cultural heritage

Return of Cultural Heritage

In 2020, Australia marked the 250th anniversary of James Cook’s first voyage to the east coast of the country. This anniversary also marked the beginning of the large scale removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage to overseas collections.

Plaques that form part of the Benin Bronzes on show at the British Museum in London. The plaques were taken by British troops in 1897.Credit…Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

All mistakes and errors are our own

Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS). Return of Cultural Heritage Project 2018–20. P.7.

In 2020, Australia marked the 250th anniversary of James Cook’s first voyage to the east coast of the country. This anniversary also marked the beginning of the large scale removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage to overseas collections. With funding from the Australian Government, AIATSIS led the RoCH project to intensify efforts to return Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage materials held overseas to its original Custodians and Owners.

Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS). Return of Cultural Heritage Project 2018–20. P.2.

Everything started with a two-year pilot project, focused on objects in public collections outside the country. Worked so well that the project is now expanding to facilitate returns from private individuals, 

The AIATSIS Return of Cultural Heritage 2018-20 report, published in September 2020, revealed that there are around 100,000 items of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage in overseas institutions. Spread over countries and continents, 83 institutions are in the US and Canada, 55 are in Europe and 42 are in the UK. See below the infographics of geographical distribution of collecting institutions approached by AIATSIS.

Screenshot. Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS). Return of Cultural Heritage Project 2018–20. P.15.

In 2018, the French report made by Macron was the first step for the restitution of artifacts taken without consent.

The drive to return Aboriginal cultural heritage comes at a key moment for the UK’s relationship with repatriation, in part because of Brexit and the need to recalibrate international relations. 

After the expected returns, not only Australia but also Africa plans to open new museums with the returned objects.

Yinjibarndi repatriation ceremony on October 5, 2020. Picture: Ngaarda Media for AIATSIS

It is expected that, in the near future, museums “have to return” objects in some cases, while in others, the inclusion of artifacts in collections would have to be viewed as “the result of global history.


Returning Cultural Heritage Material as a Mechanism for Reconciliation and Healing

For many Indigenous communities, repatriation is a mechanism which facilitates and supports a journey of healing, reconciliation and truth telling. AIATSIS has learned through conversations with Indigenous communities, that the physical return of material is just the start of a much larger conversation about self‑determination, keeping places and cultural revitalisation. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been calling for the return of cultural heritage material for many decades, and for the work to be led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The RoCH project demonstrates this aspiration can
be fulfilled.

For more than 200 years Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage material was removed from Country and placed in museums, universities and private collections in Australia and overseas. The loss of this material, its often wrongful collection and removal to all parts of the world, continues to be a grievance for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples

Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS). Return of Cultural Heritage Project 2018–20. P.39.

Extract from the report conclusion

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples want to tell their own stories and repatriation is a crucial part of shifting the power to Indigenous communities in order to do this. Community driven repatriation makes a positive contribution to this endeavour, because if a collecting institution asks the above questions of their material and in turn welcomes repatriation activities from their collections to Indigenous peoples, it is safe to assume the materials they still hold in their collections are items which those Indigenous communities are happy to have displayed to tell their stories.

Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS). Return of Cultural Heritage Project 2018–20. P.40.

What is your opinion on returning cultural heritage materials to its homes?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: