The right to remains? Silence

June 26, 1998

Few UK museums are frank about the human remains they possess. Cressida Fforde thinks they are stonewalling to prevent native peoples reclaiming the bones of their ancestors

As a PhD student analysing the collection and repatriation of Aboriginal human remains, I frequently had difficulty gaining access to museum archives - crucial resources for my research. Last November, the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh refused to grant access to archives that are of potential importance to my work. Nor is my experience unique. PhD student Una O'Neill from City University, London, was denied access to archives at the Natural History Museum relating to its human remains collection. Why?

The past 20 years have witnessed the emergence of what is now referred to as the "reburial" issue. Australian Aborigines, Native Americans, Maori and, increasingly, indigenous peoples from other parts of the world, have campaigned for the right to decide the future of the remains of their cultural and/or biological ancestors. Their campaigns contest the ownership of human remains housed in museums and demand that such material be returned to the relevant indigenous community for appropriate funerary rites.

Indigenous groups argue that the dead can attain spiritual peace only when they are returned to their birthplace and appropriate ceremonies are carried out. Reburial, however, has usually marked the loss to science of a possible source of information about the past. Consequently, indigenous claims to their ancestors' remains have been opposed by many who study and curate such items.

By the 1980s, fuelled by a fundamental clash of interests, reburial became the subject of intense debate. Steps were taken in North America, Australia and New Zealand to address indigenous concerns, resulting in new legislation and museum policy.

But in Britain, with the exception of the University of Edinburgh, museums with substantial collections have responded negatively to repatriation requests. The Natural History Museum in London apparently believes that the scientific value of the human remains in its collection outweighs the concerns of indigenous people. It also argues that it is bound to keep its collections under the British Museum Act of 1963.

However, according to a Museums Association document of last year, there may be several cases in which artefacts have been repatriated from the British Museum. Indeed, there may even be a provision within the 1963 act that allows for such a procedure. The relevant part of the act states that, provided such action is not inconsistent with any conditions attached to a gift or bequest, the trustees of the British Museum and the Natural History Museum may "sell, exchange, give away or otherwise dispose of any object vested in them and comprised in their collections if", among other reasons, "in the opinion of the Trustees the object is unfit to be retained in the collections of the museum and can be disposed of without detriment to the interests of students". No definition of "unfit to be retained" is supplied, which suggests that it may be at the trustees' discretion.

Indigenous groups requesting information about the holdings of human remains in European museums report that some museums have refused consistently to answer correspondence, supply lists or allow direct access to relevant archives. In a few cases, museums have claimed that records have been destroyed or that their collections did not contain remains relevant to the group making the request - claims subsequently shown to be erroneous. One group that has experienced difficulty is the Brisbane-based Foundation for Aboriginal and Islander Research Action, an Aboriginal organisation whose research into locating Aboriginal (particularly Queensland) human remains is funded by Australia's federal government.

In the early 1990s, the World Archaeological Congress was confronted with the reluctance of some museums to divulge details of their collections of human remains when it tried to bring such information into the public domain. The Natural History Museum refused the WAC access to its archives, and the incomplete list of its holdings that the WAC subsequently published in its World Archaeological Bulletin 6 (1992) was compiled from published sources held outside the museum.

Museums, particularly those that receive public funds, have an obligation to make information about their collections available to all. The Museum Ethnographers Group's guidelines for the storage, display, interpretation and return of human remains in ethnographical collections in British museums, state that "museum collections are in the public domain and bona fide enquirers have the right of access to data on their holdings".

Museums frequently claim to be sensitive to the concerns of indigenous groups. A recent statement by the Conference of Directors, National Museums and Galleries says that requests for the repatriation of human remains or items of particular religious or cultural significance, "must always be treated with respect". However, it is difficult to see how denying indigenous groups information about museum collections is respectful.

It is hard not to conclude that the real reason access to archives is restricted is so that museums will not have to face informed requests for the repatriation of remains in the future. Although Cambridge University has a policy of returning remains to close kin - where it is possible to identify material by name, or through information on when and where it was collected - it has refused at least one postgraduate researcher working on behalf of an indigenous organisation access to what may be significant archives.

Issues that surround collections of contested items are complex, not least because of their relevance to the future role of museums. But it is only by open discussion that they will be resolved. Refusal to allow access to information about collections indicates reluctance to confront the complex problems the curation of contested items entails.

Some museums take a very different attitude. Schuyler Jones, then director of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, wrote in 1994 that he was in favour of a "curatorial policy in which full and frank information about the museum's holdings are always available to the enquirer, no matter who is asking. Any refusal to provide information of this kind or to discuss issues such as the removal of certain culturally sensitive objects from display or to return them to their country of origin only damages the scholarly integrity of the institution and its staff".

Cressida Fforde works at the Institute of Archaeology, London

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.