Return of Cultural Heritage Project

Return of Cultural Heritage Project
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During 2020, Australia will mark the 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook’s first voyage to the east coast of Australia. This anniversary also marks the start of a process of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage being removed overseas. AIATSIS believes that as we approach this anniversary every effort needs to be made to secure return of items of Indigenous cultural heritage to Australia. With funding from the Australian Government, AIATSIS is leading the Return of Cultural Heritage project to intensify the effort to return material held overseas back to Country for the purpose of cultural revitalisation.

Returning material to Country for purposes of cultural revitalisation is a key aspiration of Indigenous communities. The “Return of Cultural Heritage project” will form a part of a larger narrative and support the cultural resurgence of Australia’s First Nations’ peoples. The project will strengthen the signal both to the nation and globally that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture is respected, celebrated and valued. The Project is a pilot and will run until 30 June 2020.

The project aims to:

  • Explore and facilitate the return of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage materials (objects, audio visual, and images) from overseas back to Country.
  • Document and develop an appropriately accessible database of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collections held overseas.
  • Build relationships between overseas collecting institutions and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
  • Build a business case for a future work program.

AIATSIS has begun contacting overseas institutions about their Australian materials and are undertaking research to understand the legislative and policy environments both in Australia and overseas to return this material.

With this information AIATSIS is working with both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and collecting institutions who wish to return material.

Over the course of the project AIATSIS will engage with relevant communities and custodians to:

  • Determine whether, where and how materials are returned.
  • Negotiate and broker the return of material to Australia.

​The project will follow the principles of Ask First, Guidelines for Ethical Research in Australian Indigenous Studies and Free, Prior and Informed Consent. Through the return of materials the project seeks to document a number of case studies to inform the future work program and funding.

The following benefits have been identified

  • Return of cultural heritage materials from overseas institutions
  • Documented processes and practice for return of material
  • Scoping study including publication of case studies
  • Improved understanding of overseas holdings
  • Improved understanding of projects already underway
  • Support of the cultural resurgence of Australia’s First Nations peoples
  • Greater agency and visibility of Australia’s Indigenous peoples
  • Better/new ways of understanding Australia’s history in relation to colonisation from Cook’s voyage onwards

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Last reviewed: 22 Jan 2020