Oxford museums return ancestral remains to Aboriginal communities - Museums Association

Oxford museums return ancestral remains to Aboriginal communities

Remains were acquired as part of archaeological and anthropological practices that ‘caused much hurt’
Human Remains Repatriation
The repatriation ceremony took place in Oxford this week
The repatriation ceremony took place in Oxford this week Pitt Rivers Museum

A handover ceremony has taken place in Oxford this week to mark the repatriation of ancestral remains to Aboriginal communities in Australia.

The Pitt Rivers Museum and Oxford University Museum of Natural History (OUMNH) are returning the remains of 11 Aboriginal ancestors.

Five of these have been returned to the custodianship of their respective communities and six are now under the stewardship of the Australian government ahead of their return to Country [the term used by Aboriginal people to describe the land, seas and waterways to which they are connected].

Six of the human remains came from the OUMNH and were acquired by the museum in the 19th century, either via the acquisition of larger medical and anthropological collections or from individual donors.  

The other five came from the Pitt Rivers Museum’s collection and were acquired between 1887 and 1917, mostly from private donors.

The return is part of an agreement between the museums and the Australian Government to repatriate 30 ancestors in total.


A statement announcing the repatriation described the acquiring of ancestral remains as being “part of the problematic history of archaeology and anthropology that caused much hurt and needs redress”.

Representatives from the Bathurst Local Aboriginal Land Council and the Wiradjuri Community, the Far West Coast Aboriginal Corporation, the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council and Gadigal communities, the Ngarrindjeri Community, the Wadawurrung Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation, and the Wadawurrung Community, attended the ceremony.

The Australian high commissioner to the UK, Stephen Francis Smith, was also in attendance, along with Paul Smith, director of the OUMNH, and Laura Van Broekhoven, director of the Pitt Rivers Museum.

“Returning ancestors to Country is critical to promote healing and justice for First Nations peoples – and is a vital step towards reconciliation and truth-telling,” said the minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney.

“It honours the deep cultural and emotional significance of returning ancestors to their traditional lands and allows communities to carry out their cultural obligations and customs.”

Van Broekhoven said: “For the Pitt Rivers Museum, ceremonies like these introduce new chapters in our history as a museum. We want to thank Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders for their leadership in this process; we are pleased that the ancestors are finally able to return home. We are grateful to join this Indigenous-led process that works towards healing.”

The return means more than 1,209 ancestors have now been returned from the UK to Australia, according to the National Indigenous Times.

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