Homeward bound - Museums Association

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Homeward bound

A new generation of Aboriginal campaigners has taken up the fight for the return of human remains from British museums. Felicity Heywood meets two of them
Felicity Heywood
The killing fields of Tasmania were at their height in 1803 when the Aboriginal people were nearly wiped out. Those who survived were gathered and taken to remote areas of the southern Australian island, or to even more isolated islands, to make way for Europeans to occupy the land. The man placed in charge of the dispersal and employed as the 'protector' of Aborigines, was George Augustus Robinson.

To the English, the Aborigines were curiosities in life and death, and so their body parts were traded and displayed. Robinson's diaries show that the English aristocracy asked him to source Aboriginal skulls. He also coaxed Aboriginals into giving up the bones and tissue of their ancestors, which were worn as amulets and used for healing purposes, for his own private collection. Most of the Tasmanian human remains now held in UK museums are from Robinson's personal collection.

Some of these awful 19th-century expropriations are the source of current negotiations. The return of human tissue (two bundles of ashes) two months ago by the British Museum to the Tasmanian Aboriginal community was the first time a museum has given back such items from its collection since the parliamentary hammer went down on the Human Tissue Act in 2004 (it came into force in 2005). This made it legal for nine national museums to deaccession human remains from their holdings.

The change in the law followed years of ruminating by museum and government officials in the UK. And although the viewpoints of the source communities were considered, the decision-making on the destiny of these Aboriginal body parts was left, once again, to Europeans.

Representatives from the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC), who were in Britain in September to collect the ashes, praised the museum for opting to return in this case. 'The British Museum made a moral decision, it has set a new standard for public museums in Britain,' says Adam Thompson, the land management coordinator at the TAC. 'It has done the right thing. It's been a win-win situation.'

Thompson, aged 29, and Leah Brown, 23, are the new blood of delegates sent by the TAC to argue the case for repatriation on a trip that was supported by the Australian government. The centre has been campaigning for 30 years. Its work started in Australia, where all museums are now pro-return and have policies in place. After this achievement in Australia, the focus turned to Europe more than 20 years ago. They have had successes in Sweden, at the University of Edinburgh, and in Peterborough, Bradford, Dublin and Oxford. But other cases are proving harder to crack.

Thompson and Brown are directly involved in the TAC's work, while pursuing careers in land rights and law respectively, and both come from Aboriginal communities. The fight, therefore, is personal. And therein lies the friction. Museums pleading the scientific case against repatriation have less of an understanding of what these remains mean to the communities and why they are still battling to get them back after so many centuries.

Thompson says: 'Remains in the UK are in limbo; the spirits are not at peace. Knowing that is frustrating. We cannot move forward until they are at peace.'Collecting the remains from the British Museum store was highly emotional for Thompson and Brown. And the museum staff gave them time to perform a ceremony.

While in the UK, Thompson and Brown visited a number of museums and universities with remains that have been identified as coming from Tasmania. Thompson's forthrightness is evident even before he speaks. He is wearing a T-shirt with the Aboriginal flag, black and red with yellow sun, and written across it are the words 'Lutruwita (Tasmania) Has a Black History'.

'I guess it's a new tactic to have younger delegates,' says Thompson. 'To show the UK institutions that we have been visiting, that it is the younger generation continuing this campaign and fight. And we are showing to young people that it means a lot to all age groups in our Tasmanian community.'

As the land management coordinator at the TAC, Thompson has responsibility for rejuvenating 57,000 hectares of land that has been returned to the Aboriginal people by the Tasmanian Parliament over the past ten years. Earlier generations of his family were among the first Aborigines to successfully obtain a lease for their land on Badger Island, north of Tasmania.

Thompson's passion is powered by his knowledge of a long line of ancestors fighting for their rights. He is simply continuing that struggle. Alongside Brown, who is a final year law student working on legislation to protect Aboriginal heritage, the Tasmanian Two are a formidable force.

Thompson sees himself as the tougher of the pair: 'I'm more hardline politically. I want to know their [museum representatives] own personal opinions on repatriation.' After all, he says, they are the ones giving the recommendations to the trustees.

