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Return of Cultural Heritage

For 250 years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage has been removed overseas and placed in museums, universities, and private collections.

With funding from the Australian Government, AIATSIS is leading the Return of Cultural Heritage initiative to return Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage material held overseas to Australia.

We work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities to return their material from overseas governments, collecting institutions and private collectors. 

The material we seek to return includes objects, photographs, audio-visual records, artwork and archival items.

Returning Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander ancestral remains or non-Indigenous cultural heritage material are not within the scope of the initiative.

The Return of Cultural Heritage initiative is currently funded until June 2024 and aims to:

  1. Facilitate and secure the return of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage materials from overseas to Australia.
  2. Enable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to understand where their cultural heritage material is held overseas.
  3. Influence the development of changes to institutional repatriation practices, policy and guidelines.
  4. Foster relationships between overseas collecting institutions and Indigenous communities.

This important work supports the cultural resurgence of Australia’s First Nations’ peoples and will strengthen the signal both to the nation and globally that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture is respected, celebrated and valued.

The AIATSIS-led Return of Cultural Heritage initiative is funded by the National Indigenous Australians Agency.

Watch the videos below to hear about the importance of returning materials to Country

  • Craig Ritchie

    AIATSIS Chief Executive Officer Craig Ritchie (Dhunghutti/Biripi) talks about the importance of returning materials to Country.

  • Naomi Appleby

    Naomi Appleby (Karajarri Yawuru) is a 2019 Encounters Fellow and the Project Coordination Officer, Future Acts & Heritage, Land & Sea Nyamba Buru Yawuru.

  • John Carty

    John Carty is the Head of Humanities at the South Australian Museum.

  • Stephen Welsh

    Stephen Welsh is the Curator of Living Culture​s at the Manchester Museum, The University of Manchester.

  • Guides and resources
    • The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) was adopted by the General Assembly on Thursday, 13 September 2007. The Declaration is the most comprehensive international instrument on the rights of Indigenous peoples. It establishes a universal framework of minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the Indigenous peoples of the world and it elaborates on existing human rights standards and fundamental freedoms as they apply to Indigenous peoples.
    • The Australian Government Policy on Indigenous Repatriation was established in 2011. In 2016, the policy was updated to reflect the change in department name (Note: in February 2020 following the Administrative Arrangements Order made on 5 Decemeber 2019, the Department of Communications and the Arts functions were transferred to the renamed Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications).
    • The Australian Government has been facilitating the return of Indigenous ancestral remains and secret sacred objects to their communities of origin for over two decades. The Government acknowledges that repatriation requires a holistic approach and recognises the process helps promote healing and reconciliation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
  • Other repatriation projects and programs

    Encounters Fellowship

    • Encounters Fellowships offer six people a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to gain professional development in a hands-on program that includes a placement at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra and experience at partner cultural institutions in Australia and the United Kingdom.
    • Successful applicants work alongside museum, gallery and cultural sector specialists, gaining behind-the-scenes experience in areas including collections research and preservation, exhibition planning, digital storytelling, educational programming, Indigenous design thinking, and project management.

    Australian Government Indigenous Repatriation Program

    Indigenous Repatriation Museum Grants Program

    • The Indigenous Repatriation Museum Grants Program supports the repatriation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ancestral remains and secret sacred objects held in eight major Australian museums to their communities of origin.
    • Museums funded under the Program work in partnership with identified communities to return their ancestors and secret sacred objects. The Australian Government recognises the importance and cultural significance of Indigenous communities being directly involved in the process of repatriation.

    Returning Photos: Australian Aboriginal Photographs from European Collection

    Return, Reconcile, Renew (Restoring Dignity Project)

    • Over the last two centuries, thousands of Indigenous ancestral remains have been taken from country and sent to cultural and scientific institutions worldwide. The Return, Reconcile, Renew project illuminates the subsequent repatriation of Australian Indigenous ancestral remains over the past 40 years.
    • The Return, Reconcile, Renew project will provide critical new knowledge to understand repatriation, its history and effects and will provide scholarly and public outcomes that empower community-based research and practice.
    • Due to be published in September 2019, the Return, Reconcile, Renew web resource will forge new ground in the Indigenous development of protocols for the digital archiving of, and online access to, information of high cultural sensitivity.

    Collecting the West: How collections create Western Australia

    The German Ethnographic Expeditions to the Kimberley, Northwest Australia

    • A Collaborative Assessment of Research History, the Interpretation of Australian Aboriginal Heritage and Digital Repatriation.

    Australian Joint Copying Project – The Haddon Papers

    • The Australian Joint Copying Project (AJCP) is a collection of unique historical material relating to Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific dating from 1560 to 1984. 
    • Records filmed by the AJCP include a diverse range of material from UK Government Departments such as the Admiralty, Home Office, Colonial Office, the Dominions Office held by The National Archives of the UK and County Record Offices as well as personal archives and manuscripts of leading politicians, explorers, scientists, religious and missionary societies, convicts and businesses held by private organisations or individuals.
    • The project to digitise the content of the AJCP microfilm will be completed by the 30th June 2020.