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Photo of a large group of people standing around large cardboard boxes containing sacred material.

Larrakia people welcome Ancestral Remains at Mindil Beach, Darwin, Northern Territory, August 2002

Ancestral Remains in museum care

This chapter describes some of the processes and protocols involved in the museum side of repatriation. It is intended to assist museum staff who are new to the task of repatriation, as well as to provide a background to any non-museum staff who will be dealing with museums.

Most major publicly funded Australian museums, and some universities, have holdings of Ancestral Remains. These have typically accumulated over a long period through various avenues, ranging from deliberate collection by early curators, collections having been transferred from other institutions (because they either closed or determined that they no longer wanted the collections), donations made by the general public, to an institution’s compliance with a statutory obligation (such as state laws) to house Ancestral Remains when discovered.

Early collections of Ancestral Remains were often stored with natural history collections, and displayed at the whim of the relevant curator. Today, Australian museums are discouraged from displaying Australian Indigenous Ancestral Remains. The peak museums’ industry body, the Australian Museums and Galleries Association (AMAGA, formerly Museums Australia) makes this quite clear, stating:

1.4.10 Ancestral remains should not be displayed in public, except in special circumstances where parts of the remains are an integral part of other items, such as human teeth incorporated in an item of personal attire. In such cases the traditional custodians or those authorised by them, must agree to the display of such items. Equally, images and replicas of ancestral remains held in museums must not be exhibited or in any other way made available to the public without the prior permission of the traditional custodians or those authorised by them.23

Australian museums strongly adhere to this philosophy, accepting that Ancestral Remains are in their care temporarily and as a preliminary to their eventual repatriation.

Similar comprehensive industry-wide guidelines for overseas museums and collecting institutions are rare, though growing.24 Many individual institutions have responded to requests for return, or have initiated returns themselves, in appreciation of the philosophy that it is appropriate that Ancestral Remains be returned. Indigenous Ancestral Remains may still be encountered on display, particularly in older exhibition contexts. Ancestral Remains can also be found in various collections, ranging from natural history and examples of human ‘types’ to art gallery collections, where modified or decorated Ancestral Remains are seen as objects of art rather than as the remains of ancestors.

Establishing your approach

Repatriation activities can take some time and frustration can occur with what may seem to be a drawn-out process. It is important for everyone involved in repatriation to understand the pressures, responsibilities, authority, obligations and powers that other participants face.

Australian public museums have a sector-wide commitment to unconditional repatriation. The museum repatriation officer must be fully aware of, and committed to, the principles of the policies and philosophies of the Australian Government, state governments, the museum industry and individual museums in relation to repatriation, placing the act of repatriation before personal research interests.

Appreciation of this commitment is fundamental in planning your approach to repatriation. Repatriation is a service provided to Indigenous communities by the collecting institution. As noted previously, the principle of respect is the basis of all engagements. This is even likely to be enshrined in the institution’s code of conduct or client service charter.

Museum governance and decision-making

The majority of holdings of Indigenous Ancestral Remains are with major museums. Many of these will be state-funded public institutions; others may be affiliated with universities. As public agencies, they have responsibilities, obligations and processes that cannot be bypassed, no matter how sympathetic an officer may be to a particular case. The institutions are open to regular review of their activities, to ensure they act appropriately and spend the public purse ethically.

These institutions are also subject to ‘ways of doing business’ both internally and externally developed and imposed. Repatriation is not the only role of an institution, and the business and governance protocols of each institution are typically designed to allow all of its business operations to be managed effectively through generic principles, whenever possible. Although certain officers, such as a repatriation officer, can strongly influence the development of repatriation policies and protocols, such policies must still follow corporate governance rules.

