Aboriginal heritage and repatriation

The South Australian Museum Board is re-imagining the South Australian Museum as a site of Reconciliation. New partnerships with Aboriginal communities are being developed as collaborations in the custodianship of the amazing and important Aboriginal cultural material the Museum is privileged to care for.

View the Innovate Reconciliation Action Plan 2019-2021 document.

The Museum Board acknowledges the historical attitudes towards Aboriginal people and the treatment and study of their ancestral remains. It will ensure all ancestral remains are treated with respect and not as specimens of scientific or historic interest.

The Board has adopted the principles set under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which says in part: 

Indigenous peoples have the right to manifest, practice, develop and teach their spiritual and religious traditions, customs and ceremonies; the right to maintain, protect, and have access in privacy to their religious and cultural sites; the right to the use and control of their ceremonial objects; and the right to the repatriation of their human remains. 

States shall seek to enable the access and/or repatriation of ceremonial objects and human remains in their possession through fair, transparent and effective mechanisms developed in conjunction with Indigenous peoples concerned. 

By acknowledging the attitudes of the past that help build the museum’s collections, the museum seeks to be an outward-facing, engaging and inclusive modern museum, that is accessible to everyone.

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Repatriation of Ancestral remains

The Museum Board cares for almost 5,000 ancestral remains, both Australian Aboriginal and from overseas nations. About 3,700 are from South Australian burial sites.  A small number of ancestors are from interstate and there another 400 Aboriginal ancestors whose original burial location is completely unknown.

All the ancestral remains are in a secure Keeping Place with restricted access. This is a temporary keeping place, until these old people are returned to Country and a final resting place. 

Consistent with the Australian Government’s Policy on Indigenous Repatriation, the Museum Board has adopted an ancestral remains repatriation policy that reflects Aboriginal tradition and authority. The policy places Aboriginal communities at the centre of decision making about Aboriginal ancestral remains and ensures whole of community approaches to repatriation. 

Repatriation of Secret Sacred objects

The Museum cares for almost 4000 restricted objects that have significance according to Aboriginal tradition. The objects are held in a secure area and are only accessed in accordance with cultural protocols, including gender specific protocols, advised by the relevant Traditional Owners.

Over the last twenty years, the Museum has repatriated over 300 secret sacred objects back to Traditional Owners, mostly to the Northern Territory

Museum staff continue to work with Traditional Owners to ensure the culturally competent care and repatriation of secret/sacred objects.

Restitution of Cultural Heritage

Restitution facilitates greater access for traditional custodians and their communities to their cultural heritage and takes many forms including: physical return, exhibitions, loans, photographic and multimedia reproduction. This new policy provides a process for assessment of claims for restitution of cultural objects held in the South Australian Museum. The intention of this policy is not only to outline the mechanism by which materials can be returned, but also by which relationships can be restored, renewed, and re-imagined

It is anticipated that new forms of relationship, and new forms of custodianship, will emerge over time from the processes outlined in this policy. 

Working together 

Through the Australian Government’s Indigenous Repatriation Program, the Museum has limited funding each year to work with Aboriginal organisations to repatriate ancestral remains and secret sacred objects back to communities of origin.

Working together, projects can be scoped that include time for archival research and community consultation, to ensure a whole of community approach to repatriation.

Traditional Owners are best placed to tell repatriation stories and elaborate these stories into an education of the history of colonial treatment of Aboriginal people. Aboriginal communities are encouraged to speak to the Museum about how repatriation activities and stories can be shared.

Recent repatriation activities 


On 7 December 2021 the Kaurna community came together to rebury their ancestors into Wangayarta’s northern mound. The historic ceremony was attended by Kaurna leaders, family and friends. The Premier of South Australia and representatives of the SA Museum, Adelaide Cemeteries, Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation, Local Government and University of Adelaide were also invited to share this experience. The ceremony acknowledged the past and reflected upon the Kaurna community’s remarkable journey, resilience and achievement. Read more >

Kaurna – Holdfast Bay

On 1 August 2019, the Kaurna community laid 11 ancestors to rest at Holdfast Bay, Adelaide.  Earlier that week, community members had travelled to Canberra to collect six ancestors returned from the Natural History Museum, London. Once back in Adelaide, five ancestors from the South Australian Museum’s Keeping Place were re-united with their community. Community members camped overnight, caring for their ancestors and sharing stories about their enduring past, present and future. In the morning, over 200 people gathered for a moving reburial ceremony. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-08-01/kaurna-old-people-returned-to-country-from-uk-in-ceremony/11373788

South East Aboriginal Focus Group (First Nations of the South East)

On the eve of National Reconciliation Week, South East First Nations People came together at Gall Park, Kingston SE with staff from the South Australian Museum, Department of Education and Department of Environment and Water to lay to rest one of their ancestors who was taken from his resting place last century. The ancestor had been discovered in 1961 by children playing in the area and was reported to Police who took the ancestor to the South Australian Museum. The reburial was attended by over 20 people and included a traditional smoking ceremony.

Stage One Archive Research - Yandruwandha Yawarrawarrka, Far West Coast, Barngarla, Wangkangurru Yarluyandi, Narungga

Representatives of the Yandruwandha Yawarrawarrka Traditional Land Owners Aboriginal Corporation, Far West Coast Aboriginal Corporation, Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation, Wangkangurru Yarluyandi Aboriginal Corporation and Narungga Aboriginal Corporation have all spent time at the South Australian Museum conducting research to support their community repatriation programs. The information the representatives have collated during these visits includes historical letters, reports and sometimes even maps of discovery locations. These records are assisting communities to make fully informed decisions about the next stages of repatriation. 

Central Australian Secret Sacred Objects consultation

Senior Arrernte men are regularly visiting the South Australian Museum and conducting research on the sacred material relevant to Arrernte people. A group of senior Warlpiri men have also made this trip. While in Adelaide, the men discuss the collection with senior museum staff. These trips have been extraordinarily positive. The men have learnt a great deal about what is held by the museum, and the museum staff are learning a great deal about the objects. These relationships continue to build.

Tasmanian Aboriginal Corporation

Two representatives of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Corporation attended the South Australian Museum on 4 March 2020 for the handover of six Aboriginal ancestral remains casts with provenance to Tasmania.  Five of the six casts were face casts of three known individuals, taken as direct transfers from each person’s face in the 19th century. The handover was documented by the Traditional Owners through ABC television (Hobart) and ABC radio.

In the news

‘South Australian Museum repatriates Aboriginal body parts’ - The Science Show - ABC podcast

‘Aboriginal artefacts returning to Tasmania after an emotional handover’ - ABC Radio

The room of the dead: how a museum became a halfway house for bones and spirits. The Guardian – 5 July 2020

Ancestral remains of the Kaurna people returned to country from UK in emotional Adelaide ceremony. ABC News – 1 August 2019

Why returning 4600 Old People to Country is the duty of all of South Australia. Adelaide Review – Issue #471, May 2019

Aboriginal Ancestral Remains Repatriated by the South Australian Museum (Audio interview). The Wire – 28 March 2019

Thousands of Aboriginal ancestral remains to be returned to communities. ABC News – 23 March 2019

Who Should Care for Old People. Aboriginal Way Issue 73 - February 2019



Ms Anna Russo Aboriginal Heritage and Repatriation Manager South Australian Museum North Terrace Adelaide SA 5000 Email: anna.russo@samuseum.sa.gov.au M: 0435 967 736

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Aboriginal Reconciliation