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Cultural Property Part 1

Near Tinonee NSW (More)

Des Griffin, The Australian Museum, Sydney

Presentation to the Australian Reconciliation Convention, Melbourne, 27 May 1997

With the greatest respect to the many wonderful Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers and singers I want to start not with a quote from them, not even from Kev Carmody from “The Albatross” or from “Comrade Jesus Christ” (which I think is one of the most astoundingly revealing pieces ever written), but with the line from blind black American singer Stevie Wonder, “This World is made for all Men.”

To me, the issue of cultural property and self determination is not something out there, not something that we might deal with when the economy is right, not something that we might pay attention to when the Government gives us (museums) enough money. It is something fundamental, the infringement of which touches me personally. I am not an indigenous person. But I am a New Zealander of Irish origin and I suppose the sense of injustice I have in the context of relations between black and white in Australia, especially at this time, flows from listening to stories from my dad about Ireland. In 1916 after the Easter Rising James Connolly was strapped in a chair because he couldn’t stand on his wounded ankle so he could be shot by the British. I was told of Robert Emmett’s exhortation at his trial for high treason in 1803, “Let no man write my epitaph … [until] my country takes her place among the nations of the earth… ”

And second, if I may. Mexican Performance artist, and brilliant intellectual, Guillermo Gomez Pena recently said, “Some people say that the nineties will be the decade of the environment and I wish they were right”. He quoted performance artist Helen Sebastian, “we the human beings are the ultimate environment. From Sao Paulo to Bagdad and from Soweto to the Bronx, we are a foreigner in the process of extinction and our ecosystems, the multiracial cities we inhabit, are also part of the nature we must save. If we don’t save the human being and his/her concentrated habitat, we won’t even be here to witness the extinction of the Great Whale or the Californian Condor. In times such as these, essentialisms and nationalisms are no longer useful. The survival of the human being is a concern for all communities.”

Every one of us has an inalienable and inescapable obligation in our personal and professional/work role, to nurture tolerance and extend understanding, to preserve basic human rights and to speak out every time there is an infringement. As Stephen Fitzgerald said recently, it is a matter of leadership.

On 1 December 1993 a new policy entitled “Previous Possessions, New Obligations‘ was launched at the annual meeting of the Council of Australian Museum Associations (CAMA). I want to say something of the way in which museums might play a role in reconciliation, in bringing people together, in building pride, in recognising their role in the context of their position as the “custodians” of cultural property, not the owners of it. Or “shove off, we have it and we’re going to keep it”. Instead, “we hope that we can join with you in helping to create understanding about your rich culture”. As Chris Anderson said and as Previous Possessions, New Obligations says, “The basis of the approach by museums to the cultural heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples set out in this policy is the recognition that different and varying interests exist in it. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have special rights in respect of their cultural heritage: they have primary rights. They own their intangible cultural property, the meaning of the items expressed through the design, the dance, the song, the stories.”

Previous Possessions, New Obligations

is a comprehensive statement of principles and detailed policies covering relations between museums and Aboriginal and Torres Islander peoples. The Museums Australia meeting in 1993 also adopted a far ranging resolution stating that the rights of indigenous peoples to their culture and cultural property must be recognised and respected.

In this talk, I will describe some of the processes in the development of the policy, some of the options considered and attitudes adopted.


The last 20 years have seen a considerable surge in attention to the interest and actions of museums in Australia in their dealings with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their cultural heritage. The principal focus of attention has been skeletal remains.

By the early 1990s a number of larger museums had adopted procedures or practices that more adequately addressed issues of relationships with indigenous peoples.

One of the most enduring issues of course is the fact that natural history museums in Australia, like those in some other countries have, for most of their history, allowed interpretation of indigenous societies as not really as human as western industrialised societies. Museums studied and displayed their material culture like animals and fossils. They believed that indigenous peoples and cultures were dying out: they should collect the cultural material before it was too late.

Art museums involved themselves in activities different from these but often having a similar effect. They categorised the cultural material of indigenous peoples as “primitive’ art. They decontextualised (or recontextualised) it. They looked to the influences that it had on “modern’ art, on artists such as Picasso. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, held a major exhibition, “Primitivism and Twentieth Century Art” in 1984 on this subject. Bernice Murphy observed in 1994,

“with somewhat benevolent, paternalistic motives, although often mixed with a genuine regard and enthusiasm for unique cultural objects and a desire to preserve and study them. At worst, acquisition by museums has been part of brutal cultural conquest and has resulted in the alienation of people from the very materials through they might track their cultural heritage after the devastating process of colonisation”.

