The statement below describes the terms of our interactions and collaborations with collecting institutions and it is published in the interests of full transparency. We maintain the same principles for all institutional partners. A parallel statement on our terms of collaboration with First Nations communities is here.

What we ask

We are researching message sticks and Songlines at the University of New England, Australia.

We ask that our partners commit to best practice in terms of research ethics. For collecting institutions we respectfully request that you honour the Right to Know principle set out by the Indigenous Archives Collective:

THE RIGHT TO KNOW – Without an authoritative source to identify where relevant material is to be found, further rights, such as the right of reply, cannot be activated. Materials relating to different Indigenous communities are fragmented across a range of organisations around the world. While individual organisations may have good knowledge of this material in their custody, there is no mechanism to connect these holdings and bridge this knowledge across organisational boundaries. Indigenous archival records in collections should be identified and prioritised for action as a component of truth telling. Inter-organisational collaboration in the compilation of indexes and in facilitating access to dispersed records is a starting point to facilitate the Right to Know of Indigenous peoples and communities.

In addition to the Indigenous Archives Collective position statement on the Right of Reply to Indigenous knowledges and information held in archives (2021), we strive to conduct research in accordance with the principles set out in the AIATSIS Code of Ethics for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research, and the Tandanya Adelaide declaration (2020).

If your institution decides to reject our application for access to records, we request that you to make your reasons clear with reference to the Right to Know and to the information set out below on this web page. Please note that upon rejection of a request for records, we will initiate a Freedom of Information request with your institution. This is not to be combative or oppositional, but is simply a standard policy of our project.

Who we are

Dr Lorina Barker is a Wangkumara and Muruwari oral historian at the University of New England on Anaiwan land. 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 Australian Research Council projects have overlapping goals which is why we are combining our efforts.

Piers Kelly and Lorina Barker examining message sticks in the Australian Museum

What are message sticks?

Message sticks are public and non-restricted devices used in Indigenous Australia to facilitate long-distance communications. Because message stick communication involves cross-cultural interactions, involving public presentation to many witnesses including strangers, the objects are not typically suppressed in collections and are generally regarded as suitable for display​, subject to the usual consultation processes.

If a message stick in your collection is labelled as ‘restricted’, eg, on the basis of a social category such as gender or initiation status, then we will not request access to its associated records since it does not adhere to our own research definition of ‘message stick’. You might also wish to investigate the possibility that it has been mislabelled.

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 involve First Nations colleagues in the Top End, New South Wales and Victoria.

Settlers collected message sticks in great numbers between 1880s and 1910s. Many of these objects have disappeared. Others ended up in the storage facilities of ethnographic collections across the world. Dr Kelly’s primary task has been to locate surviving message sticks 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 South Australian Museum, Museums Victoria, the Australian Museum, 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 and these are now recorded in the database.

Dr Barker has collected photographs, archival materials and family histories relevant to the Songline. She has assisted in restoring knowledge about a series message sticks that travelled across Muruwari, Budjiri and Gunya country in the early 1890s for a ceremony that her ancestor Charlie Maranoa would likely have participated in. She aims to extend this research further along the Songline.

Consultation challenges—who is an owner?

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. 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.

What we would like to request

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

  • Electronic records of catalogue data
  • Images of 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.)

What institutions also need to know

  • 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.
  • 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. Such materials may be further shared with local archives such as Aṟa Irititja (Central Australia) and Ajamurnda (Groote Eylandt), and similar initiatives. See our policy on sharing with First Nations communties here. 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 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).

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 confirmation of community support.
  • The Indigenous-managed Maningrida Arts & Culture is a partner on the Top End portion of the message stick project. The centre is accountable 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.
  • Institutional ethics documentation can be downloaded here.