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Glasgow Museums to return Aboriginal artefacts to Australia

Scotland is due to hand back some more Aboriginal artefacts to Australia following negotiations with Glasgow City Council. This follows earlier previous returns [1] made by museums in Edinburgh.

The Herald (Scotland) [2]

Aboriginal remains reclaimed
Phil Miller, Arts Correspondent
10 Dec 2010

Glasgow’s museums are to return the skeletal remains of three indigenous Australians to their home country.

The executive committee of Glasgow City Council yesterday agreed that the remains, including skulls, be returned to the Australian Government, in the latest of a series of repatriations in the last 10 years.

In April this year, the Australian Government formally requested the repatriation, from Glasgow Museums, of three sets of human remains held in the city’s collections.

Fragments from two of the skulls have been tested and have been confirmed as being Aboriginal in origin, and has been linked to separate regions of Australia.

They will now be sent to the repatriation unit at the National Museum and then returned to their communities.

Ellen McAdam, head of museums, said: “We are happy to return them, and we believe it is the right thing to do ethically. Not only do we believe that, but Scots law believes that too.

“It comes as part of a long- standing process of looking at these issues, which dates back to the 1990s, and we consider very carefully any claims for the return of human remains and cultural property.”

The remains consist of two male skulls and a female skeleton.

In 1896 Glasgow Museums purchased 23 Australian Aboriginal artefacts and two human skulls from a Mr James Kerr.

One of the male skulls was part of this purchase, and is believed to come from north Queensland.

The female skeleton is registered as the “skeleton of an Aboriginal” from New South Wales in 1896, and was part of an exchange between Glasgow Museums and the Australian Museum in Sydney.

The second male skull was donated to Glasgow Museums in 1874 by Mr Hugh Brackenridge as part of a collection of 16 artefacts and other natural history specimens.

Some of the remains from the 1896 purchase have already been returned: a skull of the north Queensland Aboriginal female was handed over to Monty Prior, representing North Queensland Aboriginal Communities, at a ceremony in Kelvingrove Art Gallery on October 8, 1990, following a visit from June Lesley Fogarty, director of the Aboriginal Arts Unit, in June 1990.

Yesterday the executive committee voted to approve the repatriation of the remains to the Australian Government.

Glasgow Museums, Ms McAdam said, does not display human remains and stores them, out of respect, separately to other artefacts in its stores.

Ms McAdam said that the remains were acquired in the Victorian era because in those times, scientists and anthropologists thought there was scientific benefit in studying such remains.

Now, she says, that is not a popular belief, and studies of the differences between humans are more at a molecular and DNA level, while it is considered unethical to have any human remains in museum stores.

She said she did not know of any other human remain repatriation requests pending.

Glasgow leads the way in the return of human remains and cultural property, most notably in 1999, when the city returned a sacred Lakota Sioux Ghost Dance shirt to the Sioux tribe of South Dakota, USA.

Two years ago, National Museums Scotland returned four Aboriginal skulls to the Australian Government. A handover ceremony took place when responsibility for the remains was officially transferred from National Museums Scotland to the Australian Government.