Creating Memory in Place through Community


Curating a community is not a passive activity.  It takes conscious effort, care, and a respect for the people that you are embracing in this community. 

But when you're bringing together a community with no traditional “place”, how can you engage with a place temporarily and make it your own?

This is exactly the work that today’s guest, Imelda Miller, does in her role as the Curator of First Nations Cultures at Queensland Museum Kurilpa. 

 A third generation Vanuatu woman, Imelda is a proud South Sea Islander and responsible for bringing together communities of origin through her work with the museum.  Working with material culture an archival collections, Imelda’s collaboration, and curatorial approach, combines cultural practice, community engagement and community led research and development into her projects.

Hosting exhibitions, running workshops and leading teams in these activities, Imelda is consciously curating places for communities to come together to share their stories and create new ones.

Today’s conversation is one of possibility and Imelda shares so many of her secrets in how she fosters this sense of community, to establish belonging, a sense of connection and storytelling that can be directly applied back to our building our own communities in our workplaces.

In today’s conversation Imelda shares with us;

  • How she uses place to create community, even when there is no ownership or relationship to place
  • How objects enable people to connect, share stories and develop memory in place
  • The fundamentals of curating a community atmosphere
  • The healing power that connection and community can create


Throughout this conversation, I heard direct correlations to how I think about fostering community in our workplaces and the role that place plays.  Establishing connection, creating belonging, and sharing stories, by communicating social contracts and norms and engaging in routine and ritual.

Imelda is a warm-hearted woman with much wisdom to share on how we can take even a little bit of this approach back to our workplaces.

Mel x


TRANSCRIPT - Creating Memory in Place through Community

Mel: [00:00:00] Curating a community is not a passive activity. It takes conscious effort, care, and a respect for the people that you are embracing into this community. But when you are bringing together a community with no traditional place, how can you engage with a place temporarily? And make it your own. This is exactly the work that today's guest Imelda Miller does in her role as the curator of first nations cultures at Queensland museum, Kirilpa.

Mel: A third generation Vanuatu woman, Imelda is a proud South sea Islander. and responsible for bringing together communities of origin through her work with the museum. Working with material culture and archival collections, Imelda's collaboration and curatorial approach combines cultural practice, community engagement, and community led research and development into her projects.

Mel: Hosting exhibitions, running workshops, and leading teams in these activities, Imelda is consciously curating places for communities to come together, to share their stories, And to create new ones.

Mel: In today's conversation, Imelda shares with us how she uses place to create community, even when there is no ownership or relationship to place. How objects enable people to connect, to share stories and develop memory in [00:02:00] place. The fundamentals of curating a community atmosphere and the healing power that connection and community can create.

Mel: Throughout this conversation I heard direct correlations to how I think about fostering community in our workplace and the role that place plays. Establishing connection, creating belonging and sharing stories by communicating social contracts and norms and engaging in routine and ritual. Imelda Is a warm hearted woman with much wisdom to share on how we can Mel: And the good news is that I will be there with you step by step over the six weeks guiding you through it. So that you don't need to do this alone, because no doubt, this is something that you feel might be completely overwhelming, totally outside your comfort zone, a huge responsibility to bring this to life.


Mel: Now, Imelda, you have a really fascinating line of work. I'd love to know what inspired you to do what you do and How you got to explore in this particular career path.

Imelda: Yeah, thanks Mel. Thanks for having me. Yeah, how did I get here? That's a good question. I really started out working in the museum to do school tours to earn extra money while going through university, you know, just that usual kind of story. and I really enjoyed talking to people and that sense of, sharing knowledge with one another.

Imelda: and I grew to love what, the museum as an entity. So I'm learning to use the collections, learning more about the science behind them. And so I then just decided to get more curious about my own heritage. So, I'm a third generation Australian South Sea Islander, and my family's originally from South Sea Island.

