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Bring Poorly Provenanced Sacred Objects Home: A Statement from Central Australian Aboriginal Men

Bring Poorly Provenanced Sacred Objects Home: A Statement from Central Australian Aboriginal Men

Men from all over Central Australia gathered to discuss the return of unprovenanced sacred objects with the research team.

Over 50 Aboriginal men from across central Australia gathered at Tilmouth Well (Ilewerr) in the Northern Territory last week to discuss the return of unprovenanced men’s sacred objects from international museums. Attended by ceremonial leaders from the Arrernte, Alyawarr, Anmatyerr, Luritja, Ngaanyatjara, Pintupi, Pitjantjatjara, and Warumungu language/cultural groups, the group produced a message to overseas museums regarding care for their sacred objects and how they might best be returned to central Australia. 

Senior men Bruce Petrick, Casey Holmes, Alec Petrick, Alan Drover, John Duggie and Donald Thompson.

A statement “from central Australian men” was agreed upon and signed by all in attendance:

  • All Men’s sacred objects from Central Australia should return to Central Australia.
  • We will work with our apmerek-artweye and kwertengerle (traditional owners and managers).
  • We need funding and support to care for these objects and find their owners.
  • We need a new Aboriginal Men’s cultural centre in Central Australia where we can do our own research under the guidance of our Old Men.
  • We need smaller keeping places in our communities.
  • This Aboriginal Men’s cultural centre must be controlled by Central Australian Aboriginal Men according to our Law and employ Elders and young men.
  • This is urgent. It must happen now because our Elders are getting older.
  • Our Law and culture is strong and still practiced today. If this doesn’t happen our knowledge will be lost forever when our elders pass away.
  • We must teach our young sons and grandsons so that our culture continues for future generations

The meeting was part of a research project led by researchers Dr Jason Gibson and Michael Cawthorn from the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (Deakin University) and Dr Iain Johnson and Shaun Angeles from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) with considerable support from the Central Land Council.


Michael Pengart Tommy discusses the role of museums.

Before this meeting, the research team had already consulted with over 80 senior and middle-aged men from across the desert in their home communities to discuss how to best manage thousands of men’s sacred objects currently held in overseas collections. As many of these objects were poorly documented by early collectors it is now very difficult to reunite them with their traditional owners.

The team are now working with these men to develop cultural frameworks, grounded in Aboriginal Law, that can be applied to address the challenges and possibilities of repatriating these poorly documented objects. The frameworks, along with the statement from Central Australian men, will be distributed to museums across the world.

A vote on whether unprovenanced sacred objects need to come back to Central Australia.


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