The Museum holds human remains and sacred/secret objects derived from the collections originally held by the former Australian Institute of Anatomy. These collections were transferred to the Museum in 1984. While it has not actively sought to acquire either human remains or sacred objects, the Museum is the legally-prescribed authority under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 for remains and objects referred to the Minister. The management of this material is strictly controlled by detailed policies and handling guidelines to ensure that these collections are cared for in a culturally sensitive and appropriate manner.
The National Museum's repatriation activities are funded by the Museum, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission and the Return of Indigenous Cultural Property Program, an initiative of the Cultural Ministers' Council as part of a government program to return Indigenous human remains and sacred objects to the Australian Indigenous peoples with cultural rights to those materials.
Since the program commenced, more than 75 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and representative organisations have been advised of human remains and sacred objects in the Museum's care and invited to pursue repatriation.
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.
The Museum also continued to assist the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission in coordinating the management and repatriation of Indigenous human remains returned from Edinburgh University, Scotland, to communities with cultural rights to those materials.
In 2003 the Foundation for Aboriginal and Islander Research Action in Queensland requested the Museum's assistance with the care and repatriation of Indigenous human remains returned from the Royal College of Surgeons, London. Some of the remains have since been returned to the communities and the remainder are being held temporarily by the Museum prior to repatriation.
Repatriation-related advice and assistance has also been provided to state and territory cultural heritage institutions, the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow and the United Kingdom Government Working Group on Human Remains.