Memorandum submitted by the Australian
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
(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