We called out to creative practitioners, from artists to curators and producers and collection managers who identify as POC to get their personal experience of practice, what they’re hoping for and how they tackle the (sometimes) contestation of their identity and their work.
We had a chat to curator Garth O’Connell to find out more about his personal experience as a curator of colour.
Please note: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this blogpost contains images and names of deceased persons in photographs and text.
KultureKid: Thanks for your time Garth! To start, could you please tell us a bit about yourself and your background?
Garth: Yamaa! I’m a proud bi-cultural Curator here at the Australian War Memorial – my father’s family are descended from the Kamilaroi (often spelt Gamilaraay or Gomeroi) Nation – traditional owners of a large part of North-West NSW/South West Queensland) and my Mum’s family are ‘black Irish’ from Ireland (with a touch of Spanish) and they’ve been here in Australia from the mid 1820’s. . . disappointingly I don’t have any ‘Australian Royalty’ aka convict roots in my family tree here.
KultureKid: What made you decide to serve in the Army?
Garth: On my mother’s side I’ve got a long tradition of serving in the Army, the longest confirmed military connection we have in Australia is the first Anglo ancestor of mine to arrive here did so on a 40 acre land grant that was given to him for serving in the British Army at Waterloo. Pretty interesting when you think about it, he was a dispossessed Irishman serving in the British Army – having survived a huge battle to help end the career of a European dictator in Napoleon, who then is given what is effectively stolen land from another disposed people to start a new life on the other side of the globe. The house still stands today, it’s known as “Hannan House” in Maitland NSW.
For me I’ve got a direct fourth generation of military service with a pair of great-grandfathers fighting at Gallipoli and the Western Front in the First World War, my grandfather was a ‘Rat of Tobruk’ and his daughter (my Mum) was a pay clerk attached to the US Army in West Germany during the Cold War.
My late grandfather had a photograph taken in a front-line trench by the renowned Australian photographer/explorer Frank Hurley (above) and some footage taken of him by Damien Parer. The photograph was published many times in newspapers and in books during and after the war, we in fact have the original at the Memorial. He was the most famous relative I knew and all the stories passed down to me about him were that he was a young teenage baker who joined the Army. He walked into the GPO in Martin Place Sydney and signed up. After a few months of surviving the siege he was badly wounded and evacuated by ship from behind enemy lines. He didn’t enjoy his time in the Army after that trauma. His widowed mother (who lost both of her brothers in the First World War and who lost her husband in 1932 to war related injuries) did her best to protect him and he thankfully didn’t see fighting later in the war. He started by the end of the war and from yarns in my family he was a very quiet and caring father to 5 young kids, he worked long hours as a baker and followed the St George Rugby League Club. Sadly I never met him as he died before I was born, but seeing his picture in many war history books growing up he became my hero. He’s in the collection along with his two Uncles who were killed in the first world war and his younger brother who was also badly wounded but during the Korean War.
KultureKid: What and why did you decide to study at university?
Garth: I have always wanted to work at the Australian War Memorial so when I was in Year 10 High School in South West Sydney (St John’s Park High) I asked my careers advisor Mr Bob Hollywood (that’s his real name) about how I could get a job here. He made some calls and told me that I’d have to go to University and that the two best options for a Curator were at the University of Sydney (it had a heavy Art Curator angle) or a new course at the University of Canberra (Batchelor of Applied Science in Cultural Heritage Management) which looked on paper to be more appropriate for me and was in a location close to where I wanted to eventually work . . .so it won. Mr Hollywood also said that being in Canberra would be good because I could maybe do some work experience there, he was right! I volunteered at the Memorial during University and it helped me when I graduated as they knew who I was and how keen I was to work there 🙂 That was about 17 years ago now!
KultureKid: What are some of the challenges (if there are any) that you think face POC who want to get involved as GLAM Practitioners? Are there any specific ones that face Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people?
