Aboriginal heritage and repatriation

The South Australian Museum Board is re-imagining the South Australian Museum as a site of Reconciliation. From Kaurna Wangayarta to the Warlpiri Project, 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.

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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.

Header and main image: Kaurna Wangayarta reburial, December 2023, Photo: Sia Duff

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

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Wangayarta Eastern Mound reburial, December 2023

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Warlpiri repatriation, Yuendumu, November 2023

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Far West Coast reburial, Koonibba, July 2023

In the media


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

Coming up next


Reconciliation at the South Australian Museum