Truth-telling, Archives and Human Rights was the topic of the 2019 Geoffrey Bolton Lecture, delivered by Professor Jane Lydon, Wesfarmers Chair in Australian History at the University of Westen Australia, on Monday evening 14 October 2019.
The lecture commenced by a Welcome to Noongar Boodjar delivered by Noongar Elder Mr Nick Abraham. Mr Damian Shepherd, Director State Records and State Archivist, introduced this year's speaker, and Professor Jane Lydon commenced the lecture by talking about her first encounter with Geoffrey Bolton paying tribute to his generosity and lack of pomposity. She also noted his championing of archives as sources for empirical evidence.
Professor Lydon went on to discuss the recent rise in interest in the history of human rights, and she described "the now axiomatic view" that a country buidling its nation and democracy is confronting its difficult past. Truth Commissions, public apologies and monuments are examples of the outcomes of confronting painful history. The integral role of archives in an international human rights framework was described, but she alluded to some of the inadequacies in this framework, especially in instances where human rights abuses have occurred in the private sphere, and the Irish Magdalene laundries and some Australian churches were provided as examples.
The tranformation in meaning of archives through the inclusion of diverse forms of evidence was explored. For example some police records were made to police and manage Aboriginal people, but now their meanings have been radically revised, becoming a precious heritage resource. Western Australian Aboriginal Protector’s files have been mined by Aboriginal researchers for their own purposes and help reveal stories about struggling with state policies, government files also been used as evidence along side photographs, oral testimony, objects and art. Archievs created by Aboriginal people provide another layer of evidence and sometimes challenge the deeply colonial framework of government archives and libraries.
Professor Lydon concluded by referring to the Uluru Statement from the Heart and its call for Truth-telling. She stated that "as George Orwell pointed out in his dystopian novel, archives are the foundation of our public truth, but we should acknowledge that the truth is made in the present, and it changes according to who tells it. Yet unlike in 1984, for us archives are a precious trace not to be destroyed, that can reveal the untruths of Big Brother and the abuse of power in human rights violations. Using the archive ... those pursuing historical justice may give voice to the silenced, and fill the absences and mis-representations that have shaped our past" but that those "telling their stories (should have) acknowledgement and respect, as the basis for a flourishing and just Australian future."