Museum returns remains to Torres Strait Islands

10 March 2011

The Trustees of the Natural History Museum in London have agreed to return 138 ancestral remains to the Torres Strait Islands (TSI), a group of more than 200 islands between the northern coast of Australia and Papua New Guinea.

This is the largest single return of remains to Australia and is a landmark decision for the Museum, bringing a new collaborative approach to repatriation.

The decision builds on 18 months of dialogue with the TSI community and the Australian government. The Museum and Torres Strait Islanders will now work together to agree how responsibility for the remains will be transferred and how they will be cared for and accessed for future study.

To deepen the relationship, the Museum has offered a placement for a Torres Strait Islander to work with the Museum to share both scientific and museum skills, and to develop a better understanding of how indigenous perspectives might inform the Museum’s future activities.

A new approach

Richard Lane, Director of Science at the Natural History Museum, comments, ‘We are pleased that through dialogue and mutual respect our team has been able to work closely with the TSI community, demonstrating for the first time in the UK a new way of approaching repatriation claims in what has previously been a hugely polarised debate.

‘Considering the return of ancestral remains is a complex and sensitive issue that seeks to balance the Museum’s commitment to the scientific study of human diversity and origins with different cultural perspectives on meaning, value and duties with respect to remains.

‘In their deliberations, Trustees acknowledged the strong feelings of connection of the community to the remains and noted the continuing responsibility by the community for the care of the remains.’

Ned David, a Traditional Owner in the TSI, comments on behalf of the community, ‘Torres Strait Traditional Owners are deeply touched by the Natural History Museum Trustees’ decision to return our ancestral remains.

‘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.

‘We welcome this first step in the repatriation process and the opportunity to work further with the Natural History Museum to develop a relationship that will facilitate both our cultural obligations and forge a longer term and even intergenerational partnership with the Museum.

‘The return of our ancestors from the Natural History Museum, with the assistance of the Australian Government, marks a significant step forward in the ongoing repatriation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ancestral remains from overseas, and is a key step in the healing process for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from injustices committed against our people in the past.’

Torres Strait Islanders

About 6,000 Islanders live in the 274 Torres Strait Islands in between the northern coast of Australia and Papua New Guinea, and over 40,000 live on mainland Australia.

The traditional people of the Torres Strait are of Melanesian origin and they speak two distinct languages, Meriam Mir in the Eastern Islands and either Kala Lagaw Ya or Kala Kawa Ya, (dialects of the same language) in the Western and Central Islands.

The TSI remains

The Museum has been able to determine the origins of 141 skeletal and soft tissue remains. They identified 19 individuals for whom provenance to a specific island was clear. And 119 for which provenance is not clear but for which there is reasonable certainty that they originate from one of the Torres Strait Islands, from southern New Guinea, or from the north of Australia. 

The collection also includes 3 individuals from other parts of the world, 2 Europeans and 1 East Asian, and these will be retained by the Museum.

How did the TSI remains get to the Museum?

The majority of ancestral remains came from a cave on the island of Pulu that is sacred to the Mabiuag Islanders. The remains were removed at the instigation of a missionary teacher after the community converted to Christianity. The Museum purchased them from a dealer in 1884, and in the same year, received a donation from the Hon John Douglas (a former Government Resident in the Torres Strait).

Museum human remains collection

The Natural History Museum holds a collection of approximately 20,000 human remains, collected since it was founded in 1881. Some of them date back to pre-historic times and over half of the collection is from the UK.

Specimens range from a single tooth, to hair samples and single bones to complete skeletons, and they have come from a variety of sources such as archaeological digs or donations from medical institutions or explorers.

The human remains in the collection are used by Museum and visiting researchers who study a wide range of topics, from human evolution and variation, to disease, medicine, forensics and more.

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