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Partner and collaborate with our communities, partners and governments

Progress on ensuring we have diverse and enduring partnerships and networks in Australia and across the world underpinned by culturally competent work practices.

In 2020–21, AIATSIS delivered the following initiatives in line with our mission and functions. Our actions focused on reporting against our Corporate Plan.

  • Members
  • Research partners
  • Interacting with communities

Feature 11: Members

Refer to TABLE 4: PARTNER AND COLLABORATE WITH OUR COMMUNITIES, PARTNERS AND GOVERNMENTS and Table 4a: AIATSIS membership for statistics on our members.

Our membership network is a unique part of our organisation’s structure. This year we added 23 members to a network involved in all aspects of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ knowledge and culture.

Entities advising the CEO and the AIATSIS Council have 22 members shaping the strategic direction of AIATSIS. Members play an important part in shaping the AIATSIS Council, and this year 22 per cent of our members took the opportunity to vote in the Council election.

The pandemic impacted on the number of events we held for members; however, the AIATSIS Summit enabled us to conduct a membership drive and provide discounts for attendance. Usually there are at least three events. This year there was one: the Summit.

Feature 12: Research partners

Refer to TABLE 4: PARTNER AND COLLABORATE WITH OUR COMMUNITIES, PARTNERS AND GOVERNMENTS and Table 4b: Research collaborations and networks for statistics on our research partners.

Our partners and collaborators are integral to our research. AIATSIS maintained more than 50 research project partnerships. This year we entered into one new long term research funding agreement and six new research collaboration agreements.

Among the notable achievements of our projects and partners are:

  • an extension project with our South Coast NSW fishing rights partners
  • a research collaboration agreement with Curtin University
  • a four year funding agreement to support AIATSIS native title activities

Livelihood values of Indigenous customary fishing - extension project

Following the highly successful 'Living off our waters' project, which ran from 2015-2018, AIATSIS secured a small grant to work on an extension project with one of the original case study partners, the NSW Aboriginal Fishing Rights Group, who are Yuin traditional owners from the south coast of NSW.

The project aims to conduct a sea country health check to support Traditional Owners to carry out their cultural obligations and duty of care to make sure that their sea country is healthy for future generations. This will result in community designed and led sea country management plan. We invited South Coast Aboriginal people to complete a survey about their fishing and diving practices and changes to sea country that they have observed over time. AIATSIS staff visited the South Coast and attended a two day community meeting, a small stall was set up to capture interest of attendees, to find out more about the project and complete surveys. in a video to promote community understanding and participation in the survey, Yuin Elder, Wally Stewart said:

'if you've got healthy seas, healthy waters, then you've got healthy ... Yuin people. That's what the survey is about'.

This project is funded by the Indigenous Reference Group of the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation.

Collaboration agreement with Curtin University and Curtin Open Knowledge Initiative

The Indigenous Research Exchange commenced a new project in collaboration with Curtin University and Curtin Open Knowledge Initiative. The project will develop a conceptual dashboard that maps and interrogates Indigenous scholarly research. The dashboard will be a valuable tool for the Indigenous Research Exchange, as it continues to investigate ways in which Indigenous research and data can be made more readily accessible and useable.

Funding Agreement for native title activities

In June 2021, AIATSIS and the National Indigenous Australians Agency entered into an agreement to support a further four years of AIATSIS native title activities. The Native Title Research Unit was established by the AIATSIS Council in 1992 to undertake research and support the development of the native title sector and has received funding support from successive Indigenous affairs agencies over nearly 30 years, a testament to the value of AIATSIS contribution in this area. This new funding agreement will provide $5,464,824 over four years to support new projects and partnerships.

