Australian Government Pledges Millions Toward Repatriation of Indigenous Artifacts

The Australian government has pledged A$10.1 million (about $7.2 million) in additional funds over four years toward the return Indigenous cultural heritage objects held in collections overseas. The pilot program was launched in 2018 with a A$2 million ($1.4 million) budget by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), a national institution that supports the cultural resurgence of Australia’s native peoples. “We wanted to help the nation understand that there was an Indigenous perspective on this history,” Lyndall Ley, the executive director of the institution’s Return of Cultural Heritage project, told the Art Newspaper.

The project’s first two years were focused on artifacts held in pubic collections overseas and will now expand to facilitate the return of objects held in private collections. According to Ley, a U.K.-based collector made the first private repatriation, retuning eight secular artifacts of the Australia’s Yindjibarndi community. Talks for further reparations are currently underway with the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia, and a private collector based in Sussex, England.

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A report released in September by AIATSIS under the title Return of Cultural Heritage 2018-20 identified 199 overseas institutions with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage collections—collectively containing around 100,000 secular and ceremonial Indigenous objects. Some 33 percent of these objects are held in U.K. collections. Of the 199 institutions identified by the report, 44 expressed enthusiasm at the prospect of returning Indigenous artifacts to their respective communities.

The project’s second phase kicks off amid renewed interest in the reparations of Indigenous art and artifacts. In March, Arts Council England asked the Institute of Art and Law to develop guidance for U.K. museums on restitution, including advice on “dealing with claims and making decisions on the potential return of objects.”

France voted this earlier this year to pass a bill to return  27 artifacts from French museums to Benin and Senegal. The vote followed a 2018 report on the repatriation of African artifacts commissioned by President Macron from the French historian Bénédicte Savoy and  Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr, which recommended the restitution by French museums of works in their collections taken “without consent” unless the institutions can prove the objects where acquired  legitimately from former African colonies. Macron pledged in a speech in Burkina Faso that his government would facilitate “the temporary or definitive restitution of African heritage to Africa” within five years.


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