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Aboriginal Remains: An update

August 8th, 2007

This post summarises some of the background to the decision in early May 2007 by The Natural History Museum in London to return remains of Tasmanian Aboriginal people. The decision followed months of wrangling and argument and an appeal to the High Court. The decision follows the handing down of the Report from the Working Group on Human Remains. The strong disagreement of some people remains. The claim for return was lodged by the Australian Government in November 2005 on behalf of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC).

Matthew Denholm & Peter Wilson (Museum bones legal fight ‘a waste’ of $1m in The Australian February 24, 2007) reported that an Aboriginal group had broken ranks to oppose costly legal action aimed at stopping a British museum conducting tests on indigenous remains. Tasmania’s Lia Pootah community yesterday attacked the case against London’s Natural History Museum as a waste of money, as lawyers predicted legal fees could top $1 million.

Lia Pootah spokeswoman Kaye McPherson said taxpayers’ money would be better directed to indigenous education and cultural programs. She said the DNA and other tests proposed by the museum might have benefits for Aboriginal Australians, a point backed by Mr Mundine. “There is a very emotional balancing act,” Mr Mundine said. “What was done ( taking of Aboriginal remains) is nothing short of horrible. At the same time, there has been some research that has come out of this which could have been good.”

Recently Professor Richard Lane, Director of Science at the Museum said (on ABC Radio National’s “Science Show” 7 July 2007), “These are the first [remains] that we have actually returned. I think both parties started in one place and have ended up somewhere different, quite a learning [sic] for both sides. For the museum community I think it’s about articulating more clearly the scientific benefits to the claimant communities, as opposed to the scientific benefits to all of us.”

Earlier Julia May (in the Sydney Morning Herald, May 12 2007), reported Richard Lane as praising the mediation process and said that this decision would set a precedent. “I think it does change the arena; we’re finding ways that we can balance the needs of the scientific community with the various Australian Aboriginal communities.”

There are, and have been for many decades, widely different views on these kinds of issue. Jocelyn Nettlefold (ABC TV’s 7.30 Report on 21 February) reported the. Michael Mansell (Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre), “They [the remains] were effectively grave-robbed. People dug them up so that they could donate them to institutions overseas.” Professor Robert Foley, Evolutionary Anthropologist (Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies, Department of Biological Anthropology, University of Cambridge), “To see any of it lost and gone forever is, to my mind, a very sad and tragic event.” Mark Stephens, Solicitor: “It may enable one scientist at the Natural History Museum to write an extra paper, but it’s not going to contribute to sum total of human knowledge, it’s not going to prevent disease. It’s not going to do anything which is going to be otherwise irreplaceable to science and, in those circumstances, there is absolutely no excuse whatsoever for this mawkish examination by scientists.”

Natural History Museum director Dr Michael Dixon, said, “They tell a very interesting story about human evolution and the evolution of Tasmanian Aboriginals themselves.”

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