Indigenous

Tasmanian institutions formally apologise to the state's Aboriginal community over theft of artefacts

Tasmanian Aboriginal community members Nala Mansell and Nunami Sculthorpe Green. Source: Sarah Maunder / SBS News

The Royal Society of Tasmania and the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery have apologised ahead of the return of 14,000-year-old Aboriginal artefacts to their original site.

The Royal Society of Tasmania and the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery have formally apologised to Tasmania's Aboriginal community over the mistreatment and theft of cultural artefacts.

Monday's apology was part of the return of 14,000-year-old petroglyphs to their original site at Preminghana, in the state's north-west. 

The petroglyph slabs were taken from Preminghana in the 1960s, and given to TMAG in Hobart and the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Galley in Launceston. 

The pieces that were taken to Hobart were displayed at the TMAG from 1967 until 2005. They have since been kept in storage. 

The petroglyphs were removed in 1962 from Preminghana, and will be returned to the site in early March 2021.
The petroglyphs were removed in 1962 from Preminghana, and will be returned to the site in early March 2021.
Supplied: Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

Chair of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Land Council Michael Mansell said the petroglyphs would be returned to their original site in early March.

He said it was the TMAG and RST's idea to offer an apology. 

"The apology is an important part of the institutions saying 'not only do we admit that we got wrong, but we are sincere about saying to you it should never have happened, and we want to make sure it never happens again'," he said.

"You've got to keep in mind that not all Aboriginal people agree with accepting the apology, and the museum understands that."

Michael Mansell is the chairman of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Land Council
Michael Mansell is the chairman of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Land Council.
SBS News: Sarah Maunder

The apology event was livestreamed by TMAG.

Chair of the TMAG Board of Trustees, Brett Torossi, said the apology was long overdue.

"Today is a day of enormous importance and gravity," she said.

"We apologise for over 200 years of practices that we acknowledge were morally wrong. We declare that such behaviour will never happen again."

Chair for TMAG Board of Trustees. Brett Torossi
Chair for TMAG Board of Trustees, Brett Torossi
Supplied: Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

Governor of Tasmania and patron of the RST, Kate Warner, said the apologies from both institutions were a commitment to addressing the inequalities of Tasmania's First Peoples. 

"Both organisations accept these apologies are not given in expectation of acceptance, but to signal a commitment to a different, and better future," she said.

What are petroglyphs?

Petroglyphs are ancient rock carvings. 

Mr Mansell said rock carvings by Tasmania's Aboriginal people can still be found on the state's north and south-west coast. 

He said the carvings depict the lifestyle and significant events of Tasmanian Aboriginal people.

In 1995, the Tasmanian government returned 13 pieces of land back to the Aboriginal community. One of those pieces of land was the 540-hectare block of Preminghana. It has since been managed by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre.

Preminghana in Tasmania's north-west is a place of significance for Tasmanian Aboriginal people.
Preminghana in Tasmania's north-west is a place of significance for Tasmanian Aboriginal people.
Supplied: Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre

Mr Mansell said when the slabs of petroglyphs were removed in the 1960s, the remaining rock was irreversibly damaged.

"Even when we put these things back, it's not going to be the same - the damage has been done," he said.

"But the best thing we can do is (to put) the petroglyphs back into the place where they were stolen from."

Questions remain over other artefacts

Although the apology has been an important step in repairing the relationship between Tasmanian Aboriginal people, TMAG and RST, Mr Mansell said both TMAG in Hobart, and QVMAG in Launceston still hold other cultural artefacts.

"TMAG initially told us that they only had the Preminghana petroglyphs," he said. 

"(But) when we asked them later, one of their staff said that they've also got other petroglyphs. I don't think the curator herself knew that, so we've got to appreciate that. But the extent of their Aboriginal collection, we don't know.

"So, you can see that there are problems with Aboriginal people trying to get information out of white institutions, who seem to be, either very badly organised, or deliberately misleading us, on the materials that they've got."

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