Feature 13: Interacting with communities

Refer to tables TABLE 4: PARTNER AND COLLABORATE WITH OUR COMMUNITIES, PARTNERS AND GOVERNMENTS and Table 4d: Interaction with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communitiesfor statistics on interacting with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Notable achievements include:

  • more than 30 communities directly involved in AIATSIS research projects
  • the Return of Cultural Heritage program with the Yindjibarndi and Arrernte language groups and the Wellesley Islands community
  • the 2021 AIATSIS Summit repatriation and return sessions
  • the First Nations Media Australia Alice Springs digitisation facility
  • the Cultural Keepers Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair Foundation Indigenous Curators Program
  • the National Gallery and Wesfarmers Indigenous Arts Leadership and Fellowship program
  • collaboration with peer organisations including the Museum of Australian Democracy and the Parliamentary Library
  • the Indigenous ancestral remains project Restoring Dignity.

Community partners and participants in AIATSIS research

Across the range of research projects under taken by AIATSIS, more than 30 communities and organisation are actively involved. This can involve visits to AIATSIS to undertake research activities and AIATSIS staff visiting communities. While COVID travel restrictions limited travel, AIATSIS was able to host visits from Karajarri, Yorta Yorta, Quandamooka, and two South Coast communities. In addition, AIATSIS visited more than 25 Local Aboriginal Land Councils as part of the PSR South Coast Voices project. This performance criteria also includes Indigenous research exchange grantee communities that are actively engage with AIATSIS to communicate about their research and increase the awareness and understanding of their research and results.

Case studies add depth and context to our research. For example, this year, field work was able to be undertaken with Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation (QYAC) and the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria (the Assembly) to hear from Aboriginal young people about their experiences and engagement with regard to native title. The Indigenous Youth in Governance and Political Processes project is a research partnership between the Native Title Research Unit (NTRU) at AIATSIS, the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR), and the Macquarie University Law School. This project focuses on how Indigenous children and youth are participating and engaging in their native title organisations and larger political processes.

The project builds on a program of work that has previously included the Youth Forum at the National Native Title Conferences, the Youth Engagement in Native Title project and the Issues Paper ‘What do young fellas reckon? Exploring the experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth in Native Title’.

Return of Cultural Heritage

The achievements of the Return of Cultural Heritage program are referred to in Feature 4, Communications and Feature 7, Public events. Also refer to Case Study 2: Returning cultural heritage material to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, for a personal insight into the program.

In July 2020 the Minister for Indigenous Australians, the Hon Ken Wyatt AM MP, announced the introduction of the Return of Cultural Heritage (RoCH) program, providing a total of $9.99 million over the next four years. The program was also expanded to include returns from private collectors and foreign governments, as well as collecting institutions.

Building on the success of the RoCH scoping project (2018–2020) under which AIATSIS returned 85 significant objects to five language groups, 2020–21 saw returns of cultural heritage material from three overseas collecting institutions and two private collectors. As at 30 June 2021, AIATSIS has returned 1,942 objects to Australia.

While the primary aim of the program is the voluntary, unconditional return of cultural heritage material to Australia, it also:

  • enables Indigenous communities to understand where their cultural heritage material is held overseas
  • influences institutional repatriation practices and policies, and fosters relationships between overseas collecting institutions and Indigenous communities
  • enables Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to exercise agency over their cultural heritage material – to determine what material is significant and determine what material should come home.

Throughout the year, AIATSIS has continued to correspond with overseas collecting institutions to develop and strengthen relationships, to research collection holdings and to support the development of the Return of Cultural Heritage database.

The database will store information on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage material held in overseas collections, including:

  • information about the removal and return of material
  • images
  • information about collecting institutions and people (field collectors, donors, etc.)
  • information about events (domestic and international) such as expeditions
  • archival records related to objects, institutions and people.

The database will be accessible to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and to researchers.

Over 109,000 Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage objects have been identified in overseas collecting institutions. This does not include a complete account of photographs, audiovisual records, artwork and archival items. It also excludes material in private collections.

Over 300 overseas collecting institutions that hold Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage material have been identified. To date, AIATSIS has made contact with 297 of these institutions. Of those institutions:

  • 131 have supplied information on their collections
  • 96 are eager to establish a relationship with AIATSIS and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
  • significantly, 62 have noted a willingness to consider a return request.

