Manchester Museum is to return 43 sacred items to Indigenous Australians as part of a project run by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS).
The museum will hold two ceremonies in the coming months to hand over the material, which has not been displayed to the public for more than 20 years out of cultural sensitivity.
After being contacted by AIATSIS last year as part of its Return of Cultural Heritage project, the museum decided to fast-track research into the objects to ensure they could be returned ahead of next year’s 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook’s arrival in Australia, which is treated by First Nations people as a day of mourning.
The secret sacred and/or ceremonial artefacts include body ornaments, musical instruments used in ceremonies and objects of spiritual significance.
The items have been at the museum since the 1920s. They will be repatriated unconditionally to the Aranda people of Central Australia, Gangalidda Garawa peoples of north-west Queensland, Nyamal people of the Pilbara and Yawuru people of Broome.
The handover marks the museum’s first return of secret sacred and/or ceremonial material to Indigenous Australians. The museum been engaged in repatriation since the early 1990s, but until now its focus has been on the return of ancestral human remains.
“[The project] was so fundamentally important – crucial – that we prioritised it to make sure we were on time,” said Stephen Welsh, deputy head of collections and curator of living cultures at Manchester Museum. “It was an intensive but really exciting and profound experience.”
The items will go back into use in their communities of origin, where they will be held in charity and community spaces. “They will be reactivated – although for a lot of those communities they never stopped being activated and it was a continuation of their trauma knowing they were being kept here at the museum.”
Manchester Museum has made decolonisation a priority and plans to embed learning from the project in the development of a new collections policy. Welsh said the museum had been emboldened to take action by the motto of one of Manchester’s most famous figures, Emmeline Pankhurst: “Deeds not words.”
"As a sector, if you're going to talk about decolonisation, you have to talk about repatriation," he said. "It was about time that we took action."
He said the process of gaining board approval for the move had been straightforward due to strong support from the museums’ leadership and colleagues at the University of Manchester. “It passed by the board of governors with no queries,” he said.
Shift in attitudes
Welsh said the reaction to the repatriation among the public and media – where it has sparked global interest – indicated a major shift had taken place in UK attitudes to repatriation.
“Younger people just know it’s the right thing to do. If we had done this 10 years ago the reaction wouldn’t have been particularly positive, but it has been remarkably positive.”
Many journalists and cultural commentators also appear to have moved away from the usual questions on whether repatriation would result in the depletion of collections, he said. “That shows the cultural shift – it’s exciting and encouraging."
AIATSIS CEO Craig Ritchie said: “We congratulate Manchester Museum for their commitment to recognising the importance of repatriation for all Australians, which promotes healing and reconciliation, and ultimately fosters truth telling about our nation’s history.”
“The repatriation of our sacred cultural heritage items is a fundamental part of the healing and reconciliation process, both within our communities and between our mob and the government,” said Mangubadijarri Yanner, representative for the Gangalidda Garawa Native Title Aboriginal Corporation.
“Bringing these sacred cultural heritage items back to country is important and necessary for the purpose of cultural revitalisation – because locked deep within these items is our lore; our histories, our traditions and our stories.”