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Museums & Indigenous Peoples

In the Kimberleys, Western Australia (More)

The last 30 years have seen a profound shift in the way many museums understand and pursue their relationships with the indigenous peoples whose cultural property, and even human remains, they hold.

In past times repeated claims by indigenous peoples for return of human remains and significant items, especially grave goods and secret/sacred material, was met with statements by museums that the material was rightfully theirs, that the material belonged to all of humankind, that the material was important scientifically or that the legislation under which the museum functioned did allow deaccessioning of the material. Policies in Canada and Australia have sought to forge new relationships and legislation in the U.S.A, the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act (1989) mandated certain actions by museums including the documentation of material and the communication to relevant groups of the museum’s holdings with a view to return or negotiated outcome which had the approval of the people concerned.

In Britain, the situation has been somewhat different with some museum returning material but many others, particularly national museums, expressing reluctance or refusal to return material.

These issues are covered in the pages in this section. Included is a statement of the principles of the Museums Australia policy of 1993 Previous Possessions, New Obligations which is now under revision and a review of developments in Canada.

The British Government’s Working Group on Human Remains

On 14 November 2003, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport of the British Government received “The Working Group on Human Remains Report” . Further details of this are given in the section dealing with recent developments.