Numerous national and international meetings in the last 10 years, such as the World Archaeological Congress (WAC) meeting in Vermillion, South Dakota in August 1989 and the meeting in Barquesisominto, Venezuela in 1990, have passed resolutions – the Vermillion Accord and the WAC Code of Ethics – which emphasise respect for human remains irrespective of origin, race, religion, nationality, custom and tradition. They point to obligations to indigenous peoples, obligations to respect indigenous cultural heritage, the importance of its preservation to the survival of indigenous peoples.

Specific actions in other countries have built on this, recognising a commonality of interest and envisaging partnerships between First Peoples and museums: the Native America Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in the USA, the Report of a Task Force of the Assembly of First Nations and the Canadian Museums Association (Turning the Page: Forging New Relationships between Museums and First Peoples) in Canada. And the Bishop Museum in Hawai’i has returned cultural material to Pacific nations and Maori human remains have been returned from overseas museums to New Zealand.

These trends influenced the development of Previous Possessions, New Obligations.

First Steps In The Formulation Of An Australian Policy

In mid 1991, CAMA, as the Australia-wide body concerned with museums of all kinds, agreed that it should develop such a policy.

Subsequent events leading to the formulation of the policy through to final adoption can be seen in three stages:

  1. formulation of an initial statement for discussion;
  2. formulation of principles by museum staff and associated persons of both indigenous and non-indigenous origin; and
  3. publication of the principles and final formulation of the policy.

The initial document set out those positions where there was considered to be agreement between museums on the one hand and between museums and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the other and those where there were differences of opinion. The document covered the major areas: human remains, secret/sacred material, collections in general, public programs, governance, management and co-operation. An introduction dealing with past events in Australia was added together with statements and events from other parts of the world.

Previous Possessions, New Obligations

was launched on the morning of May 18, 1993 – International Museums Day in the International Year of Indigenous Peoples – outside Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art at Circular Quay West, a place of significance to the history of Australia for both indigenous and non-indigenous people. Near here the first European permanent settlement was started in 1788.

The Major Issues Of The CAMA Policy

The issue of major significance in the framing of a policy concerning museums and other cultures is the tension between the wish of indigenous peoples to have control over every aspect of possession and representation of their culture on the one hand, and the belief – fear even – on the part of some museum administrators and boards that this will mean anything from a removal of all collections, even items legitimately purchased, to removal of access to it by scholars of the museum. The situation can be profiled as either a demand for return of everything or a concern only with human remains and items of ceremonial significance. This is still a contentious issue.

Some assert that agreeing to return of cultural heritage will lead to more and more requests and eventually the “stripping’ of museums of their collections. I do not know of a single case where such assertions have proved true. On the other hand, there are many cases where returns have helped stronger relations between museums and indigenous peoples. Yet there continues to be resistance. The continued refusal of some Governments such as that of the UK to endorse the UNESCO (1968) “Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illegal and Illicit Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property’ is perhaps the best example.

What involvement will people have in decisions about their culture including storage of cultural material, custody of human remains, secret/sacred items (sometimes referred to as ceremonial or grave goods in other cultures) and of other collections of significance? Just as important is access to the documentation of the culture including photographs and diaries. Opportunities for training are important. Meaningful involvement in the way in which the museum displays and speaks publicly about culture is likewise vital. A comprehensive policy goes beyond repatriation, beyond the return of cultural material: it includes everything the museum does concerning culture. Past lack of acknowledgment of indigenous peoples and their role characterises the inherently political nature of museums.

After the May 18, 1993 launch of the Statement of Principles, the CAMA Committee added a new principle supporting the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to self-determination.

Previous Possessions, New Obligations


“Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are living cultures: there are fundamental links between cultural heritage, traditional belief and land. Rights to self-determination and basic human rights, as set out in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, are of the greatest importance.”

It is from this that all else follows. There is an obligation to consult in all instances where indigenous individuals and communities make requests, no matter what the legal situation might be. There is an obligation to place before indigenous communities all relevant information when their permission is sought to conduct research on material, or to retain it. There is always an appropriate indigenous community to whom reference can be made: it may be a local community or it may be a State-wide land council.

The article continues.