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Aborigines to take legal action against UK museums

The Aboriginals have managed to achieve the return of a lot of the human remains held in the UK. However, now they are potentially going to take legal action against some of the largest UK institutions who are still refusing to return anything.

Sydney Morning Herald [1]

UK museums face court for kept remains
January 13, 2005 – 12:25PM

Aboriginal groups were on the brink of taking legal action against some of Britain’s great museums which could cost them huge and historic international collections unless they return the remains of generations of Aborigines to Australia.

Many British institutions have been returning body parts over the past decade, but several of the largest and most prestigious, such as London’s Museum of Natural History and Duckworth Laboratory in Cambridge, continue to refuse to release remains.

ATSIC commissioner Rodney Dillon warned that time was running out after decades of lobbying and nearly five years since prime ministers John Howard and Tony Blair agreed the bones and skulls of Aborigines should be returned to Australia by the British museums and universities holding them.

Dillon collected four skulls from the Royal Albert Museum in Exeter in southern England and said four or five other British institutions had told him they would hand back remains.

If others, like the Natural History Museum which holds over 400 pieces of remains between 80 and 10,000 years old, don’t hand over their collections, he was confident of winning legal action under European human rights laws.

Success would then open the way for dozens more claims from around the world for the return of artefacts such as the Elgin Marbles as well as body parts.

“It’s a bigger threat to museums if we have to go to litigation,” Dillon said.

“The museums would lose a lot more than human remains, they’ve got a lot more to lose than us. They know that.

“We’re right on the edge of litigation. We’ve discussed litigation and had advice from QCs. It’s the next step.

“Time is running out.

“If we don’t see any positive signs between now and June, which is the fifth anniversary of Howard and Blair coming together, I think then it’s a serious time between then and Christmas to think about litigation.

“That’s not threatening them, that’s just telling them what’s going to happen.”

Four years since it was first raised, the human tissues bill is finally expected to become law in Britain by June which would allow publicly funded bodies to release remains.

Under current law, such institutions are not permitted to give up their collections, while many say they are vital for scientific research.

But Dillon received a hugely significant and unexpected endorsement from Britain’s peak science body, the Royal Society, which told a seminar in London that indigenous cultural issues overwhelmingly outweighed the cause of science.

“I nearly fell on the floor when I heard that,” Dillon said.

Maurice Davies, the deputy director of Britain’s Museums Association also gave some telling support.

“A lot of beneficial research has been done on human remains, but all indications are that it hasn’t been life saving medical research,” Davies said.

“It’s been interesting rather than life saving research.”

Dillon and Wayne Gibbons from the Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination spoke at the seminar at Australia House which included 20 representatives from the British government, museums and universities.

“It was an important group of people and I told them they have the chance to make history, to change the wrongdoings of the past,” Dillon said.

The Royal Albert Museum’s return of two pairs of male and female skulls from South Australia and the confluence of the Darling and Murray rivers came four months after Sweden’s Museum of Ethnography in Stockholm handed over 16 boxes of remains.

In 2000, Edinburgh College of Surgeons returned 500 pieces, while three years ago Britain’s Royal College of Surgeons, the Horniman Museum in London and the University of Manchester repatriated their collections.

Dillon and Gibbons met Britain’s culture secretary Estelle Morris and will lobby institutions in Bristol, Oxford and Glasgow over the next two days.