Imelda: And so I realized that there were collections or objects here held in the museum's collections that were [00:08:00] from similar islands to where my family was originally from. So I really got more curious about these objects and how objects tell stories and tell people stories. And I really wanted to connect these objects with my own community and look at how these objects tell our stories so I became curious so I started to just create projects of my own and to work out different ways of sharing knowledge about the objects, about our community and how all of this can work together.

Imelda: So yeah.

Mel: How interesting. And, just from taking that initial job to earn a little bit of extra pocket money, you kind of have developed a complete career out of it by approaching it with curiosity, exploring your own heritage and look where it's led you.

Imelda: it's a privilege what I get to do and I love sharing that with the community.

Mel: Wonderful. Now you use the role of place in creating community in the work that you do. Can you tell us a little bit how you've gone about that?

Imelda: these buildings or these major, you know, these big collecting institutions they're made during colonial time so they're made, you know. Not necessarily for us, but they're more about us. and I thought, when I first started here, you know, none of these collections talk about the people, they talk about the collectors.

Imelda: So, I thought, how can I centre people stories or community stories in these spaces? And so, I've gone about looking at renaming collections, creating new ways of looking at collections, and using these spaces to bring people into, but seeing what their needs are, and how people, connect to the objects, and how. The stories that people were telling and how they connected to the objects were not what I was seeing in the database. So really, my work has been around looking at people's [00:10:00]needs, looking at the platform here at the museum, and how can we use this to tell our community stories so that these stories aren't no longer um, Just about us, but they're for us and by us.

Imelda: so working really hard within that cultural context. So the things that I know about how we share information with one another and bringing that into the workplace. So, there's lots of different aspects to that, and I'm sure you and I could talk about it all day long but I think for me, things like making sure there's people here that look like the community,

Imelda: So there's that, that connection to people, and I think knowing how people Like to be treated in these spaces, so bringing that cultural knowledge of, acknowledging elders, acknowledging traditional owners, making sure we're taking care of community business before we take care of our business here.

Imelda: So, always put in community first, that's how I sort of try to create these spaces. And really, I feel like we build these spaces together, it's not just me doing it on my own, we create it together and when we come together we create a space and a place that's for us, yeah.

Mel: Lovely. And in terms of the stories that you're telling, because the objects that you are utilizing to tell these stories, they're not traditionally from Australia, are they? They've come from your home South Sea Islander lands. Can you tell us a little bit more about the stories that we're trying to tell here and how they've come to be here?

Mel: Sure.

Imelda: Yes, so, the stories that we're trying to tell here at the museum are connected to Queensland communities, and in particular with the work that I do around Australian South Sea Islander heritage is around telling the story about South Sea Islander identity in the past and the present. So our past, our story, [00:12:00] our South Sea Islander story is connected to South Sea Islanders who were brought over here or transported here or black baited here to work in the establishment of the Australian sugar industry.

Imelda: So between 1863 and 1904, there were over 60, 000 Islanders. Over a 40 year period who were brought from the islands to Australia to work in the sugar industry. So, they were doing, you know, hard labour, there was men, women and children they come from, what I describe as tropical islands a beautiful life.

Imelda: And then they come to Australia where they're subjected to, a new place, a new way of living clothes, diseases and so they need to try, to work in the Australian sugar industry. And I think the early stages of this period is what we call blackbirding. And blackbirding is the use of coercion or trickery where people were tricked onto coming onto these labour trade vessels there's horrific stories from the community where people were thrown into the hulls of ships and brought over here to they were literally stolen. And you hear many stories about people's ancestors being stolen from the islands to come here to Australia.

Mel: And so what you're doing is supporting the telling of these stories from a different perspective, from your own perspective, as opposed to the stories that have been told for you. And the way that you're doing that is from using these objects. And so I'm curious to understand how is the objects within your collections used to tell these stories and to share these stories?

Mel: And what is that doing to help develop this memory of place in the way that you guys are bringing that community aspect together?

