Currently, there are over 33,000 items of Indigenous Australian heritage being held in UK museums. As we head towards Britain’s departure from the EU, an Australian government-funded project hopes this will prompt a change in approach to returning these sacred artifacts to Indigenous communities.
In November 2019, Manchester Museum became the first UK museum to return some of these items. However, since then, many other leading British museums have been reluctant to return sacred artifacts due to the effect this may have on their collections.
Craig Ritchie, head of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, has said that Brexit represented a powerful moment in history and offers a renewed opportunity for the UK to reassess its relationship with Indigenous Australians.
He said: “If it’s true that Brexit is more than simply getting out of some kind of political union with Europe and is, in fact, an expression of the UK trying to rethink its place in the world independent of Europe, then part of that is the opportunity to rethink and recalibrate the relationship between the UK and its former colonial dominions and … the indigenous people in those former colonies”.
He added: “Not everything will come home and probably not everything should,” adding that it was willing to explore alternative arrangements with UK institutions. He also noted that the final resting place of these artifacts was “a decision that should be made by the community of origin rather than just a recalcitrant white institution that’s refusing to give stuff back”.
17 out of the 38 UK institutions that responded to an Aiatsis survey two years ago said they were willing to consider a return request.