Development of museum policies

Most Australian museums now have policies, protocols or guidelines in place that facilitate the prompt return of Ancestral Remains. These emerged after years of effort by Indigenous advocates to secure the return of their ancestors brought pressure to bear on museums to explain such questions as:

  • Why did they have Ancestral Remains?
  • What had they used them for in the past?
  • What were they going to use them for in the future?
  • How were they acquired?
  • Why shouldn’t they be returned?

Museums were compelled to engage with Aboriginal interests that were previously often held at arm’s length. With this closer engagement came a better understanding of each other, ultimately leading to greater collaboration, and to a formalised policy, in the representation of Indigenous cultures and a commitment to repatriation.

The development of museum policies is complex, and involves amalgamating not only the museum’s preferred approach, but also mandatory reporting and governance requirements. All policies must be linked to the principles established in the institution’s enabling legislation and regulations, which have an impact on the processes of deaccessioning and repatriation, as they impose strict controls over how items can be removed from a collection. For example, there may be a mandatory delay (a ‘cooling-off’ period) between an item being approved for deaccessioning and return and the final sign-off on the deaccessioning process. Policies must also be cross-linked to the institution’s other policies. For example, the Indigenous repatriation policy may be subject to the generic principles in the institution’s deaccessioning policy.

There is no excuse for an Australian institution not to be proactive in advising communities of its holdings of Ancestral Remains and the processes for making repatriation claims, and in ensuring the prompt return of Ancestral Remains once the appropriate Indigenous custodial group has been identified. The Australian domestic repatriation movement has been around for a long time and has been acknowledged and supported by institutions and governments for at least 20 years. This has provided sufficient time for institutions to take steps to deaccession Ancestral Remains in their official collections, in order to facilitate their prompt transfer to the appropriate communities.

Where the deaccessioning process is an extended one, there is often the possibility of an immediate ‘loan’ of the Ancestral Remains back into the care of the community until the deaccessioning processes have been completed. This is effectively repatriation in all but name.

Many international institutions have older and more restrictive founding legislation, as well as charters and policies that may strongly restrict them in their repatriation activities. Sometimes this can be used to their advantage; for example, where they blame local legislation for not allowing them to return remains. Nonetheless, more and more overseas institutions, and governments, are modifying their policies to allow for easier repatriation.

Policies can thus sometimes inadvertently impose barriers. But they can also provide opportunities. It is useful to be aware of an institution’s policies when preparing a repatriation request or when acting as an intermediary in a return between an institution and traditional custodians. Many institutions make their policy or procedures available through their public websites.

Past requests

The actual processes of repatriation have developed over many years. Each experience leads to improvements in process and so to faster and less contentious repatriation events. However, it must be acknowledged that in some cases the process has been so unreasonably slow that there have been social changes during the life of the project. One outcome is that a group or person who made a claim to Ancestral Remains in the past may no longer be considered the appropriate group or person to deal with today, or indeed may no longer exist. The development of elected representative bodies, formally legislated cultural heritage offices and councils, native title bodies, land councils and other authorised groups has meant that, over time, museums have occasionally been required to shift their engagements with communities and representatives to conform to changes in state or territory legislation or protocols.

Such changes can lead to considerable discontent within a community, as well as uncertainty in a museum. Where Ancestral Remains have already been returned, there is little the institution can, or should, do to transfer the Ancestral Remains to a more recently recognised representative agency. Past returns were done in accordance with both cultural and institutional policies or protocols of the time, and so should be respected.

Where there is a potential contemporary dispute, it should be resolved at the community level and not by the institution.


Whatever form of repository is decided upon, it is important that it include a dedicated recordkeeping store. As noted earlier, there will be extensive historical and governance material accompanying any repatriation, and it is necessary that this material be kept safe for future purposes. The information contained in these records is best considered as being as sensitive as the Ancestral Remains themselves, and so should be given similar security. Many institutions keep their human Ancestral Remains databases on separate, password-controlled computer drives, and paper records are kept in special locked cabinets, often with a fire rating.

