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


Memorandum submitted by the Australian Government


  1.  The Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs makes this submission on behalf of the Australian Government. The submission outlines Australian Government policy on the repatriation of the remains of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people ("indigenous human remains"). It has regard to the Australian Government's appreciation of the efforts already made by the British Government and institutions in relation to assisting the return of human remains of significance to Australian indigenous communities.

  2.  During the period of European settlement of Australia, indigenous human remains were collected as objects of curiosity and for the purpose of scientific study. Remains were collected from a variety of contexts, such as burial sites, massacre sites and hospital morgues. Most of these remains became a part of collections in museums, universities and other institutions either in Australia or overseas (mostly in Britain and Europe). In Australia the term "repatriation of indigenous human remains" refers to their return both from overseas and from within the country.

  3.  The treatment of indigenous human remains historically is a poignant reminder of instances of harsh treatment of indigenous Australians as a consequence of European settlement. Therefore, the issue of the return of these remains to their traditional custodians and places of rest is extremely important to indigenous people and is seen by many as a means of addressing past injustices. The cultural and historic significance of indigenous human remains combined with personal feelings of attachment to ancestral remains underpins the sensitivity of this issue to indigenous people. On the return of ancestral remains a community can satisfy its spiritual needs and the cultural imperative to see that the dead have been treated with due respect and ceremony. In many cases the remains are buried according to custom in a place designated by the community.

  4.  Given its particular significance, the Australian Government sees the issue of repatriation of indigenous human remains as distinct from the broader issue of the repatriation of cultural property. This submission, therefore, focuses on the issue of repatriation of indigenous human remains and makes no comment or any representation in relation to cultural property more generally.


  5.  In the past, museums in Australia, as in Britain and Europe, have based their acquisition, collection management and research policies on scientific values with little acknowledgement of the social and cultural implications for indigenous peoples. Over the past 20 years, due in large part to the efforts of indigenous communities, many museums in Australia have changed their attitude to how they deal with indigenous human remains. Indeed, many have become partners with indigenous people in dealing with remains in collections.

  6.  The Australian Government supports the view that indigenous people have the primary interest in the protection, safekeeping and return of human remains relating to their community. Progress has been made in recent years on identification, consultation protocols and resolution of issues such as establishing the nature and strength of the relationship between human remains and affected indigenous communities and determining where remains are held and on what conditions. The Commonwealth government has provided funding to assist communities in the repatriation of ancestral remains and for the documentation and identification of unprovenanced ancestral remains. However, there are still 7,200 indigenous human remains held in museums around Australia (5,500 whose origins are known).

  7.  Australian museums recognise their responsibility in this area. Most now have policies and programmes that acknowledge that indigenous people have the right to decide what will happen to human remains relating to their community. Nevertheless, establishing the interest for (and facilitating) return is not an easy process. Extensive research with the assistance of appropriate experts can be required to identify the origin of remains. Even when the origin has been established, the relevant community has to be identified and informed; then there is a process of discussion with the community over what to do with the remains. Often there can be a long delay before a decision is made. The outcome may be the repatriation of the remains or the community may ultimately decide to leave the remains within the museum.

  8.  Many museums in Australia are controlled by state governments under state legislation, not by the federal government; therefore Australia has needed to adopt an intergovernmental approach. In February 1998, the Australian Cultural Ministers Council endorsed a national approach set out in the Strategic Plan for the Return of Indigenous Ancestral Remains. The plan represents a collaborative effort between the Federal and State/Territory governments and the museums sector to resolve the issues surrounding collections of ancestral remains. It focuses on government funded museums, and does not apply to holdings overseas. There are three main objectives of the strategic plan. These are:

    —  identification, where possible, of the origins of ancestral remains held in museums;

    —  notification of all communities who have ancestral remains held in museums; and

    —  repatriation arranged where culturally appropriate and when requested.

