Australia’s heritage – The AIATSIS Collections

For the past fifty years Australia has had a national institution dedicated to the role of capturing one of the world’s most significant legacies to the world’s humanity. That is the history, culture, languages, knowledge, songs and dances of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia. Of capturing the past and present of the longest continuous culture in the world we know.

Australia has a rich cultural heritage which embodies tens of thousands of years of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stories, traditional practices and ceremonies, and more recently the impacts of post-colonial settlement. Who we are and where we came from as a nation is captured in the research, video, audio and photographs that form the rich heritage that is the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) Collections. Our sense of identity, of who we are as a nation can only be strengthened by the continued unlocking and use of the collections.

Join Australian icon, Jack Thompson on a behind the scenes tour of AIATSIS in the videos below.

Central to the continued use is the need to urgently preserve items now in dire need of attention before they are lost to the ravages of time. The irony being that when AIATSIS began in 1964, the mission was to rescue knowledge about Australia’s Indigenous cultures before being lost forever. It was thought then, even by the best minds, that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were a ‘primitive’ and dying race.

This has of course proven to be an inaccurate assumption, but nonetheless as a result of this mission, according to a report by Significance International in 2014 we now hold the most extensive and best contextualised collection of Indigenous Australia in the world. The report states AIATSIS is a site of pilgrimage.

Introduction to Tour from AIATSIS on Vimeo.


The value of our research and collections is perhaps most evident in the use of the gathered stories and documentation of early and ongoing colonial interaction. The records of missions and reserves, of early researchers, of government departments and so on have proven immensely helpful to reconnect generations with their culture and families, and assist traditional owners, mining companies and pastoralists, draft and settle native title claims.

Access from AIATSIS on Vimeo.


We hold over 6 million feet of film which if placed end to end would stretch, from the top to the bottom of Australia.

Among the 837 film titles held is original footage recorded by Charles Pearcy Mountford during the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land in 1948.  Self-taught, Mountford became famous for his pioneering work on Indigenous Australians and his depictions and descriptions of their art. This scientific and anthropological expedition was a huge event in its day, sponsored jointly by the Australian Commonwealth, the Smithsonian Institution and the American Geographic Society.

Moving Image from AIATSIS on Vimeo.


The vaults also contain over 40,000 hours of unique audio recordings - which would take one person listening over a working week, 5,472 days or just over 15 years to get through. It includes the recording of senior Aboriginal men from the Milingimbi mission in Arnhem Land - which was selected for the golden record representing human cultural evolution, and launched into the interstellar system with the space probe Voyager 1 in 1977.

Audio from AIATSIS on Vimeo.


We have over 12,800 unpublished manuscripts and record series, including the handwritten field notes, genealogies, letters and drawings gathered by anthropologist Phyllis Kaberry during her work with Aboriginal groups in Australia’s remote Kimberley region in 1933 –35.

We also hold over 120,000 print and published items in a wide variety of formats including 3,000 rare books, such as a copy of James Wallis’ An Historical Account of the Colony of New South Wales and its Dependent Settlements. Published in London in 1821, the work includes the first image of a corroboree. The ‘corroboree’ depicted in the book celebrated the visit of Governor Macquarie to Newcastle in 1818.

Library from AIATSIS on Vimeo.


We have over 653,000 still images, that document the social and cultural diversity of Australia’s Indigenous peoples including an invaluable collection of large format film and glass plate negatives taken by Rev. J. W. Schomberg during his time running St Paul’s Church of England mission at Moa between 1921 and 1936. The images constitute an outstanding pictorial record of the people of Moa and Badu Islands and their activities in the 1920s and 1930s.

Pictorial from AIATSIS on Vimeo.


Taking care of the world’s largest collection of items related to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia has its challenges! It is an ongoing task, dependent on good storage, constant migration of formats and diligent collection management. This is particularly important for film and sound collections where evolving technology has always presented a threat to preservation.

We also preserve a significant collection of historically and culturally important printed material, including newspapers, magazines, letters, journals, and posters. Paper and ink are subject deterioration over time, particularly when exposed to moisture and light. We maintain climate controlled vaults to ensure the longevity of the original materials.

Most people start researching their family with the documents and photographs in their own family collection. Our preservation team has put together a list of handy hints on personal collection care so your family collection can be protected for future generations.

Sourced from the AIATSIS Council Chairperson, Professor Mick Dodson National Press Club Address Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Last reviewed: 11 Sep 2015