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Dreamings, Songlines and the “Cult of Heritage”: Tourism Development and Aboriginal Culture in Broome, Western Australia

Final Report Summary - THE CULT OF HERITAGE (Dreamings, Songlines and the “Cult of Heritage”: Tourism Development and Aboriginal Culture in Broome, Western Australia)

The central research question of this project was how the production and consumption of tourism experiences appropriate the space and transforms the landscape and culture of Aboriginal Australia. The primary research sites were the town of Broome and the Lurujarri Heritage Trail in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. The trail is a unique tourist experience organised annually by the local Goolarabooloo community. It follows an Aboriginal song cycle along the Indian Ocean coast.

By taking a ‘grassroots’ perspective the focus of the project was on people as key players in the field of tourism and social policy. The landscape, its narrations and imaginaries were compared with what people on different ends – government officials, social and economic entrepreneurs, minority representatives, tourists – have to say about their rediscovery and development. At the heart of this was the assessment of tourism’s professed ecological and socio-cultural values with regards to empowerment and involvement in decision-making processes and also in opposition to other values, notably those of the resource industry.

Fundamental to the work performed in this project were the combination of ethnographic methods and fieldwork experience with scientific debate. Interdisciplinary approaches were combined through the use of ethnographic practice as a theory-generating methodology. Ethnography was defined here as the critical engagement with real-world problems under consideration of a multitude of ontologies and the lived experience of cultural diversity.

The project began in October 2011 when the fellow Dr Carsten Wergin arrived at his host institution, the Social Policy Research Centre (SPRC) at The University of New South Wales (UNSW), Sydney. The fellow joined regular staff meetings and became a member of the Indigenous Research Group at SPRC. Further hands-on support and knowledge transfer came from the Nura Gili Indigenous Studies Program at UNSW. This also provided valuable guidelines in regards to questions of research ethics and project implementation. The fellow gained a strong understanding of related issues that resulted in the publication of “An Alternative Indigenous Research Strategy” in the internationally distributed SPRC Newsletter (1).

In February 2012, fellow and Scientist in Charge Prof Stephen Muecke organized the very successful conference ‘Songlines vs. Pipelines? Mining and Tourism Industries in Remote Australia’. Seminar outcomes were published in a Special Issue of the international peer-reviewed journal Australian Humanities Review (2). A further opportunity to engage with the academic community in Australia was the fellow’s participation in the annual conference of the Cultural Studies Association of Australasia (CSAA) in December 2012, for which he organized the panel ‘Materialities of Tourism’, again in collaboration with Prof Muecke. Individual contributions were turned into articles and published in the international peer-reviewed journal Tourist Studies (3).

The fieldwork period in Broome began in March 2012. The fellow first gained a substantial overview of ho(s)tels, tourist agencies, local government bodies, NGOs, and other cultural actors in the tourism sector. The next achievement was the successful participation in the Lurujarri Heritage Trail. It took place at the end of July 2012 when the fellow was one of 70 selected participants on the nine-day walk, guided by indigenous elders, 80km along the Indian Ocean coast. In the course of his fieldwork, the fellow conducted 23 qualitative interviews with an average length between 1.5 and 4 hours. Findings were supported by extensive participant observation, further informal conversations, and other events such as the fellow’s participation in two international conferences held in Broome, one on eco and cultural tourism, the other entitled “Owning the Future” and organized by the Broome Chamber of Commerce. All the above has been documented in more than 600 pages of field notes.

The resulting research analysis contextualizes those findings as competing value systems played out in a timely conflict that unfolded during the fieldwork period: The local community in Broome saw itself challenged by the proposal of a multi-billion dollar industrial development: The construction of a $ 45 Billion AUD Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) facility at the coastal site of James Price Point (4), close to the Aboriginal site Walmadany which is central to the Lurujarri Heritage Trail (5).

The impact of the proposal on local culture and tourism significantly diversified the research agenda. Among others, it added struggles within the local community, immanent risks to the landscape and environment (a central tourist attraction), as well as active participation of the fellow in the documentation of dinosaur trackways and sacred sites that add to the cultural significance of the region. The resulting ethnographic documentation of competing value systems, between resource extraction economies on the one hand, and Aboriginal heritage, sustainable tourism and environmental protection on the other, adds a timely dimension to the research findings.

Originality and innovation stem from the bringing-together of discourses on the preservation of material and immaterial heritage with changing perceptions of the environment, triggered by the proposal of large-scale resource exploitation. Through praxis-oriented research, the project shows the extent in which development policies that first appear on a macro-level, on political agendas and institutionalised strategies, come to play fundamental roles within the lifeworlds of individuals. Furthermore, the project accounts for a concrete place where the search for alternative ways in which to value and nurture Aboriginal heritage has already begun; ways that are informed by longstanding indigenous knowledge and value systems, and their means to do and think differently about the environment. If the anthropocene teaches us ‘how to die’ (New York Times, Nov 2013) (6), such heritage preservation and indigenous knowledge can teach us about how it might be otherwise.

Alternate configurations of political subjectivities generated from collaborations between indigenous and non-indigenous residents to the area, but also international travellers and tourists, environmental activists, politicians, NGOs and media representatives. These configurations were not implemented from above but derived from below. In light of this, the ethnographic project has provided a unique opportunity to document how heritage preservation, reconciliation and sustainable development might be conceived of differently, namely as ecological projects of biocultural hope that take indigenous knowledge seriously.

The project has generated foundational, comparative outputs from the perspective of the ‘global south’ – a significant counterpoint to Eurocentric and ‘economy’-centric perceptions of the world. In terms of future impact, the project also generated strong links between leading institutions in the domains of material culture and heritage, transcultural studies and environmental humanities research in Europe and Australia. Partners include the University of NSW, the University of WA, and Nyamba Buru Yawuru (Registered Native Title Body Corporate) in Broome.

An interdisciplinary group of researchers has formed and continues to work collaboratively at the crossroads of colonial history, archaeology, anthropology, environmental studies, energy politics, cultural and minority studies. The fellow is the partner investigator of Prof Stephen Muecke in the project ‘Goolarabooloo Culture of the Western Kimberley’, funded by an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Grant (funding volume $264,511 AUD) (7). He has also become member of the Max Planck Fellow Group ‘Connectivity in Motion’ at the Max-Planck-Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle (Saale), Germany. The SPRC (UNSW) has recently extended the title of Senior Visiting Fellow to Dr Wergin. Finally, in October 2014, the fellow has taken up a new position as leader of the research group “Transcultural Heritage of Northwest Australia: Dynamics and Resistances” at Heidelberg University, Germany (8). The group is made up of two PhD candidates who work under the supervision of the fellow. It is financed within the German Excellence Initiative and builds on the findings that stem from this Marie Curie funded project.

Contact Details

Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg
Faculty of Philosophy
Institute for Social and Cultural Anthropology
Reichardtstraße 11
06114 Halle (Saale), Germany

Project Leader:

Professor Burkhard Schnepel
Phone: +49 (0)345 55-24202

Scientists in Charge at the Host Institution:

Professor Stephen Muecke
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
The University of New South Wales
Sydney, NSW 2052, Australia


Dr Carsten Wergin
Transcultural Studies
Ruprecht-Karls-University Heidelberg
Marstallstraße 6
69117 Heidelberg, Germany