  9.  Museums Australia (formerly the Council of Australian Museum Associations) is Australia's peak museums' representative body. The Previous Possessions, New Obligations policy launched in October 1996 sets out a comprehensive set of guidelines for museums to use in developing their own policies in relation to indigenous collections. In relation to human remains the policy gives primacy to indigenous community decision-making in relation to storage, return, access and research.

  10.  The Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (DCITA) has responsibility for the protection and return of cultural property within Australia, including the return of indigenous human remains through its administration of the Return of Indigenous Cultural Property programme.

  11.  The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 provides for the designation of prescribed authorities where the Minister responsible for the administration of the Act may lodge for safe keeping remains that have been delivered to him. This allows for work to be carried out to determine the origin of remains, or in the case of unprovenanced remains, for their long-term protection. The National Museum of Australia (NMA) is the sole "prescribed authority" under the provisions of the Act. This process involves providing communities with detailed information about the relevant remains held by the museum and consulting with them about arrangements for the physical return of the remains. The museum ensures that the human remains are securely stored and that there are strict guidelines regarding access.

  12.  The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) also funds programmes to ensure that holding institutions, such as museums and universities can prepare adequate documentation and undertake community consultation for the return of indigenous human remains. ATSIC also has programmes to assist communities who request the return of indigenous human remains and to help communities respond to offers from overseas museums and other holding institutions to return indigenous human remains.

  13.  Australian museums have returned indigenous remains to their country of origin. For example, four Maori skulls were recently returned from the South Australia Museum to New Zealand. Discussions are currently underway for further repatriation.


  14.  It is likely that the remains of many hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals are held in Britain, although it is difficult to quantify precisely. A study by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in 1989 is the only available public record for remains held in Britain. That study revealed that there are many museum collections in relation to which information was simply not available. In some cases documentation is so poor that the museums themselves do not know what they hold.

  15.  The University of Edinburgh has probably held the largest collection of indigenous human remains in Britain. ATSIC is currently finalising arrangements for the second and final stage of repatriating this collection, having completed the first stage of repatriation in 1991 (see details below). ATSIC has funded documentation of the collection to be repatriated in the second stage and a catalogue was completed in November 1999.

  16.  The Australian Government understands that indigenous human remains are also known to be held in the British Museum of Mankind, the British Museum of Natural History, Cambridge University, the Hunterian Museum, Horniman Museum, Royal Scottish Museum and at Oxford University. The Government understands that at least seven other museums may hold remains but details are not known.


  17.  The Australian Government is aware that Britain has in place legislation and policies aimed to ensure the integrity of Britain's cultural property. It is understood that certain institutions directly funded by the British Government cannot legally de-accession items in their collection. This prohibition applies for example to the Museum of Natural History. This means that cultural items, including human remains, cannot be unconditionally returned to Australia from these institutions unless there is legislative change. The Australian Government understands that a long-term ("permanent") loan of the material or other conditional return might be permitted, but that such a process would be unacceptable to indigenous people because it acknowledges someone else as the "owner" and may limit their options for dealing with the remains. Other institutions are not subject to these legislative constraints. Many museums also have a policy that any items returned must be properly conserved and remain accessible for research. Many institutions also only allow access to remains or information about remains in their collections to scientific researchers.

  18.  Indigenous leaders and organisations have lobbied the British Government and various institutions on repatriation issues and there have been representations by Australian officials. Recently, the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Reconciliation, the Hon Philip Ruddock, met with the British Minister for Culture, Media and Sport, the Hon Alan Howarth, at which time they agreed to co-operatively seek a way of furthering the issue. There have also been recent meetings at officials' level involving the British Natural History Museum.

  19.  As a result of these communications, the Australian Government understands that there is an increasing willingness in Britain to treat the issue of repatriation of indigenous human remains separately to the issue of repatriation of artefacts. In its recent publication, Restitution and Repatriation: Guidelines for good practice, the Museums and Galleries Commission (MGC) outlines many procedures for responding to indigenous people's requests. In addition, the Museum Ethnographers' Group has produced Guidelines on the Management of Human Remains concerning the storage, display and interpretation of human remains in collections in Britain. The Australian Government would support further consideration of these procedures and their implementation where appropriate.

