Request for repatriation of human remains to the Torres Strait Islands, Australia

1. Web announcement

Request for the Repatriation of Human Remains to the Torres Strait Islands, Australia.

In accordance with our policy on Human Remains, we are publishing the dossier relating to the above claim received from the Torres Strait Islands.

2. Dossier

2.1 The British Museum’s Human Remains Policy

2.2 The TSI claim, dated 31 May 2011

2.3 The Australian government’s endorsement of this claim

2.4 The briefing note on the skulls provided for the meeting on 30 June 2011 by N McKinney including two Bioarchaeological Reports by D Antoine (BM)

2.5 Note of TSI, Australian Government and British Museum meeting on 6 May 2011 

2.6 The relevant extract from the minutes of the Trustees’ initial consideration on 30 June 2011 

2.7 Subsequent correspondence on points arising from 2.6 

2.8 Two independent reports on the bioarchaeological and cultural significance of the skulls commissioned from Professor Simon Hillson of University College London and Dr Richard Davis of the University of Western Australia

2.8.1 Dr Richard Davis's report

2.8.2 Professor Simon Hillson's cover note

2.8.3 Professor Simon Hillson's report

2.9 The relevant extract from the minutes of the Trustees’ meetings on 23 March 2006 and 17 April 2008, at which the two previous claims were determined

2.9.1 Extract from 23 March 2006 minutes

2.9.2 Extract from 17 April 2008 minutes

2.10 Note of TSI, Australian Government and British Museum meeting on 24 November 2011 

2.11 The relevant extract of the minutes from the meeting of the Trustees of the Natural History Museum on 22 February 2011, when they considered a similar claim from the Torres Straits Islanders

2.12 The comments on the dossier (2.1-2.11) which was sent to the Torres Straits Islanders

2.13 Briefing note for Trustees’ meeting on 22 March 2012 and note of the meeting to discuss the Torres Strait human remains claim on 8 October 2012 

3. Statement: Human remains from the Torres Strait Islands

December 2012

The British Museum received a claim from the Torres Strait Islanders for the return of two modified skulls in the British Museum’s collection. The procedure and criteria for considering this claim, that starts from a presumption of retention, have been used by the Trustees on two previous occasions to agree the claim to transfer two Tasmanian cremation ash bundles in 2006 and some Maori human remains from New Zealand in 2008. After taking independent expert advice on the Torres Strait Islanders’ claim, and considering the claim with great care over a number of meetings, the Trustees concluded that in this instance the evidence was not sufficient for them to agree to the claim, since on the balance of probabilities it was not clear to them that the process of the mortuary disposal of the skulls had been interrupted.

The Torres Strait Islanders have been notified of the Board’s decision.

The Museum has an important collection from the Torres Strait Islands. The earliest items were acquired by the Museum in the 1830s and the Museum continues to add to the collection. In 2009, the Museum signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the National Museum of Australia. This agreement supports a five-year research programme on Australian and Torres Strait Island material culture. A loan is planned to support a jointly curated exhibition at the British Museum in 2015 and then Canberra in 2015/16. These exhibitions will include Torres Strait Island material.

Notes to editors:

  • The dossier of material considered by Trustees’ is available on the British Museum website:
  • The full Trustees’ minutes will be published in due course on the website.
  • The Museum is only able to transfer human remains in its collection under the terms of the Human Tissue Act 2004 and the British Museum Policy on Human Remains (2006) explains how the Trustees make their decisions.
  • Information on the Museum’s policy and a complete list of human remains in the collection (including details of material which sits outside of current legislation) is available on our website at
  • The British Museum has previously returned two Tasmanian Cremation Ash Bundles to the Tasmania Aboriginal Centre in 2006 and Maori bone fragments and worked bones to Te Papa Tongarewa in New Zealand in 2008.
  • The British Museum has only a small number of human remains as defined under the Human Tissues Act 2005 in its collection. There are currently no outstanding claims on human remains in the Museum’s collection but any future claims will be examined on an individual basis by the Museum’s Trustees.