Holly", a 15-year-old Aboriginal girl from inner Sydney and 13-year-old "Paul" of Western Sydney. Paul, despite juvenile detention experience and a lack of educational and family support structures, found the CD-ROM Keeping Culture extremely interesting, recognised names of people he may have been related to, and became keen to research animals and the natural world at the Museum. Holly's major interests were "being with friends, music and dance", but the focus group experience after visits to the Australian Museum and the Powerhouse Museum led her to express a desire to work at the Reception Desk of a museum or gallery, where she would "take great pride in talking to visitors about her people and culture". She wanted to see black faces at the front desk and among the floor staff and felt more comfortable at places that accepted her for what she was - "a young, proud, black woman".
As a comparison for Australia, again another irony, the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council gave a large grant to Indigenous people in Alaska for the Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository on Kodiak Island. Governed by the Alutiiq Heritage Foundation, representing 8 tribal organisations, the museum promotes awareness of Alutiiq history, language and arts. It enriches communities through innovative educational programs, including revitalising the Alutiiq language. (www.alutiiqmuseum.com).
Australia, without such generosity from guilty multinational corporations, has its own examples of locally focussed institutions such as the Koori Gardening Team at Melbourne's Living Museum of the West (www.livingmuseum.org.au) and the Minjungbal Resource Museum and Study Centre, Tweed Heads, NSW (www.amonline.net.au/ahu/keep/keep09.htm). Maybe the Australian Museum's research will bring old and new traditions together, in both Indigenous culture and Museum culture.
Indigenous Youth and Museums: A Report on the Indigenous Youth Access Project is available from the Australian Museum Audience Research Centre (www.amonline.net.au/amarc/).
© Frank McKone M.A., F.A.C.E.
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