Illinois museum returns items to Aboriginal Australians

SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois State Museum returned 42 culturally significant items to representatives of two Aboriginal communities in Australia after the artifacts spent decades on U.S. soil.

An Australian delegation collected spears, shields and boomerangs during a ceremony Wednesday at the Illinois State Museum’s Research and Collections Center in Springfield.

Secret, sacred, secular and ceremonial objects were also returned along with necklaces and body ornaments, said Brooke Morgan, the museum’s curator of anthropology.

University of Chicago linguistic anthropologist Gerhardt Laves collected the items between 1929 and 1931 when he worked in Australia to record indigenous languages, the State Journal-Register reported. The artifacts were transferred to the museum in 1942.

“The museum was doing a rotating exhibit on international cultures, so that’s how we came to possess the material,” Morgan said.

In December, the Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies contacted the museum, which received a grant from the Australian government for the Return of Cultural Heritage Project.

Christopher Simpson, director of that project, thanked the museum and its staff during the ceremony.

“Thank you for saying yes,” he said. “Thank you for your collaboration. Thank you for your communication.”

The items will be returned to Aranda and Bardi Jawi communities in Australia, where they’ll be used to revitalize cultural practices, Morgan said.

“Some of the objects are not made any more in the way they used to be made, so they’ll actually be used as sort of teaching objects, to teach the young generations how to make these traditional artifacts,” Morgan said.

Russell Davey, one of the representatives of the Bardi Jawi community in Australia, noted that the old artifacts were made with “limited tools.”

“Today, we’ve got so many tools that we can make our boomerangs and stuff with,” said Davey, who added that items were made using stone axes, shells and rocks.

“They had patience to carve out all this stuff,” he said, noting that he was honoured to be among those to “take them back home.”

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