In a move that has been welcomed by a number of museum professionals and some cultural commentators – who have referred to it as a potentially game-changing moment in the wider issue of restitution – the Manchester Museum has given back several objects to communities in their Australian homeland. The museum’s decision – which will mean that over 40 different sacred and ceremonial artefacts are given back to indigenous Australian communities – is one that has been praised in the southern hemisphere. A good proportion of the objects would have arrived in the UK in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and many in the indigenous people of Australia consider them to have been nothing more than looted.
The repatriation of the artefacts concerned is centred on four particular groups. Firstly, the Aranda people – who traditionally inhabit central Australia – will receive some of their culturally significant items returned. Other affected communities include the Gangalidda Garawa people who predominate in north-west Queensland, the Yawuru people of Western Australia and the Nyamal people of Pilbara, also in the western part of the country.
A formal ceremony was staged in November at the Manchester Museum to mark the decision. The museum, which is part of the University of Manchester, decided to carry out this ceremony as part of a wider project to mark the 250th anniversary of the first European voyage to Australia, led by the explorer Captain James Cook. The ceremony, in which a variety of items were handed back to the descendants of the indigenous peoples concerned, took place in Manchester. Many museum professionals now believe that the move will pave the way for the restitution of other items of aboriginal origin currently located in the UK to Australian communities. There are tens of thousands of such artefacts held in the collections of various institutions across the UK at the moment.
The items that were handed over formerly to the descendants of their former owners included a traditional emu feather headdress. Some were said to have been extremely old, too, relating to the heritages of indigenous communities that stretches back tens of thousands of years. Although some of the objects were very ornate and remarkable in many ways, they had not been on public display – in many cases – for decades. This was partly down to the availability of display space at the museum and the controversial nature of them being in the possession of a UK-based institution in the first place. Given that they were held in storage, some have questioned why they had not been returned to indigenous Australian communities already. That said, even among campaigners who have sought the restitution of such objects to their former owners for years, the move has been welcomed and, it is hoped, will bring some closure on the issue.
Mangubadijarri Yanner, a representative of one of the indigenous groups who travelled to the UK from Australia for the ceremony welcomed the repatriation. He referred to the ceremony in the north of England as one that was “extremely emotional”. Yanner went on to say that the decision was powerful, allowing for cathartic and spiritual healing. “[These items]… were stolen from us,” he said. “However, it is important now that we will take them home.”
The director of the Manchester Museum, Esme Ward, said that she understood that the wider museum sector would have some concerns about the decision of her institution to repatriate its ceremonial objects to indigenous communities in Australia. Nevertheless, the museum director said that she hoped other institutions would now follow the Manchester Museum’s lead. “Part of this is almost a fear,” she said. “[It is a question]… of not knowing what it might mean.” Ward went on to say that museum professionals will often regard such a move as the first step on a ‘slippery slope’. However, she disagreed with such an attitude even though she acknowledged it was an understandable one. “I think some museums are in something of an existential crisis – particularly ones that are born of the British Empire,” she added. “The debate about where artefacts belong is getting louder and [some institutions]… are now out of kilter with public sentiment.”
Despite the approval for the restitution of a few dozen items, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) has called on the museum sector to go further. According to AIATSIS, there are well over 30,000 sacred artefacts held by British institutions that were taken away from indigenous communities in Australia. In particular, the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, both in London, have been singled out for attention in this regard. AIATSIS is a programme that is funded by the Australian government which aims to find often highly missed ceremonial items in overseas institutions and to have them restored. The Australian government is one that historically has not shown much interest in advocating for the rights of indigenous people in the country but that has changed significantly in recent years. This means that calls of the authorities in Australia to back up the claims made by AIATSIS are only likely to become more intense.
AIATSIS, which was heavily involved in the artefact repatriation project that led to the Manchester Museum’s historic decision, does not just focus on UK institutions. A spokesperson for the group said that it had singled out more than 100,000 artefacts which it would like to have returned to Australia from well over 200 museums and galleries across the globe. What’s more, according to AIATSIS, most of these often culturally significant items are not even on display in the institutions which have them in their possession. Most of them are in the United States and continental Europe as well as the UK although some of them are located in museums elsewhere in the world. So far as the UK is concerned, the Wellcome Collection and the Royal Anthropological Institute have been subject to some criticism from AIATSIS in addition to the aforementioned V&A and British Museum. In all, it is estimated that some 43 museums and galleries still have sacred indigenous Australian items in their collections across the UK.
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About the author – Manuel Charr
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.