Manchester Museum returned 174 cultural heritage items to the Aboriginal Anindilyakwa community of Australia’s Northern Territory at a ceremony held on 5 September.
The Anindilyakwa community travelled from Groote Eylandt, an island about 50km from the north coast of mainland Australia, to take part in the ceremony.
Manchester Museum, which is part of the University of Manchester, has been working with the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) and the Anindilyakwa Land Council over a three-year period, with support from Unesco, to determine the future of the collection of items.
Manchester Museum staff were present in person for part of the consultation process, visiting Groote Eylandt at the invitation of the Anindilyakwa People.
Georgina Young, head of exhibitions and collections at Manchester Museum, said: “Having spent time on Groote Eylandt at the invitation of the Anindilyakwa People makes reaching this point of handover feel momentous in a different way to any of Manchester Museum’s past returns.
“Sitting with Elders and hearing them discuss this collection on their land in their terms has enabled me to understand and care in ways not possible in a store room in Manchester, and brought us to a place of understanding together.
“We are excited by all that this return makes possible in terms of future partnership, but more so by how it supports Anindilyakwa cultural strengthening for years to come.”
Descendant generations are using the returned items to connect with their heritage, helping to spark a contemporary art project inspired by traditional practices.
This is paving the way for future collaboration between the Anindilyakwa People and Manchester Museum, including a display of contemporary works from the Anindilyakwa Art Centre.
Thomas Amagula, deputy chair of the Anindilyakwa Land Council, said: “The Anindilyakwa Land Council represents the 14 clans who are the Traditional Owners of the land and seas of the Groote Archipelago, and the repatriation of the Worsley Collection by Manchester Museum is an important step for the ALC in pursuing one of our core visions: to ‘protect, maintain, and promote Anindilyakwa culture’.
“We have only just begun to appreciate how valuable the repatriation of the Worsley Collection will be in the future.”
One of the highlights of the collection being returned is a group of dolls made from shells – Dadikwakwa-kwa in the Anindilyakwa language. This has inspired the Dadikwakwa-kwa Project, which is being led by 10 women artists from Anindilyakwa Art Centre.
Two of the artists, senior elder Noeleen Lalara and emerging leader Maicie Lalara, were part of the delegation of Anindilyakwa women at Manchester Museum for the handover, alongside emerging leader Amethea Mamarika.
The Dadikwakwa-kwa Project was partly inspired by the conversations that took place with Amethea’s grandmother (Old Lady Edith Mamarika) on Groote Eylandt around her memories of the shell dolls that are now being returned.
Traditionally painted by parents for their daughters using intricate ochre designs, they have helped to strengthen cross-generational bonds within the Anindilyakwa community.
Leonard Hill, acting chief executive of AIATSIS, said: “AIATSIS and the Manchester Museum have a productive and committed partnership and I thank them for their collaborative and ethical approach to caring for their collections and respecting the Anindilyakwa community’s wish to have their material returned to Country.
“This is a highly significant return and demonstrates how respectful partnerships between AIATSIS, First Nation communities and overseas collecting institutions can create opportunities for people to encounter, engage and be transformed by the stories of Aboriginal and Torre Strait Islander Peoples.”
Manchester Museum has collaborated with AIATSIS over the past five years and previously returned sacred and ceremonial items to Aboriginal communities.
The current repatriation goes further, embracing the full scope of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by returning material beyond the secret, sacred and ceremonial that is important to the traditions and memories of the Aboriginal community that made them.
It also reflects the spirit of the MONDIACULT 2022 Declaration, which recognises culture as a global public good. This was adopted during the Unesco World Conference on Cultural Policies and Sustainable Development.
This latest return by Manchester Museum follows its 20-year history of returning items to Indigenous communities. It is guided by Manchester Museum’s values of inclusivity, imagination and care, underpinned by the University of Manchester's own commitment to social responsibility.
Manchester Museum said the aim is to reimagine the role of museums by shifting emphasis toward caring for people as well as objects, building greater understanding and empathy between cultures by working with communities to tell their stories in different ways.