Imelda: museum's been collected for like over 160 years. So, is a lot of stories held in these objects. And objects they're made for a certain particular purpose, and then when they come into museums, their [00:14:00] purpose change, and I believe they change until they're connected again with community.

Imelda: Perhaps I can tell you a little bit about what kind of objects that we have, you know, we have things from weaponry, so we have clubs, and we have bows and arrows, and shields that are intricately with, organic materials with these, beautiful patterns on it and we have axes with inlaid shell, and some of my favourites, which are these beautiful fish hooks that are made from shell, and they've got turtle shell on them as well, and then they have a little lure, I suppose, on the back of them that has made a trade bead.

Imelda: So if you can imagine something about this big and then they've got these beautiful little trade beads on it. And people have made these things that they're artists, they're crafts people, uh, making these beautiful items.

Imelda: And yet. Museums lose stories because they only collect part of those stories, and I suppose by bringing community into these spaces, we're not trying to rewrite history, all we're trying to do is add our history and our stories and to reconnect with them. And that, I believe that objects Not only do they come to life, but they can have many lives as well.

Imelda: And so how we connect with them now in the present is different to maybe what they were set out to do in the past. And they act as little triggers for memories. And I think sometimes we Don't have triggers around for us to actually help us to recall memory. And so, these items really help with, I think, when I have community in a space with objects.

Imelda: It helps the older people. People in the community to connect to the younger generation. Because I think it's a bit of an even playing field, but it gives, it gives everybody something to talk about.

Mel: Yeah. And they're beautiful symbols of your culture and what is, uh, significant and has been important [00:16:00] to generations before you. And then to be able to share that and sort of transfer that down over the generations to come as well.

Imelda: Yeah, and I think there's a story of loss as well. And so, some of this information hasn't been shared down through the generation for many reasons maybe people came here, they were so young, that they hadn't been taught some of these processes.

Imelda: therefore, some of that information hasn't been passed on. The other reason is, when our ancestors stayed here, after deportation which occurred after the White Australia Policy came into place, and they ordered the deportation of South Islanders back to their home islands. The people who remained here, some of the elders, they just believed, or the old people, they believed that we were never going to go home again.

Imelda: So we had no need to remember language, didn't need to learn all these things because this was our, now our new home and so we needed to fit in here. there has been a silence in our community and that's, I suppose, where the collections and these collections and archives come into play because they are our names of our ancestors and it gives us a place to kind of build information from because I think everybody feels a hurt because they don't.

Imelda: Feel like information hasn't been passed on. So there's a trauma there And I think part of the work that I have sort of tried to do is To acknowledge that exists. I can't take it away, but I can listen to how you feel and then I can talk about can we go through something to release that trauma Because sometimes I think people just need to be heard and be seen. To be visible to feel like they're somebody, and to feel like they belong, and that's what these spaces are about, is that you don't have to be right here, this is a conversation, we're just opening up that conversation, and this is about sharing with one another, so that [00:18:00] we don't continue to lose our stories, and that we continue to, Create our history today.

Imelda: Because I keep telling people, you know, today's important as well.

Mel: Today and tomorrow. Yeah, absolutely.


Mel: Now, there sounds like you've got quite a, method or a process that you go about in terms of creating this community atmosphere when you're bringing these people together. What's important to you in doing this? Do you have anything that you think makes it particularly successful when you're bringing people together in these spaces and creating this sense of community?

Imelda: yeah, when I think about creating community, I like to go into the community itself, if I can, to get to know people, to get to know what they want and what do they need around them to feel comfortable. So, for example my community like to gather around food.

Imelda: because that's where all the conversations take place, you know, and traditionally [00:20:00] we always have breakfast together, lunch together and dinner together. But these are times when everyone's checking in with one another for the day and what are you doing and what are your plans and when will we see you?

