Natural History Museum Returns Aboriginal Remains To Australia

By Richard Moss | 17 November 2006
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a photograph of a large gothic building with two towers

The Natural History Museum has a vast collection of human remains - the largest in the UK. Courtesy NHM.

The Natural History Museum in London is to repatriate the remains of 17 Tasmanian Aboriginal people to the Australian Government.

The decision was taken after a board meeting by Museum Trustees on Thursday November 16 2007, which considered advice from its Human Remains Advisory Panel (NHMHRAP) on the return of human remains from the Museum's collection to their countries of origin.

The advice relates to a claim lodged by the Australian Government in November 2005 and to a request under that claim from the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC).

“Our decision demonstrates the Museum's commitment to look at each case fairly and transparently, in line with the guidelines set out by the UK government,” said Oliver Stocken, Chairman of the Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

“We welcomed the legislation that came into force in 2005, as a mechanism that allows us, for the first time, to consider cases for the return of human remains to their countries of origin.”

Shows a photograph of the exterior of the Natural History Museum.

The NHM holds the national collection of human remains, comprising 19,950 specimens. © NHM

New legislation was drawn up by the Government in 2004 in response to the claims of indigenous people, particularly from Australia, for the return of ancestral remains. In 2005 nine national UK museums were given powers to move human remains out of their collections, as the Government brought section 47 of the Human Tissues Act 2004 into force.

Prior to this the British and Australian prime ministers made a joint statement in July 2000 to the effect that both countries would work harder to bring Aboriginal remains back to their descendants.

During the colonisation of Australia, many artefacts were taken from the indigenous people including a vast number of human remains, which ended up in British museums. In Australia, most of these remains have now been returned, which is why Aboriginal people are now looking to Britain to complete the process of repatriation.

The two most significant holdings of this type of material are at the NHM and British Museum, which returned two bundles of Tasmanian ashes in March 2006.

At the NHM the national collection of human remains comprises 19,950 specimens (varying from a complete skeleton to a single finger bone). The remains represent a worldwide distribution of the human population and a timescale of 500,000 years although the majority of the collection (54 per cent) represents individuals from the UK.

shows the great court of the British Museum with people walking around inside

The British Museum returned two bundles of Tasmanian ashes in March 2006.

Scientists use the collection to study human origins, population diversity and distribution as well as the past environments in which humans lived. Many of the Museum’s Tasmanian remains are of particular interest because they represent people from a time when Tasmania was isolated from the rest of the world, meaning they are genetically different from other human populations, including those in mainland Australia.

However, the loss to science of such objects is becoming increasingly balanced against the wishes of the Aboriginal communities to whom they belong.

Dr Michael Dixon, Director of the Natural History Museum added, “We acknowledge our decision may be questioned by community groups or by some scientists. However, we believe the decision to return the Tasmanian remains, following a short period of data collection, is a commonsense one that balances the requirements of all those with an interest in the remains.”

During the 20th century a number of organisations, including the Wellcome Trust and the Royal College of Surgeons, transferred their collections of human skeletal remains to the Natural History Museum, to form the national collection.

One such transferred object, an Australian Aboriginal skull, given to the Museum by the Royal College of Surgeons in 1955 is also to be returned following further discussions with the Australian Government. Copies of the original donation letters to the Royal College of Surgeons have been obtained which led to the identification of a particular skull that appears to have been removed illegally from Australia in the early 20th century.

The NHM’s collection policy prevents the acquisition of, and research on, specimens that have been collected illegally by laws in place at the time.

A collection of data, including DNA analysis, from the Tasmanian human remains will be made prior to their return.

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