via The Monthly, November 2022: The repatriation debate around Papuan objects in Australian museums
Museums in Germany, France and England are now returning artefacts pillaged from former colonial possessions, notably the famous Benin Bronzes of West Africa. In Australia, campaigns have been mounted for the return of Aboriginal artefacts taken by explorers and Aboriginal human remains collected as ethnological specimens by 19th-century scientists, and lodged in museums overseas. Less publicised are the extensive collections of Indigenous and Oceanic artefacts and human remains – mostly in the form of trophy skulls and preserved heads – that are lodged in Australian museums.
As well as the Hurley-McCulloch collection, the Australian Museum holds some 1300 images taken by Hurley in Papua, plus a dazzling assembly of Australasian and Oceanic art assembled from other expeditions, donations and acquisitions.
During his tenure, lieutenant-governor Murray built up what is now called the Official Papuan collection. He ordered his patrol officers to bring back samples offered voluntarily and forbade personal collecting, to record native culture before it was changed by European contact, or the people themselves died out. The collection is now at Canberra’s National Museum of Australia, but has only been exhibited in part from time to time.
The MacGregor Collection, named for an earlier governor when Papua was under British rule, is in the Queensland Museum. Both these collections are now essentially held in trust for the successor state, Papua New Guinea, as both MacGregor and Murray had stipulated.
Has the moment arrived for the Australian Museum to restore the stolen items? And if so, how? If brought back to Usakof, how would they be secured and preserved? Lodge them in Port Moresby at the PNG National Museum and Art Gallery? Or could they be given some special recognition at the Australian Museum?
Source: Should the Australian Museum return Papuan artefacts?: The call for the return of sacred objects stolen from Papua by Frank Hurley poses uncomfortable questions for Australia’s museums | The Monthly
Is the word stolen appropriate? That would appear to be debatable if, as indicated, the artifacts were “samples offered voluntarily.” The fact that they are “held in trust” would also also indicate that the term stolen may not be appropriate. That being said, it is reasonable that artifacts be transfered to the Papuan government and arrangements for curating and preserving the collections made. Human remains should be returned when appropriate arrangements can be made.