Returning items of cultural significance is a process that builds relationships between museums and Indigenous communities.
In 1987, together with the Canadian Museum of Civilization and representatives of the Kwakwakak'wakw (Kwakiutl) people of Canada's Northwest Coast, the Australian Museum began to repatriate material from the Cape Mudge area of British Columbia.
The Cape Mudge collection was purchased by the Museum in 1912, and came to Australia with an indigenous group from the Northwest Coast who performed at Sydney's Royal Easter Show in 1911. The artefacts are culturally important, many having been made for traditional purposes at a time when the Canadian government was trying to ban the practice of potlatch, a ritual demonstration of wealth and social status. It was felt that some of the rarer pieces in the collection should be returned to Canada where the Kwakwakak'wakw community could access them. The items repatriated were a pair of House Posts, an Eagle mask, a Bear mask and an Echo mask.
In return, the Australian Museum received pieces commissioned from the Hunt family, a highly regarded Kwagiulth Kwakwakak'wakw family of artists. These pieces are fine examples of how traditional cultural forms continue to be expressed in a contemporary context.
The Cape Mudge repatriation forged strong ties between the parties and has enabled the Australian Museum to display superb examples of contemporary Northwest Coast artistry which express the living, dynamic nature of Indigenous cultures today.