As more and more museums in Europe and the United States begin to return objects looted from indigenous peoples during moments of colonization, the Manchester Museum in England has become the first one to do so in the United Kingdom.
The museum has repatriated a group of 43 objects considered sacred to four different indigenous groups in Australia: the Aranda people of Central Australia, the Gangalidda Garawa peoples of northwest Queensland in the northeast of the continent, the Nyamal people of the Pilbara, and the Yawuru people of Broome, both in Western Australian, according to the Art Newspaper.
Many of these objects, which have not been on display for several decades, are believed to have arrived in the country over a century ago, and the official return was completed as part of a series of ceremonies held this week in Manchester, which is part of an ongoing project that marks the 250th anniversary of the arrival of Captain James Cook to Australia.
In an interview, the Manchester Museum’s director, Esme Ward, told the Guardian, “Very often people will say, ‘Is it a slippery slope?’ No, I really don’t think it is. I think some museums, or even the museum sector, is in a bit of an existential crisis—particularly museums that are born of empire. The conversation about where collections belong is getting louder and louder and museums are out of kilter with the public sentiment.”
The 43 objects are a small fraction of the over 32,000 Indigenous Australian objects currently held in British institutions, as identified by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. Many of these are held by the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum, both in London. The institute has also identified more than 100,000 across 220 institutions worldwide, with many of these objects sitting in storage, according to the Guardian.
Mangubadijarri Yanner, who received the objects in Manchester for the Gangalidda Garawa people, told the Guardian, “We’ve always known that during the process of colonization, which is continuing today in various respects, that our cultural heritage items were removed from us, were stolen from us and taken from us. With these specific items, I can say with authority that they were taken without permission.”
Yanner added, “They were taken from us, stolen from us, but it’s important now that we’re here to take them home.”