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Repatriation responsibilities

The Museum advises on and assists federal, state and territory cultural heritage institutions, Indigenous communities and representatives with the repatriation of Indigenous ancestral remains and secret/sacred objects. It also provides information to the media and public about repatriation. The management of ancestral remains and secret/sacred objects is strictly controlled to ensure that material is cared for in a culturally sensitive and appropriate manner, as well as in accordance with museum best practice.

The Museum does not actively seek to acquire ancestral remains or secret/sacred objects but it does have the capacity to accept remains from members of the public. As the prescribed authority under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984, the Museum can be the repository for unprovenanced remains that are referred to the relevant Australian Government minister. To date, no remains have been deposited with the Museum under this Act.

Ancestral remains and secret/sacred objects that were transferred predominantly from the Australian Institute of Anatomy collections in 1985 are also held in the Museum’s collection. These have been deaccessioned and do not form part of the National Historical Collection.

The Museum’s repatriation program is managed by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Program with assistance from the Head of the Research Centre and Library. The ARC linkage project ‘Return, reconcile, renew’ focuses on finding information on the holdings and provenance of remains and making this information available to Indigenous communities (see Cherish our stories: Nurturing our research).

The Museum’s repatriation program continued to engage actively with Indigenous communities throughout the year. During 2015–16 Museum staff consulted with communities in the Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria and Western Australia over the repatriation of ancestral remains.

Representatives from the Gunditj Mirring Aboriginal community from the Heywood and Portland areas (Victoria) visited the Museum in August 2015 to collect their ancestral remains. As requested, a smoking ceremony was conducted by a local Aboriginal representative. The remains were subsequently reburied by the Gunditj Mirring on country at Lake Condah in October 2015.

At the instruction of the Euston (New South Wales) community, the Museum’s Repatriation Officer travelled to Hay in September 2015 to deliver their ancestral remains. Also in September 2015, representatives from the Yorta Yorta Nations Aboriginal Corporation, Shepparton (Victoria), came to Canberra to collect their remains from the Museum.

Representatives of the Kungari Heritage Association/Tattyara Aboriginal Heritage Consultancy visited the Museum in March 2016 to pack ancestral remains previously held by the Royal College of Surgeons in readiness for their return to country. The Kungari remains are being held by the Museum in anticipation of a return in the near future.

At the request of elders from the Willandra Repatriation Traditional Custodians (WRTC), the Australian National University’s Willandra Collection of human remains was transferred into the care of the Museum in September 2015. The collection comprises 95 individuals, including the remains of ‘Mungo Man’. The Museum will provide temporary care for the remains while the WRTC prepares for their final return to country.

In April 2016, the Museum hosted a visit by six Warlpiri and Arrernte men who arranged to view their objects, both secret/sacred and unrestricted, in the Museum’s collection.

Consultations over one set of remains from the Australian Capital Territory held by the Museum took place over the reporting period. The Museum’s Repatriation Officer consulted with a number of community groups and a senior curator attended a meeting of the United Ngunnawal Elders Council in June 2016 to brief the council on the remains held by the Museum and on the procedures for return to country.

The Museum collaborated with the Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH), Maitland/Mudgee area, and the Australian Museum over arrangements for the return of two individuals to the Mudgee Land Council. In December 2015, the Mudgee Land Council requested the return of two individuals to be coordinated through the OEH. The Museum also had contact directly with the Armidale Land Council which resulted in it requesting the Museum to continue to hold onto ancestors in expectation that the return of their remains will be coordinated with returns from other institutions.