Illinois State Museum returns artifacts to Australia

First museum to send back objects to Australian indigenous peoples

click to enlarge Dentalium (tusk shell) necklaces collected by Gerhardt Laves (University of Chicago) in 1930 from Bardi Jawi in Cape Leveque, Australia. These necklaces will be returned to the Bardi Jawi as part of the ISM repatriation effort. - PHOTO BY CLAIRE MARTIN.
Photo by Claire Martin.
Dentalium (tusk shell) necklaces collected by Gerhardt Laves (University of Chicago) in 1930 from Bardi Jawi in Cape Leveque, Australia. These necklaces will be returned to the Bardi Jawi as part of the ISM repatriation effort.

The Illinois State Museum is making national news in Australia. The Australian government recently announced that 42 culturally significant objects will soon be brought home from the United States. They include secret/sacred, ceremonial and secular objects. The ISM is the first institution in the world to return culturally significant objects as part of the Return of Cultural Heritage project. A handoff ceremony will take place Oct. 23 in Springfield. The objects are being returned to the Aranda and Bardi Jawi peoples, not to a museum or the Australian government. “Returning these items – it’s just the right thing to do,” said ISM director Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko.

Next year is the 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook’s first voyage to the east coast of Australia and the beginning of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage being removed and taken overseas. In recognition of this upcoming anniversary, Australia launched an effort to bring cultural materials back home.

The Australian government funded the Return of Cultural Heritage project by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), which involved contacting nearly 200 museums and other institutions throughout the world to explore repatriation. “This repatriation by the ISM will serve as a model of successful collaboration and best practices for other museums,” said Catlin-Legutko. The Manchester Museum in England will soon follow.

“Cultural artifacts are uniquely connected to the place they are created,” said Ken Wyatt, who holds the title Minister for Indigenous Australians. “That connection to country should be honored by returning artifacts home. Repatriating artifacts promotes healing and reconciliation.”

Boomerangs, shields, spears, clap sticks, body ornaments and necklaces are examples of the objects that will be returned to the Aranda and Bardi Jawi peoples. A representative of AIATSIS contacted the ISM in December 2018 and traveled to Springfield in June 2019. Dr. Brooke Morgan, curator of anthropology since May 2018, was the lead contact for ISM. Over eight months the ISM shared inventories and photographs of the materials in their collection, and AIATSIS then took the information directly into the Aranda and Bardi Jawi communities to facilitate identification of the objects and their traditional custodians. Morgan said it was moving to envision images of the museum’s collections being shown in tiny aboriginal towns.

The ISM found the requests for unconditional repatriation compelling, and the ISM board unanimously supported returning the objects to the Indigenous Australian communities. Returning these objects will ensure First Nations’ cultures are revived, maintained and practiced by future generations.

How did the Illinois State Museum come to have objects from Australia in its collections? Gerhardt Laves, a linguistic anthropologist at the University of Chicago who worked with Australian aboriginal communities between 1929 and 1931, collected the objects. Laves was the first person trained in modern linguistic fieldwork to record Australian indigenous languages. Morgan says there was nothing untoward about how the objects were collected at the time.

Both the ISM and University of Chicago are well known for their scholarship and leadership in anthropology. In 1942, ISM Director Thorne Deuel contacted his colleague Fay Cooper-Cole, who was the founder of the anthropology department at the University of Chicago. The Australian artifacts were transferred to the ISM for incorporation into the museum’s rotating exhibit series on international cultures. The Australian objects have not been exhibited since 1981, but were periodically shown during behind-the-scenes tours of the museum’s research and collections center.

Museums are entrusted with the long-term care of objects in their collections. Officially removing objects from the collections is not taken lightly. The process has been deliberative, respectful and designed to build trust among all the parties. Some of the objects are considered secret and sacred by the Bardi Jawi and Aranda peoples. In accordance with tradition, these restricted objects are to be viewed and handled only by men of a certain status. The ISM honored the request that only men would photograph and handle the sacred objects.

The ISM’s director, curator of anthropology, anthropology research associate and photographer are all women. Yet, they honored this request as part of building trust and conveying sensitivity to the cultural traditions associated with these sacred objects. The objects are considered spiritual and powerful. Morgan explains they were told that because these things have power, “they wanted us to be safe.”

The Australian delegation will be in Springfield for six days to meet with museum staff and oversee the packing and transfer from the ISM to Australia. Their time will be devoted to the logistical as well as spiritual and ceremonial. The delegation will include two representatives from AIATSIS, two representatives of both the Aranda and Bardi Jawi aboriginal peoples and representation from the Australian consulate in Chicago. Five descendants of Gerhardt Laves will also be present.

“These items were taken a long time ago, but we’re glad that the Illinois State Museum looked after them and is now returning them back to the rightful tribe,” said Senior Bardi Lawman, Kevin George.”

 “I am very happy to hear and see that the artifacts will be coming back to their original beds and caves, where they will sleep for the rest of their time,” said Braydon Kantjira, Aranda senior ceremonial leader. “Their return will bring back power and strength to our Dreamtime constitution. The men of the desert will be very grateful for the objects returning back home.”

This significant repatriation comes just a couple of months into Catlin-Legutko’s tenure as director of ISM. She is a respected leader in the museum field around the issues of diversity and inclusion. She is a frequent speaker and thought-leader on “decolonization,” where museums share authority and governance with native people for the documentation and interpretation of the culture of indigenous peoples. Catlin-Legutko says months of planning had already occurred by the time she arrived at ISM. She is proud of the museum’s leadership and says, “This moment will be something we look back on in our journey to be a thoughtful, engaged and inclusive Illinois State Museum.”  

Karen Ackerman Witter is a former associate director of the Illinois State Museum and was on staff in 2007 when the museum repatriated wood-carved kikango memorial posts to a village in Kenya.

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