30-year embargo lifts on Berndt field notes

21/05/2024 | 2 mins

For the first time in 30 years a significant archive of Indigenous history and cultural knowledge is now accessible to Indigenous communities across the country.

In 1994, anthropologist Catherine Berndt bequeathed her and husband Ronald Berndt’s field notes to The University of Western Australia, with the requirement that they would be embargoed until 13 May 2024.

Compiled from around 1939 to 1985, the field notes detail the Berndts’ fieldwork throughout Australia and Papua New Guinea. The notes contain valuable cultural knowledge for many communities visited by the anthropologists.

UWA Vice-Chancellor Professor Amit Chakma said the lifting of the embargo was a significant milestone for the University.

“These communities have a right to access their cultural knowledge and we acknowledge the harm this long embargo has caused,” Professor Chakma said.

The Berndts’ collection of cultural material, art and archives is one of many in the care of UWA’s Berndt Museum, which holds one of the most significant collections of Indigenous cultural material in the world. In 2020, the Museum moved from UWA’s Cultural Precinct to the University’s Indigenous Portfolio. 

Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Education) Professor Jill Milroy said the move recognised the need for Indigenous collections to be cared for by Indigenous people and adhere to cultural protocols.

“The embargo has caused significant pain to many Indigenous peoples and communities, and it’s important that communities are able to gain access to their cultural knowledge,” Professor Milroy said.

“We’re currently undertaking a community-first access approach to the field notes. We’ll be working directly with Indigenous communities and their representatives to determine what wider access is culturally appropriate.

“We’re proud to be an Indigenous-led museum and one of our core priorities is working with Indigenous communities to ensure they can access, control and benefit from their cultural heritage,” Professor Milroy said.

The Berndt Field Notes Archive includes roughly 470 notebooks and series of loose pages (totalling about 45,000 pages). Within Australia, the Berndts visited communities in New South Wales, Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia, publishing extensively on many of these communities.

While the original notes are now very fragile, most were digitised and indexed as part of the original bequest. The Museum is looking forward to working in collaboration with relevant communities on their digitisation and access.

Further information about the field notes, a list of communities and locations visited by the Berndts, and access protocols is available on the Museum’s website.

Media references

Simone Hewett (UWA Media and PR Manager) 08 6488 6876

Sam Leung (Project & Communications Officer, Berndt Museum) 08 6488 6125 

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