Calls for First Nations historical artefacts in British Museum to be returned

Boodle Hatfield Lexology 20 March 2015

The British Museum’s decision to loan rare aboriginal artefacts to the National Museum of Australia has sparked accusations of cultural insensitivity and threats of legal action from indigenous community leaders in Australia. The objects are to be included in an exhibition, Encounters, which set to open at the British Museum in April before touring to Australia six months later.

The objects in dispute are three pieces of bark art – a shield, an emu carving and a scene the British Museum believes is of a kangaroo hunt – that were crafted by the Dja Dja Wurrung people in central Victoria. The Scottish settler John Hunter Kerr sold them to the British Museum in the 1850s.

In 2004, the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act was used on behalf of the Dja Dja Wurrung people to seize the barks while they were on loan to the Melbourne Museum, now the Museum Victoria. After a protracted legal battle the barks were returned to the British Museum.

In the wake of this court case, Australia’s cultural institutions ensured that the Protection of Cultural Objects on Loan Act was passed into legislation in 2013. This was in order to ensure that they could legally guarantee to foreign museums that they would be able to return their loans.

The decision to loan the barks again to Australia is being seen by some Indigenous Australians as insensitive and provocative. Gary Murray, who is leading the campaign for the repatriation of the cultural items told the Guardian Australia: "It’s a positive thing that a few of my people might get to see them again for a very short period. But it taunts us spiritually. We just get to see them for a fleeting moment and they are taken back again to the British Museum where they’ll be held in the archives downstairs for another decade. It’s not right."

Murray went on to suggest that some Aboriginal leaders are considering new legal action to have their cultural items returned.

"Because of the new legislation it is supposedly legally impossible for us to use the commonwealth heritage laws to get the barks back if they are brought back into the country" he says.

"Of course this is not just about the barks – it is a story intrinsically related to questions of Aboriginal sovereignty, about de-culturalisation, about dispossession. But we need to resort to other means to get what is ours back. Perhaps it’s time to see a lawyer in London."