The management of restricted Aboriginal objects by the National Museum of Australia

by David Kaus

Like all of Australia's major museums, the National Museum of Australia holds a sizeable collection of Aboriginal ethnographic objects that cannot be placed in the public domain because of strong cultural proscriptions on their use, display and viewing.[1] The cultural context of these objects dictates that they be stored in a secure facility, where access is strictly controlled, and managed separately from public collections. This is in line with current best museum practice and is guided by moral, policy and government imperatives.[2] This management regime includes provision for repatriating these items to Indigenous communities or custodians. In this article, I want to outline how the Museum manages its restricted collections and the mechanics of their management and repatriation.[3]


Ceremonial life

Ceremonial life is a major part of life throughout Aboriginal Australia. Some rituals are public and open to all members of society, while others are secret and only appropriately qualified people have the status to be present. The latter include 'increase' ceremonies, where the supply of an animal or plant species is guaranteed into the future, and ceremonies of initiation. In some places secret/sacred objects are the embodiment of the Ancestral Beings that created the lineage of people now responsible for them. Many of the secret ceremonies have knowledge restrictions based around gender or age. In most areas of Australia men have, or had, secret rituals. In some regions women, too, have their own secret rituals. All forms of ceremony generate material culture and all categories are represented in museum collections.

In English, Aboriginal people often refer to public ceremonies as 'outside', or 'open', and restricted ceremonies as 'inside', or 'closed'. Restrictions vary for the 'inside' ceremonies: some preliminary components may be public, or it may be permissible under certain circumstances for someone, who would not usually be entitled, to see certain objects once they have reached a particular status. In other circumstances, ceremonies apparently restricted to one gender may, in fact, require significant input from 'law leaders' of the opposite gender. An example of this is the cooking of food for sacramental feasts. But generally speaking, the dichotomy of 'inside'/'outside' is how museums tend to approach the issue. So, 'inside' objects are locked away while 'outside' objects are kept in unrestricted storage and may be used in exhibitions or other programs. In such a setting, a deep level of sensitivity is required regarding all aspects of the care and treatment of restricted Aboriginal objects.

At the National Museum of Australia there are two levels of restriction. 'Secret/sacred', a term used throughout the museum industry, describes objects of high significance and usually ceremonial in nature.[4] 'Private' refers to objects used in activities such as sorcery and certain forms of magic, as well as a small group of other objects. While the activities during which they are used may not be secret, they are certainly outside the public domain. Up to a point, private objects are not as sensitive as secret/sacred objects and, for various reasons, most repatriation activity is centred on the latter.[5] There are parallel procedures in place for men's and for women's objects, but the discussion here refers to men's objects. Photographs, recordings and written information are managed in the same way.

Secret/sacred artefacts are usually made of wood or stone and are often, but not always, shaped, and they mostly bear painted and/or incised designs. In some places they may be further decorated with string and feathers. In a few areas they may take a naturalistic sculptural form. Normally only those people who have attained the appropriate ceremonial ranks within their society have access to these objects and their associated knowledge, including the way the ceremonies are to be conducted. Objects and ceremonies may be owned by clearly defined groups or by individuals, referred to as 'traditional custodians'. This is an important point when considering aspects of their management by museums, as negotiations over some items happen collectively, while individuals are deferred to for others.

Defining what comes under the heading of 'secret/sacred' is not always clear-cut for museum collection managers. While curators familiar with Aboriginal material culture will be able to recognise most items, in some regions a specialised knowledge of local ceremonial practices is required to identify all objects that are restricted. In other areas, including much of arid Australia, what constitutes a secret/sacred object is a lot easier to determine. However, even here this is not always the case. In some parts of Western Australia, for example, there are public wooden ornaments and secret ritual items that look very similar and only someone familiar with both types of object would be able to tell the difference. Where an object could be restricted but staff are not certain, a cautious approach is taken and such objects are automatically placed in restricted storage. When the opportunity arises, the status of such objects is checked with Aboriginal people from the relevant area or anthropologists who know those people, and the appropriate action taken: once the status of an object has been ascertained, it can remain in locked storage or be returned to open storage.[6]

And it is not only objects that are secret. Sometimes objects are public but certain information concerning them is not. This has management implications, where information, rather than objects, is restricted and needs to be controlled. This can be illustrated through north-eastern Arnhem Land bark paintings, which have several levels of knowledge that, at a point, become secret and known only to appropriately qualified people.[7] Objects that are secret/sacred often have different levels of meaning that are revealed to appropriate people at certain times and this information, as well as the objects, is always managed as restricted.
The National Museum of Australia's collection of restricted Aboriginal objects

Prior to commencement of the repatriation program, the National Museum of Australia held approximately 1600 restricted Aboriginal objects, as well as photographs and a handful of wax cylinder recordings of secret songs. Almost all of the objects are men's objects from central and northern Australia.

