The Anindilyakwa People will hold an on-country return celebration on Groote Eylandt on 21 November 2023 for 174 cultural heritage items repatriated from Manchester Museum.
The repatriated cultural heritage items include 70 culturally significant dadikwakwa-kwa (toy dolls used by Anindilyakwa girls, decorated with ochre designs and cloth), seven errumungkwa (arm bands), a turtle shell map, five ajamurnda (stringy-bark baskets), a malamukwa (model canoe) and three types of spears.
The items were traded, bought and acquired from the Anindilyakwa community by British sociologist and anthropologist Peter Worsley during the 1950s, while completing his PhD in Australia.
Manchester Museum subsequently looked after the collection until 5 September 2023, when the items were formally handed back to representatives of the Traditional Owners in the UK.
Then Deputy Chair of the Anindilyakwa Land Council (ALC), Thomas Amagula, said in September that “[t]he 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”. Mr Amagula passed away in October 2023 and was described by the ALC as a “strong advocate and a passionate leader who was committed to securing a better future for his people”, including through cultural heritage repatriations.
The ALC represents the traditional custodians of the land and sea country of the Groote Archipelago, in the Gulf of Carpentaria in the Northern Territory of Australia.
The importance of and capacity for this repatriation to strengthen and share Anindilyakwa culture across generations is already evident.
Discussions between Manchester Museum and the Anindilyakwa People throughout the repatriation process inspired a contemporary art initiative by ten Anindilyakwa female artists. The artists collected shells and created a work made up of 196 unique shell dolls arranged in a 14×14 grid to represent the fourteen clan groups of the Groote Archipelago in the Northern Territory. These are the first doll shells to have been created in five decades.
One of the project’s artists, Maicie Lalara, explained that “[s]eeing the photos and hearing the old ladies talk about the dolls [in the Manchester Museum] inspired the shell project… Making dolls like this it’s just from here. We follow the old ways, weaving like the ladies and using string to make clothes for the dolls. The old ones should come back too so we can see them and their designs. We don’t want to lose our culture, and we want to share our knowledge with the world.”
Anindilyakwa Elder, Phillip Mamarika, said of the errumungkwa that “Old People used to put on arm bands during different ceremonies which includes funerals… these must be brought back so that the kids can learn about past traditions”. Naomi Wurramara, Edna Bara, Edith Mamarika, Sue Bara and Sinah Wurramara explained that “[i]f they are home, we could learn to make them again”.
The return of cultural heritage items from the Worsley collection followed three years’ collaboration between the ALC, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) and the Manchester Museum, which is the part of the University of Manchester.
Head of Exhibitions and Collections at Manchester Museum, Georgina Young, said in a statement that “[h]aving 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 [sic] 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.”
Acting Chief Executive of AIATSIS, Leonard Hill, thanked the Manchester Museum 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”.
After a formal handover ceremony in the UK in September, arrangements were made for the cultural heritage items to travel to Groote Eylandt by barge and by air, ahead of the on-country celebration in November 2023.
All images courtesy of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.