Writing heritage
by Michael Davis, Australian Scholarly Publishing & National Museum of Australia Press, 2007
ISBN 174 097144 2 (pbk), 380 pp., RRP A$39.95

review by Sylvia Schaffarczyk
Writing heritage

This addition to the literature on the European depiction of Indigenous heritage in Australia initially impresses with its heft, clean cover design and spare page layout. Reading on, what impacts deeply is the breadth of primary historical sources utilised throughout the work. A major feature of the book is Davis's frequent use of direct quotes from a wonderful variety of sources — official and amateur, well-known and obscure — in order to detail his exploration of the way in which European-Australians have viewed and represented Aboriginal people and their heritage since early European colonisation.

Within a chronological framework, Davis uses the work of well-known anthropologists and ethnologists such as Herbert Basedow, Baldwin Spencer and Frank Gillen, Fred McCarthy, Ronald and Catherine Berndt, and others to structure his account. The book provides good coverage of the history of Australian amateur and professional collecting, and anthropological, archaeological, museum and government interest in Aboriginal material culture and society. These background developments set the context for the views portrayed throughout the narrative.

Davis fleshes out his chronological structure with cameos of the work of a variety of individuals to illustrate particular viewpoints. Each example is usually followed by Davis's critique or summary of the individual's outlook. Despite a propensity for politically correct statements, Davis conveys a deep sense of respect for, and understanding of, issues surrounding Indigenous heritage. In addition to the quantity of primary source material, the book is well referenced and is therefore a valuable resource for students and scholars looking for a comprehensive historical summary of the paradigms governing European attitudes towards Indigenous people in Australia. The book's readable narrative approach also makes it user-friendly to more general audiences with a bent for Australian history. One disappointing facet of the volume is that the photographs, while interesting and relevant, are situated in the centre of the book and treated almost as a separate section. They are not referred to within the text and there is no table of figures to attract the reader's attention at appropriate junctures.

Writing Heritage adds a new layer of primary evidence and interpretation to the recent renewal of interest in objects and artefacts in archival and museum collections, and their collectors, analysts and curators. One of the best aspects of the book is the use it makes of museum and archive collections, not through focusing specifically on the institutions and institutionalisation of Indigenous heritage and our perceptions of it, or even on the physical aspects of the objects, but by detailing a broad range of stories through describing people, documents and objects in order to construct a holistic approach to the important topic of Indigenous heritage.

Davis's main argument rests on the dissection of two stereotypes generated by European-Australian representations of Indigenous heritage: the first is the perception that Indigenous culture is homogeneous; the second is that European-Australian perceptions of Indigenous heritage are equally homogeneous. Davis makes the point throughout the book that the propensity of Europeans to break down Indigenous heritage into component parts such as 'bark paintings, rock carvings, stone and wooden implements and weapons, or songs, dances and ceremonial performances' (p. 312) and to focus on the preservation of the tangible components in particular, has helped prevent the treatment of Indigenous heritage as a 'whole body of objects, beliefs, knowledge and practices' (p. 312) and led to a continuation of old paradigms that impact current views and legislation on Indigenous issues.

Davis's view, clearly evidenced throughout the volume, is that there is 'no single, homogeneous' European-Australian viewpoint but a diversity of opinions, perceptions and representations of Indigenous heritage, and likewise, that there is 'no unitary, essentialised notion of Indigenous societies' and their heritage (p. 61). It has taken the individuals and institutions studying Indigenous heritage a long time to come to this conclusion and, as Davis indicates, only recently has this perception changed the way in which some researchers approach their work.

Despite his goal to provide a variety of perspectives, and create a more holistic view of Indigenous heritage, the book is shaped by the collectors and investigators selected by the author. All, whether 'professional' or 'amateur', take seriously their efforts at recording 'scientific' information for posterity. The sources tend not to be garden variety diaries and letters, but records of people who are immersed in the 'science' of collecting objects and information, and who are available to us only within the paradigms operating at the time of their work. This means that, to some extent, Davis cannot himself escape the 'component parts' approach to Indigenous heritage that structures his account.

