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


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.


  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 here.

  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 the people.

  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 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 "monetary").

  14.  The later purchase or acceptance as donations of these items by your museums may have been legal in the climate of the times—but 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 Exeter Museum.

  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.


  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 way.

  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 matters; and

    —  repatriation of unprovenanced remains and artefacts.

  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, Canberra 1989.

  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 Silence—The Flinders Island Journal of George Augustus Robinson 1830-39. Hobart 1987.

  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.

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