For more than 150 years Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ancestral remains and secret sacred objects were removed from communities and placed in museums, universities and private collections in Australia and overseas. During the 19th and 20th centuries, ancestral remains were collected by medical officers, anatomists, ethnologists, anthropologists, and pastoralists, in some cases for the purposes of scientific research linked to explaining human biological differences.
The Australian Government recognises that the repatriation of ancestral remains and secret sacred objects to their communities of origin, helps promote healing and reconciliation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The Australian Government also acknowledges that repatriation requires a holistic approach. Accordingly, it seeks to work collaboratively with all stakeholders, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, other Australian Government agencies, Australian museums, state, territory and local governments, collecting institutions and overseas governments and institutions.
- Australian Government Indigenous Repatriation Policy—October 2013 (PDF 362 KB)
- Australian Government Indigenous Repatriation Policy—October 2013 (RTF 119 KB)
Funding through the Indigenous Repatriation Program is targeted at the following key areas:
- inventory and provenance research
- community visits within Australia by museum staff
- consultants to assist communities in coordinating returns
- museum visits by community representatives to identify ancestral remains and secret sacred objects
- travel for community representatives to collect ancestral remains and secret sacred objects (in Australia only)
- travel for community representatives to collect ancestral remains from overseas, and
- preparation, packing, transportation and freight of ancestral remains and secret sacred objects for return.
The Program has two major components—international repatriation and domestic repatriation.
National Keeping Place consultation
The Advisory Committee for Indigenous Repatriation, with the assistance of the Australian Government, has completed consultations with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, organisations and other interested stakeholders on establishing a National Keeping Place for ancestral remains that cannot be returned home because of a lack of information about where they come from.
Further information on this nationally significant process can be found on the National Keeping Place consultation webpage.
Recent international repatriations
Many repatriations of Indigenous Australian ancestral remains from overseas collecting institutions have occurred through the Program. The most recent examples include:
- April 2013—Germany
The Charité University Hospital in Berlin returned 33 Australian Indigenous ancestral remains. This was the first return of Australian ancestral remains from Germany through the Indigenous Repatriation Program. The remains returned were from communities in South Australia, Queensland, New South Wales and Western Australia—Media Release—Australian Ancestral remains return home from Germany.
Eleven of the 33 ancestral remains returned from Germany reached their final resting place on 12 October 2013, when they were returned to their traditional land in a moving ceremony at Somerset in far north Queensland.
- December 2012—Czech Republic
The Moravian Museum in Brno, Czech Republic, held a handover ceremony to return eight ancestral remains belonging to six communities in Arnhem Land. These were the only known Indigenous Australian ancestral remains held in the Czech Republic.
- September 2012—United States of America
The repatriation of a known Elder from New South Wales was undertaken from Washington D.C. to their home community. This Elder had been held by a collecting institution in the United States since the late 19th century.
- June 2011—Austria
The Ministry for the Arts facilitated the repatriation of 30 ancestral remains from The Austrian Academy of Science and The Pathology and Anatomy Museum in Vienna, Austria. The remains were handed back to five Traditional Owners and Custodians from New South Wales, Queensland and the Northern Territory.
- March 2011—United Kingdom
The Natural History Museum in London announced they would make the largest return to date of over 130 remains of Torres Strait Islander ancestors to their communities of origin. The Natural History Museum returned three ancestral remains after this announcement and a further 19 ancestral remains in May 2011. Other returns will occur as communities are ready.
In relation to overseas collections, the Australian Government seeks the unconditional return of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ancestral remains. The Australian Government sees repatriation as a decision to be made voluntarily by overseas governments and institutions in collaboration with the relevant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
It is understood that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander remains are currently held in many overseas collections, most being held in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Poland, Austria and the United States of America. The Ministry for the Arts has established relationships with these countries and is developing relationships with a number of other countries in order to progress the repatriation of Indigenous ancestral remains.
Within Australia, the Indigenous Repatriation Program aims to return Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ancestral remains and secret sacred objects held in major Australian museums to their communities of origin. The Australian Government, state and Northern Territory governments and the museum sector work collaboratively on repatriation issues that relate to Australian collections of remains and objects.
The eight museums eligible to receive funding to undertake domestic repatriation activities are:
- Australian Museum
- Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory
- Museum Victoria
- National Museum of Australia
- Queensland Museum
- South Australian Museum
- Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery
- Western Australian Museum.
Advisory Committee for Indigenous Repatriation
On 15 May 2012 the members of the Advisory Committee for Indigenous Repatriation were announced. The Committee provides guidance on issues relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander repatriation from the collections of Australian and overseas cultural institutions.
The Committee provides a vital link between the Australian Government, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and international collecting institutions that hold Indigenous ancestral remains and the Australian collection institutions that hold remains and secret sacred objects.
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