In a landmark event on September 5, the Manchester Museum ceremoniously handed over 174 artifacts to the Aboriginal Anindilyakwa community from Australia’s Northern Territory, marking a significant moment in the restitution of cultural heritage.

Members of the Anindilyakwa community embarked on a journey from Groote Eylandt, an island situated roughly 50 kilometers off the northern coast of mainland Australia, to actively participate in this momentous ceremony.

Over a span of three years, Manchester Museum, an integral part of the University of Manchester, has engaged in collaborative efforts with the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) and the Anindilyakwa Land Council. This partnership, bolstered by support from UNESCO, was aimed at charting a future course for the collection’s return to its rightful owners.

The museum’s staff had the unique opportunity to visit Groote Eylandt by invitation from the Anindilyakwa People, allowing them to engage directly with the community during the consultation process. Georgina Young, the museum’s head of exhibitions and collections, reflected on the profound impact of these interactions, stating that the experience of discussing the collection on the community’s land and on their terms provided insights and a level of understanding that could never be achieved within the confines of the museum’s storage rooms. She emphasized the importance of this return in fostering cultural strengthening within the Anindilyakwa community and paving the way for future collaborations.

The repatriation of these items has already begun to inspire the Anindilyakwa descendants, igniting a contemporary art project rooted in traditional practices and laying the groundwork for further collaborations, including the showcasing of modern works from the Anindilyakwa Art Centre at the Manchester Museum.

Thomas Amagula, deputy chair of the Anindilyakwa Land Council, highlighted the significance of this repatriation for the 14 clans of the Groote Archipelago, viewing it as a crucial step in their mission to safeguard and promote Anindilyakwa culture.

Among the treasures returned is a collection of shell dolls, known as Dadikwakwa-kwa in Anindilyakwa, which have inspired a creative initiative led by women artists from the Anindilyakwa Art Centre. This project draws on memories and traditions surrounding these dolls, further strengthening the cultural and generational ties within the community.

Leonard Hill, acting chief executive of AIATSIS, commended the collaborative and respectful approach taken by the Manchester Museum and AIATSIS in making this return possible. He highlighted the significance of such partnerships in allowing people to connect with and be transformed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stories.

This repatriation extends beyond the return of sacred and ceremonial items, embodying the principles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and reflecting the ethos of the MONDIACULT 2022 Declaration, which champions culture as a global public good.

Manchester Museum’s recent initiative is part of a broader commitment to redefining the role of museums, emphasizing the care for communities and fostering mutual understanding and empathy between cultures. This approach aligns with the University of Manchester’s dedication to social responsibility, marking a new chapter in the museum’s two-decade-long history of returning items to Indigenous communities.

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