Imelda: So I try to incorporate, those simple everyday patterns of life that people they miss, or, the ways that they share information with one another. I try to incorporate that into whatever I'm doing. And things like, if they want to decorate the place, I always go, make it your own, and try to make it so they see themselves in that space.

Imelda: that not only means, you know, getting to know the community, but also then taking the staff who I'm working with on a journey with me and teaching them The expectation and making sure that everybody, that we meet those expectations and that when we're not setting ourselves up to be bigger than, you know, you know, because I sit in the middle, I was, I think my colleagues and I talk about sitting in this middle space.

Imelda: So we straddle between our own communities and the institutions that we work within. And so we're like this common ground where we have to bring both together. So making sure that people have a realistic, Expectation of what's going to happen and that nobody's going to be surprised.

Imelda: Nobody likes surprises so we try to set our day up. So it's you know, communicated to people as well and then together around food and we do all the things, like we respect our elders, we pay respects to traditional owners and we do all that process.

Imelda: And then if it's about sitting underneath a tree when we talk, then we sit underneath a tree. If we can't do that within an institution, then we work our way around. And I talk to people and say, okay, do you want to do this together, or? Do we want to do it a part, and I let people make their own decisions because I believe that people have to participate in their history recording [00:22:00] so I always encourage people to do that and then I find out ways that people feel comfortable in contributing to the day, yeah.

Mel: So it's really about setting out those social norms, the social contracts that are going to happen, leveraging and leaning into those routines and rituals that all make and have very significant. Importance in your communities and making that really widely understood so that whether you're from within that community or you're joining that community as your colleagues are, that you all understand the expectations and, how we do things here as a community.

Imelda: Yeah, that's right. And that we are a community. We're not separate from one another, you know, whatever we're doing or discussing, we're doing it together. So, I always feel like it's not just the community, but anyone that we invite because we are, you know, We like, we do like to share information but within that there's a realm of respect that people need to have as well and reframing, I think, when it comes to the institutions, reframing how we think about that relationship.

Mel: And when we were preparing for today's podcast recording, we, you and I had a an earlier chat and you were telling me about one of the sites where you're doing an archeology dig and the ceremony and the ritual that started around, catching up over, over tea. Do you want to just share that story with us?

Imelda: yeah, sure, yeah, well, you know, I'm no archaeologist, I'll start by saying that. So it was, it was a real learning curve for me, but, I thought, oh yeah, how do I connect the community to something that's really, foreign, so yeah, we started over cups of tea.

Imelda: you know, our ritual was to go into the community. We invite people to morning tea, you know, we would always declare what we're doing, how long we're going to be there, what was our expectation and it allowed people to also talk to us and get to know the team, and know what we were doing.

Imelda: And so, it's all a little awkward. [00:24:00] But the more you do something or the more you practice it, Easier it becomes you know, and I think the relationships improve because people get to know one another as people. And I think that's important as researchers, that we understand the things that we are doing actually affect real people at the end of the day.

Imelda: And In this particular case, the coming together of the researchers and the community, there was a real connection that was made. and we had a community day on site as well. And so people would come out and they were digging in the dirt.

Imelda: but you know, they're really curious and I think that real connection of doing something together that's not actually based in, talking about policy or something that's, not happening right now. Like, I think the work that we were doing with archaeologists is, we could see it happening before our eyes and so I think that really got people engaged in it and the other part of it was.

Imelda: people being coming out when we're digging in the dirt and wanting to look in the dirt and look see and I think that getting your hands physically making and doing you know I think that helps to connect to what you're trying to do so it becomes not just A story about our history, but it was, it becomes a story about us finding our history and learning how to do that, so it becomes much bigger and broader, and then it becomes about, oh, this is my experience of digging for our history, so, and I think it gives people something else to talk about, but also they're sitting around thinking about it.

