Yesterday, on Groote Eylandt, the Anindilyakwa Community celebrated the return of 174 cultural heritage items from the Manchester Museum, United Kingdom. This event marks the culmination of the partnership between the Anindilyakwa Community, Manchester Museum and the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS). Members of the Anindilyakwa Community, Traditional Owners of the lands and waters of the Groote Archipelago in the Northern Territory, gathered at Umbakumba where the items were originally collected to welcome home their treasured cultural heritage material.
These significant items include enungkuwa (spears), ajamurnda (bark baskets), errumungkwa (woven armbands) and dadikwakwa-kwa (painted doll shells). The material was collected by Professor Peter Worsley during his PhD fieldwork on Groote Eylandt in the 1950s.
In September this year, Anindilyakwa Women Danjibana Noeleen Lalara, Maicie Lalara and Amethea Mamarika travelled to Manchester Museum for an official handover ceremony.
In early November, Anindilyakwa Men Eric Amagula, Lionel Jaragba and Anthony Lalara welcomed the material as it arrived in Darwin.
At the ceremony Danjibana Noleen Lalara explained, ‘It was a very special day for us, for the Anindilyakwa people. We are celebrating. It’s been a long time since the artefacts have been away and the people are proud to come and see them. We are happy because our artefacts came back here, to where they belong.’
Minister for Indigenous Australians, the Hon Linda Burney MP said, ‘Yesterday was one of celebration for the Anindilyakwa people, as they welcome back the collection of culturally significant items after so many years away from Country. I commend AIATSIS, the Anindilyakwa Land Council and Manchester Museum for their hard work over the last three years to make the return a reality.’
The return is a result of a three-year collaboration between AIATSIS, the Anindilyakwa Land Council and Manchester Museum, part of the University of Manchester. By exploring connections and stories held in the archives of AIATSIS and the Manchester Museum with the memories and cultural knowledge of Anindilyakwa Elders, the return project worked to collectively determine where this material can be best cared for so that it inspires future generations and is cherished by contemporary ones.
Ngemba man and interim AIATSIS CEO, Leonard Hill said, 'This return has showcased the power of collaboration and highlights the significance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples having a central role in conversations about where their cultural heritage material is best placed. Returning cultural heritage material is not merely about the physical artefacts but is about fostering relationships, understanding, and mutual respect. The impact of this return is already sending ripples across the world by sharing powerful Anindilyakwa stories.'
In a first for AIATSIS, Manchester Museum curatorial staff accompanied AIATSIS Return of Cultural Heritage Team members for collaborative consultations on Groote Eylandt with the Anindilyakwa Community in 2022.
Manchester Museum Director Esme Ward, said, ‘All of Manchester Museum stands with the Anindilyakwa Community as they receive their belongings back on-Country. This moment comes from three years of collaboration, fuelled by care and empathy. I want to extend my thanks to Anindilyakwa Elders and Communities for their trust, their creativity and their generosity and I look forward to strengthening our collaboration and finding new ways to share Anindilyakwa culture and art for many years to come.’
Member for Arnhem, Selena Uibo said, ‘It’s fitting and appropriate to have significant cultural artefacts returned to their original owners. I know that the Anindilyakwa people are proud to have such important items handed back so they can now share them with their future generations.
We appreciate the UK’s Manchester Museum has kept these items safe and has worked closely with AIATSIS and the Anindilyakwa Community to bring these incredibly precious cultural heritage items home. Now they are home where they belong.’
AIATSIS leads the Australian Government’s Return of Cultural Heritage (RoCH) program that supports Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to exercise sovereignty over their cultural heritage material held in overseas collections and facilitates its return. Since its inception, the program has returned material from overseas collections to 14 communities.
The AIATSIS-led RoCH program is funded by the National Indigenous Australians Agency.
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