Historic apology to Tasmanian People

Flinders University’s Professor Penny Edmonds, a Trustee on the board of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG), joined other board members in a landmark apology to Tasmanian Indigenous peoples on behalf of the museum (in February 2021).

In a day of “truth-telling”, the TMAG and Royal Society of Tasmania apologised “completely and unreservedly” for nearly 200 years of scientific, research and museum practices that “resulted in immense hurt and suffering to Tasmanian Aboriginal People”.

A commitment by TMAG to a different future working with Aboriginal people was partly guided by the new national Roadmap for Enhancing Indigenous Engagement in Museum and Galleries by the Australian Museum and Art Galleries Association.

Both organisations took full responsibility for their past actions, presenting separate apology statements at an event at the TMAG courtyard. The museum’s apology was developed by the board members in consultation with the TMAG Aboriginal Advisory Committee. Long-term activist and Chair of the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania Michael Mansell accepted the apology. The full apology is online.

“This was a day that was long overdue and an emotional day for all,” said Professor Edmonds. “We believe this was possibly the first full apology to Aboriginal people by any state or federal museum in Australia.

Professor Penelope Edmonds

“Peace-building practices such as apologies and reconciliation ceremonies require great trust and risk for both parties. They are – or should be – performances from the heart that genuinely seek new cultures of being together,” she explained.

“I love museums, which are repositories or ‘arks’ of wonder and knowledge, and I have always worked between museums and universities.

“However, in the name of now-discredited, erroneous racial sciences, these museums engaged in disrespectful collecting practices, sometimes well into the 1970s … This is now well researched and beyond dispute, and these practices caused great harm to Indigenous communities.

“We need confront these difficult histories, but we also understand that Aboriginal peoples are not obliged to accept apologies. And, in state collecting institutions, such as museums, apologies need to be underpinned by real legal and policy changes. This is why Indigenous-led changes are the most successful ways forward and require deep commitment from institutions to relationship-building, respectful listening and meaningful action.”

Professor Edmonds, who arrived at Flinders at the start of 2020, is an internationally renowned scholar in postcolonial histories and critical race theory.  Her 2016 book, Settler Colonialism and Reconciliation, focuses on the fraught politics of apology and reconciliation, and she delivered the 2017 Trevor Reece Memorial Lecture in Australian History at the Menzies Australia Institute at Kings College London on the topic.

Professor Edmonds’s experience in the heritage and museum sector includes collaborating with Indigenous museum professionals and communities, and working with the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre at Melbourne Museum.

Since coming to Flinders, Professor Edmonds has worked with Dr Ali Baker and Director of Flinders University Museum of Art Fiona Salmon to host the successful symposium “In the Hold: Decolonising Cook in Art, Performance and Text” to explore the meanings of Captain James Cook in the historical imagination and the “Cook 250” commemorations of 2020.

Professor Edmonds also serves on the new University Indigenous Research Committee, which will advance research through Flinders University’s Reconciliation Action Plan.

On her involvement with the apology ceremony, she said, “The big connection between my own research and the recent TMAG apology is that for me, this is about making real-world changes beyond academia to shift the way state-based collecting institutions with imperial histories work with Aboriginal communities.”

Settler Colonialism and (Re)conciliation: Frontier Violence, Affective Performances, and Imaginative Refoundings | Penelope Edmonds | Palgrave Macmillan

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