March 26, 2006

More on the return of Tasmanian cremation ashes

Posted at 12:31 pm in British Museum, Similar cases

Some additional articles on the British Museum’s decision to return some Aboriginal remains to Tasmania. Of particular interest are some of the details of the reasons for the return – it was realised that the significance of the remains to the Tasmanian Aboriginal community outweighed any public benefit of their continued retention in London. Furthermore, the items had already been studied, analysed & recorded & it was unlikely that their retention would yield any further significant information.
The British Museum has agreed to consider other requests for the return of Aboriginal remains on a case by case basis as they occur. This suggests that they are arguing against their own floodgates argument regarding the Elgin Marbles. It has long been insisted that each case involving restitution of cultural property would be dealt with on an individual basis & therefore assessed on its own merits, which negated the idea that the return of a single item would set a precedent leading to the rapid emptying of museum collections.

Sydney Morning Herald

Brits to return Tas Aboriginal remains
March 25, 2006 – 5:49AM

The British Museum will return two Tasmanian Aboriginal cremation ash bundles to the state.

The ash bundles contain ash gathered from a human cremation site wrapped in animal skin, and were thought to have been used as amulets to ward off illness.

They were acquired in about 1838 by George Augustus Robinson, a Christian missionary and conciliator for conflicts between Aborigines and early settlers.

He was sent to find the dwindling number of Aborigines in Tasmania in the 1830s and take them to safety on Flinders Island, including Truganini – the last full-blood Tasmanian Aborigine.

The bundles passed from the Royal College of Surgeons to the British Museum in 1882.

The decision to return the remains to the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre had come as a result of the British Human Tissue Act of 2005, which for the first time enabled museums to repatriate remains.

Previously they were unable to consider requests by Aboriginal campaigners.

“After taking independent expert advice on the matter, and according to their published policy, the Trustees came to the view that the cultural and religious importance of the cremation ash bundles to the Tasmanian Aboriginal community outweighed any other public benefit that would have flowed from their retention in the collection,” the British Museum said in a statement.

“The objects have been studied, photographed and published in previous decades.

“It is unlikely that, given present scientific techniques, their retention in London for study will yield any further information of significance.”

The museum has a small collection of Aboriginal remains, and says it will consider requests for their return when they are made.

© 2006 AAP

The Age (Melbourne, Australia)

Aboriginal talismans to be sent home by Britain
By Andrew Darby
March 25, 2006

TWO small bundles of animal skin, once prized as tribal talismans, have a new importance in the long struggle by Tasmanian Aborigines to retrieve their ancestors’ remains.

The British Museum said yesterday it would return the bundles containing cremation ash to the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre. With hundreds of objects from tribal Aborigines held in British public museums, these will be the first to be handed back after decades of campaigning.

“This is a very historic victory for Tasmanian Aborigines,” said Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre secretary Trudy Maluga. “We are very happy with this.”

It took years of fruitless journeys by the Aborigines to Britain to plead the case, a formal statement by Prime Minister John Howard and British PM Tony Blair in 2000, a House of Commons inquiry, and new British legislation.

A trickle of human remains and other objects has been given up over the years by private collectors in Britain. Most recently, small fragments of skin and hair of the last pre-colonial Tasmanian Aborigine, Truganini, came to light in the Royal College of Surgeons’ Oxford collection in 2002. But the big public institutions refused to hand over human remains they had held since the 19th century.

The cremation ash bundles were obtained about 1838 by George Augustus Robinson, who was appointed by the British as “conciliator” of the Aborigines. He gathered the tribal survivors together in what the late Tasmanian premier Jim Bacon described as concentration camps, where most died.

Ms Maluga said of the bundles: “These were worn as talismans against pain, sickness and ill-fortune. Robinson took these from sick Aborigines when they were close to death. They were effectively stolen. And these are the only two bundles known to exist.”

Tasmanian Aborigines have been asking for their return since 1985. The British Museum said several claims the Aboriginal centre had made in the past could not be considered until the law was changed with the passage of an act governing the treatment of human tissue.

It said the museum’s trustees decided the cultural and religious importance of the bundles to Tasmanian Aborigines outweighed any public benefit from holding them in the collection.

Ms Maluga said there were still nine public British institutions they had to contend with, among them the British Natural History Museum.

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