Documentation can be expected to include electronic information, such as digital photographs, electronic documents, databases, paper documentation, historic reports and books, photographs, drawings, notes and tape recordings. It should specifically include copies of original museum catalogues, archives and any material that may relate to the Ancestral Remains in question. Unique and institution-specific information, such as the museum’s numbering systems, should be explained.

Computer technology changes rapidly, and many devices and programs used in the past are no longer useable. For example, few places now have the capacity (or equipment) to play floppy discs; cassette recordings are both sensitive to deterioration and hard to find a player for, and old databases have become redundant. It is therefore important to establish a plan for maintaining electronic records over the long term. This can be done by using easily updatable ‘off the shelf’ systems. Specialised systems can be expensive and hard to maintain. They can also require specialised and ongoing training. If the responsible trained staff member leaves, then using the databases can be difficult.

It has already been noted that Australian public museums are required to keep records for governance and legal purposes. This requirement for them to store full records can work to community advantages, as they become off-site repositories. Their information should be regularly backed up and transferred to changing storage technologies. This information, along with advice as to the best technology for the purpose, can be provided to communities in the future.


Records should be well organised. As well as providing a historical trail, the information can be useful for future issues, such as native title claims. Another aspect of the institution’s files is that they can be requested by corporate auditors for legal purposes. Records are a resource for the future, not just a record of the past.

A suggested approach to managing repatriation documents is to develop a file for each case. There can be a habit of having a general repatriation file, hard copy and digital, where all documents are saved. Breaking such files down into case files is more efficient for individual case management, and it also helps protect the organisation’s records. A case file allows access to the information relevant to that case only, making it easier to get an understanding of where the case is at. Discrete files also help protect information. For example, in a legal case, someone from the opposing legal team can ask for file information on a specific issue. If they ask for information on a specific repatriation case and it is held on a large generic file, then they may get access to the full file and all of the organisation’s other repatriation activities. With smaller case based files they are restricted to that particular file and case only.


Competent reporting is an important part of repatriation. It is necessary for documenting the stages of a repatriation exercise, and for proving to external auditors, funding agencies or governance inspectors that all work has been above board and appropriately managed. It is a requirement that must be done if the organisation is to be able to sustain its external resourcing as well as satisfy its internal requirements.

Many agencies may have template style reporting, with selected criteria. Before commencing any project, it is important to identify what sort of reporting will be required and to maintain records relevant to this reporting throughout the project. Prior planning and information collection will streamline the final reporting process and reduce the human and financial resources required in delivery.

It is reasonable to expect that the sort of items that a repatriation project will be required to report on will include:

  • the number of Ancestral Remains and an indication of how many individuals are represented in that number
  • the amount of external funding (how much has been provided by government or industry sources)
  • the sources of external funding (names of external funding agencies)
  • internal funding allocations (how much has been allocated by an organisation)
  • the basis of costing for projects (how the preliminary budget was determined)
  • the actual expenditure
  • the breakdown of expenditure (travel, catering, printing, etc.)
  • staffing (people and hours worked)
  • the outcomes

Responsibilities and accountability in repatriation

Dealing with Ancestral Remains imposes many responsibilities. First, there is the responsibility of everyone to respect the deceased and the community; second, there is the responsibility to ensure correct governance is applied (for example, legal, financial and reporting requirements). Few individuals have the time or training to do all this work by themselves. This is a reason why many museums and government departments prefer to work through Indigenous representative organisations rather than through individuals working alone and largely unsupported. An individual becomes accountable for demonstrating appropriate use of funding and resources. If a project fails, if funding has been mismanaged or if reporting and acquittal are either not completed or done so insufficiently, then the individual can become legally accountable.

