Source: Patricia Hofmeester/Shutterstock.com
In a ceremony today, a delegation from the Museum of New Zealand/Te Papa Tongarewa is visiting Birmingham to receive the heads and take them back to a resting place in their spiritual home. Once returned, researchers will also attempt to determine which communities originate from.
Since the 1980s, British national and university museums have frequently been lobbied to return indigenous remains. While some have been resistant, others have responded favourably to such requests.
Yet this has sometimes led to further disputes when universities have asked to carry out further scientific research prior to the return and been told that “invasive” testing such as DNA analysis (which leads to the destruction of small amounts of bodily material) is also considered offensive.
In 2000, the UK and Australian prime ministers jointly endorsed “the repatriation of indigenous human remains wherever possible (and appropriate) from both public and private collections”.
Manchester Museum - part of Manchester University - repatriated five Aboriginal skulls in 2003 without carrying out further research.
After studying the issue in a Working Group on Human Remains, the government established a legal framework in the Human Tissue Act of 2004, which released nine national museums from any impediments to repatriating remains.
In 2009, in response to efforts by the Australian government, the University of Oxford’s Museum of Natural History returned three different sets of remains of Ngarrindjeri people which had been held in Oxford since the 19th century. The University of Edinburgh’s Australian collection has also been returned.