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Return of Tasmanian Aboriginal remains

The claim for return of the remains of 17 Tasmanian Aboriginal people by The Natural History Museum in London has been one of the major museum issues of the last year. The Museum holds the national collection of human remains, comprising 19,950 specimens. The British Museum, which returned two bundles of Tasmanian ashes in March 2006, also holds items.

The Museum announced the decision to return the remains in early May 2007, “Some material will be preserved in Tasmania under the joint control of both the TAC and the Museum, pending further discussions. The remains were previously part of the Museum’s research collections. The 17 remains will accompany the TAC delegates on their return to Tasmania on Saturday.“A hand over ceremony will be held at the Museum on Friday 11 May 2007.” The Museum’s decision follows the report of the British Government’s Working Group on Human Remains.

The decision by the Trustees of the Museum was taken November 16 2006 on advice from its Human Remains Advisory Panel (NHMHRAP). The claim for return was lodged by the Australian Government in November 2005 on behalf of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC). The request stated that on return the material would be cremated in keeping with Aboriginal beliefs. In its statement agreeing to return the remains the Museum announced in its press statement, that it would undertake scientific tests of the material which “would be completed within three months from January”, that is by 31 March 2007.

The data collection process was to include imaging, measurements, and DNA and isotopic analysis. Scientists said that by applying such techniques, they can use old bones to discern patterns of migration in human communities – who lived where, who mixed with whom and when – and even follow the spread of disease.

The agreement of May 2007 followed very difficult discussions, threatened legal action, protests and claims by the Museum’s scientists that important scientific information should be obtained before the remains were returned, action Aboriginal people from the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC) strenuously objected to.

The arguments about the return of the remains and the proposals to conduct scientific tests on them before return reached a point where legal counsel became involved. Geoffrey Robertson, distinguished human rights advocate and jurist represented the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre and Sir Laurence Street, one time Chief Justice of New South Wales, was appointed to mediate. (Sir Laurence was retained by the Queensland Government to review decisions concerning the prosecution of Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley over the death in custody of Mulrunji Doomadgee from internal injuries he suffered after coming into contact with Sergeant Hurley in Palm Island’s police station in November 2004).

The Australian newspaper (Lawyers ‘getting rich’ on remains dispute, February 26, 2007) reported that the legal battle to repatriate the remains of 17 Aborigines from Britain to Tasmania had turned into a lawyers’ picnic, Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania chairman Clyde Mansell said. The museum says it will return the remains, but not before scientists drill into bones and skulls, and extract teeth. The case brought by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre is to go before the British High Court and has the potential to drag on for months with adjournments and appeals. “Lawyers told The Weekend Australian that legal fees could top $1million, prompting indigenous leader and Labor national president Warren Mundine to express concern about the cost.”

Earlier in the year the Museum had announced that it had undertaken to limit the range of techniques involved in the data collection from the remains pending a full court hearing planned for 22 February 2007. In light of this offer the Museum reported that the High Court to which the matter had been taken, had lifted the interim injunction – initiated on 11 February on behalf of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC) – that prevented the Natural History Museum from undertaking data collection.

The Museum said it was “keen that this legal dispute is resolved in order to fulfil our Trustees’ stated intention to return the remains as soon as possible after 31 March 2007. Subject to the court’s final decision, we are committed to completing the full data collection within this timescale and any delay caused by legal proceedings would be regrettable. The Natural History Museum Trustees see the strength of both the TAC view and the scientific view, but their decision aims to meet the primary interests of both groups: on the one hand return to country; on the other a resource to underpin research. Neither interest was seen as entirely outweighing the other.

“The Museum’s collections are a unique and irreplaceable resource to advance knowledge for current and future generations. At the same time we recognise the importance of the cultural and religious beliefs to indigenous peoples with respect to parts of its collection. That the Museum’s actions do not meet with the TAC’s complete approval does not indicate that their views are treated with disrespect, rather that we have striven to strike a balance that respects all perspectives in this complex situation.”

In issuing the statement the Museum also said that “This undertaking prevents the use of techniques such as molecular analysis of DNA and isotopes, which were planned as part of the full data collection process” and in addition, “the Tasmanian remains have been available for legitimate study on the same basis as all other remains in our collection since they were first placed in the care of the Museum. The period of data collection agreed by the Trustees is the conclusion of the process of study that has taken place in the Museum.”

The Museum concluded that it had “for a number of years sought powers to consider the removal of remains from its collection in response to claims – action which was legally barred until late 2005. Reflecting the complexity of this task, the Museum has established an independent process and strives to approach the issue with sensitivity and transparency.”

The negotiations about the return were watched closely by Oxford and Cambridge universities and the National Museums Scotland, which also hold Aboriginal remains (according to Julia May). “In considering repatriation requests on a case-by-case basis, we always take account of the wider context,” said Jane Ferguson, a spokeswoman for the Scottish museums.“National Museums Scotland would be “sympathetic towards repatriation if undertakings could be given by the Australian Government that the material would be made available for future research”, Ferguson said.

Professor Georgina Mace, an ex-officio member of the panel established by The Natural History Museum, said the original decision to allow three months of scientific tests on the Tasmanian remains before their repatriation represented a fair compromise – between the desire of the TAC to regain the materials and the wish of scientists to retain them for investigation. “The museum doesn’t exist just to hold objects in as comprehensive a way as possible; it’s here to maintain those objects for the benefit of researchers generally,” she said. “Part of the compromise is that we will try to gain as much knowledge as possible but we are also very pleased to be able to return these items to the people who feel very strongly that they shouldn’t be here.”

The National Indigenous Times (Issue 123 of 22 Feb 2007) noted, “Museums in the UK began to receive requests for the repatriation of indigenous remains in the mid 1980s. Visits and representations from the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (‘the TAC’) and the Foundation for Aboriginal and Islander Research Action (‘FAIRA’) brought media attention to the issue and resulted in the return of a number of remains to Australia.

“Continued requests, negotiations and campaigns throughout the 1990s led, in 1997, to the return of Truganini’s necklace and bracelet from Exeter City Museum and Art Gallery Museum, Tasmanian hair samples from Edinburgh University, and a Tasmanian skull from Stockholm. In the same year, the skull of Yagan, a Western Australian warrior shot and beheaded in 1833, was exhumed from a Liverpool cemetery (where it had been buried by the Liverpool Museum in the mid 1960s) and returned to Australia. In 2000, Edinburgh University repatriated its remaining collection of Aboriginal remains, and its collection of Hawaiian remains. In 2003 the Royal College of Surgeons, England and Manchester Museum, returned Australian human remains to the National Museum in Canberra followed by Sweden’s Museum of Ethnography in 2004 and 2006 the British Museum returned two Tasmanian cremation ash bundles.”