Memorandum submitted by the Tasmanian
Aboriginal Centre Inc
1. The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre Inc (TAC)
is a non-profit community based organisation established in 1973
providing legal, health, educational, cultural and welfare services
to Aborigines throughout Tasmania. We are incorporated pursuant
to the laws of Tasmania and have received operating grant funding
from both the Australian Commonwealth and Tasmanian State governments
for over 20 years.
The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre is recognised
by both the Tasmanian and Australian Governments as the appropriate
body to which Tasmanian Aboriginal cultural property and human
remains are returned for disposition.
We welcome this opportunity to recommend to
the British Government courses of action to enable the repatriation
of cultural property removed to the UK during the colonial period.
While our recommendations derive specifically
from our perspective and experiences as Tasmanian Aborigines,
they are also representative of the concerns and problems faced
by other Aboriginal communities and indigenous people worldwide.
2. WE RECOMMEND
1. acknowledge that Aboriginal people have
the primary and sole right to the ownership and control of all
forms of their heritage, including human remains and other cultural
property retained in collections in museums and other institutions
in the United Kingdom;
2. endorse the principle of unconditional
repatriation of all remains and other cultural property as required
by Aboriginal people;
3. ratify existing international instruments
which aim to regulate current trade in cultural property materials;
4. amend existing domestic legislation where
necessary to enable repatriation to proceed, and enact new legislation
where necessary; and
5. encourage and support museums in the
UK to develop policies, protocols and practices which deal constructively
with repatriation, collection management and related issues in
a spirit of forward-lookingco-operation with indigenous peoples.
3. Tasmania is an island to the south of
Australia. Currently it has a population of less than half a million,
of whom roughly 5,000 are Aborigines. When the British landed
in Tasmania in 1803 an estimated 4,000 Aborigines were living
4. From 1803 all Tasmania became a killing
field. In 1829 the colonial government contracted George Augustus
Robinson to round up the remaining Aborigines. On his travels
he noted "There is not a boat harbour along the whole line
of coast but what numbers of the unfortunate natives have been
shot; their bones are to be seen strewed on the ground".
5. Robinson imprisoned a couple of hundred
people in camps, first at Wybalenna on Flinders Island and finally
at Oyster Cove, in the south of mainland Tasmania. By 1860 only
15 of the imprisoned tribal people were left alive, and all were
dead by 1876.
6. About a dozen Aboriginal women escaped
the camps. Most of these had been captured to work for British
sealers living in tiny enclaves in the Furneaux island group off
the north east tip of Tasmania. There they established a cohesive
and self-sufficient family based community from whom most of today's
Aboriginal population descend. Two other Aboriginal women, one
of them the sole survivor of Oyster Cove, were married to European
men on the Tasmanian mainland; their families complete our community.
None of the Aboriginal men survived.
7. Much of the Tasmanian human remains and
cultural property material in Britain comes from the private collection
of George Augustus Robinson. After his death, Barnard Davis acquired
the material, now widely dispersed in British museums.
8. Robinson often notes Aborigines making
him gifts of spears, waddies, necklaces and baskets to try to
please and placate him; one instance"Queen Adelaide
I brought me a necklace of shells ... which I refused to show
my great displeasure at her conduct." (7 June 1837). Many
necklaces were also sold at the "markets" which Robinson
conducted at Wybalenna as part of his missionary scheme to Europeanise
9. Robinson persuaded Aborigines to give
him the bones of their dead relatives which they carried as talismans
against sickness and death. One instance was on 1 June 1838: "[When
viewing the corpse of a woman who had died that morning] I asked
G Robinson [Kolebuner] for an underjaw of a native which hung
suspended to his throat. He appeared reluctant to part with it
and said it belonged to his wife Agnes [Mealettarner] and he would
ask her consent . . . I spoke to her myself. She replied `what
am I to do when I am monartyer [sick]?'. I said, `never mind,
it is no use in such cases'."
