Essay: It belong to them, let’s give it back

I submitted this essay for assessment (I got a HD) in the first trimester of last year.  It’s relevant to a twitter conversation so I’m posting it here as submitted.  All errors are mine.

Essay question:

Please research and critically discuss examples of the ways in which museums and/or governments are responding to the issue of repatriation. Do you think they are effectively addressing some of the problems of the past?

Introduction

After the settlement of Australia by the British in 1788, the collection of Indigenous Australian remains and objects began with collected items ending up in both Australian and international museums, and in private collections.  The acquisition of these remains and objects occurred in circumstances that today would be seen as illegal (Chamberlain 2005).  Remains and objects were largely collected “to preserve evidence of cultures that appeared to be disappearing” (Simpson 2009, p. 128), and to support a ‘scientific’ view that Indigenous Australians were “deeply inferior” (Fforde 2009, p. 42) to Europeans.  This essay will examine two case studies of the returns of remains to Indigenous Australian communities, the governmental and institutional responses to repatriation of remains and objects, and how repatriation of remains and artefacts addresses problems of the past.

The Return of Tasmanian Ash Bundles

In March 2006, the British Museum decided to return two Tasmanian cremation ash bundles to the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (British Museum 2006a).  These ash bundles had been stolen by George Augustus Robinson in the 1800s and eventually donated to the British Museum in 1882 (British Museum 2006b, Material Religion 2007).  The passing of the Human Tissue Act in the United Kingdom in 2004 and the British Museum developing their policy on human remains in 2005 facilitated this return (British Museum 2006a, Material Religion 2007).

The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre had been requesting the return of these items since 1985, and the British Museum initially claimed that they were unable to agree to the request as they did not have the power to de-accession objects in their collection (British Museum 2006b).  The return of the ash bundles involved an assessment that the ash bundles had been “well documented, published, studied and recorded” (British Museum 2006b, p. 1) and that returning the ash bundles would “not lead to any loss of existing information” or “offer any further significant information in the future” (Material Religion 2007, p. 157).

The British Museum (2006b, p. 2) acknowledged that for the Tasmanian Aboriginal community that the existence of the ash bundles and human remains in the museum “embodies all the pain of dispossession and genocide which they experience on reflecting on their colonial history”.

The Return of Remains from Edinburgh University to the Ngarrindjeri Nation, South Australia

The Edinburgh University adopted a pro-repatriation policy regarding human remains in 1990, after long campaigning by Australian Indigenous groups (Fforde 2009).  The remains that the Edinburgh University held were from all over Australia, but the majority of them were from the Ngarrindjeri people of South Australia (Fforde 2009).  The remains of the Ngarrindjeri people had been collected by William Ramsey Smith in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Elmslie and Nance 1988).  Ramsey Smith was Adelaide’s “coroner, inspector of anatomy and chairman of the Central Board of Health” (Elmslie and Nance 1988) at the time and he sent the remains to Edinburgh University (Scobie 2009). Although the remains have been returned to the Ngarrindjeri people via the Repatriation Unit of the National Museum of Australia, the Ngarrindjeri people have not had the funding to rebury all of their ancestors (Fforde 2009, Scobie 2009).

The Ngarrindjeri people have also had remains returned to them from the Australian Museum in Sydney, Museum Victoria and the Royal College of Surgeons in London (National Museum Australia 2003, The Wire 2004), and have reported that the return of their ancestors is healing damage of the past (Scobie 2009)

The return of human remains

Indigenous Australian groups have been requesting from overseas and Australian museums the return of the human remains of their ancestors and objects that were stolen or taken from them.  As evidenced above, the return of human remains from Australian and British institutions has been facilitated by the UK Human Tissue Act and by institutions voluntarily returning remains.  This has not meant that all institutions in the UK have returned remains, or that all remains repatriated to Australia have been returned to Indigenous groups.

The Advisory Committee for Indigenous Repatriation (2014) recommended that for those remains that are returned to Australia without further provenance, that they be housed in a National Resting Place.  Where remains are only provenanced to states or territories, the remains are kept in one of the eight museums funded for this purpose, so that the remains are closer to home and that further identifying work can be undertaken to identify which Nation they came from (Advisory Committee for Indigenous Repatriation 2014).

The Australian Government’s position on the repatriation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander remains is that they should be returned unconditionally and voluntarily, and with the collaboration of the relevant peoples (Advisory Committee for Indigenous Repatriation 2014). However, some institutions in the United Kingdom are very reluctant to return remains to Australia.  The Natural History Museum, for example, has previously claimed that they cannot return remains if they those remains will be reburied, or in some cases buried for the first time, because their researchers will lose access to the remains for further scientific examination (Turnbull 2007).  Turnbull (2007) argues that as most of the Indigenous Australian remains held by institutions outside Australia are less than 500 years old, the scientific information that can be gathered from the remains could be gathered from their descendants and that there is no need to retain the remains in museums and institutions.

The return of objects

The Australian Government has stated that they seek “the return of secret sacred objects only from within Australia” (Australian Government Department of Communications and the Arts 2013, p. 6), and not from overseas despite the fact that these objects were often stolen, looted or obtained through “the gross inequality of power” (Besterman 2009, p. 109).  Indigenous Australians who seek the return of artefacts held in institutions outside Australia have to negotiate the return on their own, and generally institutions are not willing or able to return objects (Reppas 2007).

