Row breaks out over return of remains - Museums Association

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Row breaks out over return of remains

The Natural History Museum's decision last month to return the remains of 17 Tasmanian aboriginal people has provoked controversy both in the UK and in Tasmania.
Profile image for Sharon Heal
Sharon Heal
The museum announced it will be returning the human remains next year, but only after it has undertaken three months of additional research beginning in January.

Michael Dixon, the director of the Natural History Museum (NHM), described the decision as a landmark. 'We have long sought the opportunity to consider the repatriation of human remains,' he said.

But he admitted the decision represented a compromise between the scientific claims and the ethical and moral claims to the remains. The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC), which will receive the remains once they are returned, is adamant that no further research should be conducted.

Michael Mansell, the legal director of TAC, described the decision as outrageous. 'The remains of 17 of our dead have been [in the museum] for more than 150 years. Only the custodians should deal with the dead in accordance with our customs. The remains are of people either hunted down and killed so scientists could have the skulls and bones, or dug up from graves for the same purpose.'

Mansell said he had written to the museum seeking an undertaking that no more research would be conducted. On the other side of the fence, members of the scientific community have criticised the return as they say it will prevent further study when new techniques are developed in the future.

But not all scientists are anti-return. Martin Smith from the British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology, said his group wasn't opposed to return in principle. 'In some situations where material has been acquired in dubious circumstances, it could be the right thing to do.'

He said that he was in favour of keeping the lines of communication open with source communities and engaging them in dialogue.

But he added that in this case the three-month period for research didn't seem very long. 'The bottom line is that if the material is reburied there will be an irretrievable loss of information.'

Richard Lane, the director of science at the NHM, said that although having the remains all in one place for research reasons was a huge advantage, they had to recognise the value of the material to the claimant communities.

The request for return was considered by the museum's human remains advisory panel, which was set up earlier this year in the wake of the publication of the department for culture's guidelines on the care of human remains. Under the guidance, national museums' trustees can act on requests for the return of human remains.

The advisory panel is made up of independent advisers and it unanimously recommended the return to the trustees. Dixon said that although the decision did set a precedent it didn't necessarily mean that all future claims would be successful.

The museum holds more than 19,000 human remains, 44 per cent of which are from outside the UK. The panel is not considering any other claims, but the museum is in discussion with the Australian government and is talking to community groups in the Americas.

A spokeswoman for the museum said that it was proactively approaching source communities that have made claims in the past.

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