Speech at the International Conference on the Inclusive Museum
I’d like to begin by paying my respects to the traditional owners and Elders of this land – the Turrbal and Jagera peoples.
I’d also like to acknowledge the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members of the audience and of our distinguished panel who has travelled from the Torres Strait, Kimberley, Groote Eylandt and South Australia to be with us today.
I’d like to pay my respects especially to the Elders who are present, and thank the International Council of Museums for the opportunity to make this address.
I want to start with the words of Joe Brown, a Walmajarri Elder from Fitzroy Crossing and former Chairman of the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre.
Joe Brown was part of the delegation which travelled to Sweden in 2005 to bring his old people home.
This is what he said after the repatriation.
“If you take the spirits away from their land that makes the country sick, and when the old ones are returned their spirits are very happy to be back.
He said, “It’s not just important to lay the spirits to rest, it’s also about respect. We are not animals – we are humans like white people. Every human has a spiritual life and you have to respect this.”
For me, the great sense of coming home in Joe Brown’s words and the peace it brings, underpin the significance of repatriation for Indigenous Australians.
As well as its great capacity for healing.
The Australian Government places great importance on healing the wounds that history has inflicted on Indigenous Australians.
Today I can announce that we are overhauling the processes for the repatriation of Australian Indigenous remains from international institutions to make them more inclusive of Indigenous aspirations.
So that we can return the spirits to their land, restore the sense of peace and balance invoked so eloquently by Joe Brown, and help in the healing.
To help with this review, a new International Repatriation Advisory Committee will be appointed in September.
This Committee will advise me on a range of issues, including reviewing current international repatriation policy and finding a more effective way to deliver on international repatriation.
Expressions of interest are being called for committee membership – more information on this can be found on my Department’s website.
As all of you know well, with European settlement in Australia came the practice of removing the remains of Indigenous family members.
Over a period or more than 160 years – from 1788 to 1948 or later – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander remains were collected, usually without consent, by explorers, travellers and scientists and shipped off to museums and private collections in Australia and across the world.
The essential humanity of Indigenous people was simply denied.
In line with the thinking of the time, Indigenous people were viewed as objects of curiosity – specimens rather than people.
Burial grounds were disturbed and remains were exhumed.
There are also documented cases that Aboriginal people were murdered for the purpose of collection.
Along with human dignity, scientific process was also absent.
And it’s this absence of scientific methodology which today causes so much distress for communities.
It makes the process of accurate identification and repatriation so much more difficult.
The lack of documentation in many cases about where the remains were taken from, where they were sent and what has happened to them over the years means repatriation is complex and often confronting.
In one case, traditional owners in Arnhem Land were advised by a museum in the United States that they were willing to repatriate the remains of 33 people.
An Australian physical anthropologist who re-articulated the remains at the request of the communities, found that there were altogether 74 individuals represented.
Some of these were represented by a single bone.
Repatriation is both complex and fraught for Indigenous descendents who want to bring their people home.
It means that communities are grappling with very complicated and highly sensitive cultural issues – and for many this is a new experience.
It was a challenge for community members from Groote Eylandt and Gunbalanya in the Northern Territory, who last year went to the United States to bring back ancestral remains collected just 61 years earlier.
For two members of the delegation, Thomas Amagula and Alfred Nayinggul this was a journey to bring home the remains of their great-grandmothers.
Of course repatriation is made considerably more complex when some museums refuse to return their ancestral remains for reasons that, in the 21st century, are no longer valid or acceptable.
With more than one thousand Indigenous Australian ancestral remains held in museums around the world, there is obviously a long way to go to repatriate them all.
Many in the United Kingdom, France and the United States – others in Germany, Italy and elsewhere.
And even when institutions agree to relinquish remains, identifying them and tracing them back to particular country is a painstaking process.
But however time-consuming and complex, those institutions and individuals holding the remains in their collections have a responsibility to return them.
The repatriation of Indigenous ancestral remains can provide collectors with an opportunity to right the wrongs of the past.
And to build positive relationships with Indigenous communities.
Righting the wrongs of the past was at the heart of the National Apology offered by the Australian Parliament to Indigenous Australians, in particular the Stolen Generations.
As the Prime Minister said, the Apology was made to deal with unfinished business of the nation and remove a great stain from the nation’s soul.
By acknowledging the injustices of the past, we were given the impetus to re-set the relationship between Indigenous Australians and non-Indigenous Australians.
Since then we have been building on the momentum of the Apology.
We want to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians to build partnerships based on equality, good faith and mutual benefit.
Which is why, in April this year, Australia pledged its support for the aspirational framework set out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – affirming the human rights of all Indigenous peoples.
It’s why we are establishing a National Indigenous Representative Body to give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders a voice.
Why we are supporting native title representative bodies – recognising that native title will always be a real and powerful acknowledgement of Indigenous culture and the ongoing connection to land.
And it’s why we are establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Healing Foundation.
The Australian Government remains committed to repatriating all Indigenous remains held in museums overseas. This is a commitment that successive governments have funded for nearly 20 years, beginning with the Keating Government in 1990.
We believe repatriation must be culturally appropriate and it must be unconditional.
We want to make sure that the government’s existing investment in international repatriation is strategic, effective and inclusive of Indigenous aspirations.
This is in line with the outcome of the Centre for Cultural Policy’s workshop here in Brisbane last year which put forward principles for repatriation, including more Indigenous involvement in the repatriation process.
Another workshop in Darwin was held to hear the experiences of communities who have been part of the overseas repatriation process.
It also gave us important information on how we can do better.
And why we must and will do better.
Working with traditional owners across the country, over the last 18 months we have seen the return of over 80 remains from five institutions in four countries.
Over the coming months, we are hopeful that a further 18 remains will be returned home.
But there is still much work to be done.
For the sake of the many Elders who are unlikely to see their ancestor’s remains returned in their lifetime.
And for the sake of the many communities who are still coming to terms with their past.
The International Council of Museums has a vital role to play in this process through your important leadership and networks.
I encourage you to take up this opportunity in whichever way you can.