Garth: Getting a good start and support network is the hardest challenge I believe for us coloured mob who want to get into and thrive in the GLAM game. For every one of us practitioners with a career there would surely be many others who because of a lack of a decent start and support network within their industry, faltered or lost the heart to continue on.
KultureKid: How do you think your personal cultural background informs your curatorial practice?
Garth: Yes I am very proud and lucky (!) to have been blessed with a bi-cultural upbringing and my exposure to growing up and living in some of the most diverse parts of modern Australian society (Redfern, Cabramatta/Fairfield area of Sydney) has all helped inform my curatorial practices. My best friend since I was 11 is a Eurasian Singaporean, with the remaining six first generation Aussies in our ‘Lucky 7’ group of mates being of Philipino (x2), Scottish, Laotian and Armenian backgrounds. We all still keep in touch and regularly still socialise.
My time in the Army has also helped me understand the ‘ins and outs’ of the military culture so combined with my cross cultural background it has given me definite advantages and insights that some of my non-Indigenous or military colleagues have had. In a way I am conversant daily here at the Memorial in four languages, Aboriginal, Non-Aboriginal, Military and Museum.
KultureKid: What do you think has been your defining moment as a curator of colour? As an advocate for representation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples?
Garth: My defining moment for me (so far) as a Curator of Colour has been as part of the multicultural curatorial team that recently collaborated on the ground-breaking exhibition For Country For Nation at the Australian War Memorial. The exhibition has made me personally and professionally proud of my colleagues and management at the Memorial. It has helped ‘right a few wrongs’ in the narrative and national memory of our Nation’s military history. . .namely the passing over (I’m not going to use the grossly overused term ‘forget’) of the contribution of Aboriginal, Torres Strait and South Pacific Islanders who served with or directly supported the Australian military since Colonial times.
Kulture Kids, if you’re in Canberra or planning to visit, For Country For Nation is on display now at the Australian War Memorial until 20 September 2017
KultureKid: Where and how do you hope to see POC as GLAM practitioners (particularly within social history museums) in the Australia in the future?
Garth: I think it’s very positive future here. With our Nation becoming more culturally diverse that means many more Aussies with a ‘coloured’ background so we’ll hopefully see more of us mob in all areas and roles within the diverse GLAM industry. . .from the top strategic areas of management, policy development and on the ‘front line’ of program delivery, Curatorial work and so forth.
KultureKid: If you had advice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who are considering a career in GLAM what would it be?
Garth: I’d have to say if I had a young Aboriginal or Torres Strait person asking me about a career in GLAM I’d be strongly encouraging them to find a good Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander mentor in their respective place of intended work and learn all they can from them. To make the time to have regular yarn sessions with their mentors as I know from personal experience that it can get pretty lonely ‘out there’ in the industry. Sadly in 2017 it’s a reality that not every gallery, museum, library or archive will have an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander mentor/role model for them to learn from. I’ve had in my time several adopted non-Indigenous Aunties and Uncles within my career at the Memorial. Not all of them had extensive life experiences, relationships or time with us mob but they had the right attitude and personalities to have us both learn from one another and grow together. I have mourned their passing like I would a blood or kinship relative in my family and I often think of them when times get tough in my job or in my life outside of work.
KultureKid: For many POC, having allies in and outside of their organisation (no matter what type of work) is important. Do you have any advice for people who would like to be allies to their colleagues of colour in the GLAM industry?
Garth: This is a good question Vick. It’s so important to foster and develop meaningful relationships with our colleagues and management within the GLAM industry who are not POC. It’s critical to not alienate your non-POC colleagues and allies.
KultureKid: Any last comments?
Garth: Thank you for this opportunity and please keep up your great work. You’re an awesome role model for POC wanting to get a start in the GLAM industry and I sincerely appreciate you and all that you’ve done (so far!) here.
Yaluu! (seeya later! In Gamilaraay)
KultureKid: Garth O’Connell, thank you very much for sharing your experience and insights into your work.