Repatriation of Indigenous cultural property

Current or emerging issues paper
Marilyn C Truscott
prepared for the 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee, 2006

This document was commissioned for the 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee. This and other commissioned documents support the Committee's Report but are not part of it.


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Truscott M 2006,'Repatriation of Indigenous cultural property', paper prepared for the 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee, Department of the Environment and Heritage, Canberra,


Large collections of human remains were made of Indigenous Australians during the late 19th and early 20th centuries as part of a scientific curiosity about different cultures and notions about racial superiority fuelled by then social Darwinism. Thousands of such items were sent overseas to museums and scientific institutions throughout Europe and elsewhere. They also formed part of the collections of Australia's major natural history museums established in each colony state in the mid-19th century. Ethnographic collections were also made, often including important Indigenous religious items and secret/sacred objects.

Indigenous appeals for the return of their cultural property is fuelled by a strong belief that the spirits of the dead cannot rest until returned to their 'Country', but is also part of a general reassertion of control over their cultural heritage, whether archaeological sites, sacred landscapes or cultural material, and practice in cultural centres and keeping places. This all forms a cultural revitalisation as well as a growing recognition by the wider community, as seen in the Reconciliation Bridge Walks in mid-2000.

Recent progress

In 2000, a special Repatriation Unit was created in the National Museum of Australia by the then Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission and Cultural Ministers Council and in 2003, the remains of some 300 Aboriginal people were returned to the Ngarrindjeri people of the Lower Murray Lakes and Coorong area in South Australia in the nation's largest repatriation of ancestral remains. These remains were collected at the turn of last century and held in various museums internationally.

In 2003, the Queensland government enacted Indigenous heritage legislation that recognised that Indigenous people are the primary guardians, keepers and knowledge holders of their cultural heritage, with recognition of Aboriginal ownership of human remains and secret and sacred material, as well as cultural heritage removed from land. (Queensland Government 2003)

In September 2005, the New South Wales Government declared seven new sites within parks and reserves for the reburial of Aboriginal remains, giving them extra protection under the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Act 1977.

Sessions on repatriation are now standard at most museums, archaeology and Indigenous affairs conferences (for example, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Conference in 2004). Often, there is robust debate as exemplified by: "Give it Back You Bastards": Indigenous Perspectives on the Repatriation of Human Remains', Repatriation for a New Century, World Archaeological Congress, Washington DC, USA, June 2003, paper by Francesca Cubillo, then of the National Museum of Australia). In July 2005, an international conference, The Meanings and Values of Repatriation, was held in Canberra.

All these events indicate trends in the repatriation of human remains and secret/sacred objects within Australia, with increasing recognition of Indigenous rights over them. This is part of the broader acknowledgement of Indigenous control over their land and heritage sites and the central intangible cultural values inherent in them.

Return of Indigenous Cultural Property Program

The jointly funded (see table below) Return of Indigenous Cultural Property Program which was due to end in December 2005 was extended until June 2007 but with no extra funding. This program, and the earlier Return of Cultural Property Program, were promoted as steps towards Reconciliation. The practices and protocols developed during these repatriation programs are also important outcomes, and the funding has provided resources dedicated to repatriation, rather than to more general Indigenous heritage museum programs.

Return of Indigenous Cultural Property Program
  Return of Cultural Property 1993-1997 ($m) Return of Indigenous Cultural Property 1999-2005 ($m) Totals
Commonwealth Government 1.3 1.5 2.8
States/Northern Territory Governments Funds not specified 1.5 1.5
Total 3.0 4.3

The aim of the Return of Indigenous Cultural Property (RICP) Program was to repatriate all ancestral remains and secret/sacred objects from the eligible museums to their communities of origin. The four specific objectives are to:

  • identify the origins of all ancestral remains and secret/sacred objects held in the museums where possible
  • notify all communities who have ancestral remains and secret/sacred objects held in the museums
  • appropriately store ancestral remains and secret/sacred objects held in the museums at the request of the relevant community
  • arrange for repatriation where and when it is requested.

The Museum Support sub-program and the Community Support sub-program of the RICP Program cover museum and Indigenous communities costs associated with repatriation. The Museum Support sub-program funds are primarily for the preparation of collections and employment of specialist consultants, while the Community Support sub-program funds are for community use only. Funds are provided to Indigenous communities through the museums.

The decision to fund repatriation from Australian museums and the nature of the program followed from extensive consultation with Indigenous leaders.

The repatriation achievements of RICP Program are difficult to analyse without detailed data from all the relevant museums with the total of human remains returned not always detailed. Some data are reported for secret sacred objects:

National Museum of Australia repatriation progress

The Museum's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collection includes human remains and sacred/secret objects, largely derived from the collections originally held by the former Australian Institute of Anatomy. These collections were transferred to the Museum in 1984.

