Aboriginal Remains Will Be Returned

Five years ago, world media focused its attention on Gaborone, Botswana, to watch the repatriation of a corpse. The stuffed body of a 19th century African, who had been on display for over a century in European museums, was returned to his native soil. Indigenous populations outside of Europe, from the "Hottentots" of southern Africa to the Maori of New Zealand, were long the subjects of European scientific and anthropological inquiry. Museums throughout the continent hold skulls, skins, and organs of the peoples European empires once dominated. Groups of Aborigines in Australia claim that there at least 8,000 sets of Aboriginal remains alone in institutions abroad. The Human Tissue Act, recently passed in Britain, authorizes the return of all such "ancestral" artifacts that "are reasonably believed to be under 1,000 years in age." According to the Sydney Morning Herald, "most British museum curators favor the return of remains," but the disposal of possessions in the British and Natural History Museums require parliamentary legislation. Even so, British and Australian Prime Ministers Tony Blair and John Howard issued a joint declaration, urging the continued repatriation of Aboriginal remains. – YaleGlobal

Aboriginal Remains Will Be Returned

James Button
Thursday, October 6, 2005

Aboriginal body parts that scientists and explorers took to Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries can be returned to Australia, after the enactment of a new British law.

The British Museum and the Natural History Museum are among nine institutions that now plan to return human remains to indigenous communities around the world.

The Culture Minister, David Lammy, said the British Government had changed the law in "response to the claims of indigenous peoples, particularly in Australia, for the return of ancestral remains".

The newly enacted section of the Human Tissue Act allows museums to return remains that "are reasonably believed to be under 1000 years in age".

A spokeswoman for the British Museum said the museum had pushed for the legal change and was absolutely committed to returning human remains, provided that Aboriginal communities could prove a link to the items.

Aborigines have appealed to the British and Australian governments for more than 20 years to help them bring home their ancestors' remains, which range from locks of hair to entire skeletons. Indigenous groups in North America and New Zealand have made similar appeals.

Aboriginal groups believe that more than 8000 sets of remains - most taken as curios and scientific specimens - are still in museums and institutions abroad.

In a global trend towards repatriation, Sweden and the United States have already returned Aboriginal remains.

Manchester Museum returned four Aboriginal skulls in 2003, while the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter announced last year it would return four remains, including a male and a female skull coming from an Aboriginal burial ground 480 kilometres below the junction of the Darling and Murray rivers.

It is believed most British museum curators favour the return of remains, but the British and Natural History museums and other large national institutions were created by acts of Parliament that require legislation to dispose of items in their collections.

Moves to change the law gained force in July 2000 when the Prime Minister, John Howard, and the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, made a joint declaration urging the repatriation of human remains to Aborigines where appropriate.

Copyright © 2005. The Sydney Morning Herald