Statement for collecting institutions

Message sticks on the Songline

Who we are

Dr Lorina Barker is a Wangkumara and Muruwari oral historian at the University of New England. Dr Barker is the Chief Investigator of the Songlines of Country Discovery Indigenous Project.

Dr Piers Kelly is a non-Indigenous man of British and Irish ancestry. He is currently a DECRA fellow at the University of New England where he collaborates with Dr Barker.

Both our ARC projects have overlapping goals which is why we are combining our efforts in archival research.

Our combined research

We are aiming to reconstruct the histories and meanings of message sticks in Southeast Australia, along a significant Songline that passes through Dr Barker’s country from Queensland through Corner Country to South Australia. (Other aspects of the project will involve different collaborators in Arnhem Land, the Tiwi Islands and Victoria.)

Lorina Barker, Michael Brogan, Piers Kelly and Nick Reid examining message sticks at the University of New England

Settlers collected message sticks in great numbers between 1880s and 1910s. Many of these objects disappeared. Others ended up in the storage facilities of ethnographic collections in different parts of the world. Dr Kelly’s task has been to locate surviving message sticks in collecting institutions and to trace their individual life histories. With direction from Indigenous collaborators he has been trying to re-associate them with their traditional Countries of origin.

To date Dr Kelly has had the opportunity to consult the paper and digital records of the National Museum of Australia, the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, the British Museum, the Pitt Rivers Museum Oxford, the Peabody Museum Harvard, the Grassi Museum Leipzig, the Weltkulturen Museum Frankfurt and the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin. With the expert guidance of archivists, he has identified the present-day locations of approximately 840 message sticks.

Dr Barker has collected photographs, archival materials and family histories relevant to the Songline.

Collection history research and consultation

Due to the inadequacies of colonial collection practices, message sticks are often poorly provenanced. For example, an object may be listed as originating in a very broad area such as ‘Western Australia’ or from ‘The Mitchell River’, or from sites of heavy interaction such as missions and ports. This lack of precision is a reflection of the circumstances of collection. Contemporary curators and collection managers do an amazing job assembling stray clues from diverse sources to try to narrow down their origins.

However, museum staff are well aware that Traditional Owners of the objects in question cannot always be securely identified and thus consulted about their wishes when it comes to issues of display, access, interpretation or circulation. Many objects in historical museum records are attributed to the wrong Nations, a fact which has the potential to generate confusion and distress. However, despite gaps and errors in museum registers and card files, these documents are crucial when it comes to reconstructing the journeys of message sticks from their creators, to their senders and recipients, their eventual collectors and their final storage locations.

Believed lost in World War II, this Warrgamay message stick from the 1880s was rediscovered in Berlin in 2017

We have occasionally succeeded in triangulating knowledge from archival and oral historical sources to reconnect message sticks to Country. Most recently, for example, we have established the provenance of a Muruwari message stick at the Australian Museum, labelled ‘Creator unknown’ in the museum display. This outcome would not have been possible without Dr Barker’s traditional knowledge combined with generous access to different kinds of records from institutions with varying access policies.

Statement of community support and ethics approval

  • Dr Lorina Barker is a First Nations scholar with recognised cultural authority. She is a founding member of Taragara. Contact Taragara here for further details.
  • The Indigenous-managed Maningrida Arts & Culture is a partner on the Top End portion of the message stick project. The centre is under the jurisdiction of the Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation. The primary Indigenous project consultants are Stanley Rankin, Jack Nawilil and Lena Yarinkura. Contact Maningrida Arts & Culture here for further details. A downloadable statement from Maningrida Arts and Culture is available here.
  • Combined statements of support from cultural organisations and research institutions can be viewed here
  • Ethics documentation can be downloaded here

Our request to you

We would like to be able to consult any and all of the following documents in your institution’s archives:

  • Hard copy historical registers that record objects of Indigenous origin
  • Card files
  • Relevant correspondence

What we do not want to request

  • Restricted artefacts
  • Ethnographic descriptions containing restricted knowledge. (Note that these are not typically found in registers or correspondence. We will accept cultural risk and alert your institution should any restricted knowledge be detected in our research.)

Concluding declaration

  • This phase of research is archives-based and thus does not primarily involve physical artefacts or human research participants
  • Consistent with the Right to Know principles (see below) any findings that result from the examination archival records will be shared with the collecting institution, with relevant Traditional Owners via representative bodies, and publicly. Later, Dr Barker may wish to make her own requests to access objects, photos or records associated with her Country. (This will be enacted as a separate request.)
  • The correct Traditional Owners cannot always be identified (and thus consulted) before the archives are accessed. At the same time, access to the archives is often going to be required up front in order to map object journeys and thus (hopefully) identify Traditional Owners in retrospect. We hope your institution can navigate this paradox!
  • We are only interested in accessing records that you are willing to share according to your protocols, and none others. Note that, by our working definition, ‘message sticks’ are non-sacred and highly public, though non-Indigenous people occasionally represent them as sacred leading to further distortions. An explanation of this problem is here. Our research is emphatically about public and non-sacred objects and practices. We will never request access to restricted materials nor question the basis on which they are restricted. We are nonetheless happy to advise on ambiguous cases.
  • We state our strong adherence to the Right to Know principle set forth by the Indigenous Archives Collective. All other rights, including ICIP and cultural safety are contingent on the Right to Know, which encompasses the secure provenancing of objects. We encourage your institution to sign onto the IAC statement if it has not already done so! In line with the Right to Know we support the open release and online publication of data about collections as stipulated by open institutions such as the National Museum of Australia and Museums Victoria (see here).