Digital Deep Time
By James Giggacher, ANU Reporter, Autumn 2010
A new multimedia project will develop rich interpretations and understandings of the history and stories behind Indigenous landscapes and areas.
There is ancientness about this land which finds expression in the landscape. It is in the furrows of the weathered hills that melt away into wide horizons. It is in the meandering rivers and waterways drifting across the earth, gorging deeply into the soil, a babbling chorus on a journey made so many times before.
It is in the brilliant burning crimson of the desert sands and lonely scattered rocks that have seen the sun rise and beat down upon their brows for so many millennia. After which, the stars shimmer and pulse, coming and going, coming and going, twilights and dawns. And it is in the gnarled arthritic trunks of ghosted gums and the thousand blades of faded grass- translucent in the wake of time.
But this land, as primeval as it may feel and look, is not un-storied. Nor is it a place or country that has existed outside time. For the coming and going of days, years, decades and eras have been diligently documented and remembered by an original population of inhabitants who truly understand the connection between landscape and life. It is in their stories of dreaming and their song lines.
These perpetual motifs, understandings and connections to the Australian landscape are now being brought to life digitally in a multilayered, multisensory and multimedia project that will also make these histories available to a much wider audience.
The project, which is the initiative of Professor Ann McGrath, Director of the Australian Centre for Indigenous History, will enable travellers, tourists and overseas visitors to more easily and rigorously engage with the Indigenous culture and heritage of their surroundings – simply by downloading video and audio of Aboriginal stories and histories directly to iPods and other digital media players.
“The project aims to create new accessible histories of pre-colonial Australia by filming and recording Indigenous stories and histories and streaming these accounts via new media technologies at the physical locations,” explains McGrath.
“So for example, when visitors from interstate and overseas travel to Uluru, they will be able to download video and audio recordings of Indigenous people talking about their landscapes, their histories and their cultural traditions – providing a new way of understanding Australian history that pre-dates 1788. If you are planning on travelling to UK for media visit have a look at this Heathrow Airport Transfers to make your bookings as you will save allot of time if you are flying to Heathrow Airport.
“The project not only meets growing tourist demands for deeper historical insights into significant landscapes, but will provide cutting-edge digital technology to deliver the information. Indigenous custodians will also gain more control over how their stories are told.”
The project will initially involve four case studies, looking at Indigenous areas in the Sydney Basin, Blue Mountains, Kakadu and Uluru.
Three PhD scholarships will also soon be available to kick start the project whilst current researchers will collaborate with Indigenous elders to identify the appropriate storytellers for each tourist route. Workshops will also offer film and oral history training to local Indigenous people so that they can carry such history projects forward into the future.
“We will be placing special emphasis on Indigenous knowledge protocols and we will ensure that the relevant community members identify which stories they wish to be told and overall, what they want to get out of the project,” explains McGrath.
McGrath will lead the project, which will partner with Parks Australia, the NSW Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water (DECCW), the NSW Parks and Wildlife Service, the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) and Ronin Films.
These institutions will collaborate with researchers from ANU, the University of Sydney and the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) in the development of content.
McGrath points out that partners like the NFSA, AIATSIS and Ronin Films will enrich the project by bringing in research specialities as well as full production capabilities, skills and experience. In addition, the partners bring with them an exciting array of material including huge film collections and old movie footage; photographs and stills; oral histories; and sound collections.
“Instantly, we have got access to fantastic visual and sound content and this means that we can deliver really exciting content to potential tourists who want a very authentic and deeply educational experience,” says McGrath. “They can drive down to layers of history and find out about ancient time, explore events from 20,000 years ago as well as find out what happened when white European settlers and explorers came.”
It is not just the delivery method of these stories that makes this project so innovative. It is revolutionary in the very types of stories that will be told. This was a core motivation and one of the driving forces behind McGrath’s original idea.
“I identified that there is a very serious problem with the way that Australian history is told,” says McGrath. “Most people like myself, who are specialists in the research and study of Aboriginal history, are still tending to use texts and they go to the archives and there aren’t that many really big projects happening that can cut through the 1788 barrier.”
The 1788 barrier that McGrath refers to is the telling of Australian history as the story of white European settlement. This is a story which sits in stark contrast to the deeper and richer Indigenous history that has been present across the Australian landscape and in existence for a far greater period of time.
