Bones of contention

By Michael Dixon, director of the Natural History Museum (THE GUARDIAN, 24/05/07):

Beyond the blue whale, the dinosaurs and the crocodiles, the Natural History Museum has a fundamental commitment to advance the understanding of the natural world through science. Behind our public and educational faces lie research laboratories, libraries and science staff who care for and develop a collection of more than 70m items from across the world. This work places the museum at the heart of the debate about science in society today, as well as cementing our role as custodians of knowledge for the future.

The natural world is not limited to rainforests and coral reefs: we want to satisfy our innate curiosity about mankind. Human ancestors, ideas on our common origins in Africa, health in past populations and patterns of migration are all explored in the museum. This work relies on a collection of 20,000 human remains, from full skeletons to small hair samples, from all over the world.

But human remains are not simply objects for study. These are the remains of people who once lived, and their presence in a museum gives rise to strikingly different views. Over the past 40 years, communities in Australia, New Zealand and North America have questioned whether it is right to keep the bones of their ancestors in a museum for study. They argue that they, not the museums, should decide the fate of the remains.

Freed in 2005 from the legal prohibition on releasing items from the national collection, the museum decided last year to return the remains – skulls, teeth and skeletons – of 17 Tasmanian Aboriginal people. Most came to the museum in the 1940s, through legal donation or transfer. But in the previous century, remains had been dug up from unmarked graves by the white settlers who displaced Tasmania’s indigenous people – the native population of about 4,000 was almost completely wiped out in the 30 years after the first British landing in 1803. Tasmanian campaigners have long argued that, by being taken from their burial places, their ancestors’ spirits had been violated and could not rest.

But not just the Aboriginal communities held passionate beliefs on the fate of the remains – so did the scientific community. We faced difficult questions: who would benefit from return or retention, and in what way? How could the interests of science and culture represented in the museum be considered in the same framework as the religious beliefs and feelings of past injustices expressed by the Tasmanians?

We recognise the painful experiences of communities and know that the circumstances in which the remains were acquired are unacceptable by modern criteria. We also believe that the information these remains hold could play a significant role in our understanding of human origins and diversity. It was made clear to us that the remains would be put beyond future scientific study after their return, so the trustees’ decision aimed to address the main concerns of both parties – to return the remains to Tasmania, but that the scientific data normally collected piecemeal should all be gathered as quickly as possible, before return.

The Aboriginal people refused to accept the decision and took the museum to court to halt the collection of data. Other people objected to the proposal to return. The final agreement allowed for the immediate return of the remains and the preservation of some vital DNA material, held under the joint control of the museum and the community group.

Other claimant communities and institutions holding remains will be watching closely to see how we continue to collaborate. For many, their future actions will also set a precedent and may influence how future claims are handled here and at other institutions across the UK and beyond.