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Contemporary repatriation practices in the Pacific


Jessica De Largy Healy, Lyndon Ormond-Parker

Session presentation

The question of repatriation has become one of the key issues framing the relationship between Indigenous communities, researchers and cultural institutions. Myriad of locally driven initiatives attest to the enduring value Indigenous groups place on their materials held in museum collections and archives. As a multiscalar phenomenon, these initiatives have required the negotiation of innovative partnerships, the crafting of diplomatic agreements, the review of international protocols and changes in national policies and laws. In this panel, we consider repatriation as a process which concerns both the physical return of objects and human remains to their communities of origin and the digitisation of collections for local access and purposes. Repatriation generates new and heterogeneous discourses and practices which can relate to: politics of recognition and social justice; transmission, cultural revitalisation and creation of new ceremonial forms; changing ethics of research and museum representation. We invite empirically grounded papers which attend to contemporary repatriation practices in the Pacific. We are interested in how different groups are creatively engaging in these processes on the ground. How have Pacific peoples approached the complex issue of repatriation? Have these approaches evolved overtime? How are these materials reinvested once repatriated?

Paper submissions are closed

Accepted papers

‘Ongoing Responsibilities’ and Finding Answers: Erub, Torres Strait

Leah Lui-Chivizhe (The University of Sydney)

The 1875 Chevert expedition, headed by Macleay Museum founder WJ Macleay, was the first Australian scientific expedition into New Guinea. With the explicit aim of collecting and documenting the natural environment, the expedition members collected vast amounts of animal and plant material from the east coast of Australia, Torres Strait and coastal New Guinea. During his time on Erub, in the eastern Torres Strait, Macleay also collected cultural materials and ancestral remains. In this presentation I reflect on my own process for working with this collection and consider how situating Macleay’s collecting practices in the broader context of colonialism and Christianity on Erub in 1875 might help find answers for the question Erubam le continue to ask, almost 145 years later, “Why did they take our old people?”

Far from Settled: Questions in the Aftermath of Repatriation

Lyndon Ormond-Parker (The University of Melbourne)

Katarina Matiasek (University of Vienna)

The last two decades have witnessed an increasing number of repatriations of human ancestral remains, artefacts and other material evidence for the colonial violence that several disciplines have both drawn on and contributed to since the 19th century. After having been kept in silence by Western museum and university collections for decades, their return to the countries and communities of origin generally receives but brief flashes of public attention before falling silent again. With examples from the extensive collections of Austrian anthropologists Felix von Luschan(1854–1924)and Rudolf Pöch(1870–1921) and others related to Oceania, this contribution traces the cultural and political ramifications that do not find closure in but resurface with repatriation acts. The aim is to locate larger questions that need to be addressed in a sustained dialogue with the affected source communities in the aftermath of repatriation. These include a collaborative negotiation of the lingering repercussions from silenced violent pasts, as reflected by the remains themselves. A re-evaluation is needed of formerly innocent archival objects with shared acquisition contexts as “sensitive collections”, continued research to further provenance remains and a continuing search towards new and shared ways of practicing commemoration, such as the ongoing calls in Australia for a National Resting Place for repatriated unprovenanced human remains returned to Australia for overseas collections.

Representation, Remembrance and the Memorial

Brook Andrew (Monash University)

Marcia Langton (The University of Melbourne)

Representation, Remembrance and the Memorial (RRM) is an Australian Research Council visual arts project that concerns the Australian frontier wars and the possibility of representing the magnitude of Indigenous loss and survival in a national memorial. The project follows several lines of comparative enquiry from an Aboriginal Australian perspective.

This presentation will focus on findings and outcomes of the research. Research activities and outcomes include interviewing memorial experts, site visits, archival research, hosting the forum, developing artworks, writing a set of guidelines and publications that will assist the construction of significant memorials and resting places for the repatriation of Aboriginal human remains.

Tahuri Ana Te Tai – The Turning Tide: The effects of repatriation in Aotearoa New Zealand

Amber Aranui (Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa)

The positive effects of repatriation, or rather the return of tūpuna (ancestors) back to the whenua (land), has had a significant impact on the living descendants and the communities to which they belong. This paper looks at some of the ways in which repatriation has affected communities in Aotearoa New Zealand, and how it contributes to the ongoing reclamation of Māori heritage, culture and way of life. This paper also looks at the some of the ways repatriation has and continues to influence the ethical considerations around research and museum practice involving Māori ancestral remains.

Mulkurr Räli Roŋiny'mäma - Bringing the Knowledge Back

Joseph Brady (Buku Larrnggay Mulka)

Ishmael Marika (Buku Larrnggay Mulka)

The Mulka Project's mission is to sustain and protect Yolngu Cultural knowledge in Northeast Arnhem Land under the leadership of community elders. The Mulka production house and cultural archive is managed by Yolngu law, governance and culture.
Mulka produces and repatriates audio-visual cultural resources and disseminates them throughout the Yolngu community via a vast, growing, archive of Yolngu knowledge, ceremony, and cultural history. The word, dance, song, and law of elders past return to the minds and hearts of our people and repeat on through the generations.
Over Mulka's 10 years of operation we have amassed over 60,000 photographs, 13 days of film, and over 37 days of audio recordings. This cultural material is accessed daily by the community and contains the knowledge of seven generations of Yolngu.
At the forefront of digital repatriation The Mulka Project has developed unique models and negotiated agreements to return knowledge and power to local Indigenous communities.
How do you administer such a large digital archive of knowledge built from a vast array of external collections in a way that makes it useful for the people it pertains to?
The solutions we have developed are far simpler than you would imagine.

