Natural History Museum to return 138 human remains

Museum to work with Torres Strait Islanders to continue study of remains
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Rebecca Atkinson
The Natural History Museum (NHM) has agreed to return 138 ancestral remains to the Torres Strait Islands in what will be the largest single repatriation return to Australia to date.

Under the agreement, the museum hopes the remains will be accessible for further study and is now in discussions with the Islanders about how responsibility and ongoing care will be transferred. A Torres Strait Islander will also be given a placement to share scientific and museum skills with the NHM.

Richard Lane, director of science at the NHM, said: “'We are pleased that through dialogue and mutual respect our team has been able to work closely with the Torres Strait Islands community, demonstrating for the first time in the UK a new way of approaching repatriation claims in what has previously been a hugely polarised debate.”

A date for the transfer has not yet been agreed, but Lane told Museums Journal he is “optimistic” that future discussions will help both parties understand what can be learnt from the remains."

“We’re not just washing our hands of [the items],” he added. “We are committed to scientific research and furthering knowledge so it’s about building up a relationship with the community.”

Ned David, speaking on behalf of the Torres Strait Islanders, described the agreement as a “breakthrough”.

“We welcome this first step in the repatriation process and the opportunity to work further with the NHM to develop a relationship that will facilitate both our cultural obligations and forge a longer term and even intergenerational partnership with the museum,” he added.

The NHM currently holds approximately 20,000 human remains in its collection, of which just under 50% originate from outside of the UK. Until recently, the museum rejected claims for the return of human remains but Lane says it is now in the early stages of repatriation claims with several indigenous communities in Australia and other countries.

Maurice Davies, head of policy and communication at the Museums Association, welcomed the agreement. He said: “This shows that long-standing disputes, however intractable they appear, can be resolved through respectful conversations to produce a satisfactory compromise.”

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