Representative organisations, such as legislated bodies, land councils, legal aid and native title bodies can provide a level of accountability necessary for comfortable museum–community engagements. However, sometimes this handing over of responsibility to a corporate authority can be a problem. The corporate power structures of the organisation may not reflect traditional power structures. Western governance and engagement processes may not always reflect Indigenous governance and engagement processes. An example is where an older local traditional owner or custodian, who traditionally would have had cultural authority and thus overriding authority in a particular area, may be put second to a younger council executive who enjoys authority to issue instructions as a result of having been appointed or elected to serve on Western governance bodies, such as local councils, boards or representative bodies. Both museum officers and community members must be aware of the potential for conflict between Western and Indigenous governance and law systems and take care to manage them in all engagements.

Legal access

Records can be called by legal application at any time; for example, through auditing, ‘Freedom of Information’ requests or document discovery during legal cases, such as land claims or native title claims. This is actually rare, but all participants must be aware of the possibility. There are strategies to protect information; for example, as noted above, where it is recommended that individual case files be prepared rather than thick generic files. This helps to avoid the chance of sensitive information about an unrelated issue being shared with the wrong parties.

It is always in the best interests of the agency to cooperate. For example, in the 1980s, a land claim was in process in Australia’s Northern Territory. The land commissioner expressed frustration with the quality of documentation provided in support of the case. At some stage, reference was made to the anthropologist’s notebooks. This declaration, made during the court proceedings, meant that the notebooks could be called by the opposing parties as evidence to be considered. This caused distress within the anthropology community, whose members had always thought of their notebooks as private. Many threatened to destroy their notebooks or associated documentation. The land commissioner ruled that any such action would be in contempt of court and that any anthropologists who did this would be liable to prosecution.25

Legal access to records is not to be feared. It is a normal requirement of all business, even if very rarely resorted to.

Freedom of Information

‘Freedom of Information’ requests are a constant risk for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous agencies, particularly when they are reliant on on public — that is to say, government — funding. Ideally, all records will be kept up to date and all rules of ethical management and governance will be followed, and there is little to fear from such an application. Awareness of the processes as they apply to certain documents and to a particular agency is important, as is access to legal advice.


Repatriation of Ancestral Remains is very popular in the media, such as newspapers, television, social media and the internet. Coverage is usually very positive and supportive of repatriation. The advantages of media coverage are that it promotes the repatriation activities of an institution, gives the receiving Indigenous community a far-reaching public voice, recognises the community’s authority and raises the associated issues of recognising past histories and reconciliation.

There can also be negative reports, particularly when communities have internal disputes over the appropriate people or agencies to receive and manage the Ancestral Remains, or when researchers protest the return of Ancestral Remains that they would prefer to see used for scientific purposes. Such coverage is certainly destructive, and the damage persists long after the media interest has passed.

Not everyone wants media coverage of their repatriation activities. Media coverage is an option, not a requirement. It cannot be forced on communities. There is a desire, and sometime an obligation, on the part of non-Indigenous organisations such as museums, universities and governments, to promote their activities as widely and as publicly as possible. Even so, the Ancestral Remains and the community are entitled to the respect and dignity normally accorded the dead and their families. The decision whether to have such coverage should be made by the receiving community.

If a community decides media coverage would be useful, then museums can provide services. Preparation of press releases, distribution, contacts, suggested guests (for example, government ministers) and sometimes a venue and catering for a media reception can often be provided. The museum can also collate reporting of the event for the community’s records.

It is important to have a designated spokesperson if media do become interested. The media interest may not have been prompted by a deliberate disclosure that a repatriation event was happening. Despite the best efforts of a community to keep its activities private, the news can sometimes still get out. In addition, some museums, as publicly funded institutions, have an obligation to make some sort of comment if asked. Usually, such commentary will be confined to the very basics, but communities should be aware of this obligation. Both the museum and community should therefore be prepared to respond if the issue arises.

There are training courses available on how to deal with media, although most museum media officers would likely be willing to provide a useful briefing. Typically, these media officers advise spokespeople to stay ‘on track’ with the issue at hand and not to be distracted by questions on other issues that they consider irrelevant.

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