Ms Katherine Aigner

PhD scholar

Topic or working title

‘A critical examination of the productions of Lorraine Mafi-Williams and the notion of a Ngarakwal matrilineal descent model.’

Abstract or summary

Katherine's thesis consolidates longitudinal research on matriarchal knowledge holders in northern NSW, looking at issues of authenticity, agency, conflicts of interest and transmission of culture in the post-Mabo native title environment. Her interest is how Indigenous groups negotiate to protect cultural heritage in environmental policy making and how Indigenous stakeholders have a voice in natural resource management. There is also the added complexity for knowledge holders and Elders who are protecting cultural heritage with the impact and influence of local, national and international political environments and legal instruments.

Panel members and positions

Primary Supervisor and Panel Chair:
Professor Mick Dodson, Director of NCIS and Professor at the ANU College of Law.

Supervisory Panel Members:

  • Frances Morphy, Visiting Fellow, Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, ANU College of Arts & Social Sciences.
  • Dr Maria Nugent, Research Fellow, School of History, ANU College of Arts & Social Sciences.


Katherine has worked as a historian, filmmaker and ethnologist with cultural Elders and knowledge holders around Australia and overseas on issues of cultural heritage protection. Her ethnographic film experience started when she was 21 living with Dyak people of central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Documenting ancestral worship rituals, she also witnessed the clear-fell logging affecting the region. Katherine filmed cultural custodian Loraine Mafi-Williams in northern NSW over a three-year period and draws on longitudinal research with the family for her thesis. The life and events around Mafi-Williams instilled a deep interest not only in Indigenous custodianship, but also in how local, national and international politics intersect, impede, and influence traditional roles.

Katherine has lived and worked in Rome and Berlin and was an assistant curator at the National Museum of Australia between 2008 and 2011. Since 2009, she has collaborated with the Vatican Ethnological Museum in the Vatican Museums, studying their indigenous collections, re-connecting source communities and working with them to bring indigenous perspectives into the museum space. Her work on the collections from the Americas for an upcoming catalogue includes fieldtrips to; pre-Columbian Mayan sites (2012), the Kogi people of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Columbia (2014), the Lakota people in South Dakota (2014), Pueblo peoples in New Mexico (2015), the Qom people in Argentina (2013) and Yaghan people of Tierra del Fuego, Chile (2012). She is currently working on the Oceanic collection.

In 2012, Katherine received funding through The Australian Academy of the Humanities and the Lincei Academy in Rome to study Indigenous Australian collections in Italy. She was an Associate of the Centre for Historical Research at the National Museum of Australia and is currently a project associate on the ARC Laureate project The collective biography of archaeology in the Pacific: a hidden history. Katherine has lectured in the Museums and Collections Program at ANU on overseas collections, on re-connecting Indigenous communities with collections, and on Indigenous issues of representation.

Exhibitions, catalogues & documentaries


  • So You Might Know Each Other’. The World of Islam from North Africa to China and Beyond- research, Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization, Emirate of Sharjah (United Arab Emirates), 2013/14.
  • ‘Indonesia, Land of Harmony’ – research and study, Vatican Ethnological Museum 2013/14.
  • ‘Australia’ – Vatican Ethnological Museum, ongoing, permanent.
  • ‘Tecumseh Keokuk Black Hawk. Portrayals of Native Americans in times of Treaties and Removal’, preparation for the exhibit at the Albertinum Museum, Dresden 2013.
  • ‘Gods & Gifts’ – preparation for the exhibition at the Bowers Museum, California 2014.
  • ‘Objects of Beliefs: Vatican Collections from Africa, Oceania and the Americas’, preparation for the exhibition at the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, California 2013.
  • ‘Ferdinand Pettrich and Native Americans’, Vatican Ethnological Museum 2013.
  • ‘History, Mystery and Treasures: Rapa Nui, Tierra del Fuego and Alaska’, Vatican Ethnological Museum 2012.
  • ‘Columbus ’ – preparation for the exhibition in Havana, Cuba 2012.
  • ‘Off the Walls: Art from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affair’s Agency 1967-2005, National Museum of Australia, 2011/12.
  • Rituals of life: Aboriginal spirituality at the Vatican Museums’ 16 October 2010 – 31 December 2011. Rome, Italy.
  • ‘Barks, Birds, Billabongs, Exploring the Legacy of the 1948 American-Australia Scientific Expedition into Arnhem Land’, conference coordination and exhibit, National Museum of Australia, 2009.

Museum catalogues in production (forthcoming)

  • ‘Australia. The Australian catalogue of the Vatican Ethnological Museum’ (editor and contributing author) including 14 essays by Indigenous and non-Indigenous contributors, 2015 (about 400 pages).
  • ‘Americas. Vatican Museums Pre-Columbian and Ethnological Collections’ – catalogue of the American collections of the Vatican Ethnological Museum, 2015 (400 pages in English, Italian, Spanish).


  • Australian atomic confessions: twice in a lifetime.’ 2005 (duration 49:16).

    After Hiroshima and Nagarsaki, in the 1950s and 60s, the British Government exploded 12 atomic bombs on Australian soil to demonstrate they were part of the ‘nuclear club’. From the servicemen wearing shirts and thongs while exploding the bombs, to the nomadic tribal people travelling across their dreamtime tracks, no-one knew the sinister reality of the nuclear storm blowing across the desert. Never-before-seen archival footage of the above-ground nuclear explosions is combined with time-lapse footage of desert scapes. Eye-witness accounts from atomic ex-veterans and Indigenous custodians who consider uranium part of their cultural matrix, with leading scientists and activists, tell our unknown history and debate our hopes and needs for the future. This 52 minute documentary highlights Australia's nuclear past and investigates the proposal of the Australian government, 50 years later, to use the same central Australian lands as a nuclear waste dump… the legacy continues.

    Award-winning Australian Atomic Confessions has screened in over 13 countries and 26 film festivals around the world. Footage has been used in Trevor Jameson's play Ngapartji Ngapartji (2005-2008) and for John Butler Trio's Australian tour (2007).

  • ‘Lorraine Mafi-Williams and Nunarng Cultural Sanctuary 1997-2001’ self-published 2000.
  • ‘Warunga Dungirr and the Bellingen dance troup’ self-published, 1996.
  • ‘Domestic violence in Indigenous communities in eastern NSW’ produced by Carole Kostanich for NSW State Government, 1996.

Updated:  14 October 2019/ Responsible Officer:  NCIS Project Coordinator/ Page Contact:  NCIS Administrative Officer