In 1981 Anthropologists celebrated the return to Vanuatu of an important ceremonial slit drum; one of only five surviving in the world.

Lake Murray Image Repatriation
Lake Murray Image Repatriation Image: Tim Griffiths
© Tim Griffiths

In the 1980s, Dr Des Griffin, AM, Director of the Australian Museum, presided over the repatriation program, which saw a wide range of objects of cultural and spiritual significance returned to their indigenous communities.

He defined his attitude to the Australian Museum's cultural collections and the way in which they were acquired: ‘... [these] artefacts reflect to a large degree Australia's previous colonial relationship with the region … we are neither ashamed nor frightened to present images of these artefacts, for the circumstances under which many of them came to our Museum belong to a past that cannot be changed’.

The relationship between Museums and indigenous peoples was of particular interest to him and his influence spread beyond the Australian Museum to the wider community. He was closely involved in the production of Previous Possessions, New Obligations, a national policy framework for managing these relationships. This was published in 1993, the International Year for the World's Indigenous People.

But Des Griffin was neither the first nor the last champion of repatriation at the Museum.

From early in his career Phil Gordon has been engaged in the repatriation program. Only four years after he joined the Museum as a trainee, he took several sets of human skeletal remains to Wallaga Lake for reburial in the Aboriginal cemetery there.

In 1989, he met with representatives of indigenous communities to discuss the appropriate care of secret and sacred items. These meetings resulted in the creation, within the Museum, of a ‘separate, respectful area with restricted access’ in which to house these items while their repatriation is negotiated.

In his current role as Aboriginal Heritage Officer, Phil Gordon continues to coordinate consultation and repatriation between the Museum and indigenous communities around the world.

The Museum’s attitude to repatriation has developed over time, but in the words of the Repatriation Policy, although items in the collections ‘... may have immense scientific value… the wishes of Aboriginal people take precedence’.