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The Australian National University

The Meanings and Values of Repatriation

Friday 9 - Sunday 10 July 2005
Centre for Cross-Cultural Research
Australian National University


Offers of papers and panels received from:

Philip Batty; Liz Bell; Randelle Blair; Dierdre Brown; Elizabeth Coleman; Cress Fforde; Susan Forbes; Joel Gilman; Kate Goodnow; Phil Gordon; Daryl Guse; Claes Hallgren; Dorothy Lippert; John Lynch; Jack Lohman; Virginia Myles; Mike Pickering; Martyn Skrydstrup; Paul Turnbull.

Presenter Paper Title and Abstract
Dr Philip Batty
Senior Curator
Anthropology and Indigenous Cultures
Museum Victoria
Tel:  03 8341 7369
Fax: 03 8341 7246

White Redemption Rituals: The Repatriation of Aboriginal Secret-Sacred Objects in the Field
Over the past few years, the federal government has provided more than $3 million to Australian museums to repatriate items of Aboriginal cultural heritage. In this paper I discuss the problems Melbourne Museum encountered in attempting to return secret-sacred objects to Central Australia. I argue that through the performance of a kind of national 'redemptive ritual', white Australia has tried to obtain absolution for its past treatment of Aboriginal people.

Aboriginal artefacts that were once used for 'scientific research' have now acquired a powerful currency and been transformed into icons of national reconciliation. These objects have also acquired different meanings in Aboriginal communities through the process of repatriation which evoke complex power- plays and drastic realignments of communal affiliations.

Such power-plays sometimes have more to do with the politics of native title and other legislative determinations than with 'traditional' knowledge of the objects. The meaning and value of these secret-sacred objects is therefore transformed as they pass through numerous zones of political and cultural interaction.

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Liz Bell
School of Historical Studies
1st Floor Armstrong Building
University of Newcastle
Telephone: 0191 222 6478
Fax: 0191 222 6484

England has, somewhat controversially, remained at the fore of the repatriation debate for some two or more decades now. This is perhaps overwhelmingly due to the fact that there has been (and in some cases still is) a refusal by some professionals to grasp the ideology behind concerns for the indigenous dead of other countries, especially those many generations removed from people alive today. Understandably this has led to poor relations with a number of institutions and, it could be argued, a bad reputation for the country. However, it is not to say that requests for repatriation have been completely unsuccessful. There are numerous instances where repatriation requests have met with a positive response, but this has entirely been on a museum by museum basis as up until now the country as a whole has failed to address the issue.

Things may soon change however, for two reasons. The first is the passing of the Human Tissue Act 2004, which is expected to come into force early in 2006, as it will allow a number of named collecting institutions – amongst them the British Museum and Natural History Museum, which hold tens of thousands of human remains between them – to de-accession human remains from their collections. The second, a report by the DCMS Working Group on Human Remains in Museum Collections which was published in November 2003, is set to bring about the introduction of guidelines and a set of minimum standards for dealing with both overseas and UK human remains.

The aim of this paper is to look at the effects that these two separate but inextricably linked changes are likely to have upon the way in which English institutions deal with requests for the repatriation of human remains.

Randelle Blair
Aboriginal Heritage Conservation Officer
Lower Darling Area
Aboriginal Heritage Division

Repatriation in the Field

While there have been major developments in the way museums undertake repatriation of human remains over the past decade, there have also been significant changes within state heritage agencies in the delivery of assistance to Aboriginal groups seeking to repatriate remains.

Cultural Officers often provide an important link between Aboriginal Custodians and Museums. In the early days of repatriation many reburials were rushed and undertaken in a way that was considerably removed from traditional reburial, such as the internment of commingled remains in mass graves.

In this case study.   I will outline my involvement in the repatriation of human remains from the National Museum to the Lake Benanee region, from liaising with the Mutthi Mutthi people, selecting a culturally appropriate and secure location, to facilitating final documentation and research on the remains, and their final reburial.

