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Aboriginal artefacts not covered by the Human Tissue Act up for discussion

There have been many cases [1] in recent years where museums in the UK have returned Aboriginal artefacts that consist of (or incorporate) human remains. New negotiations involving bark etchings however are interesting, as there is no clear indication from the article that there is any connection with human remains. Technically this would mean that the British Museum was legally forbidden from returning them, although there is the possibility of some form of loan, as was used with the Kwakwaka’wakw mask returned to Canadian first Nations [2] people.

From:
Melbourne Sun Herald [3]

British Museum may hand back Aboriginal artifacts
AAP
July 22, 2009 12:21pm

THE British Museum has begun talks with Victorian Aboriginals about the possible return of rare bark etchings believed to be more than 150 years old.
The three etchings, estimated to be worth more than $1 million, have been held in London for many years after their collection by Victorian landowner John Hunter Kerr near Lake Boort in the 1850s.

When they were lent to Museum Victoria along with a ceremonial headdress for a temporary display in 2004, members of the Dja Dja Wurrung tribe dramatically seized hold of them and demanded they be returned to the Boort area.

But despite a desperate legal battle the etchings, which depict images of kangaroos and hunting scenes, were sent back to London.

Five years later, members of the Dja Dja Wurrung tribe have met British Museum officials in London to discuss whether the artefacts can be repatriated to their original home, about 250km northwest of Melbourne.

Spokesman Graham Atkinson said while negotiations were ongoing, he was hopeful the etchings would one day be back on home soil and housed in a new cultural centre.

“We got a commitment from the British Museum that they are interested in continuing the dialogue,” Atkinson said.

“No commitment was made to the issue of repatriating the cultural materials at this stage but we think the door is open to work out a sensible repatriation.”

Atkinson said the repatriation of the artworks was as important as the ongoing return of hundreds of Aboriginal remains from various foreign museums and universities.

“The world view is changing, I think, in terms of traditional owner groups regaining their ancestral remains (including artefacts),” he said.

“I think there’s a strong moral and ethical argument that the scientific community has to take into account.”

Atkinson was part of a three-member delegation in London for talks about the etchings and the return of Aboriginal remains held by the Natural History Museum, University College London and Oxford University.

The skulls of three individuals from Victoria’s Gunditjmara community and another from the Dja Dja Wurrung tribe were handed over by University College London on Friday and are due to arrive back in Australia on Friday.

More talks will be held with Oxford and the Natural History Museum about their collections of
remains.

The Natural History Museum has seven skeletal remains belonging to Dja Dja Wurrung and Gunditjmara people, while Oxford retains the remains of a member of another Victorian tribe, the Wathurong.

The remains at the Natural History Museum are believed to have been transferred there for safekeeping from the Royal College of Surgeons while London was being bombed by the Germans during World War II.

Gunditjmara spokesman Tom Day said the museum was yet to make a decision on whether to return the remains, but more talks would be held.

“We said to them that these people are our people and it’s long overdue that we get the chance to bring them home,” he said.

“But I came out of the talks quite confident that the negotiations will work and an agreement can be reached.”

The museum’s director of science Richard Lane said the request for the return of the remains would be considered by the Board of Trustees.

He noted that the trustees had agreed in 2008 to transfer the remains of 17 Tasmanian Aborigines to the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre.