Invaluable resource or stolen property?

September 21, 2007

The repatriation of the remains of 17 Tasmanian Aborigines by the Natural History Museum highlights an unresolved conflict between scientific and cultural obligations. Julia Hinde reports

In May this year, remains from 17 Tasmanian Aborigines held by London's National History Museum - some taken from Tasmania 175 years ago - finally returned home. The repatriation of the remains - including a skeleton, a jaw bone and, in some cases, single teeth - was welcomed by the island's Aboriginal community, who performed a traditional smoking ceremony to cleanse the spirits and let them know they were back home. A ceremony followed to reunite the deceased with their land.

The remains had largely been taken in the 19th century for the purposes of studying "racial difference", according to Cressida Fforde, a heritage consultant who has written extensively on Aboriginal repatriation. "After Darwin, remains were increasingly measured to try and identify what were then believed to be evolutionary characteristics in the different 'races', to try to demonstrate that these were stages of evolution through which modern Europeans had passed," Fforde explains.

Other remains may have been taken simply as curiosities. Few doubt that the material was essentially stolen (though the Natural History Museum, which housed these particular remains, acquired them later and, according to its Human Remains Advisory Panel, "legally... as donations or transfers... from other institutions").

For the past 20 years, Tasmania's Aboriginal community has been fighting to repatriate the remains. "Our belief is that the spirits of our old people won't rest while parts of their bodies are out of the country," says Greg Brown, one of two mediators who travelled to London to negotiate the repatriation. "They need to be reunited so their spirits can be laid to rest."

It is a "cultural obligation", according to Brown, for descendants to seek the repatriation of their ancestors. "We ourselves will lay unrested until we can fulfil that obligation," he says.

UK museums and universities first began receiving requests for repatriation of indigenous remains in the mid-1980s. Over the years, some remains were repatriated, including Edinburgh University's Australian collection, but many other museums and universities were less forthcoming.

In 2000, the UK and Australian prime ministers issued a joint statement endorsing "the repatriation of indigenous human remains wherever possible (and appropriate) from both public and private collections". The UK Government set up a Working Group on Human Remains, and the Human Tissue Act of 2004 released nine national museums from any legal impediments preventing them repatriating remains.

In November 2006 the Natural History Museum agreed to return the remains of the 17 Tasmanian Aborigines following advice from its Human Remains Advisory Panel. But the panel also advised that the "return should follow a rapid process of capturing data that will be of continuing use in generating new knowledge".

It was here that the parties came to blows. The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC) - designated by the Australian Government as the receivers of Tasmanian remains - went to court to prevent such testing. The two sides agreed to mediation.

Brown, who took leave from his then day job as head of the Tasmanian Government's Office of Aboriginal Affairs to mediate the return, states that the "fact that the remains were being interfered with was offensive to us".

"Some research had already been conducted," Brown explains. "They had already been measured and photographed. If we had the opportunity to have said whether we wanted photography to occur, we would have said no. Our belief is that this can capture some of the spirit... But we prevented further invasive testing - methods that could have had an impact on the remains.

"The thing about Aboriginal culture is that kinship and family are very strong. We know what culture we are from. It's not just our core family - your whole culture is your family. It's intrinsic to your identity."

The mediation process saw a compromise. Scientists at the museum were allowed to take measurements, scans and even detailed casts of the remains but were prevented from invasive isotope and DNA analysis, which would destroy small amounts of material. Samples of DNA taken before the agreement will be stored in Tasmania in a mutually agreed deposit for future negotiation.

Brown says the Aboriginal representatives were willing to listen to the case for further scientific testing, even though it was "totally outside our cultural obligation. We have information on our people's lifestyles already from previous archeological digs and from our own stories that have been handed down. With all the other information out there, we didn't believe the information they would get from the testing would add any extra value."

The TAC representatives were also concerned that academic groups in the UK were competing to discover information about their past. "We were not interested in taking part in this sort of race," explains Brown, although he acknowledges that future generations may have different attitudes and want to know more.

For the Natural History Museum the return of the remains was, according to museum director Michael Dixon, "an enormously complicated issue".

As he explained in the lead-up to mediation: "We have striven throughout to balance two very different opinions of what is the right thing to do - on the one hand, returning the remains to the country of origin; on the other, using this invaluable and unique resource for scientific research."

Richard Lane, director of science at the museum, says: "The Tasmanians were a particularly compelling, scientifically interesting people because of their recent history but also because of their isolation from the rest of Australia.

"The material, as far as we know, was collected in the 1830s. We have reasonable provenance," he says. "We know it represents a small sample of Australian Aboriginal people before the massive impact of white colonisation and desecration of the Aboriginal population. It gives us a strong genetic signal that you cannot get from the modern population."

As a press release from the museum explains: "Many of the Tasmanian remains in the museum represent people from a time when Tasmania was isolated from the rest of the world, so they are genetically different from other human populations, including those in mainland Australia. The differences... tell us more about how people reached the island, how they lived and how those people were linked with other human groups."

According to Professor Lane, the agreement not to undertake isotope analysis means that researchers have "lost the ability to look at the lives of individual Aborigines in the early 19th century before the great impact of colonisation. The Tasmanian people have lost that".

But he adds that the museum has learnt through this case how it might better engage with people about shared access to knowledge. "What we didn't do was have enough dialogue with the Aborigines to engage them with what they could learn, as opposed to what science could learn," he says. "They could have learnt how they were related to other Aboriginal groups in Australia and South-East Asia, and they could have learnt about the lives of Aborigines in the 19th century, which could have been added to their oral history."

Not all UK museums and universities have taken such an approach. Several have returned Aboriginal human remains without first collecting more data. For example, Manchester Museum - part of Manchester University - repatriated five Aboriginal skulls in 2003 without further scientific research, when the unacceptability of this to the Aboriginal community was outlined.

Tristram Besterman was director of Manchester Museum at the time. Although he agrees such remains offer potentially important scientific information, he believes it is "morally indefensible" to agree something does not belong to you, offer to give it back, but first to use it a bit more.


With the Tasmanian Aboriginal Commission seeking remains from several other UK museums and universities - including Cam-bridge, Oxford, and the Natural History Museum, which still holds more than 400 specimens belonging to Australian Aborigines - debate over competing scientific and cultural obligations will continue.

"We are encouraged by the initial response from the National Museums Scotland and Oxford University," says Greg Brown. "We believe Cambridge University will be very hard-headed about this. But we hope the significance of the mediation with the Natural History Museum might set a precedent."

Cambridge University, which together with the Natural History Museum holds the overwhelming majority - about 80 per cent - of Aboriginal human remains in the UK, said the university was writing its policy in relation to the Duckworth Collection.

The policy would follow closely the recommendations in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport's Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums , which specify that repatriation claims have to be assessed against a number of criteria, "including scientific value and the closeness of the links between the communities making claims and the claims themselves". The university added: "The university's human remains collections are among the most important and significant in the world... New scientific techniques are continually revealing the wealth of new information still to be gained from them."

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