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Press release

Human remains to be returned from Natural History Museum's collection

Yesterday (Thursday, 16 November) the Natural History Museum's Board of Trustees considered advice from its Human Remains Advisory Panel (NHMHRAP) on the return of human remains from the Museum's collection to their countries of origin. The advice relates to a claim lodged by the Australian Government in November 2005 and to a request under that claim from the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC).

The Natural History Museum's Board of Trustees has decided to transfer the remains of 17 Tasmanian aboriginal people to the Australian Government which has designated the TAC to be the receivers of the Tasmanian remains. The Trustees have also decided to return the skull of an aboriginal person from Australia to the Australian Government. Both decisions were in line with the advice of the NHMHRAP. The Trustees also accepted the panel's advice that the Natural History Museum should complete collection of data from the Tasmanian human remains prior to their return.

'We welcomed the legislation that came into force in 2005, as a mechanism that allows us, for the first time, to consider cases for the return of human remains to their countries of origin', said Oliver Stocken, Chairman of the Trustees of the Natural History Museum. 'Our decision demonstrates the Museum's commitment to look at each case fairly and transparently, in line with the guidelines set out by the UK government.'

Dr Michael Dixon, Director of the Natural History Museum added, 'We acknowledge our decision may be questioned by community groups or by some scientists. However, we believe the decision to return the Tasmanian remains, following a short period of data collection, is a commonsense one that balances the requirements of all those with an interest in the remains.'

The data collection process will be completed within three months from January. It will compile as complete a record as possible of scientifically valuable information relating to the Tasmanian aboriginal remains. This will include imaging, measurements and DNA analysis. Any material temporarily removed as part of this analysis will be replaced so the remains can be returned complete.

Scientists use human remains to study human origins, population diversity and distribution as well as the past environments in which humans lived. Many of the Tasmanian remains in the Museum represent people from a time when Tasmania was isolated from the rest of the world, so they are genetically different from other human populations, including those in mainland Australia. The differences that continue to be identified tell us more about how people reached the island, how they lived and how those people were linked with other human groups.

The Natural History Museum's Board of Trustees has also made the decision to return the skull of an aboriginal Australian following further discussion with the Australian Government. The process of ongoing inventory and archive research by the Natural History Museum on Australian remains to clarify provenance and documentation has uncovered a case of illegal export in 1913. Copies of the original donation letters to the Royal College of Surgeons for some remains have been obtained and this has led to the identification of a particular skull that appears to have been removed illegally from Australia in the early twentieth century. The skull was transferred to the Natural History Museum from the Royal College of Surgeons in 1955.

The Australian Government made a general claim for the return of aboriginal remains to Australia in November 2005. There continues to be effective collaboration on how to structure consideration of the claim and progress is being made in this respect. The Natural History Museum is actively bringing forward this particular case for return because of the documented illegality of export. The Natural History Museum's collection policy prevents the acquisition of, and research on, specimens that have been collected illegally by laws in place at the time.

Notes for editors

  • The Natural History Museum holds the national collection of human remains, comprising 19,950 specimens (varying from a complete skeleton to a single finger bone). The remains represent a worldwide distribution of the human population and a timescale of 500,000 years. The majority of the collection (54 per cent) represents individuals from the UK. During the twentieth century a number of organisations, including the Wellcome Trust and the Royal College of Surgeons, transferred their collections of human skeletal remains to the Natural History Museum, to form this national collection.
  • The Natural History Museum's Human Remains Advisory Panel was set up in 2006, and members were appointed by the Natural History Museum's Board of Trustees. The panel was designed to have six members and two ex-officio members (a Trustee and a member of Museum staff). Currently there are four panel members - the panel is looking for two further independent panel members. The remit of the panel is to provide independent advice to the Trustees on claims for return of human remains to countries of origin. It also considers issues, as raised by the Museum's Director or Director of Science, relating to the Museum's activities in this area, which includes research, conservation and documentation. Account has been taken of Department for Culture Media and Sport guidance in developing this advisory structure. The decision on the advice to Trustees must be agreed by at least four independent panel members. The Trustee and staff member do not have decision-making powers as members of the panel. A full list of panel members is available on the Museum's website.

For further information or to interview a Museum spokesperson please contact the press office:
Tel: 020 7942 5106 orĀ email us