Reflections on ICA Congress in Brisbane

' look or walk backwards while looking to the future' - Ian Wakelingis moved by Brisbane presentations on remembrance and reconciliation

This is the last of Ian Wakeling's reports from Brisbane, written about a month after his return. You can read all of Ian's reports - and those of Heather Edwards-Hedley here


The measure of success for any conference is what stands out as still being significant one month or more afterwards. The ICA conference in Brisbane finished on 24 August 2012; in reflecting on attending the event in all of its various textures and colours, one particular issue stood out for me above all others, burning brightly against the global backdrop of the archival world that so passionately presented itself at the Brisbane Convention Centre.

For me the aspect that shone so vividly and filled one with hope for the future of archival provision around the world, was the value of archives as the record of human experience and their ability to fulfil vital roles in challenging situations requiring reconciliation, social justice, personal and community identity and healing divided lives – giving often unheard people a voice and human rights.

This powerful thread of my own journey of recognition started with the moving depiction of a grieving nation following a discussion of the National Archives of Norway’s role in the process of healing and reconciliation after the attacks in July 2011 that left 77 people dead and 242 badly injured. These killings created a mass popular response in Norway that led to the spontaneous laying of tributes of flowers, words of condolence, children’s drawings, teddy bears and other tokens of remembrance at sites in Oslo that eventually became memorial sites. The National Archives of Norway acknowledged early on the importance of collecting and preserving these memorial tributes as a healing touchstone for the nation, communities and individuals alike. While Ole Gausdal and Linda Holmås (National Archives of Norway) discussed the completion of the project, the audience sat hushed, visibly moved by photographs of the sea of tributes in the grounds of Oslo Cathedral and the dedication of archive staff to collect, preserve, catalogue and index the material. Small, lasting things also stand out, like the dedication of the employee who personally washed and made repairs to more than 50 teddy bears.

Then there is the power of archive records to bring lives, families and identities together – to act as a force for truth, reconciliation and emotional healing as captured in the Maori phrase “Titiro Ki Muri”, meaning to look or walk backwards while looking to the future (Ariana Tikao). No where was this more evident than in the presentations at the conference that depicted the role archives have played in revealing and documenting the situation of “indigenous peoples who suffered under the injustices of policies pursued by past generations”, to quote former Australian Prime Minister John Howard in Hansard on 27 May 1997.  The policies in question were those promoted by Australian governments from the late 19th century to the 1960s to remove the children of part-Aboriginal mothers, families and communities, often by force. Many tens of thousands of aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were separated from their families and placed in residential care, or were fostered or adopted. The pain and issues of abandonment were obvious consequences.

Joanna Sassoon and Cate O’Neill in separate papers, explored the route taken by respective governments to investigate the issue through national commissions, such as the groundbreaking 1995 National Enquiry into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families that collected hundreds of confidential submissions from people subjected to these policies, who became known as the ‘Stolen Generation’, and the Inquiry’s successive 1997 report, Bringing Them Home.  Central to the report’s recommendations were the creation of family tracing, reunion and counselling services, as well as key recommendations for a prohibition on the destruction of records; record preservation and the creation of indexes and other finding aids; the creation of a joint records task force; and the establishment of an Indigenous Family Information Service complete with indigenous repositories “for the transfer of historical and cultural information relating to communities”.  Building on these foundations, three successive inquiries examined the experiences of children being separated from there families by government or other agencies:
• The issue of child migrants placed in Australia by charities and local authorities from the 1920s-1960s was considered in  2000, producing the report, Lost innocents: righting the record - inquiry into child migration, in August 2001
• Inquiry into Children in Institutional Care, reporting in August 2004, Forgotten Australians: A report on Australians who experienced institutional or out-of-home care as children. The Forgotten Australians report led to apologies being made by state and territory governments, as well as by organisations that were past providers of child care.
• An inquiry into the implementation of the recommendations of Lost Innocents and Forgotten Australians, 2009.

All three stressed that identity and records were vital issues for Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants and their families. In 2011 the government introduced funding for a raft of initiatives designed to support these areas, including funding the creation of a national database, Find and Connect, currently managed by the University of Melbourne. The database was discussed by Cate O’Neill, it being described it as a “web resource for Forgotten Australians, Former Child Migrants and everyone with an interest in the history of out-of-home ‘care’ in Australia” - a digital public knowledge space designed to help all of these groups of people.

The work of Indigenous People archive repositories, family information and family tracing and reunion services were discussed in a range of presentations, including an assessment of confidentiality and privacy issues that are generated when creating Internet-based indexes to assist Indigenous families in searching for relatives (Hilary Rowell, State Records NSW), and a detailed look at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) Family History Unit in Canberra, given by Rebecca Stubbs. The Family History Unit comprises a team of experienced family history researchers, support caseworkers and family reunion link-up staff who arrange and accompany people to meet long lost family members for the first time. The work of the unit offered poignant insights into the difficult issues, emotions and frustrations experienced by adults trying to trace relatives, where records are sometimes the only clue a person has to their identity – and sometimes those records have not survived or were never created.

These powerful forces of personal identity were extended outwards by the conference to include the role of records and access to family information in claiming the rights of other Indigenous people, such as the Maoris (Ariana Tikao). We were also given insight into similar issues encountered elsewhere in the world in Norway and Scotland.  The first examined the search for information held in the Norwegian National Archive about the parents and relatives of 8-12,000 children born of Norwegian women and fathered by German soldiers during the Second World War (Kåre Olsen, The National Archives of Norway). The second, by George MacKenzie (Registrar General and Keeper of Public Records, National Records of Scotland), assessed the work of the 2007 Shaw Committee in Scotland that investigated child abuse in residential children’s homes and care, in turn looking at the value of records to people formerly in care as well as abuse survivors and recognising that there had been multiple failures in record keeping in the child care system. It found that poor record keeping often created difficulties for former residents of residential schools and children's homes, when they attempted in adulthood to trace their records for identity, family or medical reasons. The committee argued for a review of public records and in its broader assessment of record keeping, one line stands out, “records management is not free, but it’s cheaper and better than no records management at all”. 

Which brings us to the edge of the digital future for archives and record keeping in general. As we step off that edge into the e-world, we need to ask ourselves whether we are establishing consistent methodologies, practices and technology to ensure that in such a world we are able to preserve and make available sufficient evidence and information to allow us to uphold and protect the human rights of minorities, the oppressed and stolen generations of people who are subjected to abuse and loss of rights – so that justice can prevail. Throughout the 21st century, will the digital record enable us to continue walking backwards while we look forwards into the future?

Ian Wakeling
Records, Archive and Data Protection Manager
The Children’s Society