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  • Nov 04, 2020

Australian Government Commits Millions to Repatriate Overseas Indigenous Art

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The government of Australia has provided AUD 10.1 million (USD 7.2 million) to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) for its Return of Cultural Heritage (RoCH) project towards the repatriation of Indigenous artifacts held overseas back to their respective communities. Confirmed on October 6 as part of the federal budget announcement, this initiative will span four years from 2020–21 through 2024–25.

The new funding expands upon the two-year, AUD 2 million (USD 1.4 million) project that launched in 2018, which focused on the return of items of Indigenous cultural heritage from international public collections. The forthcoming phase will also include artifacts held in private collections. Current discussions for repatriation include talks with Jerusalem’s Israel Museum, the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia, in the United States, and a private collector from Sussex, England, according to RoCH executive director Lyndall Ley as reported by Artnews on November 3.

The 2018–20 RoCH report for the pilot phase was published in September. While the initial focus of the project was on material taken in the period from 1770, at the time of James Cook’s landing in Australia, to 1788, artifacts removed in the subsequent 250 years were identified in the research conducted for stolen artifacts. The report tracked down a total of 199 international institutions with collections of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander material, idenitifying more than 100,000 stolen objects. In particular, the report found that 83 institutions from the United States and Canada are currently holding 25,089 items; 55 from Europe are holding 31,692 items; and 42 from the United Kingdom are holding 33,343 items.

More than half of these institutions have responded and engaged with requests for repatriation, with 44 specifying a willingness to consider the request. Among these, numerous successful returns have taken place. The Illinois State Museum, in the US, returned 42 items to the Aranda and Bardi Jawi Nations on October 23, 2019, while the Manchester Museum in the UK returned 43 artifacts via two batches, on November 6, 2019 and in March of this year.

The RoCH project will also aim to foster relationships between international institutions and Aboriginal communities, to develop a database of overseas collections, and to establish best practice guidelines for such repatriations.

Emika Suzuki is an editorial intern of ArtAsiaPacific.

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