There are many reasons why these objects came to be in the Museum's possession. They were largely acquired at a time when it was seen as imperative to document all aspects of Aboriginal culture before the people and their way of life disappeared. Many professional collectors, including anthropologists, documented 'inside' activities, and collected associated artefacts. Many restricted objects are aesthetically beautiful to look at and combined with the mystique surrounding their use, attracted the interest of amateur collectors. Hundreds, if not thousands, found their way into the artefact market over many decades, sometimes sold to collectors by Aboriginal people themselves, and many of these eventually found their way into collections like that of the National Museum of Australia.[8]

Indigenous museum collections in general are typified by varying levels of documentation that accompany the objects. Some objects, especially those collected by anthropologists, are accompanied by very detailed documentation. In the past, however, it is true that many people had little understanding of the nature and significance of the objects they collected, and did not obtain detailed information at the time of collection — frequently they acquired little or no information at all. The further the objects were removed spatially and geographically from their original point of collection, the less chance of obtaining such information at a later date. For museums, the end result of this is that they now hold numbers of restricted Aboriginal objects with little or no accompanying contextual information.

Obviously, for the purposes of repatriation, the more that is known about an object, the easier it is to identify who needs to be consulted about it. Sometimes these objects have very particular contexts. For those that have been out of their original cultural situation for more than a generation or two, they may cease to be remembered and it may no longer be known who has responsibility for them. Part of the management process, therefore, has been to assess the documentation for each object and to see where it can be improved. Information about collections is not always held by the Museum and in these cases must be sought out. Sources of information are mainly archival and include university and library collections but can also include the original collector and Aboriginal people from the relevant area.
Access and storage

All aspects of the National Museum of Australia's management of restricted Aboriginal objects are strictly controlled and guided by a detailed policy and accompanying procedures, which have been developed over a number of years. The secret/sacred objects held by the National Museum are not freely accessible. The collection is managed by male staff of the Museum's repatriation unit who are responsible for the everyday care of the collection, the facilitation of visits by traditional custodians and oversight of the repatriation process. Other designated staff may be called on to assist at peak times, such as when large numbers of items need to be packed. Other than for these purposes, access to restricted Aboriginal objects in the Museum's care requires the permission of the appropriate traditional custodians. Those seeking access must obtain this permission, preferably in writing.

The Museum's collection of secret/sacred objects is housed in a dedicated secure facility with limited access. There are a number of levels of security that must be passed through before the facility can be reached. The facility itself is divided into two areas: a store and a viewing area. The store, twice the size of the viewing area, is divided so that objects from different areas can be stored separately so, for example, objects from central Australia are stored separately from those originating in Arnhem Land or the Kimberley.

Objects for inspection are brought out to visitors in the viewing area. This way people do not have to be inadvertently exposed to objects from other areas.

The National Museum of Australia has legal ownership of restricted objects in its care. However, until such time as title is formally transferred, moral title in the objects is considered to belong to Aboriginal custodians. The de-accessioning of all secret/sacred objects was approved by the Museum's Council in 2002 and special policy provisions apply to facilitate accelerated return to custodians when requested. De-accessioning, however, does not imply that the Museum no longer has any responsibility for the objects in its care, and indeed they are managed to the same high standard as any part of the Museum's collection. This step was taken simply to facilitate quick responses to requests for the return of objects. A number of safeguards have been put in place to ensure that any material being de-accessioned from the collection is done so for the right reasons and after due consideration. But it is a lengthy process and, clearly, this is not the sort of timeframe a repatriation program could effectively operate under when it has received a direction to return objects.[9] By de-accessioning these objects, the repatriation process can proceed at its natural pace without potential delays due to internal processes.