'I try to talk on a personal level about what it means to me and the Tasmanian people and by giving them a heartfelt explanation on the significance of having the remains returned and how it heals our community, I think they look at it in a different way. It reminds them that the remains are people.'

And how have the museums responded to these tactics? In Thompson's opinion, not too well. He says the scientists predominantly reject the notion of ancestors' spirits and take the view that they were 'laid to rest a long time ago'.

The pair visited the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, the Royal Museum in Edinburgh and the Natural History Museum in London, which all have provenanced Tasmanian remains. Although refused a formal audience by Cambridge University's Duckworth Laboratory, which is well-known for its anti-return stance, they turned up and were given time to speak to Marta Lahr, the director of the laboratory.

Lahr's argument is that the university's collection of human remains is among the most important and significant in the world. 'These collections have made major contributions to our current understanding of human diversity and evolution, as well as to forensic science and the knowledge about health and life in the past. New scientific techniques and questions are continually revealing the wealth of new information still to be gained from them.'

The Duckworth, like the other museums visited, told Thompson and Brown that they were working on their individual human remains policies, following the rules laid down last year by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport's (DCMS) Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums. The Duckworth expects its policy to be ready by the end of the year.

The TAC has accused the museums involved of stalling, saying they should have already had these policies in place for claims to be considered against. But does Thompson have any sympathy towards the scientific argument? 'I don't care about science in this instance. I just care about bringing home the remains to my people. It's not their decision to make. They are our remains. The ancestors are entitled to a traditional burial or cremation that they were robbed of.'

Thompson does concede that there has been a 'slight shift in attitude' from museums shown by the fact that more representatives are willing to meet them. But he believes it has less to do with empathy and more to do with complying with the DCMS guidelines. But he says, thanks to the guidelines, at least museums now know how to deal with claims.

He says there was some openness to their arguments at some museums, but he felt that others such as the Royal Museum in Edinburgh were unaffected by their story. Scotland does not have a clause in its legislation (the Anatomy Act deals with human remains) allowing for the deaccessioning by museums of human remains and as a result, according to Thompson, Edinburgh seemed more behind than the other museums.

This is a tale of two cultures, science versus community, and it is as complex as they come. It is muddied further by disunity among the Aboriginal contingent. Rodney Dillon, the well-known Tasmanian campaigner appointed by the Australian government to receive human remains from across the world that belong to Australia, was also in the UK at the same time as the Tasmanian pair.

He was here to collect a number of unprovenanced remains to take back to the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. Bristol City Museum, the Hancock Museum, the Manchester Museum and the Royal Cornwall Museum all returned remains to Dillon, who arrived at each museum accompanied by an Australian High Commission representative.

Dillon, who is the chairman of the Indigenous Repatriation Reference Committee, says the plan is for an Aboriginal-run museum to be built to keep the unprovenanced remains.

But the TAC is clear that unprovenanced remains must be kept in the UK until it is known to which people they belong. It is Aboriginal lore that remains go back to the right source community.

Dillon also visited some of the same museums as Thompson and Brown - the British Museum and the Natural History Museum. Thompson acknowledges that this can be confusing for museums and, worse still, they can use it as an argument against return. Tristram Besterman, the former director of the Manchester Museum, was appointed by the British Museum to report into the case for the return of the two ash bundles. He says it is important to present a 'united front' and also warns that these conflicting claims could provide fuel for an anti-return argument.

Thompson says the fact that the TAC is appointed by the Aboriginal people of Tasmania means it is the right group to receive returns. He argues that Dillon's intention is decent but 'his way is not the way'. Confusingly though, both Dillon and the TAC are recognised by the Australian government. To a museum, Dillon turning up with an Australian High Commission representative, may be seen as more authoritative.

Thompson may represent a new generation who have the opportunity to fight for the cause, but to him the methods have been laid down historically. A slow and diplomatic chipping away at the museums is the way.

When Thompson and Brown touched down in Australia carrying the ash bundles from the British Museum they were greeted by a large national celebration party - with emotions running high. As Thompson puts it: 'This is huge for us.'

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