UK returns Torres Strait Islander remains

By AAP with AG Staff 11 March 2011
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In the largest single return of indigenous remains, a London institution is repatriating 138 specimens.

LONDON’S NATURAL HISTORY Museum has agreed to return ancestral remains to the people of Australia’s Torres Strait Islands. The announcement on Thursday follows a year and a half of dialogue involving the museum, islanders and the Australian Government.

“This decision has been received with much emotion and is considered as a breakthrough in overseas collecting institutions recognising the importance of laying the spirits of our ancestors to rest,” said Ned David a Torres Strait Islander representing the community.

Speaking on behalf of the Islanders, Ned said it was an important step in the healing process for his people. “We welcome this first step in the repatriation process and the opportunity to work further with the Natural History Museum.”

Trophy heads

The museum said 138 pieces of remains – mainly skulls and jawbones – would be returned. These had primarily been amassed through the historic “collection of trophy heads,” it said. During the 18th century remains were readily collected by missionaries, explorers and natural historians, who took them to institutions in Europe.

The museum identified that 19 pieces clearly originated in the Torres Strait Islands, and admitted to “reasonable certainty” that another 119 pieces also originated there, southern New Guinea or northern Australia.

“This is the single largest return of Torres Strait Islander ancestral remains from an overseas collection and is a great result for the Torres Strait Islander people who have successfully pursued their case with the Natural History Museum,” said Federal Minister for the Arts Simon Crean.

Better understanding

“The return of ancestral remains is extremely important to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” he said.  “The Australian Government recognises that repatriation is a key step towards restoring dignity and closing the gap between all Australians. I would like to thank the Natural History Museum for agreeing to return the ancestral remains.”

Traditional owners, the museum and the Australian Government are still working through how the remains will be transferred and where and how they will be stored.

The museum is offering a placement to a Torres Strait Islander to work with experts in London to develop scientific and museum skills and provide them with a better understanding of indigenous perspectives.