20 Sep 2022

Otago museum to return Indigenous Australian artefacts

4:26 pm on 20 September 2022
Otago Museum

Tūhura Otago Museum. File photo. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

Six cultural artefacts of Indigenous Australians held in an Otago museum will be returned more than a century after they were taken.

The collection includes a kalpunta (boomerang), palya/kupija (adze) and a selection of marttan (stone knives) that were taken from the Warumungu people, who are the traditional custodians of the Tennant Creek region in the Northern Territory, in the late 19th or early 20th century.

Tūhura Otago Museum acquired them between 1910 and 1937 through exchanges with Museum Victoria and amateur archaeologist and ethnologist, Frederick Vincent Knapp.

Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies has been working to identify cultural materials being held abroad and starting discussions on repatriation as part of its Return of Cultural Heritage team.

Last September, the team facilitated a virtual meeting between senior Warumungu men, museum staff and members of the museum's Māori Advisory Committee to discuss the significance of the objects

In June, the museum's Trust board endorsed a repatriation request, and confirmed the artefacts would be returned later this year following a hand-over ceremony in Dunedin with representatives from the Warumungu community.

Senior Warumungu man Michael Jones said he was glad they were being returned.

"Them old things they were carved by the old people who had the songs for it, too. I'm glad these things are returning back,' he said.

"The museums are respecting us, and they've been thinking about us. They weren't the ones who took them, they just ended up there. We can still teach the young people now about these old things and our culture."

The Institute's chief executive Craig Ritchie said the program was giving voice to the traditional owners in how their heritage was managed by collecting institutions outside of Australia.

"Storytelling is integral to the transmission of our cultural knowledge. Objects created in our communities, both sacred and secular, bear evidence of the skills of those who created them along with evidence of our cultural values," he said.

"We don't want to lose track of such storytelling aids, and our communities want a say in how they are used."

The Institute was grateful to the museum, its staff and the Māori Advisory Committee for the positive dialogue on this return.

"Our thanks also to Kāi Tahu, the local Māori tribe who, through the Māori Advisory Committee, have helped ensure the care and respect for these objects while they remained on their homelands."

The museum's Director of Collections, Research and Education, Robert Morris, said the museum's Trust board had supported the cultural property clauses of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The clause calls for providing access to and repatriation of ceremonial objects and ancestral remains where appropriate.

"More than just material expressions of a culture, these taoka (taonga) are also tangible links to the ancestors who made them so they must be treated with the greatest of care and respect.

"This recognises that returning these treasures to country is part of ensuring their culturally appropriate care and seeing their story in the community reinvigorated. The Tūhura Otago Museum is looking forward to welcoming the Warumungu people and the Return of Cultural Heritage team to Dunedin for the hand over once safe travel arrangements can be made."

The Warumungu community has suggested a selection of the returned objects would be displayed at the Nyinkka Nyunyu Art and Culture Centre in Tennant Creek.

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