'Follow the mats': Female Treasures in Lifou, Loyalty Islands

Anna Paini (Università degli Studi di Verona)

In 2009, 100 Kanak objects from the Hadfield Collection made their journey from Great Britain back to Noumea: among them some pandanus objects. These, following the wishes of the descendants, and without any repatriation request being necessary, were returned to Kanaky New Caledonia and deposited in the Musée de Nouvelle-Calédonie (MNC). As Appadurai has stressed ‘it is things-in-motion that illuminate their human and social context’. In the same vein, the pandanus objects of the collection (fine woven mats and bags made by women) show how these objects reconnect to an embodied knowledge, re-enacting past and present, and are a source of dense emotions that have prompted women to speak up. The women recognized them as female treasures enmeshed in dynamic flows and bearing multi-faceted histories. They objected to the fact that the MNC’s team, although associating the mats with women, questioned their provenance, maintaining that their quality was too fine to have been produced in Lifou. The MNC was planning an exhibition of the returned objects and women wanted to tell a different narrative, asserting that the objects were produced by their female forebears. What was at stake in their reappropriation was not the return of the valuable assets but rather the narrative they evoked. In their engagement I find a form of resilience and also an expansion of the Kanak vision of ‘objets ambassadeurs’. It was this reaction that provoked my interest and is the subject of this paper.

Transcending the museum: knowledge repatriation through photographs of 19th-century Smithsonian collections in Fiji (2017)

Stéphanie Leclerc-Caffarel (Smithsonian Institution)

In 2017, Smithsonian and Wenner-Gren funding allowed me to travel to Fiji to engage in knowledge repatriation through photographs. That endeavor brought me to Taveuni and Ovalau Islands as well as to the nation’s capital, Suva, where I used pictures of early artifacts collected in Fiji by the US Exploring Expedition (1840) and Dr. Isaac M. Brower (1860s-70s) and currently housed at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History (Washington, DC) to exchange information with local Fijian communities. Primarily aiming at circulating and increasing knowledge about little-known historical artifacts such as headdresses and other body ornaments, the experience provided me with valuable insights into contemporary Fijian understanding of past material culture, as well as current concerns and interests – many of which I had not anticipated. Building on this recent example, this paper will consider the value, potential, and limits of visual repatriation using photographs of museum artifacts in Fiji, with possible applications elsewhere. It will address issues I encountered and solutions I implemented during the preliminary research process, including the delicate selection of objects, places, and interlocutors to focus on. Finally, it will discuss questions raised by specific interactions around photographs, as well as early outcomes.

Photographs back to Papua New Guinea; - three recent experiences

S R Jan Hasselberg

When addressing repatriation, photographs hold a special position. They are many and of great historical value in source communities, and copies can be brought back with no need of removal from their archives
There is a striking imbalance between the great number of extant photograph collections from PNG and the lack of knowledge about these important images at the locations where they were taken. Source communities which have received access to historical photographs of their ancestors and villages have responded with sincere interest and enthusiasm - the photographs connect with their past in personal ways, in relation to land, etc, and thus strengthen peoples’ identity. But what changes can we expect concerning Papua New Guineans’ access to visual evidence of their history and identity? Will digitisation and internet access make it possible for a PNG villager to find his own way on a smart phone; will we see more comprehensive repatriation projects from institutions and archives that are keepers of these visual treasures?
As I have brought back historical photographs to several places in PNG as part of my history research, I will here share my experiences from three villages: Gaire, near Port Moresby; Natade at Tufi in Oro; and Neneba in the Chirima valley north of Kokoda. The examples show three different situations in relation to what was photographed, the photographic situations, and their potential for generating information of value both locally and for the archives.

Return by stealth

Suzanne Spunner (University of Melbourne)

Pasifika artists such as NZ/Samoan Graham Fletcher, engage in forms of symbolic even ironic repatriation by re-appropriating both the tropes and works of “Primitive Art”, re-inserting and re-framing them, on their own terms. They take power back, performing repatriation by stealth, revealing that Mana is still there. It was not contained or repurposed by Surrealism and it cannot be assimilated as home decoration. In his series, Lounge Room Tribalism, Fletcher repatriates icons of “Primitive Art” to a domestic quotidian sphere. He paints ‘modern’ interiors as illustrations from mid century Home Decorator magazines. The rooms display iconic pieces of furniture; an Eames recliner, a Tulip table, an Arco light; occasionally reproductions of Picasso, Rothko or Mondrian and always centre stage in each room is a tribal object; a mask, a weaving, a weapon or a painting hung, pinioned to the wall or standing its ground, lurking and looking at the would be home improver. Fletcher engages in what he calls “combinatorial thinking (about) a borderland world” inhabiting “the third space”, accessible and welcoming as a crazy paved patio with some outdoor furniture and the barbeque lit ready for the guests to arrive chez nous. The conjunction of elements while familiar makes a rumpus, disrupts the comfortable and provokes domestic disquiet.