The ethnographic collection made by Sir Raymond Firth in Tikopia, Solomon Islands, in 1928 and 1929 is used as a case study for the examination of the different meanings and interpretations attributed to museum collections. This collection is now housed at the Australian Museum in Sydney. In the 1970s the collection was subject to a repatriation request by the National Museum of the Solomon Islands, but the collection was not returned. In examining the progress of this request the history of the collection is traced, including acquisition in the field and subsequent re-locations between university, state and national bodies in Australia. I suggest that the reasons for the failure of the National Museum of the Solomon Islands to successfully negotiate the return of this collection lie in the nature of the repatriation request as an expression of political difference at a national level rather than cultural difference at the local level, and in the specific social relationships, past and present, surrounding the collection. However, the contemporary attitudes to the collection identified in this study should not be assumed to remain constant, as future generations of Tikopia may well reassess the cultural value of this collection. I conclude that museums are sites which mediate specific social relationships, at specific times in history.