Deep Conversations: Restoration, Recovery and Repair, Part I: Repatriation

What is repatriation and how is it conceived differently by communities, governments and research institutions? To what extent is it necessary for reconciliation? Can museums and universities engage effectively and empathetically in repatriation? How can this process involve community and community building? These were some of the questions discussed in a recent Deep Conversations seminar, hosted by the ANU Research Centre for Deep History and the Centre for Environmental History, and convened by Dr Amy Way and Dr Rohan Howitt.

Dr Hilary Howes began by reflecting on assumptions she made about repatriation before working as Executive Assistant to the Ambassador at the Australian Embassy in Berlin. In this role, Hilary was responsible for bilateral research collaboration and the repatriation of Australian Indigenous ancestral remains from German collecting institutions. In many cases, she that most general assumptions frequently misrepresent and misunderstand the repatriation process. One assumption is that the provenance of an item is the most important detail for both researchers and traditional owners. Many of the Indigenous communities Hilary worked with, however, were more concerned with what had happened to stolen items in the time they’d been off Country. Where had they been held? How had they been stored? Had they ever been displayed? Who had handled them? When dealing with ancestral remains, such concerns are magnified. For traditional owners, ‘ancestral remains’ are people with whom there is an existing and ongoing relationship; ancestors, or ‘old people,’ who are known and respected in the present.

Another assumption is that traditional owners will feel happiness and gratitude when stolen items are returned. Hilary described the emotional reality as much more complicated. While at the Australian Embassy in Berlin, Hilary witnessed distraught traditional owners who wept when reunited with their ancestors, while others expressed anger and pain in powerful speeches criticising the governments and institutions responsible. Many traditional owners, Hilary reminded us, were still attempting to grapple with the knowledge that their ancestors had been dug up and stolen in the first place. Handover ceremonies are therefore complex sites of hope and frustration, pain and healing, that rarely represent the end of the repatriation process. Instead, traditional owners are frequently confronted by a range of new issues. Should ancestral remains be reburied? If so, where? And how? Communities may not have appropriate ceremonies for re-burials, and in countries like Australia, in which Indigenous peoples have been forcibly removed from their traditional lands, communities encounter additional barriers. What should be done when connections to Country have been disrupted, or when traditional land has been developed, disturbed or eroded? How can the future protection of repatriated remains and artefacts be ensured? Such discussions can be fraught and protracted, placing a heavy burden on traditional owners.

Dr Amber Aranui discussed similar issues in her work as a Curator, Repatriation Researcher and Archaeologist at Te Papa Tongarewa, the National Museum of New Zealand. Amber reflected on the unique position she occupies as a Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Tūwharetoa descendent, and an employee of a colonial institution that enacted violence and dispossession on her people. While this allows her to bring an important Māori perspective to national repatriation initiatives, it also creates a tension that has forced her to inhabit difficult ethical situations. New Zealand has an interesting history of repatriation. While claims for repatriation were made as far back as the 1940s, it wasn’t until the 1980s that New Zealand museums became more involved. Even then, Amber argued, repatriation efforts typically involved international museums returning taonga (objects of cultural significance), rather than New Zealand’s own institutions repatriating taonga and ancestral remains to iwi (tribal group). For Amber, this raises further questions about museum collection practices, the role of cultural heritage in education, and the idea of national ‘ownership’ of artefacts versus international trafficking.

Amber argued repatriation is crucial to reconciliation efforts. Her own work has been instrumental in helping build support for repatriation initiatives in New Zealand; support she claimed is increasing. Most recently, in June 2021, Museums Aoteroa adopted a National Repatriation Policy for Kōiwi Tangata and Associated Burial Taonga within Aotearoa. Prepared by the National Repatriation Network, of which Amber is a founding member and former chair, the policy offers guidance for museums in taking an ethical approach to the respectful management of kōiwi tangata (human remains) within their care, with a presumption that repatriation to the source community should be the outcome wherever possible. Still, Amber argued, many efforts still remain reactive. Museums and other research institutions must be more proactive in their approach to and pursuit of repatriation.

