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After the Return: Understanding Re-engagements with Aboriginal Collections

After the Return: Understanding Re-engagements with Aboriginal Collections

Dr Jason Gibson won DECRA funding for his project ‘After the return: understanding re-engagements with Aboriginal collections’. Investigating the dynamic ways that repatriated cultural collections are re-integrated back into the lives of Aboriginal individuals and communities in Central Australia, this will be the first systematic study of the mid- to long-term consequences of repatriation. Dr Gibson’s project aims to discover how repatriation policies and practices might be better developed, implemented and resourced in accordance with Aboriginal community experiences and aspirations.

Jason Gibson with Kaytetye elder Tommy Thompson discussing Tommy’s home archive of repatriated photos

The project builds upon critical studies of museum and source community relationships, repatriation as a ‘ritual’ involving communities, museum staff and Institutions, and different methods of ‘archival return’. To date, a great deal of the research in this area has been concerned with processes and procedures of returning cultural materials to Indigenous communities and the positive effects of this work — seeing once-dormant cultural materials being taken up in support of cultural revival/maintenance objectives. Far less research however has been conducted into the complex responses that ‘return’ can produce. The return of collections can induce feelings of fear, apprehension or ambivalence. Socio-cultural sensitivities and internal community divisions can also be exacerbated. The notion that objects can be simply ‘put back’ into their original cultural context is also an over-simplification. ‘Indigenous engagements with these collections today are’, as Yuwaalaraay museum anthropologist Jilda Andrews writes, ‘more than simply a reculturation of this material back into Indigenous culture. They broach new frontiers’ (2017, p.91). This project will therefore engage critically with the discourse of repatriation and develop a collaborative, ethnographic account of these ‘new frontiers.’

As an ethnographic study of Indigenous cultural heritage return, the project is designed to provide significant benefits to Indigenous communities and wider Australia through the elevation of Indigenous perspectives and the production of community resources. It will also benefit the museum sector by developing insights into the effects of repatriation and presenting alternative models to collections co-stewardship that are designed by communities.

Jason Gibson with Anmatyerr elder Ronnie McNamara using archival maps to identify significant cultural sites


Dr Jason Gibson

Project Funding

This project in funded by the Australian Research Council.


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