10. Furthermore, as the people died in the
camps, Robinson, who had been given the title "Protector
of the Aborigines", cut up their bodies to distribute among
his friends, military officers and representatives of the Crown.
To give a few examples of his activities: Robinson reports that
on his first meeting with Governor and Lady Franklin at Wybalenna
in January 1838 they ". . . solicited me for curiosities,
also the skull of an aboriginal." The Governor's secretary
Captain Maconochie also asked him for a skull. The day after Mitaluraparitja
died of pneumonia in February 1838 at Wybalenna, the surgeon cut
off his head for Robinson to have it "masticated" and
sent to Maconochie. Robinson later "etained" the cranium
of Pintawtawa who died in August 1838 and sent it to Lady Franklin
in February 1839. Skull No 18.104.22.168 in the Natural History Museum's
Tasmanian collection is labelled "Lady Franklin".
11. The Natural History Museum also retains
one of only two full skeletons of tribal Tasmanian Aborigines
known to still exist. These skeletons were among five "obtained"
from the Curator of Hobart Museum between 1870 and 1875. These
skeletons, one of them a named person, were dug up from the graveyard
at Wybalenna. The Tasmanian museums in Hobart and Launceston were
both well stocked with Aboriginal remains from Wybalenna and Oyster
Cove, comprising a large collection of remains dug up from the
burial ground at Oyster Cove by the prestigious Dr Crowther (who
later became Premier of Tasmania).
12. The circumstances in which Tasmanian
skeletal material and cultural artefacts were acquired parallels
those in mainland Australia (see submission made to this inquiry
by the Foundation for Aboriginal and Islander Research Action
(FAIRA), paras 5 & 6), and also reflect the situation generally
whereby such materials have been acquired from other indigenous
peoples during the heyday of British imperialism.
13. Robinson was only one of many collectors
who preyed upon the people and despoiled both their habitats and
their burial places. In all cases, Tasmanian materials were acquired
either by coercing vulnerable and oppressed people, or by theft
and looting of the dead, these behaviours deemed justified by
the overriding "right" of conquest. The only difference
between those circumstances and the Holocaust situation is the
nature of the materials plundered, and the type of value they
were perceived to have (ie "scientific" rather than
14. The later purchase or acceptance as
donations of these items by your museums may have been legal in
the climate of the timesbut was it moral? How legitimate
can it be to continue to retain the material? Times have changed,
and with them the acknowledged status of indigenous people and
our rights to our heritage. Postcolonial ethical analyses have
led to altered attitudes, now reflected in new laws enacted by
countries with indigenous populations.
15. Other submissions to this inquiry have
shown the concern of British antiquarians and others that the
illicit export of archaeological and antiquarian material from
Britain results in a damaging loss of material important to the
understanding of your history and culture. The very fact that
this inquiry is operating as an attempt to ascertain the extent
of this trade and investigate options for curtailing it, indicates
strong feeling in Britain that ownership and control of one's
cultural heritage is a fundamental human right, and the removal
of heritage is detrimental to national identity and cultural development,
not to mention associated economic and other benefits.
16. In our case, apart from a number of
stone tools and the necklace and bracelet returned from Exeter's
collection, all the surviving products of our early heritage are
still in museums. When our delegation visited London in 1997,
it was only the second time that twentieth century Aborigines
from Tasmania have seen the relics of our dead, for instance,
or the canoe models made by our tribal people. Aborigines do not
have the means to visit the world's museums to see objects that
belong to us, but scholars and scientists can have open access,
without our approval or knowledge.
17. The Tasmanian Aboriginal community has
campaigned for over 25 years to have human remains returned from
museums both within Australia and overseas. Since 1994 we have
extended our campaign to seek the repatriation also of cultural
property items. We have initiated and maintained correspondence
with over 50 museums and institutions, made personal visits where
possible, and in recent years made some approaches to museums
and governments through various Australian Government embassies
in overseas countries.
