Indigenous cultural heritage is the legacy of tangible physical artefacts and intangible aspects of a group or society. These are inherited from past generations, maintained in the present and bestowed for the benefit of future generations.
Aboriginal peoples’ cultural practices and works including art, designs and objects are often deeply linked to Country, steeped in familial, historical and spiritual stories, and may contain knowledges pertinent only to the creator and their community. Indigenous designs and other cultural works should always be viewed in the context of the Country where they were created and the stories relating to them.
Objects, artefacts, buildings, places and monuments are known as tangible cultural heritage. Tangible cultural heritage has a physical presence.
Historically, Aboriginal peoples’ tangible heritage has not always been treated as respectfully as we aim to do today. Some cultural works were taken or borrowed indefinitely, others insufficiently paid for, and some stolen as a result of colonial processes. As a result, in museum and gallery collections, at times the artist or creator of the work is unrecorded. Instead, the person who collected it from the maker has their name recorded.
When removed from their context important information can be detached from the work or object. This is known as intangible heritage. Intangible cultural heritage are the traditions and living expressions inherited from ancestors and passed on to descendants. Intangible heritage includes cultural practices, oral traditions and language, skills, techniques and knowledges including dance, stories, crafts, medicines, designs and even digital heritage. Intangible cultural heritage is commonly defined as not having a physical presence. Removing this important information can be disrespectful to the people to whom the object belongs.
It is important to understand and show respect for both tangible and intangible elements in relation to Indigenous culture, as without the cultural heritage the works do not often have the same meaning.
Recording and acknowledging the ownership of any aspects of tangible and intangible Indigenous cultural heritage is important. Gaining consent from those who own that heritage ensures that the exchange of information between you and Indigenous peoples is demonstrable and transparent. It helps to ensure that the context, purpose or intent of Indigenous peoples’ cultural heritage is preserved, appropriately represented and authentically presented. This also ensures your work properly accounts for content which may impact Indigenous peoples’ rights to manage, control and transmit their cultural heritage.