Deidre Brown (Ngapuhi, Ngati Kahu)
School of Architecture
National Institute of Creative Arts and Industries
University of Auckland

Maori Experiences of Repatriation in an International Cultural Property Context

It is estimated that 95% of taonga Maori (Maori treasures) are held by museums (Gerard O'Regan, Bicultural Developments in Museums of Aotearoa , 1997). From the drafting of the Mataatua Declaration NGO document in 1993 to the current and far-reaching Wai 262 Flora and Fauna claim to the government-established Waitangi Tribunal, their repatriation has been an important political issue for Maori leaders involved in the decolonisation and 'biculturalisation' of New Zealand society. This paper examines these calls for repatriation in the context of recent developments in Maori cultural property policy and international receptiveness. Specific attention is paid to: the early influence of contemporary art debates and biculturalist policies on the repatriation of customary treasures; the issues inherent in the current proposal to extend natural world cultural property rights to indigenous objects when they are the subject of study or display; and the potential of virtual reality technologies to either assist or thwart repatriation by indigenous communities. By discussing the past, present and future of Maori cultural property concerns, evolving indigenous and international perspectives of ownership and custodianship are seen to be converging and steering museums towards a new, albeit uncertain, era of cultural responsibility.

Elizabeth Coleman The Ethics of Cultural Repatriation
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Joel Gilman
University of Western Australia

The Ancient One: A Repatriation Controversy that Could Have Been Avoided

Human remains found near Kennewick, Washington in the US were found to be over 9,000 years old and thus of great interest to archaeologist and anthropologists. However, local Native American groups insisted that the remains be repatriated for immediate reburial in accordance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA. The ensuing legal controversy over the Kennewick remains can be approached from the legal-positivist standpoint of heritage law. Under this analysis, the Bonnichsen v. USA decision was an appropriate outcome, given the wording and legislative history of NAGPRA. However, NAGPRA should be amended to provide more flexibility in an inclusive, consultative approach, as with the Australian indigenous remains repatriation statute, instead of the "winner-take-all" outcome currently prescribed by NAGPRA.

This presentation considers the various positions taken by parties to the litigation, and also examines the pending amendment to NAGPRA, introduced after the final appellate decision in Bonnichsen v. USA. It is argued that neither the existing statute not the proposed amendment will provide a satisfactory outcome for similar disputes under NAGPRA in the future.

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Kate Goodnow
University of Bergen

Issues of Repatriation and Cultural Tourism: The Case of Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is one of the foremost symbols of Inca culture as well as the major tourist destination in South America. The site's importance for archeology, history and tourism lies in the fact that it was never discovered by the Spanish conquerors and therefore remained preserved until a Quechua Indian pointed it out to the North American archeologist Hiram Bingham. In successive expeditions, Bingham explored and excavated the city, taking away with him most of his archeological findings. These included the human remains of 173 individuals, 900 pottery pieces and over 200 objects in copper, silver and bronze.

Archeologists are trying to bring back treasures of importance for their field and for the pride of the Peruvian state. Repatriation is seen as also important for increased tourist interest and revenue. There is, for example, at present no museum at the site.

Local indigenous groups, however, are interested in repatriation also to repair the severed link between their ancestors and themselves. These groups are amongst the most outspoken indigenous groups in the region spearheading the recent indigenist revival.

Repatriation in this case then has a varied group of stakeholders interested in controlling the narrative surrounding the history "discovery" and representation of this unique archaeological material.

This paper will explore further the arguments presented by each and their broader implications for the region.

Daryl Guse
Research Officer
Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority
Darwin, NT
Insights into the Complexities of Repatriation of Aboriginal Ancestral Remains in the Northern Territory 
Dr. Claes Hallgren,
Dalarna University
Eric Mjöberg and the Rhetorics of Human Remains.

In my contribution I will use Eric Mjöberg´s book from the Kimberley, Bland Vilda Djur och Folk i Australien (Among Wild Animals and Men in Australia) to discuss how his "hunt" for Aboriginal human remains was presented and rationalized in this travel account meant for the general reader.

Mjöberg was the leader of the first Swedish Scientific Expedition to Australia (1910-11) and was guilty of bringing the recently repatriated human remains from the Kimberley to Sweden. He embraced a Social Darwinist view typical of the time and his collecting was mainly rationalized in these terms. But there is more to say of this activity as the interest in "skeletons" at the time had more general and more varied connotations than the "scientific" one. Mjöberg´s literary style, for example, has connotations to the popular genre of Gothic Horror stories in which the horrifying and grotesque has a place. In the more general genre of adventure stories "skeletons" also have a place as Mjöberg constantly impresses his readers of the risks of his collecting and his role as the intrepid explorer. A rhetoric of demonizing is also involved. Aborigines, for example, are depicted as cannibals in connection with skeleton hunting depriving them of any sympathy by the readers of his account. Sometimes there is also a perverse reversal of roles as Mjöberg suggests that it was actually the Aborigines that were out for his bones, left after having eating him.

