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Student Spotlight: Jo Thomson

Jo Thomson is a PhD student from Archaeology and Heritage Studies at the University of Western Australia. Her doctoral thesis 'Valuing Indigenous archaeology in Western Australia', looks at how Aboriginal archaeological sites in Western Australia are valued and evaluated for heritage significance.

Heritage value plays a central role in cultural heritage management. It is used to determine whether something is considered to be 'heritage' and how that heritage should be managed. In Western Australia, there have been significant changes over recent years as to what 'Aboriginal heritage' includes. As a result, thousands of Aboriginal artefact scatters and other sites have been removed off the Register of Aboriginal Sites, meaning that they no longer have any legal protection. These changes point to an apparent devaluing of some parts of Aboriginal cultural heritage in Western Australia. As an archaeologist and heritage practitioner that has been working in Western Australian Aboriginal heritage management for over 20 years, I was concerned and motivated to look deeper into this issue.

The aim of my PhD research is therefore to undertake a comprehensive investigation into the processes by which Aboriginal archaeological sites, as a subtype of Aboriginal cultural heritage, are attributed value and assessed for significance. Taking Western Australia as my case study, I aim to articulate how archaeological value is created and evaluated; whose and what values are being prioritised and how; and how context affects these processes. So far this has involved working with Traditional Owner groups, Aboriginal representative bodies, proponents, heritage consultants and the government to map out site evaluation processes, discuss decision making, and identify personal and cultural values that feed into the process.

For the fifth time in its history, the Western Australia Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 is currently under review. Through my voluntary roles as Chair of the Western Australian Chapter of the Australian Association of Consulting Archaeologists (AACAI), Australia ICOMOS representative on the DPLH Heritage Practitioners Reference Group, member of the Australia ICOMOS Indigenous Heritage Reference Group, and member of the AAA-ICOMOS-AACAI Indigenous Heritage Legislation Review Group, I have developed a deep interest in the practical applications of heritage theory through legislation, administration and management.

My research to date has helped to inform various responses and submissions on behalf of these heritage organisations to proposed legislative reforms. I am further hoping that the eventual outcomes of my PhD research will help to inform the future development of fairer and more inclusive ways of evaluating and managing Aboriginal heritage in Western Australia.

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