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Natural History Museum to return some aboriginal remains

In what appears to be a positive step forward from their earlier position [1] on the issue, Britain’s Natural History Museum has agreed to return the remains of eighteen Australian aboriginal people back to their country of origin. This is just a start though, as there are many other pieces still in their collection on which no decision has yet been made.

International Herald Tribune [2]

Britain’s Natural History Museum to return remains of 18 aboriginal people to Australia
The Associated Press
Published: November 17, 2006

LONDON: Britain’s Natural History Museum said Friday that it will return the remains of 17 Tasmanians and the skull of an Australian Aborigine to the Australian government.

The museum’s trustees announced the decision to return the remains by March a day after an independent panel presented an ethics review and guidelines for dealing with future claims.

The Australian government had filed a formal request in November 2005 on behalf of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Center for the return of the remains, which the center plans to cremate according to their customs, museum director Michael Dixon told a news conference.

“We acknowledge our decision may be questioned by community groups or by some scientists,” Dixon said. “However, we believe the decision to return the Tasmanian remains, following a short period of data collection, is a commonsense one that balances the requirements of all those with an interest in the remains.”

The Natural History Museum holds Britain’s national collection of human remains: about 19,500 specimens, from complete skeletons to a single finger bone. The collection, with samples from around the world covering a time span of 500,000 years, was acquired from other museums and collections, officials said.

The Tasmanian Aboriginal Center initially demanded all research using the remains stop, but as a compromise agreed to allow scientists to compile as complete a record as possible before returning them.

Scientists will scan the specimens, create plaster casts and conduct DNA analysis, the museum’s science director, Richard Lane, said. The Tasmanian specimens, the oldest of which were acquired by a British collector in 1839, are of particular scientific value because they date back to when Tasmania was an isolated part of the world and its people were genetically unique, he said.

For more than 20 years, Australian aboriginal groups have appealed to the British and Australian governments to return ancestral remains. Indigenous groups in North America and New Zealand have made similar appeals.

The British Museum announced in March that it was returning two artifacts containing the cremated ashes of Australian Aborigines, more than 150 years after they were taken.

Until last year, such requests were refused because the Natural History Museum, the British Museum and other large national facilities were created by acts of Parliament that barred them from disposing of items in their collections.

In October 2005 the government amended the Human Tissue Act to allow museums to return remains “which are reasonably believed to be under 1,000 years in age.”

Dixon said the museum was in talks with the Australian government to return all human remains — about 450 specimens in all, including the 18 it has already agreed to return.


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