Museum Practice chap 20: ‘Rewards and frustrations: Repatriation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ancestral remains by the National Museum of Australia,’ by Michael Pickering

In my new book Museum Practice, out next month, there are two chapters on repatriation. In the last blog post I described Piotr Bienkowski’s useful critique of current repatriation practice. Like Bienkowski, Michael Pickering is the veteran of many years working on the repatriation of human remains at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. In his chapter, he talks about the “rewards and frustrations” of dealing with the return of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ancestral remains in terms of his relationships with colleagues within the national museum and government agencies and of course out in Indigenous communities around Australia.

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The issue has been the subject of much heated debate internationally, which is often rather circular, and short on the pragmatics of the repatriation process itself. However in Australia, as in other post-settler colonies such as New Zealand and Canada, repatriation has become business as usual. There has been a shift away from the “familiar critical ‘rhetoric of allegation’ and simple case studies toward wider philosophical, historical, and cultural considerations.” In this spirit, Pickering documents the work of the NMA from an insider perspective, discussing issues in current practice, such as funding, provenance, mandate and problems with government processes and policy. “Despite fears,” he says, “the repatriation of remains has not ‘opened the flood gates’ to collections.” But increased demands for the return of sacred and secret objects is not so much a direct and inevitable consequence of the repatriation of human remains, but “an unavoidable consequence of cultural and political groups asserting their individual and/or national identities.” All the more reason, he concludes, that “issues be identified and addressed with a spirit of transparency and cooperation as soon as possible.”

Dr Michael Pickering is currently a Senior Curatorial Fellow and the Museum’s Head of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Program with the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. Michael worked as a consultant archaeologist and anthropologist for the Western Australian Aboriginal Sites Departmen, the Central Land Council and then the Northern Land Council and was the Regional Officer for the Central Australian region of the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority in the Northern Territory. He also worked as a Research Officer on Native Title for Aboriginal Affairs Victoria and then as Head Curator for the Indigenous Cultures program of Museum Victoria. He then moved to the National Museum of Australia as the Director of the Repatriation Program. Dr Pickering is a member of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) and is on the editorial boards of the journals ReCollections and Museum Management and Curatorship. He has a wide range of research interests and has published over 40 articles on topics including political cartoons, material culture, cannibalism, settlement patterns, exhibition, ethics and repatriation. Examples of recent key publications include ‘Dance through the minefield: The development of practical ethics for repatriation’ in the Routledge Companion to Museum Ethics (2011) and a co-edited collection The Long Way Home: The Meaning and Values of Repatriation (2010).

National Museum of Australia:


About mccartco

Conal McCarthy is a former museum professional and academic who has published widely on museum history, theory and practice. He is the Director of the Museum and heritage studies programme at Victoria University of Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand.
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