Learn more about the history of Aboriginal ancestral remains collected, used, and previously held by the University of Melbourne, its current policy-informed approach to repatriation and the process of repatriating ancestral remains in Victoria.
Work to consolidate the Indigenous collections is currently underway. This includes the much-anticipated recall of the Donald Thomson Collection from Museum Victoria. This means that access is limited to current projects until the collections are suitably situated. Watch this space!
This page offers a first stage of the process to identify and return ancestral remains from Victoria to other parts of Australia. It may not hold all the answers but seeks to support self-determination of Australian Aboriginal people in accessing and returning culturally sensitive material to their homelands or making informed decisions about where they would like such material to be held on their behalf until such time as the returns can be carried out.
The Donald Thomson Collection (DTC) has been on long-term loan to Museum Victoria since 1973 from The University of Melbourne. It is considered one of the largest and most historically significant collections of Aboriginal cultural heritage. With Thomson completing extensive fieldwork in Arnhem Land, Cape York Peninsula, the Great Sandy and Gibson Desert, the Solomon Islands and West Papua between 1928 and 1965.
Through changes to the Aboriginal Heritage Act (AHA) in 2016, the Ancestral Remains once held in the DTC, have been deaccessioned from the collections and transferred to the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council (VAHC) for ongoing care and management. Efforts to ensure the material is registered and cared for is ongoing. But little repatriation work has occurred.
The University of Melbourne has no legal rights to care for the DTC Ancestral Remains since the material was taken into care under the AHA in Victoria. But instead, it sees its obligation to facilitate assistance for people from communities of origin, wherever possible, if invited to do so and inclusive of secret/sacred material. Recent work includes identifying a process to assist people to find out about material and support the creation of a written request for the return of this material. This page is a part of that work and will be updated as things move forward.
Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council and the Aboriginal Heritage Act:
The VAHC is a statutory body created under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006 to ensure the preservation and protection of Victorian Aboriginal Cultural Heritage. Membership of the VAHC is comprised of Victorian Traditional Owners. The Councils vision is of a community that understands and respects Aboriginal Cultural Heritage and the cultural responsibilities of Traditional Owners, the primary guardians, keepers, and knowledge holders of their culture.
In 2018 Museums Victoria transferred all Ancestral Remains from the Donald Thomson Collection into the care and management of the VAHC. The Ancestors are safely housed at the museum. While the secret/sacred material is also still currently housed at the museum. The University of Melbourne remains the carer of secret/sacred material until it too can be repatriated, or a standard of care set by Senior knowledge holders can be agreed to in accordance with their wishes.
How to ask for your ancestors to be returned:
* Write a letter to the Council Chair of the VAHC requesting information on culturally sensitive material and including a request to have this material returned. Please see example 1.
* A support letter with an Aboriginal-led company letter head that recognises you and your family relationships to this request. Please see example 2.
* In addition:
If you have capacity to create a consensus group of Senior leaders, this too will support your request for a return of material. Part if all members sign that letter.
Send your request to:
The Chair of the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council
For more information call or visit the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council website:
P: 03 99227002
For more information call or visit the Aboriginal Heritage Council website:
P: 03 99227002
Reference: UoM. Human Remains and Burial Artefacts Policy
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
These FAQs provide information about the Aboriginal ancestral remains collected, used, and previously held by the University of Melbourne over many decades. Many people in our community will find the following information confronting, especially Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The University of Melbourne is committed to working with communities of origin to reconcile the wrongs of the past to strengthen and heal for a better future. This commitment includes ongoing and genuine collaboration as reflected in the Indigenous Strategy.
Q: What to do if you have Aboriginal Ancestral Remains in Victoria?
A: Contact the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council
Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council
The Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006 (Vic) was amended in 2016. From 1 August 2016, responsibility all Aboriginal Ancestral Remains previously held organisations in Victoria was transferred to the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council. The responsibility for the repatriation of Aboriginal Ancestral Remains was also transferred to the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council. The University of Melbourne supports Communities of Origin in seeking senior leadership consensus and the return of materials held by the VAHC according to their wishes.
Contact: Inquiries about Aboriginal Ancestral Remains and repatriation can be directed to: Sissy Pettit Havea, Manager – Ancestral Remains Unit Office of the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council Department of Premier and Cabinet Level 3, 1 Treasury Place Melbourne VIC 3002 email@example.com 03 9651 6880 www.aboriginalheritagecouncil.vic.gov.au
Provide details of the material to make it easy to return to communities of origin.
Q: What to do if you find human remains.
A: All remains relating located in Victoria are the responsibility of the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council. If you come across human remains in the landscape, please do not disturb them. Contact your local police station immediately. The police will contact relevant organisations or parties, including the State Coroner’s Office to determine whether or not they are the remains of an Indigenous person.
Q: How did Aboriginal ancestral remains first get identified at the University?
A: Ancestral remains were not formally acknowledged until 1984 when Gunditjmara man, Jim Berg, and others began work on the Victorian Archaeological and Aboriginal Relics Preservation Act 1972 as a part of an Advisory Committee.
Q: Why were Aboriginal ancestral remains collected by the University?
A: Research at the time included the collection and distribution of human remains for the study of race. Formally known as the study of eugenics this avenue of enquiry has now been debunked.
Q: What sort of remains were collected?
A: Primarily skulls and primary bones.
Q: Where did these Aboriginal ancestral remains come from?
A: Known ancestral remains came from the New South Wales side of the Murray River and in Victoria.
Q: When did that practice cease?
A: Some records show that the practice ceased in the 1980s. However, it is unclear if their use has ceased globally.
Q: What has happened to the Aboriginal ancestral remains that were at the University of Melbourne?
A: All Aboriginal ancestral remains held by the University previously are now in the care of the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council.
Q: What is the University’s current position on these historical practices?
A: Recognising historical wrongs, The University of Melbourne has a policy that informs the way forward and aligns to the VAHC. It has an advisory committee, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultural Heritage Oversight Committee (ATSICHOC) and a sub-committee on Ancestral Remains.
The University of Melbourne seeks to accept both its responsibility for the initial collection of ancestral remains by past staff, as well as future engagement with communities of origin beyond their successful return with VAHC. It continues to audit and review collections and teaching facilities to ensure that the policy and safe keeping of human materials meets the publics expectations.
Q: What does the University do today to be inclusive of, and proactive for the Aboriginal community?
A: The University has developed an Indigenous Strategy and established Indigenous leadership and governance. The University is working actively to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage and collections are developed, cared for, and made accessible in collaboration and relationships with communities of origin.