Writing Heritage is divided into three parts. Part one covers the mid-1800s to the 1930s. It picks up on the predominant themes of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which are revisited later in the book: Indigenous cultures as part of natural history, exoticism, the ig/noble savage, degeneration of culture, the encroachment of progress and modern technology and its various effects on 'primitive' cultures, Indigenous art and creativity, establishing authenticity, and the 'urgent' necessity to collect for posterity and science. Part one also signals the start of government interest in Indigenous heritage as a result of the work of 'anthropologists, missionaries and settlers [who] were all instrumental in the formulation and implementation of laws and policies relating to Aborigines' (p. 65), including the establishment of early protection legislation.

In Part one, tjurungas (sacred stone objects) and Indigenous art (among other objects) are a focus. Spencer and Gillen's work on the creative abilities of Indigenous people and their contradictory stance on Indigenous culture being both conservative and innovative aptly demonstrates Davis's view that even those familiar with Indigenous culture couldn't reconcile the paradigms of the day with their experiences of the living culture.

When describing some of the dubious circumstances surrounding the collection of tjurungas Davis claims that Europeans have purposefully separated Indigenous objects from their cultural context, enabling both amateurs and professionals to remove important objects with impunity for analysis and display in museums and elsewhere. He remarks later that over time there has been a slow recognition of Aboriginal people's rights over land and resources that was previously absent, leading to more ethical collection of objects and information.

Part two commences with the 1940s and the scramble by individuals and institutions to collect before it was 'too late'. This section concentrates on the identification, definition and nomenclature of objects and early attempts at the preservation of rock art and other sites of importance through legislation. Davis describes the paternalistic adoption of Indigenous art and artists by some members of the European community and the ensuing anxiety over the recognition of 'authentic' or 'traditional' art, heritage and culture (pp. 166–7). Personalities focused on in this part of the book include artists and art historians Margaret Preston (for a positive edge), Charles Mountford (heavily paternalistic) and the Berndts (who demonstrate new viewpoints).

In the 1940s Arnhem Land became a focus for expeditions collecting and interpreting art and objects in relation to the perceived creative abilities of Indigenous people. Davis focuses on the differences of approach in the work of Charles Mountford, AP Elkin, the Berndts, Norman Tindale, Frank Setzler and Fred McCarthy. He delves into their sometimes idiosyncratic views of the art produced by Aboriginal people as well as the occasional spat between expedition members. Part two ends with a brief coverage of the establishment of the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) in 1964, and efforts to catalogue and preserve historical objects and sites (which continue even now).

The book culminates in Part three, which demonstrates how the views of the past have shaped current European-Australian views of Aboriginal heritage. It forms a succinct summary for the entire volume, and provides an overview of recent developments in legal and academic definitions of Aboriginal heritage, concepts of sacredness and connection to the landscape. I felt that this section was disappointingly short, and it would be interesting to read an expanded version of Part three, concentrating on the larger role that Indigenous communities are beginning to play in museums and the formation of policy and legislation.

Part three concentrates on events and developments from the 1960s onwards, looking in particular at the 1967 referendum as a turning point for Aboriginal rights, and into property rights, legislation, assertion of rights and participation by Aboriginal people in the political process. Davis considers the difficulties of cultural translation, using the examples of the Yolngu and Pitjantjatjara peoples' concepts of property, as well as attempts in the 1980s to legislate protection for Indigenous people and their cultural products including designs, images, secret and sacred objects and sites.

Overall, Davis has interpreted a rather comprehensive historical collection of written European-Australian depictions of Indigenous people and heritage that will provide a useful addition to the bookshelf of anyone interested in the history of Australia.

Sylvia Schaffarczyk works in the Melbourne School of Graduate Research at the University of Melbourne.