The Return of Cultural Property Program (1993-1997) included the National Museum of Australia and state and territory museums in the development of strategies to speed up the identification of origin of human remains and secret-sacred items.

Progress in repatriation efforts is documented in successive National Museum of Australia annual reports.

Over 70 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and representative organisations were been contacted since 2000-2001 and advised of remains and sacred objects held by the Museum. As a result of this program of consultation, five sets of human remains were returned to Aboriginal communities in 2000-2001.

The Museum returned the remains of 405 individuals to Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria in 2002–2003.

During 2003–2004, the Museum returned the remains of 132 individuals to Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, South Australia, New South Wales, Western Australia and Victoria. In addition, 308 secret/sacred objects were returned to communities of the Pilbara and Kimberley in Western Australia. This was part of a larger transfer of 846 secret/sacred objects and 42 sets of human remains from several Australian museums coordinated and managed by the Museum's Repatriation section (National Museum of Australia 2004).

During 2004–2005, the Museum transferred the remains of 67 individuals to Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, South Australia, New South Wales, Western Australia and Victoria. Of these returns, community representatives subsequently asked that the Museum hold 28 on their behalf until further notice.

Continuing issues

The numbers of returned cultural property do not reflect the many issues that must be resolved before repatriation can take place. Indigenous community groups may not know where their cultural property is. It may be housed in several museums in Australia as well as overseas making, the coordination of returns a complex task. This includes establishing with certainty the origin of human remains and secret/sacred objects, the community's readiness to accept returned materials, deciding where to keep them; and whether, where and how to re-bury human remains, and the ongoing protection of such re-burial sites.

Certainty about the origin of such material is important as unless relevant Indigenous descendant communities are confident that ancestral remains are coming home to the right 'Country', they are reluctant to accept them. A high proportion of human remains in museums are not identified and in some collections this is up to 75 per cent. Frequently past documentation has been separated from the remains, and in some cases the remains themselves are mixed up. Under a negotiated agreement that scientific testing would use non-invasive methods, (i.e. non-DNA and biometrics) museum curators, physical anthropologists and Indigenous representatives have worked together to properly identify remains using historical research into dispersed records and diaries of collectors (Pardoe 2004).

Another issue is how to return ancestral remains and where they will be kept. Individual communities have different views of what is culturally appropriate and respectful. Options include a keeping place or a cultural centre in which to house the returned cultural property prior to re-burial. There are also issues of funding and museum curation capacity. Community decisions can take time, for example, Indigenous communities in the Pilbara of Western Australia took some five years to determine their aspirations, needs and protocols for the repatriation of cultural property from various Australian museums. Sacred objects were finally returned in November 2004 (Akerman and Thomas 2004). The question of where to re-bury remains has also been vexatious, as there has been no consistent policy on the status of re-burials, whether they should be protected under cemeteries legislation, as heritage sites, or otherwise; with the New South Wales 2005 response of identifying new sites within parks and reserves being one solution.

This complexity demonstrates that the rate of repatriation cannot take place at any predetermined rate, although it is clear that the two main funding programs since 1993 have permitted a faster response to Indigenous repatriation demands. Bob Weatherall, a key Indigenous leader on repatriation, in examining the history of repatriation to date, notes that Australian governments have been unwilling to progress Museums Australia's adopted principles acknowledging an Indigenous primary role in decisions about repatriation and to honour Aboriginal ownership of the repatriation of their ancestors, arguing for an Aboriginal controlled 'One Stop Shop' clearing house as the way forward for the continued problem of unprovenanced remains (Weatherall 2004).This is a complex issue that requires further debate between policy makers, museums and Indigenous people before it can be resolved.


Akerman K and Thomas B 2004, 'Developing protocols:  Five years negotiating repatriation in the Pilbara and Kimberley, Western Australia', paper in session, Repatriation: Return of Indigenous remains and objects of cultural significance, AIATSIS 2004.

Museums Australia Inc. 1996, Previous Possessions, New Obligations:  A Plain English Summary for Museums in Australia and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People.

Museums Australia 2005, Continuous Cultures, Ongoing Responsibilities Principles and guidelines for Australian museums working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage, Museums Australia, Canberra.

National Museum of Australia 2004, National Museum of Australia Annual Report 2003-2004, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, February 2005.

Pardoe C 2004, The application of biological science in repatriation, paper in session, Repatriation:  Return of Indigenous remains and objects of cultural significance, AIATSIS 2004 Conference.

Queensland Government 2003 Department of Natural Resources, Mines and Water,  Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act 2003 summary, , accessed August 2006.

Weatherall B 2004, 'Repatriation of Indigenous ancestral human remains:  No respect, no progress', paper in session, Repatriation:  Return of Indigenous remains and objects of cultural significance, AIATSIS 2004.