18. Australian museums have repatriated
human remains since the late 1970s (see Annex 1), and lately some
hair samples. Most Australian museums now have a policy to return
all Aboriginal human remains on request. Also, Australian museums
now widely accept that items which are secret/sacred in nature
(mostly items used in restricted religious rituals) should be
returned to identified owners. However, they show continuing reluctance
to return cultural property.
19. Our successes with overseas museums
are very modest: in 1997 Tasmanian human remains were returned
by one museum in Sweden and one in New Zealand; and in the UK,
by Edinburgh University (skulls, 1991; hair samples, 1997) and
by the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin (a head preserved in
whiskey in a bottle, 1991). Two museums have returned cultural
material (Hawkes Bay, NZ, 1997; Exeter UK, 1997).
20. Our most recent records show that Tasmanian
Aboriginal cultural property is still held in at least 37 overseas
museums and other institutions. 16 of these we definitely know
hold Tasmanian Aboriginal human remains.
21. Eleven museums in Britain still hold
Tasmanian cultural property collections, six of them with human
remains (see Annex 2). All refuse to return the material citing
mainly legislative constraints and their philosophy of museums
as the legitimate and solely responsible custodians of the whole
world's cultural heritage. Other factors influencing their refusals
are: source of the request (museum, family, other), nature of
the artefact, means by which the museum acquired it, any direct
links with living people, and ultimate destination if returned.
We attempt to deal with each of these factors on a case by case
basis; for instance, the Tasmanian Museum wrote to Exeter on our
behalf: "You could feel assured that optimal museum standards
can be met for the long term preservation and security of the
[necklace and bracelet]."
22. Our claim is simply this: the Aboriginal
people of Tasmania has the primary and sole right to the ownership
and control of all aspects of our heritage, including human remains
and other cultural property retained in collections in museums
and other institutions in the United Kingdom. We solicit the unconditional
return of all remains and other cultural property as required
by Aboriginal people.
23. Cultural property items are to Aboriginal
people an important spiritual and cultural link with our past.
The disruption of that past makes contemporary Aborigines even
more vitally conscious of our responsibilities to both past and
future generations. We aim to restore all such materials to their
proper Aboriginal custodianship to ensure our future cultural
development, to allow access by our community, and to store them
in appropriate conditions to protect and preserve our heritage.
24. As a matter of religion and practice
any human remains are automatically returned to their original
tribal lands and their people. The whole point of reclaiming such
remains is so we are able at last to put to rest in a traditional
ceremony conducted by Aboriginal people the spirits of our ancestors
who were disinterred from burial grounds or killed in the bush.
Australian law through the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Heritage Protection Act 1984 requires the return of Aboriginal
remains to the appropriate Aboriginal community.
25. We will not accept conditions imposed
by museums in Britain or anyone else which interfere with the
right of Aborigines to deal appropriately with our dead.
26. These principles are enshrined in Articles
12 and 13 of the United Nations Draft Declaration on the Rights
of Indigenous Peoples, currently in the process of being developed
by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human
Rights. These state:
27. Article 12
"Indigenous peoples have the right to practise
and revitalise their cultural traditions and customs. This includes
the right to maintain, protect and develop the past, present and
future manifestations of their cultures, such as archaeological
and historical sites, artefacts, designs, ceremonies, technologies,
and visual and performing arts and literature, as well as the
right to restitution of cultural, intellectual, religious and
spiritual property taken without their free and informed consent
or in violation of their laws, traditions and customs."
28. Article 13
Indigenous peoples have the right to manifest,
practise, develop and teach their spiritual and religious traditions,
customs and ceremonies; the right to maintain, protect, and have
access in privacy to their religious and cultural sites; the right
to the use and control of ceremonial objects; and the right to
the repatriation of human remains. States shall take effective
measures, in conjunction with the indigenous peoples concerned,
to ensure that indigenous sacred places, including burial sites,
be preserved, respected and protected.
