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A pair of dentalium (tusk shell) necklaces from Bardi Jawi. Photo: Illinois State Museum.

Australia Commits Millions to Repatriation of Overseas Aboriginal Artifacts

The government of Australia has announced that it is pledging $7.2 million to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS)’s Return of Cultural Heritage (RoCH) program, which seeks to restore Indigenous artifacts held overseas to their respective communities. The project was launched in 2018, the 250th anniversary of James Cook’s first landing in Australia, as a two-year pilot program with $1.4 million; the new funding will allow it to prolong its efforts for four years, from 2020–21 through 2024–25.

AIATSIS, which is a government agency, seeks the return of both secular and ceremonial objects. While the pilot effort targeted objects in public collections overseas, the expanded program will focus on private overseas collectors as well. According to AIATSIS’s report on the project to date, published in September, some one hundred thousand Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander artifacts remain in overseas public collections; of these, 25,089 are held in eighty-three North American institutions, with an additional 31,692 in fifty-five European institutions and 33,343 distributed among forty-two UK museums.

To date, the program has received promises from forty-four institutions to return items. Recovered objects so far include forty-two Aranda and Bardi Jawi artifacts from the Illinois State Museum, Springfield, and forty-three Aranda, Gangalidda Garawa, Nyamal, and Yawuru objects from the Manchester Museum, UK. As reported in Artnews, negotiations for repatriation are currently underway with Jerusalem’s Israel Museum; the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville; and a private collector from Sussex, UK.

The RoCH program plans to strengthen relationships between collecting institutions and traditional owners of Aboriginal artifacts with the goal of involving Indigenous communities in negotiating for the objects’ return. Additionally, the project aims to develop a database of overseas collections holding the objects, and to establish best-practice guidelines for their repatriation.

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