De-accessioning has effectively transferred ownership of restricted Aboriginal objects back to the relevant traditional custodians.
For more than 20 years now, museums have been involved in the process of repatriation — of human remains, and of objects.[10] At the National Museum of Australia, we see repatriation as more than simply returning objects — it is an empowerment of Aboriginal people. The Museum recognises the traditional custodians as owners, and acts under instructions from them. The three main options open to traditional custodians are to:
  • take physical control of the objects
  • leave the objects under the care of the National Museum
  • request that the objects be transferred to an organisation of the custodians' choosing.
If either of the latter two options is chosen, that decision is regarded as equally successful a repatriation outcome as the return of objects would be. The decision, however, will be revisited periodically. The possibility that some objects will never be returned exists. Some people, for example, are now Christians, no longer performing the old ceremonies, and might not wish to have their objects returned to them.[11] In these cases the Museum will continue to hold the objects in restricted storage if that is the instruction received.
Repatriation versus preservation

There is a seemingly incongruous element to repatriation. Museums are charged with telling history and in Australia they are key sources of learning about Indigenous cultures. They do this through the use, particularly in exhibitions, of objects. Accordingly, they hold and preserve material culture collections. On the other hand, Aboriginal people, while happy for some aspects of their culture to be displayed, understandably forbid secret and sacred material or knowledge to be exposed in any public form. People still practising ceremonies, in particular, want to have relevant objects returned.

It is a credit to all museums involved in repatriation that they can see past the 'preservation at all costs' paradigm. On moral grounds alone, it is the responsibility of museums to respect the cultures they want to depict. The public use of Aboriginal secret/sacred objects is not consistent with this responsibility.
Restricted Aboriginal objects image with author and custodians
Author with members of the Collarenebri community, viewing documentation for a restricted object held by the National Museum at the Museum's repatriation facility.
(left to right) Willy Beal, Paul Peters, Sonny Hall, Norm Hall, David Kaus, John McGregor, Archie Williams, Warren Cain and Bobby Murray.
photograph by George Serras
National Museum of Australia

The National Museum of Australia is committed to repatriation and is one of the few Australian museums to have a dedicated repatriation unit in place. At the time most of these secret/sacred objects were collected, museums had no hesitation in displaying them openly, along with associated photographs and information. Returning collection items was unheard of. Today, this material is not displayed and access is restricted. All state museums, as well as the National Museum and the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, are actively returning secret/sacred objects. Today, repatriation is as much a part of museum practice as any other program.

Government funding for repatriation over the past five years has seen an escalation in activity, with repatriation of secret/sacred artefacts taking a more prominent role. It has also led to a new dialogue with Indigenous people. New relationships have been established and existing ones strengthened. This can only benefit museums and Indigenous people alike.
Case studies in repatriation

Repatriation is a complex process that involves sensitivity and careful negotiation. Restricted Aboriginal objects are very powerful and can bring into play community politics that need to be anticipated and fully understood. In Aboriginal cultures there can be severe consequences, often taking the form of physical punishment, for inappropriate exposure to or possession of secret/sacred objects. Because the National Museum of Australia deals with the entire country and the knowledge and trust required needs time to develop, the Museum's repatriation unit will often engage consultants to conduct the negotiations, choosing people well-known to, and trusted by the traditional custodians. The outcomes of negotiations over several groups of objects are presented in the following six case studies:

Case study 1: In the 1990s, traditional custodians visited the Museum to inspect secret/sacred objects that originated from their northern Queensland community. The custodians' instructions were, on both occasions they visited, that the Museum should continue to hold their items until they have a secure facility of their own in which they can house them.

Case study 2: In 2003 the National Museum of Australia and state museums holding secret/sacred objects from central and northern Western Australia cooperated in sending their holdings of these objects to the Western Australian Museum. A consultant and a curator from the Western Australian Museum had earlier undertaken negotiations with traditional custodians over these objects and secured written instructions from them. Copies of these instructions were sent to the various museums culminating in the transport of the objects to Perth in mid-2003. Since then some of the objects have been returned to the traditional custodians.

Case study 3: In October 2005, the National Museum of Australia returned 50 objects to three groups of Northern Territory traditional custodians. In the preceding 18 months, consultants had conducted negotiations for the Museum before reporting back on behalf of the custodians. The people conducting the negotiations were a senior traditional custodian and an anthropologist well-regarded by Aboriginal people in the area.

The return of the objects occurred at two places and the objects were delivered by Museum repatriation staff. The mechanics of the two returns were quite different: The first took place in a main town where many of the traditional custodians now live. Originally, the handover was to be to at the men's ceremonial ground outside the town, but unseasonal heavy rain resulted in the handover taking place at an Aboriginal cultural facility in town. The objects were unpacked in a locked room while Museum staff waited outside. Afterwards, they were invited into the room where aspects of the objects were explained. The other location was at a men's camp in a remote Western Desert community on Aboriginal land. All people involved in the return, including Museum staff, were invited to be present at the unpacking of the objects. Most of the men sat in a circle and each object was passed around. Frequently someone would start singing a song associated with an object, with others quickly joining in.