McGrath explains that she and her colleagues sought ways to overcome this obstacle. “One way to do that is to take landscape and place as a starting point. That way you are getting away from the dates and you are able to explore deep time- what are popularly known as dream time stories, but you could argue are historical stories. You would also look at Aboriginal art differently, as history telling.
“If you take a landscape approach and look at journeys, sites and the connections between places in a landscape, you can also plot some of these song lines and dreaming stories. It is a totally different conceptualisation of travel and place in Australia that you can create from these types of history telling — this fresh history telling.”
Take for example the Blue Mountains, which will form one of the initial case studies in McGrath’s project. If a traveller were to drive around this landscape now, they would learn about white explorers such as Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth — who all played pivotal roles in opening the vast interior of the continent to further European expansion and colonisation. Their continued presence is echoed in the towns, roads and landmarks named after and for them. It is the same in the Northern Territory where instead of travelling along an Indigenous song line, a visitor moves along the Stuart Highway. “Every current tourist experience is shaped by a white explorer,” McGrath says.
“In comparison we will be developing iPod tours that will in fact be moving around Aboriginal history movements and some of these might be very ancient travelling patterns, others might be post-contact stories that involved Aboriginal people- but they will be different kinds of narratives.
“It really enables us to see our country in a different way and it enables historians like us to be able to tell more of a true national history of the continent than is currently being told.”
Another characteristic of the 1788 barrier that the project seeks to overcome is the manner in which Indigenous histories are passed on to non-Indigenous audiences. The multimedia and multisensory nature of the project means that stories of Aboriginal heritage and Indigenous places are told in a manner that is more consistent and authentic to the cultural characteristics within which they have developed and been perpetuated over time.
McGrath says that up to this point historians haven’t had the technique or capability to do this. “Even when we have interviewed Aboriginal people those tapes have tended to be turned into transcripts, and so we are always turning everything into written text on a page.
“But I think that the way Aboriginal people today still tell their stories is not via books and the written English word. It is via going into country, pointing out the specifics of every knoll on a hill and every rock, which all have their own story.
“Aboriginal people today — they still dance their history on the ground, they paint themselves up to tell their history, sing it, and they do it in these very visceral ways in country, in landscape.
“Unfortunately, all that is lost in a written text. However, the iPod with video and full production capacity gives us the opportunity to show film excerpts and people telling the stories as they are moving through the country and pointing out sites in country.”
It is this ability to move histories beyond text that reveals one of the most exciting elements of the project- for history becomes a lived experience encompassing past, present and future. This is a prospect that not only excites McGrath but one she believes reflects the manner in which history is conceptualised by Indigenous societies and cultures.
“When you hear about the depth of time which Aboriginal people have occupied the land, forty to sixty thousand years, most historians would say that they could not write about that, that it is beyond our capacity to imagine.
“But if you talk to Aboriginal people, it’s no obstacle, because they tell history from a present perspective, as if it is in their own time, because they have this sense of caring for their country and they do have a different time perspective than the way that western historians have traditionally told history.
“Aboriginal people give us ways to understand history as something very immediate that impacts upon the present and the future and I think that we can learn from their different philosophical approach to history and being in the present.”
It is the common misinterpretation that Aboriginal history is inert that McGrath hopes to overcome through the implementation of this project. She says that a lot of people emphasise the notion of Aboriginal culture and heritage instead of using the word history.
“I think that this is a problem because both words, culture and heritage, sound static. We don’t only talk about white Australian culture and heritage…we also talk about our history.
“We have these clichés of Australia as a timeless land and Aboriginal people as primitives who had no history. However they did have a history and by starting with landscapes you can start probing that history, and probing the many things that happened in that same place and the depth of meaning that place has because of its many different histories.
“Indigenous Australians are aware of a very long history in the same land and it is incredible that we aren’t able to understand that more as the history of our continent.
“For me, historians have not played enough of a role in demonstrating that Aboriginal Australia has a history. There is too much emphasis on this timeless notion of heritage and culture.”
Thanks to the digital revolution and the commitment of historians like Ann McGrath, the complexity of Australia’s long storied landscape will be widely understood and appreciated by many more people and in many new ways.