For the latest instalment of our Paper Trails series, MBC’s Andrea Potts spoke with researcher Madalyn Grant about the role of emotions in the repatriation of Indigenous Remains and cultural objects within Australia.
Madalyn is an early career scholar having completed her honours thesis on emotions and repatriation at the Australian National University’s School of History. The thesis examined the return of the Murray Black collection, Kow Swamp and Mungo Lady remains from Canberra, and the emotional weight of those returns in the surrounding debates. While continuing her research, she has worked as a cultural institution professional, and is currently the Repatriation Manager at the University of Queensland in Brisbane. Her research interests are emotions as they interact with repatriation, collecting histories and museum display.
Andrea: It’s great to meet you. What does your research entail?
Madalyn: I’m researching repatriation within the domestic Australian context. My research focuses mainly on the ‘first wave’ of repatriation within Australia in the mid-1980s to mid-1990s and I look specifically at emotions within the discourse surrounding this work. Which emotions appear repeatedly in the arguments that surrounded repatriation and what does this tell us? In my role, I also project manage the repatriation efforts of the University, which has Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Ancestral Remains and cultural objects in its collection. These came into the collection through a variety of avenues: archaeological work, medical research, museum collecting.
A: How do you find researching this historical process and then also being a participant in the contemporary process of repatriation itself?
M: What I find interesting and admittedly quite frustrating is that decades on I’m now living those arguments. I’m having to have the same conversations with people. It’s interesting to have a sense of Deja vu! That being said, there is a large amount of institutional support at the University, so the recurring debates do not hamper the work I’m doing in any substantial way. It’s more the questions that I receive from the public that tend to be the ones that get under my skin.
A: It’s interesting that you focus on emotions in this process. This work is presumably also an emotional experience for you.
M: I’m in a position where I’m very open about the fact that it’s hard to be objective in a repatriation space. Last week, I was writing up a repatriation report for the remains of what appears to be a child that the University has in its teaching collection. That’s not something you can be unemotional with regards to. And I find it interesting that historically, we were very quick to reject those emotions. Whereas now, I’ll flag with someone that I’ve come across the remains of a child and the first thing will be, okay what support networks need to be in place? So, the way that emotions are handled now within these conversations is interesting. Although you do still get researchers who assert that this is research and emotions don’t have a place there.
A: Could you speak a bit about how you research emotion?
M: I look at several prominent repatriation events, and emotions emerge in the source material in so many different ways. In part, I look at several prominent academics and researchers. During the ‘first wave’ of the repatriation movement, primary sources were written largely by white academics or researchers who discussed the ways that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people weren’t being objective about the impact of repatriation on their profession as archaeologists. What that means is that they placed their emotions onto Indigenous people.
John Mulvaney, for example, was known as the father of Australian archaeology and he was prominently anti-repatriation. He said something to the effect that caving to repatriation demands was essentially allowing black intellectual totalitarianism and that we were catering to the Philistine. This is clearly very emotive language, but it was positioned as a defence of objectivity and rationality.
So, in some ways, these white academics and researchers were highly emotional. One of the strongest emotional narratives that comes through is the sense that those working within academia viewed repatriation as a personal loss. This is tied up with a very colonial sense of possession and ownership over materials, which in-and-of itself is such an emotional thing. Researchers were reacting as if there was a profound loss and were almost in a period of mourning after material had been repatriated, or they would talk about it in a way that had echoes of the death of something. And you know these people had made their career off the backs of these materials.
In terms of my source material, arguments surrounding the validity and necessity of repatriation increased over time and those debates shifted very quickly into a public sphere out of academic circles, and that meant that a lot of the material that I look at comes from television programs, radio interviews, or people giving op-eds for prominent newspapers. In these sources, people used very emotive language. And then on the counter side of that you would have leaders of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities who had less access to these forms of media, their accounts aren’t there. So again, you have to interpret the displaced emotions from the source material.
A: Yes, and what does interpreting displaced emotions entail?
In the ‘first wave’ of the repatriation movement, some argued that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have never complained about this before. But if you look at the archival material, particularly settler journals and the journals and letters of so-called bone collectors to their patrons, you can see that they were acutely aware of the fact that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were angry about the way that they were collecting material. So, you have prominent collectors talking about the fact that they will only collect at night because they’re scared of the local people. You have certain collectors talking about the fact that they felt incredibly uneasy in certain burial locations. You have collectors talking about the fact that they feel followed, or they feel like the women of a community know what they’ve done and are judging them harshly. You can see that bone collectors knew what they were doing was wrong, despite the fact that they thought they were serving some great scientific purpose. And then in the later reburial movements, what I find interesting is the way that people, particularly John Mulvaney, argue that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aren’t being objective and that this work benefits everyone. It is clear that these arguments are being presented to someone who they know objects to these materials being held by them. So, there are layers of emotion to uncover and make sense of.
A: That’s so interesting that you are presented with one layer of peoples’ emotions, solely from the perspective of white settlers that you then need to deconstruct and translate. It’s fascinating to unpack why labels like ‘angry’ were associated with Indigenous people in this context.
M: Exactly, there are so many layers. As the debates progress, dissenting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices become more visible. But people were still trying to maintain this idea of truth being associated with an absence of emotions. The appearance of emotions, then, was treated as a threat. But of course, the active suppression of emotions is also a very emotional process! It’s fascinating to unpick. And there is something here about how when we feel emotionally uneasy, we revert back to the idea that we are scientists, devoid of emotions. And that is unproductive.
A: That’s so interesting. And what kind of insights can drawing out all of these emotions produce?
M: It can better inform affective practice. But this isn’t simply a cut and dry thing that you can apply. There’s no handbook that you can read and apply to every single community, not only within Australia. You can’t roll out the same approach across indigenous communities around the world. But attending to emotions allows for greater understanding of the importance of repatriation. It allows for an understanding that there is an element of spirituality to this for receiving communities. This shifts the narrative away from repatriation meaning the loss of a research collection. It can help practitioners to be better equipped in working on this, as they are likely to have tough conversations that they haven’t had before. And I think that’s affective practice and it can lead to better outcomes for repatriation.
Another aspect is that a lot of people in the past two decades or so have viewed repatriation as something that ends with the handover, rather than understanding that the impact of having held on to something for so long will outlast the transfer of that material in its physical form. Affective practice would mean we are better equipped to work on repatriation because we aren’t simply conceptualising it as policy.