The NFSA building in Canberra

Returning Indigenous Cultural Materials

Returning Indigenous Cultural Materials

Full Circle to a New Place
 Ann Robb

WARNING: this article may contain names, images or voices of deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

During National Reconciliation Week 2020: In This Together, Ann Robb looks at the process of returning Indigenous cultural materials, including those that were once housed in the former Institute of Anatomy building before it became NFSA headquarters in Canberra.

Acknowledging Past Practices

Repatriation of cultural material is of great significance for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It enables new understandings; we hear Indigenous voices in their own words and they become part of our shared history. We gain new perspectives on Australia's wider history as well as people's individual stories.

Museums, galleries, and archives have always reflected the politics, values and mainstream culture of their times. As such, institutional practices which were originally seen as valid and necessary may now be regarded as regrettable, but need to be acknowledged as part of Australia’s history.

The Australian Institute of Anatomy

The history of the 1930s art deco building that is home to the NFSA in Canberra provides an example of changing values and perspectives in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander society and culture.


The Australian Institute of Anatomy with a bus outside
The Australian Institute of Anatomy, c.1950

It was originally built to house the extraordinary, but controversial, anatomical collections of Sir Colin MacKenzie.

He collected specimens of fauna, mostly marsupials and monotremes, viewing them as primitive and the last of their kind. He saw their extinction as inevitable; therefore, they needed to be collected for scientific study.

MacKenzie believed that zoology had much to contribute to medical science. The materials he collected for the National Museum of Zoology, later to become the Australian Institute of Anatomy, were for teaching purposes.

He also focused on collecting the 'exceptional' – which included anatomical anomalies, curiosities, body parts and organs. 

A Controversial Collection

In an essay for the National Museum of Australia (reCollections, 2006), Libby Robin explores how MacKenzie's zoological specimens were among the first objects to form part of a 'national' museum collection in Australia. 

The Australian Institute of Anatomy collection later expanded to include human remains. Anatomists like MacKenzie collected Australian Aboriginal skeletal remains under the belief that, like some animal species, they too were primitive and in danger of extinction.

As Robin notes, this thinking is based on ‘deeply racist assumptions and naïve ideas of evolutionary progress’.


Overhead view of a museum display
The Australian Institute of Anatomy, South Gallery, date unknown

But as a result, the Institute of Anatomy was once responsible for the destruction of burials and grave sites, and serious disturbance of cultural practices. 

Viewing Indigenous remains as scientific specimens, Sir Colin MacKenzie's successor, Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, supported George Murray Black in digging up Aboriginal remains along the Murray River. From 1929–1950, the skeletons of approximately 1,600 individuals were sent to the institute.

Over the last 30 years attitudes have changed considerably and the National Museum of Australia, as the repository of many of these human remains, has had a fully-fledged Repatriation program to identify and return ancestors to country, in consultation with communities. 


The return of these remains to country has become a paramount part of reconciliation and healing deep wounds within communities.

Programs that return cultural materials to communities reflect a change in broader and institutional culture which has altered our view of collections and their purpose within our society. 

There has been a re-humanising of remains in collecting institutions, and a recognition of Indigenous cultures as ancient, rich and still dynamic. There is also a growing respect and sensitivity about how cultural materials are handled.

The NFSA, from the former location of the Australian Institute of Anatomy, is working with communities to redress wrongs and heal cultural rifts and damage. 

Finding appropriate and respectful ways to return culturally sensitive material takes time, research and consultation. But the results can be affirming and life-changing for those involved.

New policies, procedures, and practices are bringing together communities and institutions which had been widely divided in their views and perceived needs. With greater respect and understanding, collaborative projects can help restore and maintain knowledge (see Further Reading, below).

Collecting institutions no longer see Indigenous cultural materials as exotic and endangered curiosities, representing something which is 'lost' and to be studied. Instead, these materials and their associated intellectual property offer immense value towards healing, learning, and reclamation of culture. 

The journey of returning cultural materials also takes us on a path towards true reconciliation. 

Returning Cultural Materials to Communities

The NFSA has conducted programs with the aim and purpose of reuniting audiovisual recordings with the Indigenous communities originally involved.

We have collaborated with the Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa organisation to assist cultural maintenance through repatriation and digital access on country, making available precious film and sound recordings to Martu and ensuring their appropriate cultural authority over the material.

Martu have travelled to the NFSA in Canberra and a senior NFSA delegation visited their country in 2015 for the signing of an historic cultural agreement with the community.

The clip below shows an earlier visit by the NFSA Indigenous Collections Branch to Yirrkala in north-east Arnhem Land, Northern Territory which saw the return of audiovisual materials to the Buku-Larnnggay Mulka Multimedia Archive and Production Centre:

Repatriation of Indigenous materials in Arnhem Land, 2008

Further Reading

On this website you can find more information about our Indigenous collection, the NFSA's return of audiovisual materials to the Martu and the repatriation of Indigenous materials in Arnhem land.

On the National Museum of Australia website, you can read Libby Robin's essay, Weird and Wonderful: The First Objects of the National Historical Collection, and more about the Return of Indigenous Remains and Secret Sacred Material.

Read about the Return, Reconcile, Renew project and visit the Return, Reconcile, Renew website.

Finally, read about the documentary Etched in Bone (Martin Thomas, 2018, Australia) and the exhibition Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation at the British Museum that resulted from a collaboration between the National Museum of Australia, Australian National University and the British Museum.