On 5 September 2023, a delegation from the Aboriginal Anindilyakwa community of Groote Eylandt joined us at Manchester Museum for the formal return of 174 cultural heritage items.
Building greater understanding between cultures is central to our mission at Manchester Museum. As part of this, we’re committed to the unconditional return of collections and belongings to communities of origin. These actions are an important way of building a more equitable and hopeful future for museums.
Manchester Museum worked collaboratively with the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) and the Anindilyakwa Land Council over a three-year period to determine where these items should live and could best inspire future generations. For the first time, Manchester Museum staff were present in person for part of the consultation process, visiting Groote Eylandt, in Australia’s Northern Territory at the invitation of the Anindilyakwa People.
The return of these items is already supporting Anindilyakwa cultural strengthening and revitalisation, with descendant generations using the items to connect with their heritage.
Thomas Amagula, Deputy Chair of the Anindilyakwa Land Council, said:
“The Anindilyakwa Land Council represents the 14 clans who are the Traditional Owners of the land and seas of the Groote Archipelago, and the repatriation of the Worsley Collection by Manchester Museum is an important step for the ALC in pursuing one of our core visions: to ‘protect, maintain, and promote Anindilyakwa culture’. We have only just begun to appreciate how valuable the repatriation of the Worsley Collection will be in the future.”
This is most powerfully demonstrated through a group of dolls made from shells – Dadikwakwa-kwa in the Anindilyakwa language – which have have unlocked a rich cultural history and inspired the Dadikwakwa-kwa Project, a contemporary art programme led by ten talented women from Anindilyakwa Arts.
Two of the artists, senior elder Noeleen Lalara and emerging leader Maicie Lalara, were part of the delegation of Anindilyakwa women who were welcomed to Manchester Museum for the handover, alongside emerging leader Amethea Mamarika.
Maicie Lalara collecting shells for the Dadikwakwa-kwa (Shell Dolls).
Noeleen Danjibana Lalara holding shells from the Dadikwakwa-kwa.
Anindilyakwa Art Centre’s Dadikwakwa-kwa, 2023.
© Anindilyakwa Arts, Anindilyakwa Land Council, 2023.
The Dadikwakwa-kwa Project was partly inspired by the conversations that took place with Amethea’s grandmother, Old Lady Edith Mamarika, on Groote Eylandt around her memories of the shell dolls now being returned. Traditionally painted by parents for their daughters using intricate ochre designs, they have helped to strengthen cross-generational bonds within the Anindilyakwa community.
The project was a finalist in the 2023 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards.
This process has also paved the way for future collaboration between the Anindilyakwa People and Manchester Museum, including a display of contemporary works from Anindilyakwa Arts.
Keep an eye out for more details on that once they are confirmed.
In this video, Edith shares her memories of Dadikwakwa-kwa (Shell Dolls).
Edith is a senior Warnindilyakwa woman who was born in Umbakumba and has lived there her whole life.
Edith is a weaver and uses both mangkurrkwa (pandanus) and ghost net to make baskets and jewellery.
Edith has also designed a scarf and digital print textile incorporating the morning star – Ediths totem for Mamarika.
“Warnindilyakwa is the name for all the Anindilyakwa people, Mamarika is one group. I am the eldest of the Mamarikas here in Umbakumba.
I was born at Umbakumba, on my fathers country. My mothers country is Salt Lake.
My father he was out fishing and saw that first white fella boat came to Groote Eylandt. He was busy fishing when one of the men came out on a dingy to the shore. That man yelled out to my father, he had a Bara Bara man he took from Yirrikala so he could speak my father’s language and translate.”
Manchester Museum has collaborated with AIATSIS over the past five years and previously returned sacred and ceremonial items to Aboriginal communities. The current repatriation goes further, embracing the full scope of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by returning material beyond the secret, sacred and ceremonial that is important to the traditions and memories of the Aboriginal community that made them.
It follows in a 20-year history of returning items to Indigenous communities and is guided by Manchester Museum’s values of inclusivity, imagination and care, underpinned by the University of Manchester’s own commitment to social responsibility. The aim is to reimagine the role of museums by shifting emphasis toward caring for people as well as objects, building greater understanding and empathy between cultures by working with communities to tell their stories in different ways.
Leonard Hill, Acting Chief Executive of AIATSIS, said:
“AIATSIS and the Manchester Museum have a productive and committed partnership and I thank them for their collaborative and ethical approach to caring for their collections and respecting the Anindilyakwa community’s wish to have their material returned to Country.
“This is a highly significant return and demonstrates how respectful partnerships between AIATSIS, First Nation communities and overseas collecting institutions can create opportunities for people to encounter, engage and be transformed by the stories of Aboriginal and Torre Strait Islander Peoples.”
Georgina Young, Head of Exhibitions and Collections, Manchester Museum said:
“Having spent time on Groote Eylandt at the invitation of the Anindilyakwa People makes reaching this point of handover feel momentous in a different way to any of Manchester Museum’s past returns. Sitting with Elders and hearing them discuss this collection on the their land in their terms has enabled me to understand and care in ways not possible in a store room in Manchester, and brought us to a place of understanding together.
“We are excited by all that this return makes possible in terms of future partnership, but more so by how it supports Anindilyakwa cultural strengthening for years to come.”
Stephen Smith, Australian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, added:
“The return of these significant cultural heritage items is important for Australia’s reconciliation process. It also helps renew cultural practices and safeguard such practices and items for future generations.
“Returning this collection of items to representatives of the Anindilyakwa community and the children and grandchildren of those who made them is a great thing. I commend the collaborative way in which AIATSIS, Manchester Museum and the Anindilyakwa community have brought this project to fruition.”
If you you want to get in touch with us directly about our commitment to returning, you can contact us at our dedicated email address. We anticipate a large number of enquiries, so please bear with us as we aim to provide each with the thought and care it deserves.
As one of the UK’s largest university museums, we care for over 4.5 million objects, with an internationally-important collection spanning from Archaeology to Zoology, and nearly everything in between. We work with communities, support university students and schools in Manchester and beyond and we are a free, inclusive museum for all. But we need your help. Every object we care for, exhibition, school visit and community event comes at a cost, and you can help make the museum as ambitious and impactful as possible.