  20.  The Natural History Museum (NHM) has a programme to fully catalogue indigenous remains in its collection, with Australia as the highest priority group. The NHM announced in May 2000, that a report on Australian indigenous remains in its collection was almost complete. The Director of the Museum also indicated that, subject to changes in legislation, it might return some Australian indigenous human remains from its collection on the condition that they be properly conserved and remain accessible for scientific research.


  21.  The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) is the key functional agency for the return from overseas of indigenous human remains. Under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Act (1989), ATSIC has a broad power to take such reasonable action as it thinks necessary to protect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural material and information. Other government authorities routinely consult ATSIC on this subject. ATSIC, in conjunction with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), carries out the federal government's responsibilities for the return of significant indigenous human remains from overseas collecting institutions.

  22.  Some indigenous leaders have preferred to negotiate directly with overseas institutions. Indigenous leaders have lobbied museums, colleges and senior officials in Britain and elsewhere in Europe to have human remains returned to their respective communities. For example, the Foundation for Aboriginal and Islander Research Action (FAIRA), through grants from the Australian Government, has been active in repatriation issues for over 20 years. FAIRA has undertaken research to document and catalogue indigenous human remains held in British and European institutions and assisted indigenous communities with repatriation issues.

  23.  The process for the repatriation of Australian indigenous human remains from overseas can include:

    —  Indigenous organisations, either directly or through consultants, working to identify which overseas institutions hold collections, how many remains are held in each institution and where, in Australia, the remains originally came from.

    —  ATSIC negotiates directly with overseas holding institutions to secure their agreement to have remains repatriated. Other parties (including indigenous leaders, DFAT and consultants) have also conducted negotiations with holding institutions or senior officials of the country holding the remains.

    —  Prior to the return of remains, ATSIC consults with relevant indigenous groups to find out if they are ready to receive the remains, whether they wish to send representatives overseas to assume ownership of the remains and any other matters of relevance.

    —  ATSIC advises DFAT on who are the appropriate representative Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people to undertake repatriation of specific human remains.

    —  DFAT finalises arrangements for the holding institution to hand back the material either direct to the indigenous representatives or indirectly (for example, to the Australian High Commission in London). ATSIC, DFAT, the overseas collecting institutions and relevant indigenous representatives maintain close contact during this period.

    —  ATSIC makes the necessary arrangements for customs/quarantine clearance of the remains prior to their return to Australia.

    —  ATSIC provides grants under its Heritage Protection Program to cover the costs associated with the travel of indigenous representatives overseas. It also meets the expenses incurred in the packaging and shipment of crates or caskets containing remains.

    —  On return to Australia, the remains may be taken directly to the relevant community(ies) or may go to the National Museum of Australia (NMA) for secure storage. The NMA then consults communities in relation to material whose geographic origin is known. When communities are ready to receive the material, the NMA organises for their return to appropriate members of the community.

    —  Unprovenanced remains held in storage at the NMA may be examined by a consultant physical anthropologist, with funds provided by ATSIC, in an attempt to establish the region or origin of the remains. If successfully provenanced, the NMA will notify the relevant communities.


  24.  There have been cases of repatriation of indigenous human remains from British institutions in circumstances in which the legislative constraints do not apply, such as the repatriation of the large Edinburgh University collection. ATSIC has provided the following list of successful repatriation cases from Britain and other countries in which it has been directly involved or provided assistance to indigenous communities:

    —  Tasmanian skull held in the Royal College of Surgeons collection, Dublin. In March 1990,Mr Michael Mansell of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC) and Mr Bob Weatherall of the Foundation for Aboriginal and Islander Research (FAIRA) travelled to Dublin to take delivery of the head of Tasmanian Aboriginal man Shiney from the Royal College of Surgeons.

