As an exhibition of Indigenous artefacts ends in Canberra, questions remain as to where the sacred objects truly belong.
Some of the most important artefacts from the Encounters Exhibition at the National Museum of Australia, including a shield taken by Captain Cook on his first voyage to Australia, were briefly loaned to the museum from British institutions.
Descendants of the Dharawal man who held the shield held a protest in an attempt to claim back the shield on the last day of the exhibition earlier this week.
“We want the return of our ancestor's shield. We want it returned to the family and that goes for everything the British Museum holds,” Rodney Kelly said in front of the glass case housing the Gweagal Shield.
The wooden shield and two spears were taken by Captain Cook’s landing party in 1770 on the shores of Botany Bay.
The former head of the National Museum said they are more than old pieces of wood.
“They mean more than just the story about how we used spears for spearing food, how we used various elements for practical purposes but they were living and breathing and part of everyday life,” Dawn Casey told NITV.
She said communities that wanted to repatriate sacred objects had no moral case to justify.
“They don’t have to prove to anyone how to look after their collection because they know how to look after their collection. It’s just having the funding to have the storage available to keep the collections,” she said.
But, just because a community or tribal group said they could look after the objects doesn’t mean they should, according to Dr Casey.
“There’s the issue of the funding that is required to set up or further develop cultural centres and museums out in those communities because, unless you store them in really good environmental conditions, they will deteriorate.”
The current boss of the NMA told NITV that advances in technology and digital repatriations are becoming a happy middle ground for Indigenous communities.
“I think we’re moving to a position where we think of collections much more dynamically; where we imagine them moving backwards and forwards from community to museum,” Dr Matthew Trinca said.
Fellow expert, and senior Cheyenne Arapaho man, Dr Richard West Jr agreed that the traditional notion of repatriation was changing.
“There is middle territory there for both museums and communities to explore,” he told NITV.
Dr West was the founding director of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in the United States.
He said that the United States differed to Australia in that legislation exists in the US which funds institutions to repatriate Native American artefacts.
But he said Australian museums had mostly the same priorities.
“I think there is no question that the end result should be the return of at least certain categories of material to originating communities, to the Indigenous communities in Australia.”