March 12, 2007

High cost of battle for Aboriginal bones

Posted at 5:30 pm in Similar cases

The argument over stopping testing on the Aboriginal Bones in the Natural History Museum continues.

The Age (Melbourne, Australia)

High cost of bitter battle of the bones
March 11, 2007

BRITAIN is no stranger to accusations of cultural plundering. Its museums, often magnificent attractions in themselves, display relics from all over the world. But some collections are subject to fierce battles for reclamation by their countries of origin.

The British Museum in London has famously resisted returning the Parthenon (Elgin) Marbles to Greece. But it appears to be less defensive about how it repatriates human remains than the Natural History Museum, which is engaged in a bitter fight with representatives from the Tasmanian Aboriginal community.

Last week the NHM agreed to enter mediation with the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, bypassing a costly hearing in the British High Court. At issue are plans by the museum to conduct scientific tests on the remains of 17 Tasmanian Aborigines in its collection before they are returned to Tasmania for burial. The skulls, bones and teeth were sent to Britain by colonial scientists 200 years ago, some having been dug up and taken apart.

The non-invasive aspects of what the museum describes as data collection include CT scanning, photographing and written descriptions of the remains. But the most controversial techniques involve drilling into bones and teeth to extract DNA and to make casts of teeth and jaws, to shed light on the people’s biological characteristics, cultural practices and diet. The museum originally planned to complete the testing by March 31 before returning the remains to Tasmania.

The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre has described the testing techniques as “barbaric”, “mutilation” and “scientific racism”.

Its legal director, Michael Mansell, says the remains have already been tested over the years the NHM has held them. The museum would not confirm his claims that pieces of bone have been “chiselled off”, crushed and placed in chemical solution, that teeth have been extracted and plaster casts of the jaw bones and teeth have already been made.

Mr Mansell says that when the NHM agreed to return the remains last November, it conferred its right of possession, and therefore has no right to continue testing. “The scientists say, ‘We have that right, it’s a god-given right that nobody else can interfere with,” he says. “That dogmatic view does not take into account the views of the people who have the rights to these dead.”

The NHM’s decision to pursue mediation follows a meeting of its trustees and a protest on its steps last month by Mr Mansell’s cousin, Clyde Mansell, the chairman of the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania. Clyde Mansell said the case had become little more than a “cash cow” for lawyers on both sides. “They are the ones getting rich while all we want is to bring our ancestors home to give them traditional burials and cremations so they can rest in peace,” he said.

The fury emanating from the Tasmanian Aboriginal community is countered by the science-focused response from the NHM’s director, Michael Dixon. Mr Dixon says the museum must balance the claims of the Aboriginal community with its duty to the international scientific community, to study the remains via modern research means. He says the research has become more important because the remains will no longer be available to science after their return to Tasmania.

He disputes the Tasmanians’ version of when possession actually begins and says that until the handover it is appropriate for the museum to continue testing.

But other museum leaders criticise the NHM’s position.

A former director of the Manchester Museum, Tristram Besterman, says the NHM is breaching the code of ethics developed by the Museums Association, which represents 700 British museums and galleries. He says it is breaching the principle relating to respect for the interests of originating communities and involving them in decisions about how collections are used.

“The decision by the NHM to carry out further research on the remains … was unethical,” he says. “It’s not rocket science. If you’ve got something that doesn’t belong to you, you give it back and you treat the true cultural owners with proper consideration.”

Mr Dixon says the museum’s process for repatriating the remains complies with the association’s code of ethics and guidelines developed by the Human Remains Working Group, which reported to the British Government in 2003.

But the NHM’s approach to repatriation contrasts that of other major British museums. Last March the British Museum returned two cremation ash bundles to Tasmania in what was described as a consultative and good-spirited process.

In 2003, when he was still director of the Manchester Museum, Mr Besterman oversaw the repatriation of four Aboriginal skulls to Victoria.

Mr Besterman, a member of the Human Remains Working Group, says he is in favour of an independent national panel to advise and mediate in negotiations between source communities and museums. This was a recommendation in the 2003 report.

Mr Besterman says: “Had that advice been followed, the Natural History Museum wouldn’t be in the mess it is in now.”

The mediation is expected to begin by the end of the month once the two parties agree on who should chair it. The TAC has nominated former NSW chief justice Sir Laurence Street and, in a separate battle, is lobbying the Federal Government for extra funding to allow more than one TAC delegate to attend the hearings.

Michael Mansell says: “Because it’s in London the museum officials, the museum trustees, lawyers and scientists will be present. For our part our lawyers will be present but we will not be because … the Australian Government is expecting us to do it on the cheap.”

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)

Possibly related articles

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URL

Leave a Comment

We want to hear your views. Be as critical or controversial as you like, but please don't get personal or offensive. Remember this is for feedback and constructive discussion!
Comments may be edited or removed if they do not meet these guidelines. Repeat offenders will be blocked from posting further comments. Any comment deemed libellous by Elginism's editors will be removed.
The commenting system uses some automatic spam detection and occasionally comments do not appear instantly - please do not repost comments if they do not show up straight away