Manchester Museum returns over 100 items to Australian Aboriginal community

A handover ceremony will take place at the museum today, following a three-year collaborative repatriation process

Manchester Museum is to return 174 cultural heritage items to the Australian Aboriginal Anindilyakwa Community, it has announced.

A handover ceremony will take place today, 5 September 2023 at the museum. The cultural heritage material, from the museum’s Worsley Collection, will be formally returned to representatives of the Anindilyakwa community, who will travel from Groote Eylandt – an island near the north coast of mainland Australia.

The museum has worked collaboratively with the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) and the Anindilyakwa Land Council over a three-year period, with support from UNESCO, to determine the most suitable place for the return of the items.

Museum staff were present in person for part of the consultation process, visiting Groote Eylandt at the invitation of the Anindilyakwa People.

The museum said the repatriation project is “paving the way for future collaboration between the Anindilyakwa People and Manchester Museum, including a display of contemporary works from the Anindilyakwa Art Centre.”

Among the items in the collection being returned is a group of dolls made from shells – known as Dadikwakwa-kwa in the Anindilyakwa language. The dolls inspired the Dadikwakwa-kwa Project, led by ten artists from Anindilyakwa Art Centre, a finalist in the 2023 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards.

Two of the artists, senior elder Noeleen Lalara and emerging leader Maicie Lalara, are part of the delegation of Anindilyakwa women that will be present at the museum for the handover today, alongside emerging leader Amethea Mamarika.

Alexandra Alberda (Manchester Museum), Amethea Mamarika, Ophelia Rubinich (AIATSIS), Macie Lalara, Janelle Mamarikia examining material collected by Worsley in the Manchester Museum collection at Umbakumba beach. Photo: D Walding, AIATSIS.

The project was partly inspired by the conversations that took place with Amethea’s grandmother (Old Lady Edith Mamarika) on Groote Eylandt around her memories of the shell dolls now being returned.

Thomas Amagula, Deputy Chair of the Anindilyakwa Land Council, explained: “The Anindilyakwa Land Council represents the 14 clans who are the Traditional Owners of the land and seas of the Groote Archipelago, and the repatriation of the Worsley Collection by Manchester Museum is an important step for the ALC in pursuing one of our core visions: to ‘protect, maintain, and promote Anindilyakwa culture’.

“We have only just begun to appreciate how valuable the repatriation of the Worsley Collection will be in the future.”

Manchester Museum has previously collaborated with AIATSIS to return sacred and ceremonial items to Aboriginal communities. In 2019 it repatriated 43 secret sacred and ceremonial objects to the Aranda people of Central Australia.

The museum said the latest repatriation goes further, “embracing the full scope of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by returning material beyond the secret, sacred and ceremonial that is important to the traditions and memories of the Aboriginal community that made them”.

The return of the items was one of the cases presented during a UNESCO event “New forms of agreements and cooperation in the field of return and restitution of cultural property”, which took place last June.

Stephen Smith, Australian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, said: “Returning this collection of items to representatives of the Anindilyakwa community and the children and grandchildren of those who made them is a great thing.”