The federal government has announced plans to construct a $320 million national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural precinct in Canberra.
The new cultural precinct will house the world’s largest collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural and heritage items and include a long-awaited national resting place for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ancestral remains.
It will be known as Ngurra—which means home, country or place of belonging in different Aboriginal languages.
It will be built in Commonwealth Place on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin on Ngunnawal country on the primary axis in the Parliamentary Triangle—between Old Parliament House and the Australian War Memorial.
The project is based on a proposal from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (Aiatsis). Two parliamentary committees have since endorsed the recommendation.
An architectural design competition will now be held to find an “iconic design” that “reflects Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ aspirations, achievements and deep connection to country”.
▲ The federal government's consultation on the concept with Aiatsis dates back more than two decades. Image: The minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt
Prime minister Scott Morrison said the centre would become a “place of national pride and significance” and hailed its proposed location as demonstrating the “importance and reverence this institution should hold”.
“[The centre] will be built fully in accordance with the proposal developed by AIATSIS and presented to government for approval, as a result of their consultation processes,” Morrison said.
“All Australians and visitors to our nation will be able to gain a deeper appreciation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ diversity and cultures, and the richness this offers our country.
“This new world-class facility will contribute to our continuing journey of reconciliation, where Indigenous Australians can tell their stories, in the way they want, for all visitors to have a greater understanding of our shared history.”
A national resting place for ancestral remains was formally recommended to the federal government in 2014 when an advisory committee for Indigenous repatriation completed the national resting place consultation report.
“At its heart will be a national resting place where the remains of Indigenous Australians taken from their country will be cared for until they are able to be returned to their communities,” Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt said.
“And in instances where provenance has been forgotten or erased, they will be cared for in perpetuity with dignity and respect.
The cultural centre will also include a learning and knowledge centre and the relocated Aiatsis.
The relocation of Aiatsis, which has spearheaded the project, will also make accessible the world’s largest collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural and heritage items.
Aiatsis chief executive Craig Ritchie said the centre would act as a place to educate tens of thousands of schoolchildren who visit Canberra each year.
“These activities support telling the story of the central and enduring place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. A story that is over 65,000 years old,” Ritchie said.
“The new facilities offered by the Ngurra: the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultural Precinct will create new opportunities for people to encounter, engage with, and be transformed by that story.”
However, the proposal has been met with opposition.
Speaking at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, Ngambri, Ngunnawal elder Matilda House-Williams said the plans from Aiatsis did not represent the traditional custodians of the land, and that the government had spoken to the wrong people.
“A resting place should not be made in the Parliamentary Triangle, and this would not allow ancestors to rest in peace,” House-Williams said.
Aiatsis said a wide community consultation had been undertaken in developing the business case that was the basis for the announcement by the government, including consultation with local community leaders.
Further consultations, both local and national, are now expected to follow the government’s commitment to proceed with the Ngurra project.