July 8, 2008

Scotland hands back Aboriginal remains

Posted at 12:58 pm in Similar cases

Despite setbacks along the way, after ten years of campaigning, the Ngarrindjeri tribe are accepting the return of a number of Aboriginal artefacts from institutions in Scotland. Like many other such repatriations made in recent years, this has only been made possible by a change in the law in the form of the Human Tissue Act 2004.

The Times

From The Times
July 8, 2008
Scotland hands back Aborigine relics
Charlene Sweeney

With a simple but symbolic whorl of smoke, a group of Aborigines began the long-awaited process of repatriating their ancestors’ remains from a Scottish museum to their homeland.

The Ngarrindjeri, who have been campaigning for the return of the relics for ten years, sent a delegation to Edinburgh to accept ownership of six Aborigine skulls from the National Museums of Scotland, and a fragment of a woman’s skull from the University of Edinburgh.

The occasion was marked yesterday by a special “smoking ceremony” in which the delegates burned eucalyptus leaves in front of the university’s McEwan Hall to cleanse the remains for their journey.

The Australian Government, which sent an official to the handover, will take responsibility for two of the skulls, while the Ngarrindjeri will look after the other four.

Jane Carmichael, director of collections at NMS, said: “Our agreement to return these human remains to their native culture demonstrates National Museums Scotland’s commitment to dealing with requests for the return of human remains with respect and dignity for all parties.

“We welcome the support of the Scottish government in enabling us to transfer these remains from our collections and are appreciative of the co-operation of the Australian Government in resolving these complex and sensitive issues.”

The remains made their way to Scotland more than 100 years ago, when scant regard was paid to the rights of the countries from which collector items were removed.

But that has changed and there is now a growing recognition of the need to reclaim artefacts considered important to a country or people’s culture and history.

Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery in Glasgow paved the way when it returned a special “ghost dance shirt” – believed to have been worn by a Sioux warrior in the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre – to the South Dakotan tribe in 1999.

Other campaigns have been less successful. The Greek nation has consistently failed in its bid to regain the Elgin Marbles from the British Museum, and Alex Salmond, the First Minister, is also likely to face rejection over his demands for the return of the Lewis Chessman from the same institution.

He believes it is unacceptable that the 13th century figurines, thought to be Norwegian, are not displayed in Scotland, where they were found.

Tom Trevorrow, chairman of the Ngarrindjeri Heritage Committee, said the significance of receiving the remains could not be underestimated and he urged others to give up disputed treasures. “Indigenous peoples have been waiting a long time for this process to take place,” he said.

“We encourage other institutions throughout the world to adopt and follow this respectful cultural process.”

Dr John Scally, director of the University of Edinburgh collections, said that the handover completed an important process. “Over the past decade we have been returning human remains to the Aboriginal cultures which they came from. Times have changed dramatically since we were given these remains, but we are very happy that through returning them we are able to build a new relationship with the indigenous people of Australia.”

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