Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Mr Martin Wyness

  Thank you for our conversation on the telephone the other day, and for giving me this opportunity to say a few words to yourselves about the ancestors remains that are held in boxes in our museums.

  I first felt my ancestors when I was little boy. It was whilst playing lazily in an old tree. It was warm and the bark smelt safe and familiar. A feeling came over me, that I was not alone. I knew instinctively that I was experiencing something important. Of course I did not know then it was my ancestors. It was not till much later that I realised how much they meant, not only to me but also to millions of others.

  Later, with difficulty I learned to write. The teacher told me that one day I would write all sorts of important things. She never prepared me for this letter though. She never explained that one day I would be writing to people that I had never met, pleading with them for the peace of all those who have been removed from the earth. It is a strange thing to have to do, and speaks many things about modern life.

  I have already written to you on how we took other cultures human remains back here to museum basements, to a kind of limbo in a box. We all know that this is not right and perhaps something will be done soon to return those ancestors home again.

  In those same basements are many thousands of our own ancestors, their fate less certain and their limbo perhaps seen as permanent. One curator told me that he too was descended from these shores and as such he has a right to collect any ancestors' remains from here, that they are his as well. Our difference is that I do not wish to own those remains, only to respect them. How can one man own the bones of another? One day will an institution have the legal ownership of my bones, of your bones?

  A Native American once said something that I badly translate here "the difference between a white man and myself is that the white man carries his laws in courts, whilst the Indian carries his around in his heart". The fate of these ancestors is one such example of a law that should be in all our hearts. We know that museums have the legal ownership of many human remains, yet, deep down we also know that this is not possible, that they belong with the earth. I therefore ask this Committee to consider guidelines for the eventual return of all human remains to the ground.

March 2000

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