WARNING: Visitors should be aware that this website includes images and names of deceased people that may cause sadness or distress to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Returning ancestral remains and secret and sacred objects
The National Museum of Australia's repatriation team works to return ancestral human remains and secret and sacred objects to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
The Museum has been returning remains and objects since its inception in 1980 and is recognised nationally and internationally for its repatriation work.
More than 1000 individuals and over 360 secret and sacred objects have been unconditionally returned to Indigenous communities.
Museum staff continue to work closely with Indigenous communities to return remains and artefacts to their ancestral custodians.
The National Museum of Australia has never deliberately sought to acquire human remains or secret and sacred objects to develop its collection.
Instead, the Museum's holdings derive from many earlier and international sources.
Many are from the Australian Institute of Anatomy collection, which was transferred to the National Museum in 1985 when the Institute closed. Others were deposited with the Museum or donated over many years.
The Museum has also become the temporary repository and repatriation point for many collections returned from overseas.
Working with communities
The Museum's repatriation work is guided by strict policies that currently allow for the unconditional return of remains and artefacts to traditional owners and custodians.
Where custodians do not have the resources to take remains or secret and sacred objects, the Museum may store them on the community's behalf.
External access to the holdings is only permitted with the approval of the relevant community.
Information from communities
Prospective custodians are invited to provide extra information that may assist in the repatriation of remains. This information may include:
- The specific remains or secret and sacred objects requested.
- The identities of the persons, groups, or community on whose behalf the application is made.
- Evidence of support for the application from local representative organisations such as land councils, native title representative bodies, legal services, government Indigenous or heritage bodies, or other community organisations.
- A statement of support from members of the relevant group, where an organisation is making an application.
- A statement that the applicants are entitled by the traditions and customs of their community to apply for the remains or secret and sacred objects.
- The relationship of the applicants to the remains or secret and sacred objects requested.
- Contact addresses for other groups or organisations that support the application.
- Any other issues or information that may assist in the application (eg specific geographic locations).
Provision of such information is not mandatory and, in most cases, the National Museum accepts the potential claimant group's rights of ownership based on information gained in the process of identifying them.
A Museum officer consults further with the applicants and other parties with potential interests. The return of the remains or objects takes place with instructions from the custodians.
With the exception of signing a receipt for remains or objects, returns are currently unconditional.
Custodians may deal with the remains or objects as they see fit. Sometimes this involves communities asking the National Museum to retain remains for safe keeping.
Support available for communities
With additional government funding, the National Museum can sometimes offer logistical and financial support. This includes:
- Assistance with travel for applicants to view and pick up the remains and secret and sacred objects.
- Visits to the community by Museum officers to discuss the process or to deliver remains or secret and sacred objects.
- Assistance with funding for ceremonies associated with the receipt of the remains or secret and sacred objects.
- Assistance with obtaining more detailed advice into characteristics of the remains or secret and sacred objects.
The National Museum also offers to provide a plain English community report on human remains.
These reports provide information such as the age, sex, and health of the individual, what is known of the history of collection, and other potential significance.
Where groups do not have the resources to take receipt of remains or objects, the Museum may offer to store them temporarily on their behalf.
The remains or secret and sacred objects are the property of the community and custodians and the Museum claims no authority over them, beyond keeping them safe and secure.
The National Museum also provides repatriation-related advice and assistance to Federal, State, and Territory cultural heritage institutions, Indigenous communities, and representatives, to the media and public.
Finding community custodians
The National Museum of Australia attempts to identify appropriate custodians for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander remains and secret and sacred objects.
Once a prospective custodian, custodial group, or representative body has been identified, they are advised in writing of the nature of the remains or objects available for return, and the various services available.
Repatriation Program Director
c/- Duty Curator
National Museum of Australia
GPO Box 1901
CANBERRA ACT 2601
Tel + 61 2 6208 5019
The work of the National Museum's repatriation program is informed by various policies and guidelines, which can be access via the links below.
National Museum of Australia policies
Museums Australia guidelines
Continuous Cultures, Ongoing Responsibilities policy (PDF 230kb)
Museums Australia principles and guidlines for Australian museums working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage
Australian Government program
Indigenous Repatriation Program – Office for the Arts, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet website
Select articles by National Museum staff on repatriation
M Pickering and P Gordon, 'Repatriation: the end of the beginning', in D Griffin and L Paroissien (eds) Understanding Museums: Australian Museums and Museology, National Museum of Australia, 2011.
D Kaus, 'The management of restricted Aboriginal objects by the National Museum of Australia', reCollections, 2008, 3(1), 2008: 88-95.
M Pickering, 'Where to from here? Repatriation of Indigenous human remains and "The Museum"', in SK Knell, S MacLeod and S Watson (eds), Museum Revolutions: How Museums Change and are Changed, Routledge, United Kingdom, 2007.
M Pickering, 'Policy and research issues affecting human remains in Australian museum collections', in J Lohman and K Goodnow (eds), Human Remains and Museum Practice, UNESCO Publishing/Museum of London, London, 2006.
M Pickering, 'Define success: repatriation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ancestral remains and sacred objects', Museum National, February 2003, pp. 13-14.
M Pickering, 'Repatriation, rhetoric, and reality: The repatriation of Australian Indigenous human remains and sacred objects', Journal of the Australian Registrars Committee, June 2002, pp. 15-19, 40-41.
M Pickering, 'Lost in Translation', borderlands e-journal, volume 7, number 2, 2008.