The Repatriation of Human Remains-Problem or Opportunity?

By Smith, Laurajane | Antiquity, June 2004 | Go to article overview

The Repatriation of Human Remains-Problem or Opportunity?


Smith, Laurajane, Antiquity


The editor's question "who do human skeletons belong to?" (Antiquity 78:5) can be answered positively, but it must be answered in context. The question was prompted by reports from the Working Group on Human Remains established by the British government's Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) in 2001 to review the current legal status of human remains held in all publicly funded museums and galleries, and to consider and review submissions oil the issue of the return of non-UK human remains to their descendent communities (DCMS 2003: 1-8). in effect, the report was primarily concerned with human remains from Indigenous communities, using a definition which follows the UN Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as "distinct cultural groups having a historical continuity with pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories" (DCMS 2003:7). Consequently, the report deals primarily with the Indigenous communities of Australia, New Zealand and North America.

The establishment of the Working Group followed recommendations in 2000 by the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. Its existence was also facilitated by a meeting between John Howard, the Australian Prime Minster, and Tony Blair in 2000 in which it was agreed that increased efforts were needed to assist repatriation efforts by Australian Indigenous communities (DCMS 2003; Howard 2000). The key findings of the report (DCMS 2003:161f) recommend that the law governing national museums be changed to allow the repatriation of human remains, that all museums put in place transparent procedures for responding to repatriation claims, and that a government licensing authority be established to monitor these procedures and the general handling, treatment and return of human remains. The report also offers a sequence of recommendations and guidelines for consultation and dialogue between all parties, and suggests that DCMS, using the existing Spoliation Advisory Panel as a model, also set up a Human Remains Advisory Panel. Significantly, the report does not detail specific criteria for establishing the legitimacy of claims, but does offer guidelines for establishing dialogue for understanding the cultural legitimacy of Indigenous claims. It takes a step toward acknowledging the legitimacy of claims of descent made outside of the temporal and genealogical criteria that often underpin British and wider Western conceptualisation of kinship and descent. It does, unfortunately and somewhat in contradiction to the tone of cultural sensitivity that the report works hard to achieve, sidestep the issue of associated funerary objects.

Predictably, the report has been met with a mixed response. The Australian Government, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) and the World Archaeological Congress (WAC) have all responded warmly (Howard 2003; ATSIC 2003; WAC 2003). On the other hand some curators of large English National collections have been reported in the press as stating that the recommendations of the report are 'unworkable', are 'over bureaucratic' and that they threaten the integrity of scientific collections and scientific research on human remains (for instance, Anon 2003; Bailey 2003; McKie 2003; Appleton 2003; Jenkins 2003). Many of these cite the criticism of Nell Chalmers, Director of the Natural History Museum and a member of the Working Group, whose 'statement of dissent' within the report outlines his concerns that the report is overly weighted in favour of Indigenous concerns and has paid insufficient attention to the 'public benefit' of research (DCMS 2003:177).

Much of this rehearses the dire warnings about the 'end of science' and the assault on the 'academic freedom' of archaeological research that were made in the Australian, New Zealand and North American media and archaeological literature in the 1980s and 1990s. These criticisms, underpinned as they so often are by a discourse laden with assumptions about the unassailable 'truths', 'objectivity', 'rights' and 'universal relevance' of science, including archaeological science, miss the point. …

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