A special ceremony held last week in Australia celebrated 17 sacred objects from the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection at the University of Virginia being repatriated to the Arrernte, Warlpiri and Warumungu communities in Central Australia.
Kluge-Ruhe’s collection at UVA consists of more than 2,100 paintings, ornaments, weapons, tools and other items and is the only museum outside of Australia dedicated to the exhibition and study of Indigenous Australian art and culture. Most of those items have been purchased through Indigenous art centers from artists who created them specifically as artworks intended to be sold, and often sold abroad.
The purchase history of the 17 items in question is slightly murkier. Collector Edward Ruhe, whose Indigenous art collections would later become the foundation of the Kluge-Ruhe collection, purchased the objects from Australian collectors in the mid-20th century, but how those collectors acquired them is not known. The objects themselves were never exhibited at Kluge-Ruhe because of their sacred and sensitive nature. Traditionally, only a select group of elders within Indigenous communities were able to see and handle them.
In 2019, leaders at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, or AIATSIS, approached Kluge-Ruhe Director Margo Smith about returning the sacred objects as part of their Return of Cultural Heritage pilot project. Smith, Kluge-Ruhe Curator Henry Skerritt and Collections Manager Nicole Wade were eager to help and delighted to see the sacred objects returned to the people for whom they hold such high importance.
“All of us at the museum are very happy to see these objects going home to the people who have such a close connection to them,” Smith said. “We also hope that Kluge-Ruhe and UVA can forge a closer relationship with these communities as we return these objects, so that we can create more connections and learning opportunities for the future.”
A repatriation ceremony held in Australia last week celebrated objects returned from the Manchester Museum in the United Kingdom and the pending return of the objects from the Kluge-Ruhe, which are being prepared for transfer now. Peter Wallace Peltharre, a senior leader within the Arrernte community, spoke of the importance of the return of the sacred objects as a means of passing down cultural traditions.
“We are proud to do this work for our younger generation in teaching them our Law, our way of living and about our grandfathers and all those who lived in those days,” Peltharre said in an AIATSIS press release. “So, we are proud to do this for each and every one of us – for all the Arrernte families. Not only Arrernte, but we can teach all our other young men, too.”
Craig Ritchie, CEO of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, said he was “delighted that the staff at the Kluge-Ruhe collection responded so readily to [our] outreach.”
“The museum enjoys very good relationships with a number of communities represented in the collection,” Ritchie said. “In partnering with AIATSIS to explore the repatriation of sensitive items, the museum is respecting those relationships.”
Repatriation has been an important topic for many museums around the world. Since 1990, U.S. museums have been required by federal law to return Native American human remains and certain funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony to tribes. That requirement does not extend to Indigenous people internationally, but many institutions “want to do the right thing, as we certainly do,” Smith said.
“We have never exhibited these objects, because of their restricted and sensitive nature, and the idea of getting them back to their owners was extremely appealing,” she said. “The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies gave us the means to do that, and we are glad to be a part of their work.”
Last week’s ceremony, she said, is another step in the museum’s long and ongoing commitment to building strong, equal partnerships with the artists and communities whose work is exhibited at Kluge-Ruhe.
Prior to the pandemic, the museum often brought Indigenous Australian artists to UVA for artist residencies, where they held public talks and taught UVA students and faculty studying Aboriginal art. Similarly, many Kluge-Ruhe staff, UVA students and faculty have traveled to Australia to meet and learn from Aboriginal artists and communities there. During the pandemic, Kluge-Ruhe launched a variety of virtual programs that brought even more Indigenous Australians to UVA classes and a wider public audience. Post-pandemic, Smith and Skerritt look forward to building stronger relationships with senior elders once travel between Australia and the U.S. resumes.
“The Kluge-Ruhe collection is not just is a bunch of objects; it is a gateway to a whole other way of seeing the world,” Skerritt said. “To make the most of this amazing opportunity, we need to engage with the real experts on these works: the Indigenous knowledge holders themselves. That is why it is so essential for us to create relationships built on mutual respect and understanding.
“Repatriating these sacred objects sets a great example of how museums can work to build trust, not just treasure chests, and in doing so, set a model for working respectfully across cultures and different perspectives. I think that is the greatest skill we can teach our students if we want them to become global citizens of tomorrow.”