Dr Maria Nugent saw repatriation initiatives serving a similar purpose in Australia. A specialist in analysing modes of telling history and making memory in cultural heritage, community and museum contexts, Maria argued that repatriation is an important part of the broader project of recasting Australian history. This project, of course, is always filled with contestation over which pasts can and should be drawn into the present. Maria discussed her recent repatriation work with the Aboriginal communities of La Peruse, which focuses on material culture objects held in museum collections. The material culture of Port Jackson Aboriginal communities was once the most internationally well-known. Yet now, Maria argued, it is the least, having been scattered throughout archives across the imperial world. Provenance again emerged as a key issue for researchers, as did the accessibility of historical records for Aboriginal people. Assisting Aboriginal people in obtaining their own information from incomplete or inadequate records is a challenge many institutions are yet to overcome. At the same time, Maria argued, bureaucracy is a space in which good work can sometimes happen: pulling together lengthy reports and filling out institutional paperwork requires deep thinking and careful planning in consultation with traditional owners. Maria described a sense among her team that they were leveraging an important moment in time. There has been a global shift towards repatriation efforts, and the current interest, support and funding given to her project drives Maria’s desire to work quickly and efficiently lest that moment begin to fade.

Communities often bring memories of failed attempts and past hurts to repatriation initiatives, something that must be appreciated and understood by institutions and researchers. Indeed, Maria described her project as one that consciously does not assume repatriation to be the end goal. Repatriation in its true sense means a permanent return, but Maria argued it is also crucial to see repatriation as being part of broader repair and recovery work, such as truth telling and reconciliation. Repair might even be considered as an end in and of itself. The most important thing, however, is for institutions and repatriation researchers to ask traditional owners what they want, how they feel, what they think, and then, Maria stressed, to listen.

Similar sentiments drive the work of Dr Michael Pickering, a senior curatorial fellow at the National Museum of Australia who works closely with local Aboriginal groups in the Museum’s repatriation efforts. Michael reiterated Amber’s call that museums need to be proactive in pursuing repatriation. One way they can achieve this, he argued, is by funding dedicated provenance research teams. Yet there are few, if any, places in Australia where you can go to study these particular research skills, and a dearth of courses on repatriation in general. There is often a tension between museums and universities when it comes to repatriation, both in the skills and training on offer and their overall relationship to cultural artefacts in their collections. Michael argued there is little formal institutional exchange of information on what objects or ancestral remains are being held, which then hinders proactive discussions on what to do with them. University collections, especially those of university museums, can pose particular issues. Items may remain hidden or forgotten in the collections of individual academics or research projects, only coming to light through retirement or a major archival clean-up.

Michael argued passionately for the leading role Australian universities can take in the repatriation movement, both through education and by modelling an honest, open approach to assessing archives. Institutions may fear that returning materials will lead to a ‘loss’ of knowledge or data, but Michael argued repatriation frequently leads to the production of greater and deeper knowledge. Repatriation should be seen as a way of doing history; by working with traditional owners, interrogating past practices, and reshaping methodologies, new relationships, questions and answers arise. Michael briefly mentioned anti-repatriation advocates, who sometimes raise valid questions of what will happen to materials once they are returned, but he believed Australian institutions are in a unique position to lead and shape the discussion and practice of repatriation in conjunction with Aboriginal communities. Repatriation is coming, whether institutions agree with it or not. So they better get ready.

Overall, our speakers presented repatriation as a fraught and complex process. It is rarely smooth or easy for participants to negotiate, but it is necessary and oftentimes positive in its outcomes. The strongest repatriation processes are those that are led by the voices and desires of traditional owners, while also acknowledging the emotional and administrative burden this places on communities. Institutions, both public and private, can assist with thorough provenance research, open communication, and shifting perspectives to recognise repatriation not as a loss of knowledge, but a chance for new engagements with history and memory.