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Arrernte ceremony in Alice Springs celebrates the return of sacred objects from overseas collections

Senior Arrernte lawmen today welcomed with a ceremony in Alice Springs the return of sacred objects from the United Kingdom and the planned return of objects from the most significant collection of Australian Indigenous art and craft held in North America.

The material received today from the Manchester Museum consists of 19 sacred Arrernte objects gathered in the early 20th century by a number of collectors from the United Kingdom. The arrival of these items in Alice Springs follows a memorandum of understanding signed between the museum and AIATSIS in 2019.

Meanwhile, a further 17 sacred objects from the Arrernte, Warlpiri, and Warumungu language groups of Central Australia are set for return later this year from the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia, following an agreement brokered by AIATSIS.

The Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection currently holds more than 2100 paintings, ornaments, weapons, tools and other items acquired by the US media mogul and philanthropist John W. Kluge – himself an enthusiast for Australian Indigenous art, but who also purchased objects collected by academic Edward Ruhe as a result of his field work in Australia in the 1960s. This is the only museum outside of Australia dedicated to the exhibition and study of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures.

Senior Arrernte man, Peter Wallace Peltharre, spoke of the importance of the return of sacred objects in maintaining cultural practices in Central Australia.

'We are proud to do this work for our younger generation in teaching them our Law, our way of living, and about our grandfathers and all those who lived in those days,' Mr Wallace Peltharre said. 'So we are proud to do this for each and everyone one of us – for all the Arrernte families. Not only Arrernte, but we can teach all our other young men too.’

AIATSIS CEO Craig Ritchie explained that the objects from the Kluge-Ruhe Collection were identified following an approach in 2019 from AIATSIS staff working on the Return of Cultural Heritage pilot project.

'We were delighted that the staff at the Kluge-Ruhe collection responded so readily to that outreach,' Mr Ritchie said. 'The museum enjoys very good relationships with a number of communities represented in the collection. In partnering with AIATSIS to explore the repatriation of sensitive items the museum is respecting those relationships.

'Today's return of the Arrernte objects from the Manchester Museum follows earlier repatriations from that museum of objects belonging to the Gangalidda Garawa peoples of northwest Queensland, the Nyamal people of the Pilbara, and the Yawuru people of Broome. The Manchester Museum has shown goodwill and a cooperative spirit throughout this process.'

In a message from the US, Dr Margo Smith AM, the director of the Kluge-Ruhe Collection, expressed appreciation for the role of AIATSIS in facilitating the return.

'We at Kluge-Ruhe believe that these objects belong with their communities, where they can be appropriately cared for and will contribute to the transfer of cultural knowledge from one generation to the next,' Dr Smith said. 'The testimony the elders provided about how these objects connect them to the old people is extremely moving. Our hope in returning them is that they will contribute to strengthening culture and, in turn, enable us to build ongoing relationships with community members.'

AIATSIS has begun work with senior cultural authorities of the Arrernte, Warlpiri, and Warumungu communities to determine the most appropriate means for returning those sensitive materials from the Kluge-Ruhe Collection. The sacred nature of the items limits what can be said about them.

Beginning as a pilot project in 2018, the Return of Cultural Heritage program facilitates the return of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage material from overseas governments, collecting institutions and private collectors.

AIATSIS has identified 299 overseas collecting institutions that may hold Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage items, and has identified over 105,000 objects held overseas.

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