Imelda: It's like, I don't know, I imagine ancestors sitting around weaving, that they would talk while they're making, their hands are busy making, and so they're talking, and I think that's, the kind of beautiful, thing about creating these spaces is that People forget their daily lives, and then for a moment, they can just be curious about life, and curious about history, and this [00:26:00] time, but also then seeing that, oh, maybe I've got a place, maybe I've got a story here to share.

Imelda: With everybody else and they get that validation from sharing and from other people hearing them and I can see people they come and their shoulders are hunched But when they leave there's this real sense of pride a sense of belonging To these spaces which These are the first times I'm encountering these spaces as well, so it's, we're all learning together, and I think, we're all busy living, right?

Imelda: Sometimes. We don't take that moment out to think about how our own stories matter, and so I think this is just one of those, yeah, that's the glory of these kind of, this kind of work that I do.

Mel: I think it's lovely. And I think you've touched on some really interesting things there because, because of the fact that you were brought to this country, you don't have that real strong connection to place as other First Nations may have, but you're creating these temporary places. And what I'd really love to know is about.

Mel: You know, you've shared some examples there already, but what else do you do in the creation of these communities in these temporary spaces? What are some of the other important ingredients that you're kind of sprinkling in there to help bring this to life because you've had some great ideas here around getting community involvement, getting people actively involved, sharing some of those rituals, those cultural expectations, is there anything else that you think really helps you to, Enhance this creation of place being that it is such a temporary thing for you and your communities in the way that you're engaging with it.

Imelda: Yeah, I think, um, the other thing is around creating legacy, and so, um, making sure that recording these things for future generations. So I've been able to do some digital story work, so I work, every time I do a project, I try to work with a different community and record a different story. And, I think making sure that, [00:28:00] I'm not the only one that's hearing these stories, but I too am making sure I use my platform to share these stories with other people, or what we're doing with other people.

Imelda: and those legacies they work in different ways for a community because, like you say, we don't sort of have this, physical connection to place as First Nations people do. But we have a space for our stories and we can create these physical entities ourselves now.

Imelda: And the digital stories is one of those things. It's not physical, like you can touch it, but we can share something with one another and it makes us more visible. And I feel like people feel like their stories are being acknowledged with one another, it's a conversation starter.

Imelda: So, Yeah, the legacy part is really important. I think I got a bit lost in my thoughts, sorry.

Mel: That's so good. I mean, it's so fascinating because you've touched on so many elements here that I think really create what it is to be part of a community and the way that you have then leveraged place to do that, but in such a temporary fluid way because you don't have that solid sort of, as I said, that ceremonial place or that place of any historical significance directly associated with your history and your culture, but you're creating that to create these new memories and create these new stories with your community.

Mel: And I think that's just, Fascinating. The other thing that I've heard you describe is that how you believe that connection is quite healing. And that's the other big driver that I understand is in your work and why you bring people together. And you've mentioned the traumas of the past and the other elements that have come into that.

Mel: And I think, post COVID many of us have felt that, connection has been quite healing. How have you actually seen this show up in the work that you do?

Imelda: There's two things that I'd like to share with you. One is, I went to Vanuatu with my parents, and I remember sitting on the side of the water with my uncle and my dad, and I just sort of yelled out, [00:30:00] Oh, this is where I'm from.

Imelda: It finally clicked to me that this is where my ancestors were from and the people who live here are happy people and that I'm not just a happy person, it's actually in my bloodline. And so, that realisation for me was like, I've been trying to make sense of this all my life and then, It finally happened, and I think that was the moment that changed me.

Imelda: And so, when I started doing this work, I tried to take that with me. And when I did an interview, for a project that we did, um, in 2013, and I always ask people after I've done the interview, at the end I always ask, is there anything you'd like to add?

Imelda: And he said to me, thank you for asking me your story. No one has ever asked me in my 63 years of my life. about who I am, and I was just like, oh my gosh, you know, the power of being heard and sometimes people just, they just need someone to listen, and to be interested. But I think that we are all interested, it's just that, we don't kind of get that time or that place to share those stories.

