It’s not difficult to imagine how someone might be prevented from paying respects to their ancestors and ensuring proper observances because they’re buried overseas. Thousands of families who’ve lost relatives during the battles of far-off wars know only too well the distress of loved ones resting on foreign soil.

But for countless Australian Aboriginal families, it’s not voluntary service or even conscription that led to their ancestors’ remains ending up overseas. Rather, it’s grave robbing, and the practice of stealing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ bodies to be placed in museums, anatomy collections and cabinets of curiosity.

In some particularly grisly cases, known individuals, such as William Lanne described as the last full-blooded Tasmanian Aboriginal man, and Yagan, a Noongar man from the western coast of Australia, were mutilated and rendered anthropological specimens.

It’s hardly surprising then, that over the last half century, there have been growing calls for lost souls like these to be brought back home. The recent repatriation of human remains from museums and university collections in the United Kingdom has resulted in some high-profile events. These include the repatriation of ancestral remains of Ngarrindjeri and other people of South Australia, in a moving ceremony conducted by Aboriginal Elder Major Sumner.

But calls by Aboriginal activists and descendants to return objects collected or stolen by colonisers, explorers and others have been met with much less enthusiasm. For the most part, museums have been slow to engage with issues surrounding the return of artefacts, even as they’ve been proactive about returning human remains.

The Gweagal Shield

The case of the “Gweagal Shield” and the current quest for its return to Australia by Rodney Kelly, a descendant of the warrior Cooman whose shield it was, highlights some of the issues at play.

The shield is generally accepted as having been “collected” when the HMS Endeavour visited Botany Bay in 1770, by either Captain James Cook or the naturalist Joseph Banks. It was subsequently given to the British Museum, where it is still held. Its story is much like that of the Dja Dja Wrung barks, which were “collected” by the settler John Hunter Kerr.

Contemporary Aboriginal activists say they regard the shield, like the bark etchings, as representing an unbroken connection with their ancestors of the 18th and 19th centuries. Their claim for the object’s return is based on this connection.

Repatriation of objects is difficult because museums are nothing without their collections. And sending back human remains, many of which are rarely shown, is an easier option.

In the United States, for instance, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which became law over 15 years ago, ensures the return of cultural items to lineal descendants and culturally affiliated Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organisations. According to the Act, cultural items can include human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony.

But even under NAGPRA, the repatriation of “collected” cultural materials continues to be a contested, murky area.

The paths that indigenous objects travelled as they entered into the collections of Britain, Europe and North America are varied. Some of the material in collections were simply stolen, others traded, some were offered for sale, and some were taken in the aftermath of violence, even massacres.

The direct descendants of the Cooman people from whom the Gweagal Shield was stolen have said, they do not recognise the British Museum as having title or rights of ownership.

Object of study

Australian Aboriginal cultural materials, and indeed Aboriginal people, have traditionally been the objects of study in museums. Most of the great museum collections of Aboriginal artefacts were amassed over a 40-year period from the end of the 19th to the second decade of the 20th century.

During this time, Aboriginal artefacts were collected as curiosities and as sources of information about an exotic other. As a result, museums — particularly museums with ethnographic and anthropological collections — have become the focus of discontent and action by a range of indigenous communities and individuals.

In response, many Australian museums have employed Indigenous people as expert-advisors or in curatorial positions. Unsurprisingly, this has not always improved relations as the problems are structural rather than personal.

The source of tension has been – and remains – the manner in which museums are perceived as experts and authorities on indigenous cultures. The collection of cultural materials from all over the world are the spoils of conquests in which indigenous peoples were dehumanised and oppressed; the museum was part of a rationalised, operationalised dispossession.

The British, on arrival in what was to become Australia, understood the world they entered as a place that was completely alien. Everything they encountered, they saw as a new discovery. They were fascinated by Aboriginal people and collected their material culture; often as exemplars of “primitivism” – and even as examples of ancestral humans.

Resistance and the future

Some of the arguments against – and resistance to – the return of objects reflect the anxieties museum staff expressed during the debate around the repatriation of the Elgin Marbles, after the Greek government formally requested their return from the British Museum in 1983.

The Elgin Marbles are a collection of Classical Greek sculptures that were originally part of the temple of the Parthenon at the Acropolis of Athens. In 1801, Thomas Bruce, seventh Earl of Elgin removed them from the Parthenon and sent them to Britain. They have been contested ever since.

Museums as repositories of objects and collections feared that their repatriation would open the floodgates – and their very existence would be threatened.

Still, thanks to technology, change may be in the air.

The recent emergence of online exhibitions and virtual collections has meant that museums have become more accessible. And the ways that the public and communities interact with their collections is significantly different. Museum collections are no longer only accessible to those who can physically visit them.

Many museums are attempting to decolonise. By changing their processes, they are supporting the aspirations of Indigenous people and communities, and hiring Indigenous staff to develop policies and actively repair the damage of the past; as well as working with contemporary artists and artisans.

Another exciting possibility is the emergence of new virtual reality technology and 3D printing. Using the latest innovative technologies, we predict museums will have the opportunity to either offer virtual repatriations, or to hold on to the virtual object and repatriate the original.

These are exciting possibilities, but they will not satisfy everyone.

Repatriation of objects differs from returning human remains. Bringing home ancestors and family can be imagined as a human right; the right to decide the fate of our relatives. But the question of repatriating objects is clearly more complex. It needs more debate, and more creative interventions to move beyond the current impasse.

Myles Russell Cook, Lecturer, Design Anthropology and Indigenous Studies, University of Melbourne and Lynette Russell, Professor, Indigenous Studies and History, Monash University.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.