More must be done to repatriate ancestral remains

29 May 2018

From the late 18th century onwards Indigenous human remains have been acquired by museums and private collectors, both in Australia and around the world, and for the past 40 years there has been a major push to return these remains back to their rightful home.

While Australia has been at the forefront of this repatriation effort and has achieved some great successes in changing museum policies, experts say more still needs to be done.

The Australian National University (ANU) and the National Museum of Australia (NMA) held the Long Journey Home conference - an event which brought together Indigenous peoples involved in repatriation efforts from around the world to share their experiences and knowledge.

Event organiser and Deputy Director of the ANU National Centre for Indigenous Studies, Dr Cressida Fforde, said successful repatriation practices produce significant social benefits.

"Repatriation plays a significant role in healing, wellbeing and the reconciliation processes for Indigenous peoples," Dr Fforde said.

"This event has been an opportunity to hear from high level Indigenous experts in repatriation from a number of the key countries leading this field."

Event speaker Neil Carter is the Repatriation Officer for the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre. Mr Carter said the removal of ancestral remains from the Kimberly region had caused a great deal of distress to the local Indigenous population.

"Our ancestral remains weren't given away, they were stolen," Mr Carter said.

"For someone to come and take those away and put them into museums or overseas, the Elders were devastated. They say the ancestral remains must return to the country of which they were taken so their spirits can rest.

"Repatriation is important work that need to be carried on to put things right."

Dr Michael Pickering, Head of the Research Centre at the National Museum of Australia, said Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been advocating for repatriation of ancestral remains and cultural objects for many years, and Australian institutions and agencies have responded positively.

"This symposium provided a major opportunity for Indigenous representatives from Australia, Asia and the Pacific to share their experience in repatriation, not only with each other, but with a wider Australian audience," Dr Pickering said.

Long Journey Home: The Repatriation of Indigenous Remains Across the Frontiers of Asia and the Pacific was co-hosted by the School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific (ANU); the National Centre for Indigenous Studies (ANU); and the National Museum of Australia.