The RoCH program has now facilitated the return of significant cultural heritage material to seven language groups: Bardi, Yawuru, Nyamal, Arrernte, Gangalidda Garawa, Lardil and Yindjibarndi.

In September 2020 the Bardi Jawi Nation at Ardyaloon (One Arm Point), Western Australia, officially celebrated the return of 31 items from the Illinois State Museum in the United States. The objects were returned in 2019 under the RoCH scoping project. However, due to the impact of the global pandemic, the on-country celebrations were delayed. The celebration at Ardyaloon demonstrates how returned artefacts are being brought back to life and reincorporated into the rich cultural practices of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

In October 2020, representatives of the Yindjibarndi community gathered in Roebourne, Western Australia, to celebrate the unconditional return of eight items from Andover in the United Kingdom. The return was the first repatriation from a private collector under the RoCH program. The repatriated items included a shield, a spear thrower, boomerangs and other artefacts. The items had been in the care of the collector and his family for over a century before being returned to traditional custodians.

In December 2020 a large collection of stone artefacts (over 1,800 objects) was returned from The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. This return was the first from the Middle East under the program.

In May 2021 a celebration was held in Alice Springs to mark the return of 19 sacred Arrernte items from the Manchester Museum (UK) and the decision by the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia (US) to return Arrernte material.

In January 2021 a Lardil ceremonial headdress was returned to Australia. In a first for the RoCH program, the Lardil people and Wellesley Island community asked AIATSIS to temporarily care for the headdress until it can be returned to Mornington Island.

AIATSIS continued to influence the development of changes to institutional repatriation practices, policy and guidelines, by providing input into key national and international repatriation policy, instruments and guidance documents.

Return of Cultural Heritage by numbers

297 identified overseas collecting institutions with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage collections at mid-2021.

109,000+ items

131 shared collections information

96 eager to connect with AIATSIS

62 considering returns

Global distribution of collection institutions:

75 United States

55 United Kingdom

14 Canada

114 Europe

17 Asia

1 Middle East

7 Oceania

9 Africa

5 Central and South America

Return of cultural heritage material to Yindjibarndi

In April 2020 the RoCH team was contacted by the family of a private collector regarding the unconditional return of eight items in Andover, UK. This included a shield, four spear heads, two boomerangs and a spear thrower. The material was collected from Millstream Station, Western Australia between 1910 and 1913.

In July 2020 the RoCH team contacted Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation (YAC) to confirm custodianship and commence return discussions. Following approval from the Yindjibarndi community, the items were returned to Australia, arriving in Perth in September 2020. On 5 October the Yindjibarndi nation celebrated the return of their cultural heritage material. AIATSIS staff and the family of the private collector participated via videoconference.

YAC CEO Michael Woodley said the return of these artefacts signifies recognition and respect for the Yindjibarndi Nation.

We can all feel proud of the great collective achievement in re-uniting these historical and special objects with its people and Ngurra. Yindjibarndi Nation acknowledges AIATSIS for managing the entire process for the artefacts to arrive safely back to the Pilbara. We also thank the collector’s family for their support, care and safekeeping of these Yindjibarndi treasures for the past 105 years.

2021 AIATSIS Summit repatriation and return sessions

As part of the Summit, a two-day stream on the repatriation and return of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ancestral remains and cultural heritage material was held. The stream consisted of six sessions, all of which included panel presentations and discussions by Indigenous and non-Indigenous repatriation practitioners, experts and academics.

The stream and associated presentations were well received and attended. The stream provided a valuable platform for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, academics, government, and repatriation practitioners to discuss the repatriation and return of ancestral remains and cultural heritage material from domestic and international collecting institutions and private collections.

