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Executive Summaries

This report concerns laws and policies governing the return of indigenous remains and cultural items in Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.


In recent years, the Australian government has initiated a number of programs to facilitate the return of indigenous human remains and cultural objects held by museums to their communities of origin. One such initiative, the Return of Indigenous Cultural Property Program, focuses on holdings by Australia’s major government-funded museums. Along with other entities, the Program also funds the National Museum of Australia’s highly successful repatriation unit, which both repatriates the National Museum’s holdings and coordinates the efforts of other Australian museums. In addition, the government of New South Wales has launched an independent repatriation program for the return of Aboriginal materials held by the National Parks and Wildlife Service. Repatriations from overseas are coordinated by the International Repatriation Program of the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.

Various Australian states have also enacted legislation on the return of indigenous human remains. In Queensland, this legislation consists of the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act 2003 and the nearly identical Torres Strait Islander Cultural Heritage Act 2003, while in Victoria the legislature has adopted the Aboriginal Heritage Act of 2006. These Acts vest ownership of indigenous remains in those peoples with a traditional or familial links to such remains regardless of prior claims of ownership. The Victoria legislation also created an advisory Aboriginal Heritage Council.

Overall, the government’s efforts have resulted in a large number of successful repatriations to Australia’s indigenous communities.

New Zealand

The return of human remains taken from the country is of particular and unique concern to New Zealand because of the large number of preserved Maori heads that were acquired by foreigners prior to 1831. New Zealand has established a program for the return of Maori remains, which is largely administered by its national museum. Through this program, New Zealand has secured the cooperation of over forty foreign museums. New Zealand is a party to international conventions on the return of cultural artifacts and has enacted implementing legislation. The relevant law allows foreign countries to claim culturally significant objects being held in New Zealand and requires governmental permission for culturally significant domestic objects to be exported.

United Kingdom

The UK has a large number of institutions that collectively possess a vast array of human remains. The majority of these remains originated in the UK; however, a considerable amount are from indigenous peoples overseas and were collected under suspect circumstances during the growth of the British Empire. Legislation was recently enacted to provide certain institutions with the ability to return these remains to their legitimate ancestors, and as a result a number of remains have been returned. These returns have not been without issues, however.

Full Report (PDF, 345KB)

Last Updated: 08/08/2012