29. Our experience has been that museums
in countries with indigenous populations have been the most prompt
and courteous in response to our repatriation requests, and in
being prepared to discuss and negotiate positive outcomes (Sweden,
Canada, Hawaii, America, New Zealand, South Africa). As Moira
Simpson noted in the Museum Journal, October 1997, cultural property
rights are part of broader issues such as land rights and a whole
range of human rights these countries are having to try to resolve
with "their" indigenous peoples. These countries have
been forced to acknowledge that ownership and control of cultural
heritage are an essential element for the social, psychological,
and economic wellbeing of indigenous peoples, as it is for all
peoples, and where historical events have dispossessed peoples
of any parts of their heritage, it is a basic human right that
they be restored.
30. Such shifts in consciousness are reflected
in some recent legislation enacted as a result of lobbying by
indigenous groups. In Australia, the Native Title Act 1993 and
the Wik decision enable Aborigines to make claims to areas of
land. The Coroners Act 1995 Tas gives control of newly uncovered
Aboriginal remains to the Aboriginal community instead of to the
Coroner. Tasmania is the first state according this right to Aborigines.
Principles have been drafted to underly proposed legislation to
protect indigenous intellectual and cultural property rights within
Australia. The Tasmanian Living Marine Resources Bill 1995 allows
Aborigines the right to collect, without license, traditional
marine resources and specifically the shells used to make the
same necklaces as those collected by Robinson and returned by
31. In Europe and Britain however no such
pressures are consistently brought to bear from indigenous groups
within the country. We infer from the near blanket refusals from
British museums in particular a huge lack of understanding, bordering
on contempt, for the rights and reasons of Aborigines.
32. We acknowledge that neither the 1970
UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the
Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Cultural Property nor the
1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Return of Stolen or Illegally Exported
Cultural Objects offer any retrospective provision for materials
removed from their places of origin during the colonial era.
33. Nonetheless, we urge the British Government
to review its objections to ratifying both Conventions. Britain's
endorsement of these conventions would be an important first step
in aligning Britain with the improved international moral climate
which acknowledges and seeks to protect the cultural property
rights of individual nations and peoples.
34. In this context we also urge the British
Government to consider the provision of the draft United Nations
Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, as a vehicle
for understanding the perspective of indigenous peoples and to
gain a better understanding of our inherent rights as a basis
for our claims.
UK DOMESTIC LEGISLATIONBRITISH
35. We recommend the British Government
review existing domestic legislation which inhibits the repatriation
of cultural property, and amend where necessary or reinterpret
such legislation to enable repatriation to proceed.
36. We specifically urge such review and
amendment of the British Museums Act 1963.
37. We also ask the British Government to
consider the possibility that there may already exist within the
provisions of the Act opportunities for Museum Trustees to exercise
their judgement to establish criteria allowing objects to be removed
from the Museum.
38. Section 5 (1) (c) of the 1963 Act provides
that the British Museum may "sell, exchange, give away or
otherwise dispose of any object vested in them and comprised in
their collection if . . . in the opinion of the Trustees the object
is unfit to be retained in the collections of the Museum . . .
and can be disposed of without detriment to the interests of students."
39. Another clause (Section 5(2)) deals
with physical unfitness (damage, physical deterioration, pest
infestation), so this is not what is meant by "unfit"
in Section 5 (1) (c).
40. "Unfit to be retained" is
not defined in the Act and no criteria is suggested other than
it rests on the subjective judgement of Trustees. We understand
a similar clause in the National Heritage Act 1983 applies to
the Victoria and Albert Museum"an object . . . unsuitable
for retention" and this statute also has a separate clause
for physical unfitness. Pitt Rivers Museum showed the way by acknowledging
they returned skeletal material to Aborigines because it was not
"properly held by this museum". (Pitt Rivers returned
a pickled penis in a bottle to Australia, and we brought a head
preserved in whiskey back to Tasmania from Dublin. Are such remains
of humanity "fit" to be retained?)
41. So it appears that even under the current
terms of the Act, repatriation is not impossible if in fact trustees
were inclined to interpret "unfit" in an appropriate
42. And in reality, what "detriment
to the interests of students" would the return of Tasmanian
material represent? Tasmanian material is of such small quantity
and no longer of specific interest even to the physical scientists
who generated its collection in the first place. Times have changed.
