Living in their Hands. The International Repatriation of Sensitive and Restricted Men’s Objects to Australia by Iain Johnson & Shaun Angelis Penangke

Panel: Hidden Objects - Sensitive and Restricted Objects in Museum Collections. Issues Surrounding their Storage, Access, Consultations, and Potential Repatriation

Wednesday, 23 June, 9:30 a.m. - 11:00 p.m. (CET)


Since 2018, AIATSIS has led the repatriation of sensitive and restricted men’s objects to seven Aboriginal communities across central and northern Australia from overseas collecting institutions, and continues to work with some of those Senior Men who have requested further research concerning their material. After identifying the material and consulting with those Custodians, every group of Senior Male Custodians we have partnered with have requested the return of this type of material from overseas collecting institutions. This situation is at odds with some publications concerning the repatriation of sacred material in the Australian domestic context.
In this paper, we aim to address why this type of material must come back to Australia and the impact it has on custodians when it comes home. In our discussion, we aim to touch upon aspects of the long history of repatriating men’s sacred material within the Australian domestic space and compare this with our own experiences of undertaking international repatriation and consultation about this type of material.


Dr Iain G. Johnston is a Senior Researcher in the Return of Cultural Heritage Program at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS). A role he also held in the Return of Cultural Heritage Pilot Project. Johnston’s major research focus is community based rock art projects in Kakadu and western Arnhem Land and his publications concern archaeology, ethnography, rock art, ritual and repatriation.


Shaun Angeles Penangke is an Arrernte man from Ayampe, located approximately 70 kilometres north of Mparntwe (Alice Springs) in the Central Desert of Australia. He has worked in repatriation for the past nine years primarily at the Strehlow Research Centre, Mparntwe, with an important collection of secret sacred objects, audio-visual material and archival records relating to numerous language groups across Central Australia. He is now with the Return of Cultural Heritage program at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, a program focussing on the return of cultural heritage material from international collecting institutions.