Our research, their remains

March 13, 1998

Old bones of contention. Cressida Fforde's research reveals that some British institutions are still refusing to hand back the human remains they hold

Curators who refuse indigenous requests for the return of their ancestors' remains point to the scientific importance of collections for investigating, for example, human origins, palaeopathology and palaeodemography. On these grounds, London's Natural History Museum, which also states that the British Museum Act disallows any deaccessioning of its collections, has refused all requests to repatriate indigenous human remains. It has also refused indigenous researchers access to its archives.

The University of Cambridge will return remains to close kin, where it is possible to identify any material by name, or through information on when and where it was collected. But, like the Natural History Museum, the relevant department at Cambridge has recently denied an indigenous researcher access to records. The researcher in question has pointed out that such a refusal makes it difficult to see how "close kin" can locate their ancestors' remains and thus fulfil the university's criteria. Except for Edinburgh university and the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford (which both have a policy of returning remains) other major holding institutions in this country deal with requests on a case-by-case basis and have so far refused all of them.

All the major Aboriginal collections in Britain hold some remains of individuals who were shot and killed. Most of the collected remains were skeletal material but body parts (such as limbs, brains, heads, whole cadavers, penises) were also brought to this country.

Scientists measured these remains to determine racial characteristics and,after Darwin, the position of the various races on the evolutionary scale.Preconceived racist notions of the "order" of humankind meant the measurement of human remains consistently reified the 19th and early 20th-century belief that European "races" were the most "advanced", while other "races" ranged in order beneath, lending justification to the colonial genocide and subsequent oppression of many indigenous groups. Aboriginal people, in particular, were believed to be closest to the animal kingdom. It was not until the Nazi misuse of racial theory in the 1940s that the scientific community discarded the racial paradigm. The collections amassed for over 150 years have largely sat unused ever since.

There were a number of high-profile cases in 1997 in which human remains and cultural objects were returned to indigenous groups. In August, the skull of Yagan was exhumed from a Liverpool cemetery and repatriated to Australia. During November, a delegation of Tasmanian Aborigines visited Exeter Museum to collect a shell necklace and bracelet recorded as having belonged to Truganini, the so-called "last" Tasmanian Aboriginal woman. They also visited a museum in Stockholm to collect a Tasmanian Aboriginal skull, and the University of Edinburgh to collect samples of hair belonging to Tasmanian Aboriginal people - one of whom was, again, Truganini. The delegation also visited various other museums in Europe to request, unsuccessfully, that they return to Tasmania their holdings of Tasmanian human remains and cultural property.

The preserved heads or skulls of many Aboriginal (and non-Aboriginal) leaders are believed to have been sent to this country but their whereabouts are unknown. The head of Pemulwoy, an Aboriginal leader of the Sydney district was given to Sir Joseph Banks in 1802 and was subsequently said to have become part of the collections of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, although there are no conclusive records to prove that it arrived at this institution. The skull of Jandamarra (Pigeon) a famous Aborigine from the Kimberleys is also believed to have been sent to the UK soon after he was shot in 1897.

Apart from the University of Edinburgh, all the major holding institutions have retained their collections of indigenous human remains. Substantial collections are still held, for example, by the Natural History Museum, the University of Cambridge and the Royal College of Surgeons of England. In Europe, there are collections in most national museums such as the Museo de l'Homme in Paris and the Natural History Museum in Vienna. Although the Pitt Rivers Museum has a policy of returning human remains, other Oxford departments refuse to repatriate their holdings.

It was worrying that at the Museums Association conference last November, there appeared to be a general perception that the human remains "issue" had already been dealt with. It is clear this problem is far from resolved.Experience in the US, New Zealand and Australia has shown that mutually beneficial relationships can be forged between museums and indigenous groups once the former have recognised indigenous rights to their ancestors' remains. Research has not ground to a halt, repatriation has not meant the "death of archaeology", as some scientists warned.

As one social anthropologist said, is it so hard for curators to understand indigenous groups' concerns when British justice recently jailed two tourists for stealing teddy bears from one of Princess Diana's memorials?

Cressida Fforde has just completed her PhD from the University of Southampton on the collection and repatriation of Aboriginal human remains.

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