Museum returns 19 ancestral remains to Torres Strait Islands

23 November 2011

London's Natural History Museum has returned 19 ancestral remains to the Torres Strait Island (TSI) community in the next step of a collaborative agreement.

Traditional Owners of the Torres Strait Islands (TSI), inc Ned David (left), and Oliver Stocken

Traditional Owners of the Torres Strait Islands (L to R: Ned David, Alo Tapim, Cygnet Repu) and Chairman of the Natural History Museum Board of Trustees Oliver Stocken at the ceremony to return 19 ancestral remains.

This is the second group of items to be returned to the Islands and follows the Museum’s announcement in March to begin discussions with community representatives regarding the return of 138 ancestral remains and their future care.

The return of remains to Traditional Owners from the community was acknowledged in a ceremony at the Museum. The delegation of 8 Traditional Owners also presented the Museum with a letter expressing the community’s wish for the Museum to continue as guardians of some of the remaining poorly provenanced remains and hold them in trust.

In May this year the Museum returned 3 ancestral remains following a landmark collaborative meeting with representatives from the TSI. The announcements and return today build on over 20 months of dialogue with the TSI community and the Australian Government. The Museum and TSI will continue to work together to agree how responsibility for the remains will be managed and how they will be cared for and accessed for future study.

Torres Strait Island (TSI) Traditional Owner, Ned David (on left), presents a model dugong to Museum

Torres Strait Island Traditional Owner Ned David (on left) presents a model dugong to the Chairman of the Natural History Museum Board of Trustees Oliver Stocken (dugongs are marine mammals, also known as sea cows, and are an important part of the Aboriginal and TSI people's culture).

To deepen the relationship, the Museum also offered, earlier this year, a fellowship 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

Ian Owens, Museum Director of Science, commented ‘We are very pleased with how this repatriation process is going. We have established new and much more collaborative ways of working, which has been recognised by the community leaving some of the remains in trust at the Museum. Ensuring that both the needs of Indigenous or claimant groups and of science are met requires building a shared understanding through dialogue, as we have demonstrated in our discussions and partnership with the TSI community.’

The Traditional Owners from the Torres Strait commented, ‘We, the Traditional Owners, from the Torres Strait, are pleased to be able to return to London and receive remains of our ancestors, that were agreed to in the landmark decision made by the Natural History Museum earlier this year. We would also like to extend our appreciation to the Museum for the care and custodianship you have taken of our ancestral remains until we have been able to return to collect them.’

TSI Traditional Owners sing in the Museum after the official ceremony

TSI Traditional Owners sing in the Museum after the official ceremony

‘We are particularly pleased with the relationship we have developed between our two communities – Torres Strait and the Museum/scientific. It is a relationship built on friendship, deep respect for our cultures and the reciprocal contribution we make to each other’s communities. Therefore we are keen to maintain a continued dialogue between us on issues such as the fellowships and having people from the Torres Strait and Aboriginal communities of Australia live and work at the Natural History Museum. 

'We are also keen for a continued presence at the Museum and most importantly the decision to leave ‘in care’ the poorly provenanced remains at the Museum. This decision by us to leave these 116 poorly provenanced remains is a decision made by all the Torres Strait Islands communities and we are assured that they will be cared for by the Natural History Museum until a time decided by us in the future.’

Torres Strait Islands

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

Museum human remains collection

The Museum has approximately 20,000 human remains, collected since it was founded in 1881. Specimens range from single teeth to complete skeletons, and they are used by researchers worldwide to study a wide range of topics, from human evolution to disease.

Share this