In 2002, Directors at eighteen of the largest museums in the world signed a statement taking a stand against the repatriation of objects in their collections (Reppas 2007).  The museums argued that objects in their collection “find value in their juxtaposition with other objects” (Gorman 2006, p. 79) and that “the privileged position of non-Western objects and cultures within contemporary knowledge systems would not have been achieved were it not for the position of acquired objects within the great museum” (Gorman 2006, p. 79).  These museums claim that current ethical codes or laws should not be applied to their historical acquisition processes, and that their current collections have added to the national heritage of the countries in which they are based (Gorman 2006).  In making these statements, these museums disregard the effects of their previous acquisition policies on those peoples who have been negatively affected by colonialism, claiming that removal of items from their collections would be more harmful than past practices.

The British Museum cannot de-accession objects in their collection after a High Court ruling in 2005 which prohibited the museum returning drawings looted by the Nazis to the rightful heirs, unless those objects are duplicates or useless (Reppas 2007).  The High Court ruled that more recent Acts of Parliament overtook the UK Government’s previous adoption of resolutions and conventions that spoke to the return of objects to people and nations who had been dispossessed of them (Reppas 2007).  Clearly the UK Government is afraid, as per Prime Minister David Cameron’s comment in 2010 that “If you say yes to one [request], you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty” (Associated Press 2016).

Consequently, regardless of how the British Museum and other UK Government funded museum institutions obtained the objects in their collection, they cannot return them to their rightful owners.  This is contrary to the International Council of Museums’ (ICOM) Code of Ethics for Museums (2013, p. 10) which states:

  1. 2 Return of Cultural Property

Museums should be prepared to initiate dialogues for the return of cultural property to a country or people of origin. This should be undertaken in an impartial manner, based on scientific, professional and humanitarian principles as well as applicable local, national and international legislation, in preference to action at a governmental or political level.

  1. 3 Restitution of Cultural Property

When a country or people of origin seeks the restitution of an object or specimen that can be demonstrated to have been exported or otherwise transferred in violation of the principles of international and national conventions, and shown to be part of that country’s or people’s cultural or natural heritage, the museum concerned should, if legally free to do so, take prompt and responsible steps to cooperate in its return.

ICOM’s Code of Ethics is a voluntary set of principles for museums and in this case it is not the museum that is preventing the return of stolen or looted objects but the UK Government, their legislation and willingness to take the matter to court if a museum attempted to return an object.

In 2013 the Australian Government enacted the Protection of Cultural Objects on Loan Act 2013 (Cth) to prevent museums and institutions where objects are being loaned to losing “ownership, physical possession, custody or control of the objects because of:

  • legal proceedings in Australian or foreign courts;
  • the exercise of certain powers (such as powers of seizure) under Commonwealth, State and Territory laws; or
  • the operation of such laws.” (Explanatory Memorandum)

This legislation was created after the Dja Dja Wurrung Native Title Group obtained an emergency declaration under Australian heritage protection laws to stop the return of bark etchings which had been on loan from the British Museum and the Royal Botanic Gardens in Surrey in 2004 (Fray 2004, Daley 2015).  The etchings were returned to the United Kingdom after the court case to retain them was unsuccessful (Fitzsimmons 2015).

The legislation has meant that the British Museum and other institutions are willing to loan Indigenous Australian objects, and other objects and artworks, to Australian museums and institutions (Daley 2015).  On one hand, it means that Indigenous Australians can reconnect with their culture but on the other, it is a reminder that these objects are held outside Australia and that they were taken from them through theft, force or coercion (Daley 2015).

Addressing the problems of the past

While the return of remains from museums and institutions around the world have been welcomed by Indigenous Australians and the Australian Government, issues remain regarding the return of objects from museum collections.  Tom Trevorrow, the chairman of the Ngarrindjeri Heritage Committee, who has worked to for the return his ancestors’ remains stated that “healing is beginning” (Scobie 2009) now that his ancestors are back on their country.  Fforde (2009, p. 47) states that “repatriation is fundamentally about facilitating the rights of a source community to decide the future of their ancestors’ remains”.  Indigenous Australians whose ancestors have been returned after removal “gain control over their history and culture” and “some dignity is restored” (Besterman 2009, p. 109).

The return of remains to Indigenous Australians rectifies some of the past wrongs against them and their ancestors and it is both a spiritual and cultural necessity as it assists in the preservation of their way of life (Chamberlain 2005).  Chamberlain (2005, p. 349) also argues that the failure by overseas institutions to return objects “could amount to a denial of such peoples’ right to maintain their culture or to manifest their religion”.  However, one option available to museums who are unable or unwilling to return objects to their rightful owners, is to involve the traditional owners of the objects in how those objects are displayed and interpreted which would give the traditional owners a sense of control over those objects (Davies 2004, Gorman 2006).

The Australian Government’s commitment to the repatriation of Indigenous Australian remains and the repatriation of secret-sacred objects held in Australian museums supports Indigenous Australians connection and ownership of their heritage (Advisory Committee for Indigenous Repatriation 2014, Australian Museum 2007).  Returning objects to the originating Nation or peoples goes a long way to assist in rebuilding identity and can help Indigenous Australian cultural renewal through knowledge transmission (Roehrenbeck 2010, Simpson 2009).  Simpson (2009, p. 122) writes that “the repatriation of ceremonial materials from museums may be … linked to strategies to aid recovery from post-colonial trauma, and … to contribute to indigenous health and well-being.”

Conclusion

Although some museums and institutions are repatriating Indigenous Australian remains to their descendants and objects to their traditional owners, there are still museums and institutions who have not done so, or who are unable to do so due to governmental regulation.  The return of remains and objects to Indigenous Australians is highly important to them, and adds to the healing of the ongoing trauma of colonialism.  In the future when museums and institutions that are currently unable to return objects have those obstacles facing them removed, revisiting how this affects Australia’s Indigenous population, what objects are sought, and whether the objects are preserved or used will add to the understanding of the importance of repatriation.

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