Project Progress

Caption - Return delegation at the Illinois State Museum (USA) including community representatives of the Aranda and Bardi Jawi Nations and members of the RoCH project team
Return delegation at the Illinois State Museum (USA) including community representatives of the Aranda and Bardi Jawi Nations and members of the RoCH project team.

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Phase 1: Planning and Initiation (Completed February 2019)

The first phase involved the preparation and approval of:

  • team recruitment;
  • a project plan;
  • an engagement and communication strategy; and
  • ethics clearance from the AIATSIS Human Research Ethics Committee (HREC Reference Number: EO111-20022019)

Phase 2: Research and Identification (Completed May 2019)

This phase involved a literature review of existing research on materials held in overseas collecting institutions and online catalogues. The desktop research identified over 200 overseas collecting institutions with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage collections. Of these, AIATSIS corresponded with over 200 and received responses from 145 institutions. Of these:

  • 124 shared information regarding their collections;
  • 74 expressed an eagerness to establish a relationship with AIATSIS and/or First Nation communities; and,
  • 44 expressed a willingness to consider a return request.

AIATSIS is continuing to work with 145 institutions to establish the preliminary geographical provenance and cultural origin of collections / objects. Information gathered will be documented in an appropriately accessible database of cultural heritage material held overseas (currently under construction).

During phase 2, AIATSIS met with over 50 representatives from Indigenous governance organisations, national collecting institutions, government departments, agencies and authorities as well as leading repatriation specialists from across Australia in an effort to establish linkages and explore potential collaborations. These meetings were also to ensure that all relevant legislation and policy was well understood and adhered to across different jurisdictions.

Phase 3: Collaboration and Negotiation (Completed July 2019)

Based on the information garnered during Phase 2, six potential case studies (returns) from two institutions (Illinois State Museum and Manchester Museum) were selected for further investigation.  These included 5 nations:

  • Aranda (Illinois State Museum and Manchester Museum),
  • Bardi Jawi (Illinois State Museum)
  • Nyamal (Manchester Museum)
  • Gangalidda Garawa (Manchester Museum); and,
  • Yawuru (Manchester Museum)

Click image to enlarge. 

During this phase, AIATSIS engaged with representatives of the First Nations groups noted above to confirm custodianship of the material and to explore partnership in the project. This phase was completed once custodianship had been confirmed and a decision on whether to request the material and partner with the project had been reached.

Selection of case studies was determined on a number of factors, including but not limited to, the ability to establish geographical provenance, cultural origin and custodianship of the material, willingness of the institution to engage in return discussions, likelihood of a return within project timeframes, absence of competing claims to the material and legislative/policy context of the institution/Country.

Phase 4: Return of Material (Currently underway – commenced August 2019)

In collaboration with, and on the authority of Aranda, Bardi Jawi, Gangalidda Garawa, Nyamal, and Yawuru Nations, AIATSIS prepared formal requests for the unconditional repatriation 85 objects, including secret sacred, ceremonial and secular items. The requests were subsequently assessed by the Illinois State Museum on the 9th September 2019 and Manchester Museum 2nd October 2019, respectively. Both requests were unanimously approved by the Museums’ respective governance bodies.

During this phase, AIATSIS worked in close collaboration the appropriate knowledge holders and custodians of the material to confirm cultural protocols for the transport and handling of the items to be returned. 

AIATSIS also engaged various relevant National and State Government departments and agencies to obtain the necessary importation / customs permits for the movement of cultural artefacts including:

  • Department of Agriculture;
  • Department of Health;
  • Department of Environment and Energy;
  • Australian Border Force; and,
  • Department of Communications and the Arts (Protection of moveable cultural heritage).

AIATSIS also engaged a specialist Supply Nation certified fine arts freight and logistics company to manage the international freighting of the returning material.

In October 2019, AIATSIS along with representatives from the Aranda and Bardi Jawi Nations travelled to Springfield Illinois, USA to collect 42 objects. An official handover of the material was held at the Museum on 22nd October 2019. Following their return to Australia, AIATSIS facilitated the direct return of materials back to Country. These events were marked with small on Country celebrations at Alice Springs (Aranda) and Cape Leveque (Bardi Jawi).

In November 2019, AIATSIS along with representatives from the Gangalidda Garawa Nation (Nyamal representatives nominated AIATSIS to act on their behalf) travelled to Manchester, UK to collect 18 of the 43 objects to be repatriated. An official handover of the material was held at Australia House, London on 22nd November 2019. Following their return to Australia, AIATSIS facilitated the direct return of materials back to Country. These events were marked with on Country celebrations in Port Hedland (Nyamal) and Moungibi, Burketown (Ganaglidda Garawa).

In early March 2020, the third and final delegation with representatives from Aranda and Yawuru Nations will travel to Manchester to collect the remaining 25 objects negotiated for unconditional return in Phase 3. An official handover is scheduled to take place at the Museum and will be attended by AIATSIS staff, community representatives and museum sector professionals.

Phase 5: Project Conclusion (Currently underwaycommenced January 2020). 

This phase involves the completion of written project deliverables, project closure and narrative reporting. This phase will be conducted by the project team members in collaboration with Aranda, Bardi Jawi, Nyamal, Ganaglidda Garawa and Yawuru Nations (as required). Part of this phase will occur concurrently with the end of Phase 4: Return of Materials.


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Last reviewed: 11 Feb 2020