Nearly 40,000 Indigenous Artefacts Are Still In UK Museums

The history of "theft, exploitation, violence, and trauma" continues to affect cultural heritage.


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An academic assessment has determined there are nearly 40,000 Indigenous artefacts from Australia currently sitting in UK and Irish museums.

Among the materials are bags, boomerangs, baskets, shields, fishing hooks, art, stone tools, and wooden artefacts, according to researchers in The Conversation, having mapped out their locations in a three-year identification process.

The removal of cultural heritage items has been happening for 250 years, with only a fraction of artefacts ever coming back. In February, nearly 2000 Indigenous stone artefacts were repatriated from Israel, and in 2019, the Manchester Museum returned 12 items taken without permission 100 years ago back to Indigenous leaders.

“Trade, purchase, exchange, gifting, commissions, and agency — as well as theft, exploitation, violence, and trauma — were all in evidence for the objects we researched,” authors in the joint project between the Australian National University and the British Museum wrote this month, noting the importance of partnering with Indigenous people to understand and record the significance of what remains.

Beyond the 38,000 identified objects are countless others spread across the world. As for returning these artefacts home, the path forward is unclear. Just last Monday, Kamilaroi students in NSW set out to get 800-year-old carved trees taken from Collarenebri back from Switzerland and Melbourne, in a campaign that seeks to cross state and international lines.

“As far as I’m concerned, the more power that Traditional Owners have to get them back to Country is important,” said Commonwealth Environmental officer Jason Wilson to NITV about the endeavour.

“It is vital to get things right. And getting things right takes time and resources,” the academic authors wrote more broadly. “A concern for care, diligence, caution, and time to work through the emotions that collections provoke — as well as to take charge of the decision-making about what should happen”,” they said.

Feature Image: British Museum/YouTube