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Yarning Up: Discussing Cultural Preservation with Renee Cawthorne

Renee Cawthorne (Image Credit: Australian Museum)

As the Indigenous Education Project Officer at the Australian Museum, Renee Cawthorne has made it her goal to ensure that Indigenous artefacts are correctly interpreted and documented, to ensure that Indigenous peoples are narrating their own stories. An early supporter of the Foundation, Renee has served as a champion for its development and usage within the school and education system.

For our third edition of our 'Yarning Up' series where we interview exceptional Indigenous individuals, we caught up with Renee to talk about the importance of doing cultural preservation correctly, the transcendent nature of Indigenous culture, and the role the Bawurra Library can play within the education system.

Nick: You work as the Indigenous Education Project Officer at the Australian Museum. How did you become involved in working for the museum and with Bawurra?

Renee: I had been working for the Macquarie University NISEP programs, who partner with the Australian Museum on science outreach events. I had been in that role for two years before I applied for a position at the AM, where I was successful. [During those programs], I was at Macquarie University, working with a couple of Elders on a database, and the reason for that database was they wanted to preserve their knowledge because they were concerned about Elders passing away and important cultural information was not being passed on.

I saw that Jessie [Slok] was a student at Macquarie University, and I had heard about his project and I saw that they were fundraising. I was really, really interested in what he was doing and so from there we had some discussions… it's really exciting to be involved with that I think, it's really important for us to have Aboriginal people pass on our knowledge.

Nick: How important is the preservation of Indigenous culture for you, both within the museum setting and in terms of sharing it in an open setting?

Renee: Australia has the oldest living culture in the world: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ culture and knowledge has sustained this country for over 65,000 years. The preservation of Aboriginal culture ensures that knowledge is passed on to future generations. The objects held in Museums are intangible, meaning that they must not be considered as just an artefact. The objects are associated with spiritual and cultural significance.

It represents the deep connection to Country, Ancestors and cultural practices. Aboriginal culture is not static and is continually changing and evolving. Museums and cultural Institutions have many Aboriginal cultural objects in their possessions, many taken from Aboriginal People without consent. Although Museums can preserve Indigenous Culture they have also misrepresented and exploited Indigenous Peoples in the past. Being an Aboriginal Woman working in this space allows me to correctly interpret our culture and narrate our own stories. It provides me with a platform and opportunity to change the negative views and opinions of Aboriginal People.

Nick: It is great you can examine and provide that platform to correctly interpret culture. You’ve been a huge supporter of Bawurra since our inception. How do you think something like the digital library can help to spread and celebrate Indigenous culture?

Renee: The Digital Library is an invaluable resource for Aboriginal Peoples. [Not only that], It is also an opportunity for all Australian People to gain a better understanding and appreciation of Indigenous Peoples knowledge and culture.

The recording of these stories ensures that information is not lost and is passed on to future generations. Right now, a lot of Elders are passing away and important information is being lost. The recording of this information is vital to the continuation and preservation of Indigenous cultures.

Nick: Indeed, but like you mentioned earlier, it is important to ensure that this cultures are recorded correctly. Programs like the Bawurra library have showcased Indigenous culture as a very diverse, living and breathing entity. But, do you think that when it comes to showcasing this culture, there are only certain appropriate settings in which it can work? Or can it be transcendent?

Renee: I think it is transcendent. And it depends on the interpretation of the cultural material and which perspective it is been interpreted by. In the past, Museum's have often depicted our peoples and cultures in a negative way. That is something that needs changing, there are a lot of processes that need to be changed to make sure that we preserve in a more culturally appropriate way. I believe that the settings must be culturally appropriate and respectful.

Nick: Is that something that you’ve brought to how you manage indigenous artefacts in the museum?

Renee: That's quite interesting, because a lot of collections we have in our museum were taken from Aboriginal people without their consent. We haven't got a lot of information about where they came from, and who made them. We only have information about when they were acquired. In a collection like that, it is very difficult to interpret the information and the stories behind them as well.

Nick: That’s fascinating. But with this, we can see now that the tide is shifting now in Australia. Considering there is an building movement towards the importance of recognising Indigenous culture, such as through NAIDOC Week and Closing the Gap Day, what do you hope to see through this sharing of culture being incorporated further into our education systems?

Renee: I would love to see indigenous culture celebrated on any day of the year and not just during these national celebrations. Indigenous perspectives have been incorporated across the NSW and National Australian Curriculum. However there is a lack of depth of Indigenous perspectives incorporated in subjects, there needs to be a broader range of topics that cover Indigenous perspectives across the syllabus, as well as information for teachers about how to incorporate these understandings.

The Digital library is an invaluable resource for teachers. I hope to see it being using all schools, it's a great material source. I think at the moment all these teachers are implementing a general approach of Indigenous perspectives, as many are unaware of this knowledge and ways to embed those perspectives. When they're using something like the digital library, it's very valuable to teachers to provide them with local information and also is a reputable source; because it is coming from a local Aboriginal member in the community. So the perspective is real, authentic and appropriate.

[Above all], it also shows the diversity of our cultures, and that we are not all just one group of people. We have peoples from many different nations, with different stories and cultural practices. I think this library manages to showcase and really encapsulate that diversity in a beautiful way.


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