TCS Daily

No Bones About It

By Josie Appleton - September 5, 2003 12:00 AM

When Manchester Museum recently handed four Aboriginal skulls over to a delegation of Aborigines, there were smiles all around. The museum said it was pleased to be making amends for its past; tribal leaders were elated to be giving their ancestors a decent burial. The government's advisory committee on human remains, which will reportedly recommend loosening restrictions on repatriation, might be encouraged by these events.


But these pictures of happy consensus are misleading. In fact, the opening up of repatriation claims is likely to have detrimental implications -- for all concerned.


For museums, repatriation would mean the loss of vitally important collections. Human remains -- bones, pieces of skin or bits of hair -- were mostly collected in the nineteenth century, when Western colonial expansion was at its height and there was a lust for scientific enquiry. Over the past 150 years, these collections have yielded insights into historic patterns of migration, the influence of diet and disease over populations, and the impact of climate on skeletal morphology. Accumulation of these items was motivated in part by racist scientific theories; but the study of remains has actually helped to disprove such ideas.


Repatriating the UK's collections of human remains -- in many cases to be reburied or destroyed -- could prove disastrous. The UK Natural History Museum, for example, has a broad collection of remains, which are used extensively by scientists from all over the world. According to Cambridge anthropologist Robert Foley, it would be a damaging even if only small amounts of material were returned. Human diversity has changed significantly over the past 200 years, and so collections could not be replaced with modern-day individuals -- 'Destroy that record', says Foley, 'and we destroy large chunks of our history'.


Laws requiring the repatriation of human remains in the USA and Australia have drained those countries' museums. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington has returned some 3300 Native American skeletons, out of a total of 18,000. Important samples, such as the Pecos collection -- the largest available population from a single Native American community -- are lost and gone forever.


Yet there is very little opposition to repatriation among museum professionals. Since the 1980s museums have lost confidence in their role as collectors, studiers and preservers of artefacts. Museums today are more likely to justify themselves in terms of improving people's lives -- through social inclusion or neighbourhood renewal projects, for example. In this context, the retention of human remains for scientific study has little moral authority.


Some museum professionals are even seizing repatriation as a way of renewing the moral mission of the museum. Dr Michael Pickering, repatriation programme director at the National Museum of Australia, argues that the museum gains from returning human remains: 'Rather than losing a collection element, the institution is value adding to its resource base. The goodwill and participation of an Aboriginal community is a resource.' But repatriation won't be able to provide the museum with a new role -- not least because one day there won't be anything left to give back. Collections are the reason for the museum's existence; they are the thing that makes it unique.


The public will also lose out from the repatriation of human remains. The knowledge gained from the study of collections is the primary asset that museums can offer the public. Insights into the history of human populations are of interest and value for the whole of society -- even if we don't all follow the finer points of scientific debate.


And this includes Native communities themselves. The development of scientific knowledge is often presented as antithetical to the interests of indigenous peoples -- colliding with their spiritual understandings, and even playing a role in their oppression. Actually, Native peoples should stand to learn and benefit from science as much as anyone else. At a talk at the Royal College of Surgeons earlier this year, an Aboriginal member of the audience said that 'indigenous Australian aren't necessarily closed off to the value of science', but they hadn't gained from science in the past. American and Australian attempts to train more Native peoples as archaeologists and anthropologists could help here.


Returning remains is presented as a way of making amends for the past sufferings of indigenous communities. Manchester Museum director Tristram Besterman said: 'By returning these remains now we hope to contribute to ending the sense of outrage and dispossession felt by Australian Aborigines today.' Receiving the bones, an Aboriginal representative said: 'The torment is ended, we now put an end to the torment.'


But in fact, repatriation masks the real and present remnants of colonialism in countries like America and Australia. Indigenous communities do face huge problems of poverty and marginalisation, which can only be rectified with practical measures like increased investment and improved services. Yet these problems are laid at the door of The Bones. Aboriginal rights campaigner Rodney Dillon told a Museums Association annual conference that 'People [in aboriginal communities] are walking around with their heads down because ancestors are not where they are supposed to be'.


Rather than improved rights and living conditions, Native communities are being offered spiritual communion with the bones of their relatives. This can't be a fair exchange.


The author is a journalist for spiked (, and author of 'Museums for The People', a critical look at changes in museum policy.


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