Case Study: Western Australian Museum 2005

Repatriation is rewarding for participants, but difficulties arise when returning diverse material and multiple institutions are involved.

The Western Australian Aboriginal ancestral remains that were part of the Museum’s Skeleton Collection entered into the collection from 1902 to 1945. These cover all the state and came to the museum in various ways, including donations by collectors, naval officers and explorers, as well as purchases from collectors and land holders.

With the support of the joint state/federal funded Return of Indigenous Cultural Property Program, the Australian Museum collaborated with indigenous communities and the Western Australian Museums to repatriate secret/sacred objects and ancestral remains from Western Australia in 2005.

This process, however, began years earlier, illustrating the lengthy process of negotiation that repatriation requires. In 2002, the Australian Museum was contacted by the Western Australian Museum, who in collaboration with the Aboriginal communities, sought to identify material for possible repatriation. The search identified 13 ancestral remains from across the state, which were transferred the Western Australian Museum in August 2005. They would be custodians of the remains before they were returned to Country.

The repatriation required sustained cross-institutional effort and negotiation with representatives of the Aboriginal communities, including the Wangka Maya Aboriginal Language Centre on behalf of communities from the Pilbara and the Kimberly Law and Cultural Centre on behalf of communities there. In November 2006, four years after the process was initiated, the remains from the Australian Museum became part of the 77 sets of ancestral remains that were returned to a Keeping Place, an Aboriginal community museum, in Fitzroy Crossing. They would remain there in the interim while traditional owners from the Kimberly decided what remains would be returned to Country.

The Australian Museum is ‘supports the right of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to self-determination in respect of cultural heritage matters’ (Australian Museum Repatriation Policy) and has been repatriating objects and remains of significance to Indigenous Australians since 1974. This was another instance of the museum’s continued engagement with indigenous communities to work towards reconciliation.


Vu Tuan Nguyen
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