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Cultural Property Part 2

It would be facile to assume that the recognition of these rights has caused no problems. There are still those who do not see this issue as having the salience that the policy intends. To some, consultation is sending out proposals; to others it is considered too difficult to find the appropriate group and/or that to do so will cause unreasonable delays in program implementation. But if museums are to pursue these principles in good faith then they will have to recognise just how important such considerations are.

Rocks in the Kimberleys, Western Australia (More)

In framing the policy, arguments over the display and return of human remains and the way in which secret/sacred items were to be properly dealt with were minimal. After all, directors of major museums had already years earlier (in 1983) decided that they would not acquire human remains except in the most extraordinary circumstances and would consider requests for return of them. And they had also decided to place secret/sacred items in special storage areas and not to publicly display them.

In the framing of Previous Possessions, New Obligations, the issues were

  1. What should happen to human remains of special scientific importance?
  2. How could the unknown provenance of secret/sacred material be overcome?
  3. Would there be a request for return of items that had been legitimately acquired by the museum?
  4. How would issues such as training and employment and the representation of indigenous peoples on Boards and/or Advisory Committees be dealt with in the context of scarce financial resources and the frequent wish of those who appointed Boards to do anything but address minority representation.

1. Human Remains of Special Importance

Previous Possessions, New Obligations

puts aside any expression of the unilateral right of museums to determine how they deal with human remains, i.e., returned to the community or retained by the museum. Whilst there is certainly recognition by many that some human remains of Australian Aboriginal people are of great scientific significance by virtue of antiquity or other reasons, the notion that therefore museums only have to assert this to be given the right to retain the remains was rejected. Some may consider that the items are part of universal human history because they demonstrate the antiquity of indigenous Australians and the continuity of human existence in Australia. On the other hand Indigenous peoples consider that oral tradition establishes the continuity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander existence in Australia. The policy accepts that the relevant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community must be able to consider all the evidence concerning the scientific significance of the remains and the proposed research before being asked to agree to the museum’s retaining the remains or conducting research upon them. Upon completion of the research, scientists must communicate the results effectively to that community.

Agreement on what might consistently signify the scientific importance of human remains is not resolved. Age by itself does not establish scientific importance. Each case must be dealt with individually.

2. Secret/sacred items

The notion that museums are entitled to retain items of a religious nature that they have “legally” acquired was rejected. Without equivocation, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities consider that their rights to have control over secret/sacred items cannot be a matter for compromise.

Previous Possessions, New Obligations states,

“Custodianships of secret/sacred material is vested in those people – the traditional custodians or their descendants – who have rights in and responsibilities for it under Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander customary law.”

Lack of provenance of many items in museum collections is being dealt with under a special program of the Australian Government and Museums Australia.

Museums are to take appropriate steps to seek out the traditional custodians of secret/sacred material and to consult them on their wishes as to return or retention by the museum acting in a custodial role.

3. Collections in General: Items legitimately acquired

Whilst there appears to be clear consensus, on human remains and secret/sacred material, with some issues subject to ongoing discussion, there is less agreement on collections in general. Many museums have acquired items by means that they would regard as legal: they believe that they are entitled to retain those items but are concerned that claims may be made on them which will take time and energy to resolve which they do not wish to employ. Legal advice clearly shows that under Australian law, museums own those items that they have legally acquired and are entitled to do with them as they see fit in accordance with their enabling legislation.

Under the policy museums are to consider sensitively all requests for return of property: the recommendation that consultation be undertaken does not mean that there is support for not returning items at all. The policy states,

“In all cases, it is appropriate that museums give the utmost consideration to requests from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities for return to them of cultural material. The context of acquisition shall be taken into account in discussion of requests for return of items. Requests by museums for the manufacture of replicas of items which are to be returned to the community are inappropriate unless specifically offered by the community.”

Artworks made specifically for sale are outside the policy: ownership of the item is transferred but, very importantly, copyright is not!

4. Training, Employment and other Activities

A museum with substantial heritage of another culture ought to ensure input by representatives of that culture to the decisions about that heritage. To do otherwise is to continue the practices of the past, many of them grounded in paternalism or arrogance.

Similarly, if Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are to have a greater involvement, then museums have an obligation to participate in training them and an obligation, just as important, to employ them, and involve them when major decisions are made about their culture and heritage and when access by indigenous communities to that culture and heritage is provided.

Dr Richard West, Cheyenne lawyer and now Director of the National Museum of the American Indian, said at the 1991 American Association of Museums,

“All of us can benefit immensely by bringing to bear on our interpretation of this magnificent [Heye Foundation] collection the voices and insights of its makers and creators…. We must be sure that all those elements which make up native cultures are represented. In addition to the valid and worthy insights of the anthropologists our view of native cultures must expand to embrace the many other elements of culture by anyone’s definition. This would go a long way towards eliminating our status in museums as the dead, the studied and the primitive, rather than as full living members of human kind…. And [have] live bodies [in] the museum…

A plain English version of the Policy was prepared, as a result of a review in 1995: it includes many examples of positive relations between museums and indigenous communities. This version was launched November 1996 at the Museum of Contemporary Art during the Museums Australia conference.

The Future

When launched “Previous Possessions, New Obligations” included responses from over 50 individuals and organisations, indigenous and non-indigenous, museums and others.

Museums Australia’s Standing Committee, which includes a majority of indigenous peoples, is oversighting two programs initiated in 1993 by the Government through the Department of Communications and the Arts: 1) provenancing of skeletal remains so that the relevant community can then consider return of the items to them; 2) the cataloguing of all secret/sacred items held in major museums. Both involve consultation with the appropriate custodians and communities. Museums will be more able then to discuss the future disposition of the items with the right community.

But problems persist.

The fundamental issues involved are ones which can cause tension and even violent conflict. But in the end, even if ownership of cultural material is decided on the basis of who has the right to tell the stories about it, decisions made by museums are decisions which have to be negotiated between parties from a position of mutual respect including respect for freedom of speech and the dignity of the human being. They are also decisions that will recognise that sometimes rhetoric plays an important role in mobilising opinion and illuminating fundamental beliefs. Politics is not something that is outside the door of the museum but a part of everyday life, a way of balancing conflicting but legitimate demands as much as a way of marginalising and eventually suppressing identity.

Major museums in Australia have committed themselves to substantial change, to a collaborative process with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. ‘Previous Possessions, New Obligations’ is a basis for action: for it to have meaning will require commitment. The outcomes will have to be meaningful acts. That will be the test.


A new exhibition has just opened at the Australian Museum. “Indigenous Australians” was developed through substantial consultation with indigenous peoples and non-indigenous peoples. Its thematic approach addresses issues fundamental to indigenous peoples: contemporary and traditional matters are addressed within each theme.


I want to particularly thank Tim Sullivan (Australian Museum) for help with this manuscript. Chris Anderson, Jim Specht, Phil Gordon, Lori Richardson, Bernice Murphy and Trevor Pearce have all been together with me on this journey.