Request for repatriation of human remains to Tasmania

Minutes of meeting of the Trustees - March 2006

5.1 The Board discussed the claim from the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre Inc. (“TAC”) for the repatriation of two ash bundles in the Museum’s collection (Oc.1882,1214.1 and Oc.1882,1214.2) having regard to the Trustees’ power under s.47 Human Tissue Act 2004 and their policy on human remains dated 3 October 2005.

The Board were satisfied that, on balance of probabilities:

  1. The bundles contained the human remains of Tasmanian Aboriginal people who died less than 1000 years ago; and they were bound up in animal skin, with which the remains were so mixed up as to render separation undesirable, indeed probably impracticable;
  2. Had the traditional treatment of the remains not been interrupted, they would probably have been subject to eventual mortuary disposal within the ancestral landscape of the deceased;
  3. The interruption of the mortuary disposal of the remains had taken place in a manner inconsistent with the traditional practices of the community of the deceased;
  4. The TAC was the sole recognised modern representative of the Tasmanian Aboriginal community; it had ancestral continuity with the deceased; and was endorsed and supported by the Australian Government;
  5. The bundles had been studied and recorded and information concerning the beliefs and cultural practices they represented had been extracted and published, and was available to the public;
  6. The bundles did not provide information of value for the study of human beings that would be lost if the bundles were transferred;
  7. Although it was not possible to know what investigative processes might exist in the future, no new information could be extracted from the bundles using current scientific techniques;
  8. The bundles were of cultural and spiritual significance to the Tasmanian Aboriginal people and it was understandable that the continued postponement of mortuary disposal might be the cause of considerable grief to the Tasmanian Aboriginal people; and therefore that,
  9. As the human remains of deceased members of the Tasmanian Aboriginal community who would have expected to have been laid to rest in their ancestral landscape, the cultural and religious importance of the ash bundles to the TAC would outweigh the public benefit to be derived from their retention in the Museum’s collection provided they were now subjected to a mortuary disposal in accordance with Tasmanian Aboriginal tradition.

In these circumstances the Trustees agreed that it was reasonable and appropriate that their policy presumption in favour of the retention of human remains vested in the Museum’s collections should not apply to this claim; and that the two ash bundles (Oc.1882,1214.1 and Oc.1882,1214.2) should be transferred from the Museum’s collection to the TAC pursuant to s.47 Human Tissue Act 2004 on a date and in a manner to be determined by the Deputy Director in consultation with the TAC, on the presumption that the remains would then be disposed of in an appropriate mortuary fashion.

1. Web announcement

1.  Web announcement

Request for the Repatriation of Human Remains to Tasmania

In accordance with our policy on Human Remains, we are publishing the dossier relating to the above claim received from Tasmania. Please note that it includes a list of correspondence, but not the correspondence itself. This is because we do not have permission from the authors of the letters to publish them.

If anyone wishes to make any comment, could they please write, by 20 March 2006 to:

Andrew Burnett
Deputy Director
The British Museum
Great Russell Street
London WC1B 3DG

Or email:

2.  Dossier

Report The Department of AOA together with background information on cremation ash bundles

List of correspondence between the British Museum and the TAC and the Australian Government

2.1 Letter of 7 July 2005 – Wayne Gibbons to Neil MacGregor

2.2 Letter of 25 July 2005 – Neil MacGregor’s reply to Wayne Gibbons

2.3 Letter of 25 July 2005 to Robert Foley requesting report

2.4 Letter of 25 July 2005 to Tristram Besterman requesting report

2.5 Letter of 2 September 2005 – Heather Sculthorpe Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC) to Neil MacGregor

2.6 Letter of 12 September 2005 –  Wayne Gibbons to Neil MacGregor

2.7 Letter of 19 September 2005 – Neil MacGregor’s reply to Heather Sculthorpe TAC

2.8 Letter of 21 October 2005 – Raylene Foster (TAC) to Neil MacGregor

2.9 Letter of 30 October 2005 – Neil MacGregor’s reply to Raylene Foster (TAC)

2.10 Letter of 9 November 2005 – Michael Mansell (TAC) to Neil MacGregor

2.11 Letter of 30 November 2005 – Neil MacGregor’s reply to Michael Mansell

2.12 Email of 5 December 2005– Michael Mansell (TAC) (containing additional information)  *

2.13 Letter of 7 December 2005 – Michael Mansell (TAC) to Neil MacGregor

2.14 Letter of 16 December 2005 – Neil MacGregor’s reply to Michael Mansell

2.15 Letter of 23 January 2006 from Gary Hardgrave – Australian Government copy of his response to Michael Mansell (TAC)

2.16 Letter of 3 February 2006 to Kim Akerman requesting report

2.17 Letter of 9 February 2006 to Dr Paul Omaji – Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination, Government of Australia

2.18 Letter of 13 February 2006 from Dr Paul Omaji confirming TAC appropriate organisation and supporting repatriation.

* However, the report on the bundles by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre included on the website.

Independent Reports

3.1 Mr Tristram Besterman’s report

3.2 Mr Tristram Besterman’s digest of national and international codes

3.3 Professor Robert Foley’s report

3.4 Mr Kim Akerman’s report

3. Final Dossier

Scanned documents - 42 pages (pdf)

4. Press release

For immediate release Friday 24 March 2006

British Museum decides to return two Tasmanian cremation ash bundles

The passing of the Human Tissue Act in 2005 enabled the Trustees of the British Museum and other national museums to transfer human remains out of their collections.

The Museum’s Trustees had long recognised that human remains from the modern period represent a special case raising particularly difficult issues. The Museum was therefore fully and positively engaged with the process which led to the drafting of the relevant clause of the new law.

The Trustees have welcomed this new power which has enabled them for the first time to give serious consideration to a claim made for two cremation ash bundles. The claim is made by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre: the TAC has made several previous claims which could not be considered until the law was changed in 2005. The Trustees are therefore pleased to announce that, at their meeting today, they have decided to transfer the two Tasmanian Aboriginal cremation ash bundles to the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre in response to the claim from the Centre made last year.

The two bundles, each containing some ash from a human cremation site, are wrapped in animal skin. They were acquired by George Augustus Robinson in about 1838 (Robinson was appointed as conciliator of Aborigines in Tasmania in 1828). They were taken at a time when the Aboriginal population of Tasmania was suffering greatly from the impact of the European settlement, resulting in substantial population loss. The bundles entered the collection of the British Museum only later via the Royal College of Surgeons in 1882.

Ethnographic evidence collected by Robinson at the time indicates that bundles of this sort were used as amulets against sickness by their owners, and that they were highly valued for their efficacy. Their acquisition by Robinson represented an interruption in the process which would have ultimately led to the remains being laid to rest.

After taking independent expert advice on the matter, and according to their published policy, the Trustees came to the view that the cultural and religious importance of the cremation ash bundles to the Tasmanian Aboriginal community outweighed any other public benefit that would have flowed from their retention in the collection. The objects have been studied, photographed and published in previous decades. It is unlikely that, given present scientific techniques, their retention in London for study will yield any further information of significance.

Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, leading human rights lawyer and the Trustee who led the discussion, said, “The Trustees are clear that the removal of the cremation ash bundles from the collection is the right course of action. The Museum looks forward to continuing to work with indigenous Australian communities in furthering the worldwide public understanding of Australian aboriginal culture, both past and present. The British Museum is currently developing a new Australian and Pacific Gallery to open in 2008.”