For more than 150 years Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ancestral remains and secret sacred objects were removed to 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.
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.
In March 2011, the Natural History Museum in London announced they would make the largest return of around 138 remains of Torres Strait Islander ancestors to their communities of origin.
In May 2011, three remains were returned to Australia and in November, a further 19 remains were returned to Australia.
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 there are currently Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander remains held in numerous overseas collections, most being held in the United Kingdom (UK), Germany, France, Poland, Czech Republic and the United States of America. The Office for the Arts (OFTA) has established relationships with these countries and is developing relationships with a number of other European 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 museums 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, Arts Minister Simon Crean announced the members of the Committee who will provide guidance on issues relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander repatriation from the collections of Australian and overseas cultural institutions
The Committee will provide 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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