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Ms A. Patterson
University Secretariat
RMIT - City campus
GPO Box 2476V Vic. 3001
60 Bridge Street
Northcote Vic 3070
13th May 1998

Dear Ms Patterson,

Project 28/97 The Flight of Ducks

Thank you for your letter of the 5th May 1998 and the opportunity to talk in person to the Committee about my project.

I acknowledge that my project raises potential ethical issues. Under section 4(p) these are now identified as:

  1. The need to ensure that no secret or sacred material is accessible in my RMIT research project, The Flight of Ducks .

  2. The need for consultation during the development of the project and the need for appropriate response processes ahould cultural sensitivities cause distress or offence.

I will attempt a systematic clarification of these issues:

1. No Secret Sacred Material

If the Committee refers to the Central Land Council letter (1996 October 11: previous application) it will see that there is little or no concern about the display of common objects such as pitchi, boomerangs, etc. To the extent that any object can be removed from its context (as many were), secret or sacred objects were identified by non-aboriginals by the Arrernte word `tjurunga' (previously churinga). Generally speaking, tjurunga denote sacred stone or wooden objects possessed by private or group owners together with the legends, chants, and ceremonies associated with them. They are amongst the very few forms of property which may be owned legitimately by individual persons in Central Australia. The ownership of sacred tjurunga amongst the Arrernte groups was determined largely by `the conception site' of every individual member of a patrilineal totemic clan. As the traditional totemic system broke down many tjurunga became `inactive' and ownership was transferred by appointment, gift or even trade.

Tjurunga are not hard to identify. There are pictures of them in a wide variety of books about Central Australia. During the 1930s they were actually manufactured for sale at Hermannsburg Mission. They were also manufactured in the 1970s in Queensland and can still be easily found in tourist shops - even in Melbourne.

The significance and status of tjurunga today is the subject of considerable discussion in academic circles and also (where T.G.H Strehlow was concerned) the subject of some controversy. There were a number of tjurunga in my father's collection - all openly acquired through trade.

I would say that these were `inactive' tjurunga, dispensable under certain circumstances, particularly involving the craving for tobacco. The extent and power of that craving on the Aboriginal frontier has not been fully understood yet.

(Email from Phillip Jones Museum of South Australia 1997 Sept 7)

In order to understand how to handle such objects (or their digital surrogates), I sought advice from recognised experts who are responsible for the management of similar objects with similar provenance. My advice came from David Hugo of the Strehlow Research Foundation in Alice Springs (which holds similar objects collected by T.G.H. Strehlow) and from both Chris Anderson and Phillip Jones of the South Australian Museum (which also holds similar objects collected by T.G.H Strehlow). These men are acknowledged authorities and Chris Anderson's collection of monographs The Politics of the Secret should be regarded as a core text.

The tjurunga issue: Navigable images of these would certainly attract an adverse reaction at present, even with appropriate warnings. Hard to see a way around that... I would even say that you should expect some problems as a necessary part of the process of defining and completing your project. Have you thought about placing a `screen' over the objects? Maybe that could be removed in private copies of the file which you email to 'bona fide' researchers, once they contact you directly with their credentials ... just an idea.

(Email from Phillip Jones Museum of South Australia 1997 Jun 6)

Better to bring up the issues and to say that you have tried. You have however warned people in a good way. It would be difficult however to track the appropriate people down on your own. If you involve the land councils they will probably say you shouldn't be showing the objects at all. A password access thing would be good.

(Email from Chris Anderson Museum of South Australia 1997 Jun 17)

The more I learnt about tjurunga the more difficult it became to determine the current status of those collected by my father in 1933. The wisest course seemed to be to simply leave them out of my RMIT project altogether. I did not want to have to spend time justifying their inclusion at the expense of my research work which was (among other things) to build an effective `digital keeping place' in which their digital surrogates could reside in safety should such surrogates be included - like opening a digital bank account with a token digital $1 in it.

Are there photographs or descriptions of secret/sacred material?