First Nations Media Australia Alice Springs digitisation facility

AIATSIS has provided technical support and training assistance to First Nations Media Australia (FNMA) for a number of years. This year FNMA established an Alice Springs digitisation facility, which will provide pathways for Aboriginal controlled organisations across the Northern Territory and FNMA member organisations to digitise and preserve their extensive collections. AIATSIS is providing analogue playback equipment, technical and engineering support, and opportunities for FNMA and community staff to undertake archive and digitisation training either in Alice Springs or Canberra.

Having this facility in Alice Springs will encourage community and cultural authorities to be an integral part of the digitisation process, and ensure culturally sensitive materials can be digitised according to a community’s wishes. In addition, supported by FNMA and AIATSIS, it will be a local hub for ongoing archive worker training, enhancing the capacity of communities to preserve their own at-risk collections, and providing broader opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment in cultural archiving and preservation.

Cultural Keepers Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair Foundation Indigenous Curators Program and Symposium

The AIATSIS curatorial team participated in the exclusive online 2020 Cultural Keepers Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair Foundation Indigenous Curators Program and Symposium from 6 to 12 August 2020. The program included a number of keynote talks, curator presentations, an international panel discussion, and artist masterclasses. In addition to the official program, AIATSIS curators collaborated with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art centres and built stakeholder relationships.

National Gallery and Wesfarmers Indigenous Arts Leadership and Fellowship program

One of AIATSIS’ emerging Indigenous curators participated in the first session of National Gallery and Wesfarmers Indigenous Arts Leadership and Fellowship program from 18 to 24 June 2021. This program is an immersive professional development experience offered to emerging Indigenous arts workers.

Collaboration with peer organisations

The Collection Development team lent their expertise to a number of external initiatives by peer organisations. This included providing curatorial advice on:

  • the Museum of Australian Democracy’s History of the APS exhibition
  • the provenance of items in the Parliamentary Library’s art collection and content for its Neville Bonner exhibition AO: Australia’s First Indigenous Parliamentarian.

Indigenous ancestral remains project Restoring Dignity

AIATSIS is a key partner in the Australian Research Council Linkage, Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities scheme project Restoring Dignity, which seeks to build a digital archive of resources that supports the repatriation of Indigenous ancestral remains. The project is being led by Associate Professor Cressida Fforde (Centre for Heritage and Museum Studies at the ANU) in association with a number of Australian Indigenous community organisations, government agencies and national and international cultural institutions. As a key partner, AIATSIS will provide access to the Repatriation Extension, a restricted component of the archive available to endorsed repatriation practitioners and researchers in communities, museums and other organisations.

Feature 14: Agreements and partners

Refer to TABLE 4: PARTNER AND COLLABORATE WITH OUR COMMUNITIES, PARTNERS AND GOVERNMENTS and Table 4e: Partnerships in place for statistics on agreements and partnerships. Also refer to APPENDIX C. PARTNERSHIPS.

AIATSIS engages in two types of partnerships:

  • Project partnerships, which entail a service/collaboration agreement with specific services/value. They are usually underpinned by a funding or research agreement or research project plan.
  • Strategic partnerships, which are established with broad goals of mutual benefit by MoU or other non-legally-binding arrangement.

In addition to our ongoing strategic partnership with the NIAA, notable achievements include two new strategic partnerships with:

  • the National Native Title Council
  • National Indigenous Australians Agency (native title funding 2021-25)

This takes the total number of strategic partnerships to 18, including national and international institutions that share AIATSIS vision and are actively seeking to work together and facilitate collaboration between our organisations. A further three strategic partnerships are currently in development

Overall our project partnerships grew in number by 165 per cent (from 20 to 53) and their value grew by $7.06 million (59 per cent). Seven partnership projects were closed this year and six project new partnerships developed.

Memorandum of Understanding​ with the National Native Title Council

AIATSIS strengthened its ongoing relationship with the National Native Title Council through the formalisation of an MoU in December 2020. This collaboration will build on existing efforts to promote shared knowledge, collaboration, and greater alignment between work activities relating to the broader native title sector. The MoU supports collaboration under specific projects in relation to compensation and Prescribed Body Corporate reform.