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The handbook is intended to assist with pursuing the return of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander human Ancestral Remains. It is hoped it will be useful to anyone who may become involved in repatriation, including staff within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community organisations, community museums, heritage agencies, universities, and relevant local, state and national governments.

It is also hoped this handbook will inform and assist international governments and collecting institutions seeking to return Ancestral Remains to Australia. The guide is mainly based upon Australian experiences; however, it will inform Australian institutions and individuals involved in repatriation about how to approach overseas institutions and brief international institutions about how Australian repatriation activities often proceed. It will also assist international repatriation advocates in pursuing the return of Ancestral Remains from Australian collecting institutions.

For many years, the domestic and international repatriation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander human Ancestral Remains has been a major activity for Australian Indigenous communities and heritage agencies (for example, museums and state or national government departments). However, there are few resources to help those who are working towards a repatriation or who are engaging with repatriation for the first time. One aim of this handbook is to take away some of the mystery and provide an accessible guide that will help culturally authorised individuals, agencies and organisations to pursue the repatriation of Ancestral Remains themselves.

Repatriation practitioners from within communities, museums, or heritage agencies sometimes confront a variety of issues, ranging from how to locate and identify Ancestral Remains to securing funding — not to mention navigating what often seems to be a complex web of requirements, processes, policies and protocols in order to achieve successful repatriation.

The handbook takes the reader through all the stages of repatriation, introducing common issues that may arise and indicating how to manage them. Its chapters track the various stages of repatriation, highlighting possible issues that practitioners may face and providing ways to navigate through them. It provides assistance on such topics as:

  • undertaking research to locate and identify Ancestral Remains
  • understanding the cultural, legal and policy environments
  • securing funding resources
  • making (and receiving) repatriation claims
  • liaising and consulting with museums and communities.
  • uncovering whatever information can be found in museum archives (and the reasons why it may be necessary to obtain this)
  • arranging for the return of Ancestral Remains (domestically and internationally)
  • working with museums
  • caring for Ancestral Remains upon their return
  • dealing with issues that may arise during the repatriation process
  • organising the final disposition of Ancestral Remains.

The handbook also provides a listing of some useful websites to assist those involved in repatriation.

Many institutions hold Ancestral Remains of deceased people for the purposes of scientific or medical study. In many cases, the holdings are legitimate and comprise Ancestral Remains of people who have donated their bodies for scientific research purposes, or people from cultures where such disposition of Ancestral Remains is socially acceptable.

This handbook concentrates on the repatriation of Australian Indigenous Ancestral Remains. However, it may also assist others in their efforts at repatriation.

This handbook was developed as part of two projects funded by Australian Research Council and Partner Organisation contributions: Return, Reconcile, Renew: Understanding the history, effects and opportunities of repatriation and building an evidence base for the future (LP130100131 2014–2018) and Restoring Dignity: Networked knowledge for repatriation communities (LE170100017 2018–2020). A significant focus of these projects has been to build resources for repatriation practitioners.

You can find these resources and further information at the project’s website:

The views expressed in this handbook are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the Australian Government or the Australian Research Council.

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