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During 2020, Australia marked the 250th anniversary of James Cook’s first voyage to the east coast of Australia. This anniversary also marked the start of a process of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage being removed overseas. AIATSIS believes every effort needs to be made to secure return of items of Indigenous cultural heritage to Australia. With funding from the Australian Government, AIATSIS led the Return of Cultural Heritage project to intensify the effort to return material (including but not limited to objects, photographs, manuscripts and audiovisual records) held overseas back to Country for the purpose of cultural renewal, revival, support and maintenance.
Returning material to Country for purposes of cultural revitalisation is a key aspiration of Indigenous communities. The “Return of Cultural Heritage project” formed a part of a larger narrative and supported the cultural resurgence of Australia’s First Nations’ peoples. The project strengthened the signal both to the nation and globally that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture is respected, celebrated and valued.
The Return of Cultural Heritage project was a scoping pilot and was funded from the 1st of July 2018 until the 30th of June 2020.
- Explored and facilitated the return of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage materials (objects, audio visual, and images) from overseas back to Country.
- Documented and developed an appropriately accessible database of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collections held overseas.
- Built relationships between overseas collecting institutions and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
- Documented a future work program.
The project followed the principles of the Guidelines for Ethical Research in Australian Indigenous Studies and sought Free, Prior and Informed Consent at all stages of the research.
The Return of Cultural Heritage Project was delivered in five phases.
Phase 1: Planning and Initiation (Completed February 2019)
The first phase involved the preparation and approval of:
- team recruitment;
- a project plan;
- an engagement and communication strategy; and
- ethics clearance from the AIATSIS Human Research Ethics Committee (HREC Reference Number: EO111-20022019)
Phase 2: Research and Identification (Completed May 2019)
This phase involved a literature review of existing research on materials held in overseas collecting institutions and online catalogues. The desktop research identified over 200 overseas collecting institutions with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage collections. Of these, AIATSIS corresponded with over 200 and received responses from 145 institutions. Of these:
- 124 shared information regarding their collections;
- 74 expressed an eagerness to establish a relationship with AIATSIS and/or First Nation communities; and,
- 44 expressed a willingness to consider a return request.
AIATSIS is continuing to work with 145 institutions to establish the preliminary geographical provenance and cultural origin of collections / objects. Information gathered will be documented in an appropriately accessible database of cultural heritage material held overseas (to be completed as part of the RoCH initiative)
During phase 2, AIATSIS met with over 50 representatives from Indigenous governance organisations, national collecting institutions, government departments, agencies and authorities as well as leading repatriation specialists from across Australia in an effort to establish linkages and explore potential collaborations. These meetings were also to ensure that all relevant legislation and policy was well understood and adhered to across different jurisdictions.
Phase 3: Collaboration and Negotiation (Completed July 2019)
Based on the information garnered during Phase 2, six potential case studies (returns) from two institutions (Illinois State Museum and Manchester Museum) were selected for further investigation. These included 5 nations:
- Aranda (Illinois State Museum and Manchester Museum),
- Bardi Jawi (Illinois State Museum)
- Nyamal (Manchester Museum)
- Gangalidda Garawa (Manchester Museum); and,
- Yawuru (Manchester Museum)
During this phase, AIATSIS engaged with representatives of the First Nations groups noted above to confirm custodianship of the material and to explore partnership in the project. This phase was completed once custodianship had been confirmed and a decision on whether to request the material and partner with the project had been reached.
Selection of case studies was determined on a number of factors, including but not limited to, the ability to establish geographical provenance, cultural origin and custodianship of the material, willingness of the institution to engage in return discussions, likelihood of a return within project timeframes, absence of competing claims to the material and legislative/policy context of the institution/Country.
Phase 4: Return of Material (Completed March 2020)
In collaboration with, and on the authority of Aranda, Bardi Jawi, Gangalidda Garawa, Nyamal, and Yawuru Nations, AIATSIS prepared formal requests for the unconditional repatriation 85 objects, including secret sacred, ceremonial and secular items. The requests were subsequently assessed by the Illinois State Museum on the 9th September 2019 and Manchester Museum 2nd October 2019, respectively. Both requests were unanimously approved by the Museums’ respective governance bodies.
During this phase, AIATSIS worked in close collaboration the appropriate knowledge holders and custodians of the material to confirm cultural protocols for the transport and handling of the items to be returned.
AIATSIS also engaged various relevant National and State Government departments and agencies to obtain the necessary importation / customs permits for the movement of cultural artefacts including:
- Department of Agriculture;
- Department of Health;
- Department of Environment and Energy;
- Australian Border Force; and,
- Department of Communications and the Arts (Protection of moveable cultural heritage).
AIATSIS also engaged a specialist Supply Nation certified fine arts freight and logistics company to manage the international freighting of the returning material.
In October 2019, AIATSIS along with representatives from the Aranda and Bardi Jawi Nations travelled to Springfield Illinois, USA to collect 42 objects. An official handover of the material was held at the Museum on 22nd October 2019. Following their return to Australia, AIATSIS facilitated the direct return of materials back to Country. These events were marked with small on Country celebrations at Alice Springs (Aranda) and Cape Leveque (Bardi Jawi).
In November 2019, AIATSIS along with representatives from the Gangalidda Garawa Nation (Nyamal representatives nominated AIATSIS to act on their behalf) travelled to Manchester, UK to collect 18 of the 43 objects to be repatriated. An official handover of the material was held at Australia House, London on 22nd November 2019. Following their return to Australia, AIATSIS facilitated the direct return of materials back to Country. These events were marked with on Country celebrations in Port Hedland (Nyamal) and Moungibi, Burketown (Ganaglidda Garawa).
In early March 2020, AIATSIS (in consultation with stakeholders) made the decision to cancel the second (and final) official handover ceremony at Manchester Museum UK due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The event was scheduled to take place on 9th March with AIATSIS RoCH team members, Aranda and Yawuru delegates, dignitaries and museum professionals. Fortunately, through the relationships and trust AIATSIS has established with our community and logistics partners, we were still able to secure the safe and secure passage of the repatriated Aranda and Yawuru material to Australia. The Yawuru material was returned to Country prior to the introduction of interstate travel restrictions. The Aranda material, with the approval of Elders and Senior Loremen, has been placed in temporary storage, pending its final journey to country.
Phase 5: Project Conclusion (Completed June 2020)
This phase involved the completion of written project deliverables, project closure and narrative reporting. This phase was conducted by the project team members in collaboration with Aranda, Bardi Jawi, Nyamal, Ganaglidda Garawa and Yawuru Nations (as required). Part of this phase occured concurrently with the end of Phase 4: Return of Materials.