‘Momentous’: UK museum returns Indigenous dolls to remote Australian community

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London: Toy dolls made from seashells, a map made from turtle shells and other Indigenous heritage items have been handed back to members of a remote northern Australian community as part of renewed efforts among British museums to decolonise their collections.

The items were acquired by a controversial British anthropologist more than 70 years ago. On Tuesday, they were formally returned by the Manchester Museum to representatives of the Anindilyakwa community, who travelled from Groote Eylandt, the largest island in the Gulf of Carpentaria, about 50km from the north coast of mainland Australia.

One of the highlights of the collection being returned is a group of dolls made from shells – dadikwakwa-kwa in the Anindilyakwa language – which have helped unlock a rich cultural history.

Professor Peter Worsley had purchased, traded, and acquired the collection while undertaking fieldwork on the island for his PhD thesis on Aboriginal kinship in the early 1950s.

He joined the University of Manchester from 1964, hence the Manchester Museum coming to possess the 180 items in the Anindilyakwa collection, along with his extensive notes.

Elders hope the return of the material to custodians will re-invigorate cultural practices, some of which are at risk of being forgotten, as well as spark a contemporary art project inspired by traditional customs.

Among the items Worsley collected were several armbands, known as errumungkwa in the local language, made on Groote Eylandt probably from lawyer-vine, which elders traditionally wore during some ceremonies, including funerals.

Several errumungkwa (armbands) woven by women for traditional ceremonies, are among the collection.

Some 70 dolls made from shells, called dadikwakwa-kwa in the Anindilyakwa language, are also in the collection, which were traditionally painted by parents for their daughters using intricate ochre designs, helping to strengthen cross-generational bonds within the community.

Worsley noted at the time: “Young girls had a separate set of dolls quite distinct from the boys’ dolls, the female members of each clan being represented by different species of shells”.

There are also five stringy-bark baskets, known as ajamurnda, which Anindilyakwa elders immediately recognised as a form of container regularly used by their families, as well as model canoes, spears and spear throwers.

Thomas Amagula, from the Anindilyakwa Land Council which represents the 14 clans who are the traditional owners of the land and seas of the Groote Archipelago, said the repatriation was an important step towards protecting, maintaining and promoting their culture.

“We have only just begun to appreciate how valuable the repatriation of the Worsley Collection will be in the future,” he said.

The museum has collaborated with the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies during the past five years and has previously returned sacred and ceremonial items to Aboriginal communities.

This current repatriation goes further, embracing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by returning material beyond the secret, sacred and ceremonial that are important to the traditions and memories of the Aboriginal community that made them.

Georgina Young, the museum’s head of exhibitions and collections, said it would pave the way for collaboration with the Anindilyakwa people, including a display of contemporary works from the Anindilyakwa Art Centre.

She said her time spent on Groote Eylandt at the invitation of community had made the handover feel more “momentous” than other past returns.

“Sitting with elders and hearing them discuss this collection on 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.”

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