Case study 4: A consultant acting on behalf of the National Museum of Australia concluded negotiations with traditional custodians in areas of eastern Arnhem Land in early 2006. Negotiations took place both in Arnhem Land and in Canberra, when traditional custodians visited the Museum's store to view their objects. The consultancy examined 230 objects and the first stage entailed identifying objects that originated within the region of interest. Traditional custodians requested the return of seven objects and identified others that were to remain in the Museum's secret/sacred store. At the time of writing, discussions to start the return process were expected to happen in the first half of 2008.

For the National Museum of Australia, this consultancy had another benefit. Seventy-five objects that had been placed in the secret/sacred store because of inadequate information concerning their status were identified as public, and permission was given to remove them to open storage and make them available for uses such as exhibition.

Case study 5: In mid-2004 a consultant acting on behalf of central Australian traditional custodians from a particular region inspected objects from that region held by the Museum. He subsequently met with the traditional custodians to advise them about these objects and from this information they determined which objects they wanted to inspect on a visit to Canberra. Prior to their visit to the Museum in mid-2007, the traditional custodians indicated to Museum repatriation staff, through the consultant, which objects they wanted to see. Unlike other cases of repatriation, these traditional custodians felt uncomfortable basing their decisions on photographs, and wanted to view the objects themselves. During the visit, and following extensive discussion amongst themselves, the traditional custodians decided which objects should be returned at that time. The day prior to their departure from Canberra, the traditional custodians and Museum staff together packed the items. Further items were identified that belonged to people not present on that visit that required further consultation. These items will remain with the Museum until advice is received as to when they should be returned.

Case study 6: In October 2007 members of a north-eastern New South Wales community visited the repatriation unit to view an object removed from a ceremonial ground, along with its associated documentation. The custodians' instructions were that the Museum should continue to store the object until such time as a facility in their community is constructed where it and other objects from the same ceremonial ground, currently held in other Australian museums, can be housed.


I would like to thank Kim Akerman and Mike Pickering for their help with this paper.

1 As the National Museum of Australia does not hold any Torres Strait Islander restricted material, reference is only made to Aboriginal material in this paper.
2 The relevant National Museum of Australia policy document is 'Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander secret/sacred and private material policy', National Museum of Australia, 23 May 2006,
atsi_secretsacred_and_private_material_policy/files/14174/POL-C-034ATSIsecret-sacredandprivatematerial-2.0(public).pdf; funding is received through the Cultural Ministers' Council Return of Indigenous Cultural Property program funded by state and federal governments.
3 This is an expanded version of a paper delivered at the conference, Negotiating the Sacred II: Blasphemy and Sacrilege in the Arts, Australian National University, 3 November 2005. The nature of the audience was such that it had limited knowledge of matters discussed in this paper and for that reason a broad overview of Aboriginal ceremonial life was provided.
4 See Christopher Anderson (ed.), Politics of the Secret, Oceania, Monograph 45, University of Sydney, Sydney, 1995, for a collection of papers dealing with issues relevant to this paper, including general information on the use of secret/sacred objects.
5 While the focus here is on secret/sacred objects, all other restricted material, for example sorcery objects such as pointing bones, is managed by the National Museum of Australia in the same way.
6 At the National Museum of Australia, a particular collector had erroneously referred to a group of objects using a particular word for a type of secret/sacred object. These items were therefore placed in the secret/sacred store. They were recently inspected by a group of traditional owners who clarified their correct status and these objects have since been moved to open storage. Similarly, to ensure that restricted Aboriginal objects are not in open storage, visiting traditional custodians may be asked to look at items from their area in the general store to ensure restricted objects are not inadvertently housed there. In 2001, visiting traditional custodians identified a seemingly mundane object on display — a plain looking headband — that is secret/sacred. The object was immediately moved to storage.
7 See Howard Morphy, Ancestral Connections: Art and an Aboriginal System of Knowledge, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1991, pp. 75–99. Note that the explanatory material that accompanies bark paintings when they are sold is public knowledge open to all.
8 There are still restricted Aboriginal objects in private hands. The National Museum of Australia will accept donations of these objects, but only on the understanding that they will be subject to repatriation.
9 Under the Museum's policy, items to be de-accessioned are required to go through a set of procedures that take in excess of a year to complete.
10 In earlier years, most repatriation focused on human remains and this experience, coupled with discussions with museum colleagues, Indigenous people, anthropologists and the knowledge and experience of staff have led to a good working model that extends also to the repatriation of restricted Aboriginal objects.
11 Kim Akerman discussed this phenomenon in '"You keep it — We are Christians here": Repatriation of the secret–sacred where Indigenous worldviews have changed', Paper presented at The Meanings and Values of Repatriation conference, Australian National University, Canberra, 8–10 July 2005.