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The HMB Endeavour’s voyage along the east coast of Australia marked the start of a shared history and the beginning of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage materials being removed and taken overseas.

In 2020, the Australian Government acknowledges repatriation of these materials is an important step in the nation’s reconciliation journey. The return of cultural heritage items is a fundamental part of truth telling, healing and reconciliation. It provides all Australians with the opportunity to develop a greater understanding of our shared history.

In 2018, the Government funded a pilot project with the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) to scope and locate for the return culturally significant items held in overseas collecting institutions.

The main objectives of the Return of Cultural Heritage project was to facilitate and secure the return of material — including but not limited to objects, photographs, manuscripts and audio-visual records — to Australia and where possible to Country and the communities to which the items belonged.

By May 2020, the project identified some 100,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander objects were being held in 199 collecting institutions around the world. With further research, AIATSIS expects this number will continue to increase.

AIATSIS received responses from 146 of the 199+ collecting institutions they contacted with 73 eager to establish a relationship and 45 interested in returning materials. Infographics accurate as at 30 May 2020
AIATSIS received responses from 146 of the 199+ collecting institutions they contacted with 73 eager to establish a relationship and 45 interested in returning materials. Infographics accurate as at 30 May 2020

The return of materials to Country

The pilot was a scoping project and it did not seek the return of all material held in institution overseas.

AIATSIS worked closely with traditional custodians and owners of the requested material. The first returns were arranged in partnership with the Aranda, Bardi Jawi, Gangalidda and Garawa, Nyamal, and Yawuru Nations. AIATSIS prepared the formal requests for the return of 85 objects, including secret sacred, ceremonial and secular items from the Illinois State Museum and the Manchester Museum, The University of Manchester. Both institutions unanimously supported the requests.

Unquestionably this is the most complete repatriation request I have ever encountered and there should be no question about the Board's action with regard to deaccession.

ISM Board Member

In October 2019, AIATSIS and representatives from Aranda and Bardi Jawi Nations travelled to Springfield, Illinois USA. The group returned with 42 objects from the Illinois State Museum, including boomerangs, shields, spears, clap sticks, body ornaments and necklaces.

Return delegation at the Illinois State Museum including community representatives of the Aranda and Bardi Jawi Nations and the AIATSIS project team.
Return delegation at the Illinois State Museum including community representatives of the Aranda and Bardi Jawi Nations and the AIATSIS project team.

Supporting the communities’ wishes, AIATSIS facilitated the return of materials to Country. Across top end Australia from Alice Springs (Aranda) to Cape Leveque (Bardi Jawi) there were small on Country celebrations.

Returning the material will restore culture and strengthen community. The return of the material will let us reconnect it to Country. It will also help us preserve our culture and pass knowledge onto the young people. 

Mark Inkamala, Senior Aranda Man.

Following the success of the first repatriation, a delegation of representatives from the Gangalidda and Garawa Nations with AIATSIS representing the Nyamal community travelled to United Kingdom to return 18 of 43 objects from the Manchester Museum. 

(Left to Right) Esme Ward (Director, Manchester Museum), Donald Bob (Garawa representative), Mangubadijarri Yanner (Gangalidda representative) and Craig Ritchie (CEO, AIATSIS) at the official ceremony, Australia House, London, 22 Nov 2019.
(Left to Right) Esme Ward (Director, Manchester Museum), Donald Bob (Garawa representative), Mangubadijarri Yanner (Gangalidda representative) and Craig Ritchie (CEO, AIATSIS) at the official ceremony, Australia House, London, 22 Nov 2019.
Ceremonial items made from emu feathers returned from Manchester Museum to the Gangalidda and Garawa people.
Ceremonial items made from emu feathers returned from Manchester Museum to the Gangalidda and Garawa people.

After a moving official handover ceremony hosted by His Excellency, the Hon George Brandis QC at Australia House in London, AIATSIS facilitated the return of the material to Port Hedland (Nyamal) and Moungibi, Burketown (Ganaglidda and Garawa) where the material was welcomed home.

This is, to me and my community, what true practical reconciliation looks like. Bringing these sacred cultural heritage items back to Country is important and necessary for the purpose of cultural revitalisation – because locked deep within these items is our lore; our histories, our traditions and our stories.

Mangubadijarri Yanner, Representative for the Gangalidda and Garawa Native Title Aboriginal Corporation.

Gangalidda and Garawa people and members of the AIATSIS team celebrating the return of cultural heritage material
Gangalidda and Garawa people and members of the AIATSIS team celebrating the return of cultural heritage material

With the challenges of COVID-19 travel restrictions, and the authority from the Yawuru and Aranda Nations, AIATSIS successfully repatriated the remaining 25 items from Manchester to Australia in March 2020.

The Yawuru material was subsequently returned to Country, while the Aranda material with the approval of Elders and Senior Lore-men was placed in temporary storage. The material will embark on its final journey home once COVID-19 travel restrictions are lifted.

How was the project funded?

In May 2018, the Australian Government committed $2 million over two years to AIATSIS from its funding package marking the 250th anniversary of James Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific and arrival on the Australian east coast. The successful pilot project ended on 30 June 2020.

On 15 July 2020, the Minister for Indigenous Australians, the Hon Ken Wyatt AM MP, announced the Australia Government would be investing almost $10 million over four years to extend the successful program and support the return of significant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage from overseas collections to Australia.