From meteorites to militaria, Professor Martin Gibbs, of UNE Archaeology will be at the helm of discussions around the cultural value of Australia’s artefacts, as newly-appointed Chair of the National Cultural Heritage Committee.

Working with the Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act (1986), the NCHC is tasked with making sure items important to the cultural heritage of Australia are not sent overseas – permanently or for loan – without proper consideration and controls.

“It would be very easy to have important heritage items simply vanish forever into overseas collections, so one of our key roles is to make recommendations to the Minister for Arts as to whether export can happen,” Professor Gibbs says.

The skills of the 10-member panel must cover the spectrum of movable items that are brought to the committee’s attention, such as art, archaeology and historic objects.

“The majority of the committee members have quite senior positions in Australian art galleries and museums, although there are several academics, including two newly appointed Indigenous scholars whose backgrounds are in art and material culture,” Professor Gibbs explains. “We are also assisted by a much larger group of Expert Examiners we call on to provide specialist advice.”

Professor Gibbs has worked with the committee since 2019 as a Universities Australia representative, but the appointment as Chair will be bring new challenges and responsibilities.

“As the Chair I will have to navigate what can sometimes be very robust discussions between a group of experts who are the top of their fields,” Professor Gibbs says. 

“The discussions are often fascinating as we have to deal with not just the value of objects but also their cultural significance and a range of other legal and ethical considerations.

“For instance, the most common items we see applications for are works of art by Aboriginal artists. With advice from experts we also consider a range of issues including how they fit in the arc of an artist’s outputs, whether they are part of a larger series that shouldn’t be broken up, or even if items may have spiritual significance such that they shouldn’t be leaving the country without agreement of the communities they originated from.

“For some reason the other most common heritage items for export are steam engines – which always strikes me as a little odd – but we may see items as diverse as meteorites or militaria.”

Professor Gibbs says the diversity of the work of the committee and the range of issues it deals with keeps it interesting. 

“Working with a group of high level experts outside of my own interests in heritage is fascinating,” he says.  

“Although not dealt with directly by the NCHC, we also work with the International team who try to prevent heritage items from other countries being imported illegally into Australia. They work in collaboration with Interpol and other international law enforcement agencies, so their reports can be a fascinating view into the world of illegal antiquities trade, and repatriation on a global scale.

“Another thing the committee does is manage the National Cultural Heritage Account. This is a not huge sum that allows us to give money to Australian cultural institutions for the purchase of significant cultural items – either to ensure they don’t leave the country, or for return to Australia.

“Through this fund we have helped some wonderful pieces return to us. My favourite is the ‘History of Australia Billiard Table’ carved in 1883-85 by Benjamin Hulbert, a Sydney-based billiard table manufacturer. The exquisite high-relief carvings covering the legs and sides of the table record scenes such as the Burke and Wills expedition, gold mining and, surprisingly for the period, colonial conflict.

“We were able to make sure this amazing item returned from the UK and is now in the National Museum of Australia.” 

Professor Gibbs’ appointment as Chair of the National Cultural Heritage Committee is a three-year term.