March 8, 2007

Battle for skeletons in the Museum’s closet

Posted at 5:12 pm in Similar cases

The Guardian looks at the issues & implications of the cases for restitution being brought by Australian Aboriginal communities against institutions in the UK.
This site gets a mention in the article too.

The Guardian blogs

Battle for skeletons in the museums closet
By Matthew Weaver / Guardian 03:11pm

A group of Aborigines today began a three-day high court battle to stop London’s Natural History Museum carrying out scientific tests on 17th century aboriginal bones, before they are returned to Tasmania.

The museum is accused of “scientific racism” and violating the spirit of the dead, by planning to collect DNA samples from the 17 skeletons. The museum says the collection, which was originally robbed from graves by 19th century settlers, is irreplaceable.

It says that in the interests of science, samples should be collected before the bones are returned.

The case has generated a lot of blog chatter. There is plenty of background on Elginism, which, as its name suggests, is dedicated to tracking “cultural vandalism”, where artefacts are plundered from their original setting.

The Elginism website points out that returning the bones would not have been possible until a recent change in the law on remains.

Joe Walker, on History Now can’t decide what’s right. He says: “I am in two minds about the situation. On one hand, ‘A huge amount of knowledge can be gained,’ while on the other, ‘They were effectively grave-robbed.’

But other bloggers come down firmly on one side or the other. Larry Livermore says that “old bone worship” should not be indulged and would be ridiculed if it involved Anglo-Europeans.

Erik Van Rosenberg on Political Archealogy questions the vague definition of “ancestor” used in the case.
But he is challenged by Will who says:

“It’s hard to tell the country and people from where the remains are from (whatever their race happens to be) ‘this doesn’t belong to you’, even when no clear ancestral claim can be established. The material no more belongs to scientists, or more precisely, colonising states, even if their continued access to the remains is beneficial.”

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