    —  Collections held in the Pitt Rivers Museum of Oxford, the University of Bradford and the Peterborough Museum. In June 1990, Indigenous leaders Messrs Mansell and Walker, collected seven skulls and human tissue from the Australian High Commission in London and brought them back to Australia. The remains included the skull of a Maranoa River individual from the Peterborough Museum, the skull of a man from La Grange in the Kimberley region held by the University of Bradford, and the remains of Aboriginal people from Tasmania and Northern Territory held in the Pitt Rivers Museum.

    —  Remains held in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow. Two senior Queensland Aboriginal men (Messrs Bob Weatherall and Bill Toby) travelled to Scotland in October 1990 to take possession of the remains of three Mount Morgan people.

    —  Edinburgh Collection—Part 1. The Anatomy Department at Edinburgh University has so far returned the remains of 307 Aboriginal people (the so-called Part 1 of the Edinburgh Collection). In January 1991, 11 Tasmanian skulls were returned and in September 1991 a further 292 skulls and four skeletons from the rest of Australia were repatriated. The remains were brought from Britain by two prominent Aboriginal people and deposited in the NMA. Part 1 of the collection was catalogued in 1995. A number of remains from Part 1 have already been accepted by claimant communities, or have been provenanced to a community area. Cataloguing of Part 2 of this collection was recently finalised under a consultancy funded by ATSIC. Part 2 comprises mostly post-cranial remains matching the crania in Part 1, which will be reunited prior to the return of individuals to communities. The remains are now ready to be collected and ATSIC proposes to take the necessary steps for their return.

    —  Return of Tambo Tambo from Cleveland and reburial. The embalmed remains of Tambo Tambo were returned from Cleveland (USA) to Palm Island by two decendants. Many Mambara people attended a funeral ceremony in February 1994.

    —  Noongar remains (Yagan's head). In August 1997, four Noongar Aboriginal leaders travelled to Britain to bring back the head of Yagan, a Noongar warrior who died last century.


  25.  The Australian Government appreciates the efforts that the British Government and institutions have already made to facilitate the return of human remains of significance to Australian indigenous communities. In summary, there are a number of significant issues that need to be addressed in any strategy aimed at facilitating the repatriation of indigenous human remains from Britain to Australia:

    (a)  The difficulty of obtaining accurate information from holding institutions about what Australian indigenous human remains are held and what is their place of origin. Many overseas institutions do not know exactly what material they hold. Some institutions have declined to disclose details about their human remains collections, although attitudes to this in Britain are changing as discussed above.

    (b)  The current difficulty in obtaining consent from holding institutions to have the remains returned to traditional custodians. Aside from the legislative constraints on de-accessioning, some British institutions have declined to return remains on the grounds that they are being used for teaching and research purposes and must be properly conserved.

    (c)  Consultation with Australian indigenous interests is essential. This is a complex and time consuming process which involves identifying the relevant community, determining consultation protocols, consulting the relevant community regarding its interests with regard to human remains within collections and arriving at community mandated decisions in relation to repatriation issues.

    (d)  Regard must be had to the differing views among indigenous communities about the long-term custody and care of collections. For example, some communities accept that remains should be temporarily housed in the National Museum of Australia on their return from overseas while others want the remains returned directly to their community. Views also differ as to whether remains should be buried or placed in safekeeping within the local community.

    (e)  There is a need for significant financial and human resources to pursue the repatriation process, including for research, consultation, custodial and care arrangements.

  26.  Addressing these issues in relation to indigenous human remains held in Britain requires a co-ordinated long term approach involving indigenous interests and the Australian and British Governments and institutions. This submission does not advocate an immediate large-scale repatriation of indigenous human remains from British collections. This would be an inappropriate and impractical goal given the issues outlined above. Rather the Government is seeking to develop a co-operative approach to identifying indigenous remains in British holding institutions, identifying indigenous interests in these remains and examining opportunities and systems for repatriation.

  27.  At all times, the Australian Government intends to consult with indigenous interests on the appropriate strategies for dealing with the repatriation of indigenous human remains.

June 2000

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