A few years ago, the law in the UK was changed to allow certain artefacts to be returned to their country of origin.
The 2004 Human Tissue Act had its origins in controlling the unauthorised storage of body parts of deceased patients by hospitals, but section 47 of the act covered a very different, yet tenuously related subject – the repatriation of human remains.
Following a successful campaign by Australian Aboriginal groups, a decision had been made by the British Government to make changes to the law, to allow artefacts that involved human remains (i.e. they were human remains, or part of them was composed from human remains) to be returned to their countries of origin. This change in the law was a major step forward, as for the first time it over-rode the 1963 British Museum Act, opening a new route by which items could be de-accessioned from the institution.
After the need for changes to the law were identified by a working group led by Professor Norman Palmer (who has recently been associated with the campaign for the return of the Parthenon Marbles), the Museums that held artefacts that might be affected by any change in the law, all wanted to limit any potential losses to their collections. As a result of this, various limitations were invoked within the act. Firstly, there was a 1000 year limit – artefacts older than this were not covered – a move that safeguarded any Egyptian mummies held by Britain’s major museums. The second limitation was a much more major distinction that of bones versus stones. It was argued that bones (i.e. human remains) were one category of artefact, whereas stones (i.e. pretty much everything else that was inanimate) constituted an entirely different category. While there are reasons that human remains should perhaps be seen in a different light, the move was arguably more about safeguarding large tranches of the museum’s collections, than it was about any real ethical distinction.
In the years since the Human Tissue Act came into force, there have been many instances of human remains being returned, from museums all over Britain. The returns have not just been to Australian Aboriginal groups, but also to many other indigenous peoples around the world.
During this time though, the stones versus bones argument never entirely disappeared. Aboriginal groups were pleased with the return of human remains, but to them, many other items in Britain’s museums held equally important cultural significance. The British Museum is now loaning some of the Aboriginal items in its collection to the National Museum of Australia, leading to new claims that some of these items should be returned. As the Aboriginal groups point out, these items tell a story about them and their culture, not a story about England.
Minor successes in this field have already been achieved, such as the Kwakwaka’wakw mask returned on a renewable loan basis, but these have been few and far between. To achieve what the Aboriginal Groups want would require another change in the law. This should not be considered as an insurmountable challenge – a few years after the 2004 Human Tissue Act, MP Andrew Dismore introduced the Holocaust (Stolen Art) Restitution Act, which punched a new hole in the anti-restitution clauses of the British Museum Act – this time allowing the return of items looted during the Nazi Era.
With each new special case, the legitimacy of more artefacts within the British Museum’s collection comes into question, leading to further pressure for changes in the law to give the potential for long running restitution cases such as that of the Parthenon Marbles to be resolved.
Aboriginal bark painting of a barramundi dating from 1861
Indigenous leaders fight for return of relics featuring in major new exhibition
Saturday 14 February 2015 00.03 GMT
When Gary Murray contemplates the thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander objects held in the vaults of the British Museum in London, he strikes a simple analogy.
“All of these things that belong to our people in Australia – they don’t tell a story about the Queen of England, do they?” he asks.
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