The South Australian Museum's collection of Australian ethnographic material is the largest and most representative in the world. The collection currently consists of approximately 30,000 items which are considered within the public domain. They come from many different Indigenous communities, language groups and individuals across Australia. The Section has a nation-wide responsibility, especially in the areas of Aboriginal men's restricted objects and Aboriginal skeletal material. It also has a charter to interpret its collections to a broader Australian and international public in partnership with Aboriginal people.
The majority of the Australian Ethnographic Collection was acquired between 1890 and 1940; in fact 75% of the collection was acquired prior to the Second World War. In the initial phase collecting focused on artefacts illustrating technological or social processes, rather than art produced for commercial purposes. Since the 1960s interest in the latter category has increased, along with increasing prices for original works.