Creating a process for cultural permissions


An initiative to make State Library Victoria’s (SLV) photographic collection more accessible via digitisation made 1000+ heritage photos of Aboriginal people available on the online catalogue. Many of these photos were taken at mission stations around the mid-1850s and up to their closure in the early 1900s. A Victorian Aboriginal woman came across her photo and was distressed that she hadn’t been consulted about it being made publicly available.

Following the incident, SLV realised that they needed to build their capacity to meet the requirements of Aboriginal people whose ancestral material is held in the library’s heritage collections. The Koori Librarian developed the Cultural Permission Program (CPP), guided by recommendations in the ATSILIRN protocols, the Bringing Them Home report (1997), the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody (1987-91) and, the UN declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples (2007).

The CPP is founded on two key Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property (ICIP) principles: free, prior and informed consent and self-determination. Both of these rights have been identified as core elements that support a strong and confident Aboriginal community voice in cross cultural communications.



The CPP process is triggered when a request is made to use Aboriginal material in the library’s collection, such as ordering a copy of a photo or requesting permission to use material in a book, documentary, artwork, exhibition, etc.

Collections staff advise the requester that the item/s will have to go through a cultural permission process and ask for further context about the intended use. This information is then compiled into a CPP form which is forwarded to the Koori Librarian.

The Koori Librarian contacts the descendant/descendant group/native title corporation and passes on the relevant information so that they can decide whether to approve the use or not. They also have an opportunity to negotiate an agreement with the requester, e.g. payment for commercial use, or attribution.



The CPP makes the community aware of who is writing about them and what they are saying, and of their culturally relevant material in the library’s collection. It ensures that the appropriate Aboriginal people have authority over the use of this material, and provides a way for the descendant/group to negotiate for a credit or to prevent misinformation or, where the use is for commercial outcomes, for some form of payment. The descendant/group can refuse a request if they determine that the use is discriminatory or offensive, or where an agreement cannot be reached.

Example 1: The academic’s book

An academic applied to use a large number of images from a particular clan group in a new edition of a book he’d published 20 years earlier.

When the clan group was contacted, the Elder said that he couldn’t give permission for the photos to be used because the information in the book was out of date as the native title process had produced a whole lot of new information through their research.

A number of negotiations ensued over the next two years, with neither party willing to move on their position. In the end, the academic did rewrite his book and was actually a lot happier than he would have been if he’d just republished what he’d done before. He acknowledged the Elder in the new edition and thanked him for his advice.

Example 2: The musician and the letters

The Cultural Permission Program was initially set up mainly to negotiate with academics who wanted to use images in their published works. But then we also started receiving requests from Aboriginal people – mainly artists – who were not from the language group or the clan group that the material they wanted to use belonged to.

In this case, collections staff had found a couple of letters in the manuscript collection of a squatter family. The letters were written in the mid-1800s by an Aboriginal man who was living on Lake Condah Mission. The man wanted to go back to his own Country and had written to the squatter who’d taken over his clan’s land. We don’t know whether the squatter replied but we do know that the man didn’t get his wish as he is buried at Lake Condah.

To try to work out how best to manage a document like this, we talked with all kinds of people in the community. In doing so, the letter caught the eye of an Aboriginal musician from South Australia who really felt connected to the letter writer and his predicament, and he wanted to bring that man’s voice out so the public could hear what it was like for people at that time.

The musician travelled to attend the native title corporation’s full group meeting and to talk about how he wanted to use the letter in a performance. They had a long discussion and everyone was very happy for him to use the letters in that way because they trusted him to do the right thing with their material.

The musician put on a very successful show at Melbourne Town Hall as part of the 2014 Indigenous Arts Festival. The community is now building their keeping place and they want him to perform at its opening celebration.


Lessons learnt

The whole process of cultural permission requests requires people to actually talk to each other and discuss the issues around the request. Sometimes talking actually provides the opportunity for non-Aboriginal people to grasp the nuances of Aboriginal culture that’s rarely available through a written document or an academic study.

The actual face-to-face, or mouth-to-mouth if like, connection is invaluable, and sometimes it’s the only way to really understand the issues that you’re dealing with when it comes to Aboriginal people applying their cultural practice in a situation.

These kinds of processes may seem tedious and time wasting but they actually require us to view time differently because the outcome is worth the process.Relevant ATSILIRN Protocols

Protocol 2: Content and perspectives

Protocol 3: Intellectual property

Protocol 12: The digital environment