Imelda: So I think that's, and that, that was really powerful for me because this was somebody who's reaching the end of his life, but still knew exactly what he wanted to share with everybody. So yeah,

Mel: I think that's just a beautiful story about how the work that you're doing is really helping people to. connect to themselves. So, you know, the fact that you were able to see your ancestry and had that sense of belonging and have that sense of understanding. And all of a sudden that sense of community around the fact that, there was this lineage there for you, but then also the ability to have.

Mel: You know, help that gentleman tell his story and feel like he was able to share and contribute to those future generations. I mean, what a beautiful thing that you get to do in the way that you're engaging with [00:32:00] these people and to connect them back to parts of themselves and these other stories that they have potentially lost or, you know, didn't know.

Mel: And that's all the work that you get to do. Hmm.

Imelda: it's a huge privilege to be able to, sit and listen to people share their stories and share some of the most personal stories as well and, with that privilege comes responsibility and I think I and my colleagues, we take it really seriously we try to do our best.

Imelda: And I always say to people, like, the easy road is not necessarily the best road or the right road to take when you're doing this work. you have to put in the hard yards and you have to put in the hard yards to create the relationship and to create those connections with one another.

Imelda: Because we're dealing with people's lives and they need to be able to know that they can trust us. With these stories, you know, these are their heart stories And, you know, it is a real privilege to listen to people's stories and to be trusted with it for future generations and to know that, for that person, that moment could be the most special moment.

Imelda: moment for them that we've actually spent time with them to listen to their story. but the biggest thing for me is to see that they know they do have a story, that they are important to our bigger community. We all have a part to play. Some are bigger than others, but we can all have a part to play and all our stories matter to their story.

Mel: Yeah. the ability for you to hold the space for that to happen. It's beautiful. Now you shared with us so many gems here today on what it takes to actually invest in and foster that sense of community in the work that you were doing and how you're then. Leveraging that and incorporating that into, creating places where people feel that sense of connection.

Mel: They feel like they belong here and they're able to share [00:34:00] those stories and those experiences. If there's anything else that you would add to that for anyone that's tuning in today, in terms of what it really takes to curate that sense of connection and that, that community, because a lot of the people that are tuning into this uh, Working in businesses uh, operating workplaces, and that sense of community has started to be eroded and to be lost in our corporate workplaces.

Mel: Is there anything else that you think that we haven't touched on today that we should be sharing or thinking about?

Imelda: Oh, I just think sometimes we over complicate things. I think that's one thing about working in these spaces and working with community is sometimes just taking it back to basics. Um, you know, is and as a team we talk about keeping it simple, and it's just sometimes people don't want big flash things you can keep it really simple and we can all do small things.

Imelda: To make big changes, I think, is the thing that I've learnt along the way. you know, every project we do it's a building block onto the one before. And, it's those little changes that we can make together help create a better community for the rest of us.

Mel: Wonderful. Now, if people would like to learn more about what you were doing there, Imelda, and how you are going about doing this, where would be the best place for them to reach out to you or find more information on the work that you're doing?

Imelda: People can look at the Queensland Museum website and find me there. They can also look for me on Instagram at Amelda Miller Projects. And follow some of the community work that I get to do with people. Yeah.

Mel: That's great. Look, I'll pop all of those links into the show notes because you do have a very wonderful digital portfolio of stories there that people can engage in and learn more about this cultural history that you are uncovering and connecting in the communities that you are building. So I'll absolutely share those with everybody in the show notes.

Mel: But, Imelda, it has been an absolute pleasure to chat with you [00:36:00] today and thank you for sharing so much. So much of your beautiful wisdom with us around what it's taking for you to create these communities and how you are really connecting that back to place. Thank you. It's been really, really lovely.

Imelda: Thanks Mel, thanks everybody for your time.


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