Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Material Legacies: Indigenous Remains and Contested Values in UK Museum Collections

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Material Legacies: Indigenous Remains and Contested Values in UK Museum Collections

Article excerpt

ON 23 NOVEMBER 2006, the journal Nature reported that the London Natural History Museum (NHM) had agreed to the return of seventeen Tasmanian ancestral remains held at the Museum. For the reporter, this was a case where "indigenous claims trump scientific value." These remains, he argued, were for scientists a "crucial illustration on a page in human history," representing as they did "specimens of the now dead race." However, "for modern Australians descended from the Aborigines, they are stolen property." The report describes the return as a "loss" and "blow" for science and includes statements from scientists critical of the Museum's decision. Finally, there is the suggestion that in agreeing to return remains to the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC), the NHM acted against newly established UK Government guidelines on repatriation, having ignored the requirement for a strong connection to be established between contemporary claimants and the remains.1

Nature's brief report condenses many of the issues at stake in debates around repatriation, and packages them as a dichotomy in which specific Indigenous sensibilities and belief-systems are pitched against a scientific world-view encompassing, and able to speak for, all of humanity. The rhetorical position taken in Nature is not merely journalistic shorthand, but has permeated much of the discussion surrounding repatriation within scientific and museum communities.2 In such representations, human remains are either specimens or ancestors, incommensurable positions, one of which must ultimately triumph over the other. In some contexts, such as in North America, this may see repatriation claims interpreted within the broad nexus of emerging 'anti-science' cultural forces, such as anti-Darwinism, creationism, and extreme cultural relativism.3 However, human remains came into European museums for a myriad of reasons, and under the rubric of a variety of epistemologica! practices. Acquiring, exchanging, and gifting Indigenous remains facilitated the entry of colonial enthusiasts into prestigious networks and societies. They were valuable as commodities of influence, status, and reciprocal exchange.4 Fascination with the 'new' world and its peoples, the search for the macabre, the romance of illicit collection, ethnographic study, and straightforward curiosity are just some of the reasons that have contributed to the collections now held throughout Europe. As a result, human remains can be found not only in the research collections of natural history and medical museums, but across a broad range of anthropological, social, and even art museums.

While the language of science remains the dominant rhetorical discourse, other appeals to a universal position also appear in arguments for retention of remains. These arguments rely on the vision of museums as universal institutions, based on Enlightenment values and caring for and representing global culture. Simultaneously, claimant groups have pointed an alternate frame of analysis in universal human-rights laws, as well as freedom of worship, the rights of Indigenous peoples and trade in illicitly acquired material.5 Requests for the return of human remains from museums are thus simultaneously part of global movements, such as indigenous self-determination and human rights, and highly contingent on local contexts, histories, and institutional and legal frameworks. This essay examines how these issues have been expressed in the contemporary British context, and suggests that more nuanced explorations of the nature of scientific and museological practice provide a method by which to escape the cul-de-sacs created by relying on the language of universalism.

The TAC Claim In Its British Context

The successful claim for repatriation by the TAC was widely commented on in Australia and the UK as a landmark case.6 The claim acts as a snapshot of a period when opinions and approaches to repatriation were changing rapidly in Britain. …

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