Measuring heads and stone tools to see how closely one is related
to the ape is passe. The latest fashion in researching Aborigines
is the US Defence Department's Human Genome Project, which maps
different racial genes. Pitt Rivers' Dr Schuyler Jones admitted
in the British press in 1990 when returning skulls to Australia
that "Quite simply, we did not need the material".
43. As well, Section 5 (1) (a) of the 1963
Act provides that the British Museum may "sell, exchange,
give away or otherwise dispose of any object vested in them and
comprised in their collection if . . . the object is a duplicate
of another such object".
44. A range of contemporary options could
satisfy this condition from replicas produced by indigenous artisans
as part of programmes of constructive cross cultural exchanges,
to images of objects displayed on the Internet (with appropriate
security measures in place). An earlier submission to this inquiry
made the salient point that more of museums' clientele have access
to the Internet than do Aborigines in Australia, to whom the actual
objects belong. It is also a fact of contemporary heritage studies
that archaeologists today deal with the knowledge derived from
the object, and no longer require the thing itself. In the case
of Tasmanian material, it has certainly been held for long enough
to extract all desired data.
45. We urge the British Government to also
review the Companies Act 1985, cited by Horniman Museum as preventing
it from disposing of material, and any other domestic legislation
which curtails the capacity of museums and other institutions
to repatriate materials from their collections.
46. We urge the British Government to encourage
and support museums in the UK to develop policies, protocols and
practices which deal constructively with repatriation, collection
management and related issues in a spirit of forward looking co-operation
with indigenous people.
47. Many practical matters involved in both
developing and implementing policies for repatriation and collection
management need to be identified and resolved. For instance, FAIRA,
an Aboriginal organisation which undertakes research into Aboriginal
material in British institutions on behalf of Aboriginal communities,
reports continuing difficulties in gaining access to both collections
and information about collections. Many of the issues are complicated
and contentious. Such initiatives as the Museums Association's
seminars and the MCG Restitution and Repatriation Guidelines report
are valuable first steps in the policy forming process. However,
for any process to be authentic and effective it must involve
Aboriginal and other indigenous groups in developing realistic
guidelines and practices which lead to just outcomes and improved
relations between museums and indigenous peoples.
48. Issues which require such collaborative
consideration include, but are not restricted to:
access to collections and information
about collections by Aboriginal people;
protocols for storage, display and
access by scholars and others;
the establishment of an independent
body in the UK to deal with all repatriation and cultural property
repatriation of unprovenanced remains
49. We thank you for the opportunity today
to present our submission. We would be happy to provide any further
information that may be helpful.
Cooper, Carol: Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander Collections in Overseas Museums. Aboriginal Studies Press,
Daes, E. Protection of the Heritage of Indigenous
People, report by the Special Rapporteur of the Subcommission
on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities,
UN Study Series 1997.
Greenfield, Jeanette: The Return of Cultural
Treasures. Cambridge University Press, 1989.
The Pitt Rivers Museum. A Souvenir Guide to
the Collections, 1993. p 28.
Plomley, NJB (ed): A List of Tasmanian Aboriginal
Material in Collections in Europe. Records of the Queen Victoria
Museum, Launceston, Tas 1961.
Plomley NJB (ed): Friendly Mission: The Tasmanian
Journals and Papers of George Augustus Robinson, 1829-34. Tasmanian
Historical Research Association, NSW 1966.
Plomley, NJB (ed): Weep in SilenceThe
Flinders Island Journal of George Augustus Robinson 1830-39. Hobart
Sculthorpe, Gaye, The Ethnographic Collection
of George Augustus Robinson. Memoirs of the Museum of Victoria.
No. 1. January 1990.
Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre. Free exchange or
a captive culture? The Tasmanian Aboriginal perspective on museums
and repatriation. Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre Inc. Hobart, 1998.