Natural History Museum and Tasmanians agree to return of human remains - Museums Association

Natural History Museum and Tasmanians agree to return of human remains

The trustees of the Natural History Museum's (NHM) decision last month to return 17 skeletons to the Aboriginal people of Tasmania could see other UK museums follow suit.
Felicity Heywood
After 20 years of campaigning, the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC) secured a landmark agreement with the London museum to return the remains of their ancestors taken from their land in the 1880s.

The result followed three days of talks between the two organisations. It was agreed that the remains would be returned to Hobart immediately. Four of the 17 skeletons that already had extractions of DNA were given back to the Tasmanian people in April.

Those extractions are still in London and under the agreement will return to Tasmania. But they will be kept in a frozen store and it would need the permission of both parties to touch, move or undertake further scientific analysis.

The TAC claimed victory but said it was 'not a perfect settlement, but the best we could do'. Greg Brown and Caroline Spotswood of the TAC were at the NHM to collect their ancestors' remains and sign the agreement with Oliver Stocken, the chairman of the NHM trustees.

Brown said: 'We can bring our old people home to rest at last.' And he said: 'The NHM has turned the corner to which we are extremely grateful. They have shown an understanding of our belief system and values.' The remains will receive a traditional burial.

Richard Lane, the director of science at the NHM, said: 'Both parties were coming to this with no preconceptions about the final agreement.'

But sources told Museums Journal that the mediation originally scheduled for two days came to 'breaking point' because the museum presented an offer that the TAC had already said was 'non-negotiable'.

Michael Dixon, the director of the NHM, said: 'As with all things with conflict there is compromise. We would have preferred to extract DNA [before they were returned].' He said: 'The museum has found an acceptable compromise.' And added: 'We will be criticised by the people holding the extreme views at each end of the spectrum.'

Tristram Besterman, a human remains expert and supporter of the TAC, said a museum returning human remains should do so unconditionally. But he said: 'The issue is about developing a more healthy relationship with the source community.'

The TAC delegates also visited the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and National Museums Scotland (NMS) in Edinburgh. Brown said Jane Carmichael, the director of collections at the NMS, indicated that the NHM decision would make it easier for other museums to return human remains.

But Dixon said: 'We shouldn't regard this case as setting any kind of precedent.' He said, in this case leaving the door open for discussion (around DNA testing), could not have been predicted by outsiders.

Dixon said: 'All eyes will be on the TAC. Trust has been placed in them.' He said he hoped that any applications for further use of the DNA would be 'favourably received' by the TAC. 'It is an important thing for the museum that there is potential for use [of the DNA in the future].'

Felicity Heywood

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