• A ceremonial headdress which belonged to a Lardil man almost 50 years ago has been returned to Australia from the UK. (AIATSIS)Source: AIATSIS
A ceremonial headdress worn at the opening of the Sydney Opera House will be returned to Lardil Country as part of an international repatriation campaign.
Douglas Smith

24 May 2021 - 3:46 PM  UPDATED 24 May 2021 - 3:54 PM

Decades after it was taken to the United Kingdom, a traditional Lardil headdress is set to be returned home to Mornington Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

The piece has arrived back in Australia as a part of an international repatriation program run by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS).

The culturally significant headdress - wound with human hair, painted with ochre and topped with emu feathers - originally belonged to the late Philip Jack, a member of the Mornington Island Dance troupe. 

The group performed at the opening of the Sydney Opera House in 1973 before Mr Jack gifted the headdress to Maurice Routhan, who was his neighbour in Sydney before Mr Routhan returned to the UK.

“This cultural ceremony dancing headdress came from the Lardil tribe of the Wellesley Islands in the Gulf of Carpentaria, who welcome its return,” said senior Lardil man Tommy Wilson. 

“The Lardil Elders and the Wellesley Islands community sincerely appreciate the generosity of both Mr Routhan, who donated this item, and AIATSIS, who organised its return from England.”

The headdress is now in Canberra following the transfer facilitated by AIATSIS under its Return of Cultural Heritage program.

CEO Craig Ritchie said the return is the culmination of many months of work and much cooperative effort.

"The story of the circumstances of this return provides the opportunity for Australians to learn more about the many histories of this land – including the fact that Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander cultures remain dynamic, engaged, and evolving in nature," he said.

Speaking from the United Kingdon, Mr Routhan expressed his relief at the success of the journey to Australia.

“Now that I am old, I felt it right and proper for Mr Jack’s headdress to be returned to its true home... it has been an honour to care for it, but it belongs there," he said. 

The Gulf Region Aboriginal Corporation has asked AIATSIS to care for the headdress until it is ready to come home.

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