Most people who take the trouble to read my father's 1933 journal are struck by the care taken by members of the expedition to be deferential to Aboriginal sensibilities. To my knowledge, no secret or restricted ceremonies were witnessed and no confidential information was revealed. It is therefore highly unlikely that any of the photographs (or their surrogates) depict anything which was or is restricted and even less likely that such information would be described. Much of the material has been in Aboriginal hands now for three years - without complaint.

As I have previously pointed out, the photographs were actually snapshots which were secondary to the taking of cinefilm (destroyed in a bushfire). It is true that some photographs may be regarded as ethnographic in style. That is why warning screens are used - lest these images be seen out of their historical context and cause offence. It is also true that the text of the journal is anchored in the ideas of the time. However, given the context in which these journals are presented these texts could hardly be cause for offence.

The Committee might like to consider that my research project was, in fact, concerned with the management of the digital surrogates of texts, photographs and objects rather than with these objects themselves. For most of us, a photograph of an elephant is not an elephant. Similarly, an arrangement of binary data in the form of a photograph is not a photograph (although at times it might resemble one). A digital objects have quite different qualities from objects in the physical world and need to be managed in quite different ways. The issues which surround the management of such objects are, in fact, the issues which my research has sought to explore.

2.1 Consultation

From the outset of this project in early 1995, consultation has been both appropriate and ongoing and in accordance with 1.1 of the ATSI Protocols . Records of phone calls to the Central Land Council and NTARIA were not kept. However, evidence is available of the following communications (some copies of letters already in the hands of the RMIT HREC - some is confidential). Most of the electronic conversation is available on-line in The Flight of Ducks [FOD0780.html] :

2.2 Response Processes

It is one of the advantages of web based publication that communication channels are transparent, rapid and generally reliable. Content can be altered immediately if the need should arise. As an evolving work, The Flight of Ducks has been characterised by its responsiveness. From the beginning, the participatory nature of the work has been stressed. Every screen carries an email link to its creator to encourage spontaneous feedback. This has proved an effective mechanism for continuous dialogue as well as providing examples of participatory outcomes.

Should it be drawn to my attention that elements of The Flight of Ducks are causing offence or distress. The following strategies would apply:

  1. Immediate acknowledgement of the complaint.
  2. Immediate request for participation by the complainant in reaching a solution i.e. What would you like to happen? Should the material be removed or altered?
  3. Suggestion, negotiation and broad consultation until a solution is clear.
  4. Implementation of the solution.
  5. Encourage further participation by the complainant.
For as long as the developing site runs on the Cinemedia server I will be able to maintain a reponsive editorial role. In response to the RMIT HREC concerns, a procedure is now in place (the Cinemedia website protocols) whereby this editorial control can be vested in the webmaster. There is a transparent route from the site to the responsible webmaster. If I am not available, then the webmaster can remove, block or alter, offending or distressing material in accordance with the ATSI Protocols under which (I believe) the Cinemedia Digital Library operates.

Does The Flight of Ducks conform with the ATSI Protocols for Libraries, Archives and Information Services ?

Alex Byrne, the author of the ATSI Protocols, appears to think it does:

It seems to me that you have taken reasonable steps to flag concerns. I am glad to see a sensitive approach.

(Email from Alex Byrne July 14 1997)

The Committee should be aware that once an archived version of the The Flight of Ducks has been submitted for examination at RMIT this version will be (as required by the Higher Degrees Committee) beyond my editorial control - just like the versions at the National Library of Australia .

If the RMIT HREC believes that the RMIT Library should be similarly responsive to Aboriginal participation (as the curator of this archive) then I believe that this is an ideal opportunity for the Committee to suggest to both the RMIT Librarian and the Chairman of the RMIT Higher Degrees Committee that there is a need for a digital curatorial policy at RMIT, rather than delaying my examination further.

Yours sincerely

Simon Pockley

(CC) reserved S.Pockley Feb 1995: The Flight of Ducks 855