The idea would thus be to discuss the motivations of giving "skeleton hunting" such a high profile in the narrative. Why had such a narrative any attraction at all? It is not well known today why "skeletons" were so interesting at the turn of the last century. The most common question from media and others in the wake of the attention given to the human remains collected by the Swedish Expedition was: "Why did they do this?" It was as if people in Sweden for the first time were confronted with a very exotic habit in their own backyard that had never been heard of before. In fact knowledge of Aborigines, Indians in America and other supposedly exotic people are probably much more spread to the general public today than this strange habit of our own ancestors less than a hundred years ago.

The repatriation act was widely applauded by the media and in a sense everything was fine in that all the parties involved were satisfied. Still there is something disturbing in the fact that our own past in this respect seems to be so fundamentally forgotten.

My contribution will thus be to take a closer look at the ideas that not just made "skeleton hunting" acceptable from a "scientific" point of view at the time, but also of the ideas that made it "attractive" for a wide audience. As repatriation is a question of redress, the ideas behind Mjöberg´s acting will be exposed and considered as an example of the motivations involved in "skeleton hunting".

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Dorothy Lippert
Repatriation Office MRC 138
National Museum of Natural History
P.O. Box 37012
Washington D.C. 20013-7012

Our Best Hope of Earth: Lessons from the Experience of Native American Repatriation

Archaeology and anthropology have often served colonial nation states as legitimizing forces.   Because of this, the disciplines have become points of contention for Indigenous people dealing with the effects of colonization.   With regard to repatriation, the experience of Native peoples of the United States can serve as a lens with which to focus on some of the central issues in repatriation practice and theory.   This paper will consider the similarities worldwide for Indigenous people and examine how local situations affect the process.   The author will draw on her experience working in repatriation and on her experiences as an Indigenous archaeologist.

Counsellor John Lynch,
Convenor, Cultural and Leisure Services Committee.
Glasgow City Council
City Chambers
Glasgow G2 1DU
United Kingdom
Tel 0141 287 4033

My paper deals with repatriation, not from an academic or curatorial point of view, but from that of a City Councillor with lead responsibility for museum governance and for repatriation in particular. Glasgow has the largest civic museums service in the UK. As chair of Glasgow's Repatriation working group from its inception in 1998 and as Convener of the Cultural and Leisure Services Committee I have overseen the assessment of five repatriation cases, including two for human remains, and one, current claim, for a painting spoliated by the Nazis from a Jewish family in the 1930s.

Glasgow City Council is seen within the UK as leading in the development of policy and practice in repatriation as a result of the City agreeing to return A Ghost Dance Shirt said to be from Wounded Knee to the Lakota. This was the first and so far the only repatriation from the UK to Native Americans. The process devised by Glasgow has been widely praised. The UK government Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) Parliamentary Select Committee report on Cultural Property: Return and Illicit Trade states: 'We were impressed by the seriousness and thoroughness with which the issues raised by this claim were handled by both Councillors and officials. We commend the procedures adopted by Glasgow City Council for handling claims for return of cultural property which provide an important model which others should examine and may wish to follow.' Within the museum profession the process was similarly praised, at least in public.

I offer, from personal experience, an analysis of the political issues involved in engaging my fellow councilors with the Council's museum governance responsibilities in the complex issues surrounding very different repatriation cases, dealing with the media and their desire for conflict and stereotype, stimulating public debate and working with curatorial staff (and their fear of professional opprobrium) to achieve a just outcome.

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Professor Jack Lohman,
Director, Museum of London Group and Chairman ICOM UK
Repatriation: a View from the North

The issue of the two etched barks held ‘hostage’ in their native soil of Australia while on loan to the Museum of Victoria from the British Museum and Kew late last year and the continuing saga of the Elgin Marbles highlighted during the Athens Olympics brought the issue of repatriation back onto the front pages of British newspapers last year. Britain’s colonial past means that here this issue simply will not go away and is likely to become more important in the future and threaten the confidence of our key museum institutions.

But it is hard to talk of a repatriation debate as such happening in the Britain or in Europe. Problems and positions are often repeated rather than progressed and discussions are usually of questionable value, frustrating to participants and a seeming waste of time. Often discussions, where they occur, centre around legal issues and whether an artefact or object was legally acquired or properly exported. Such discussions often run parallel to imagined ‘floodgates’ or ‘thin end of the wedge’ scenarios but these concepts are rarely taken any further.

This paper looks at the underlying cause of this inability to progress issues around repatriation in Britain. Is it the British attitude and mindset that frustrates progress in this field? Why does Britain have such a limited understanding of the notion of repatriation? With increased globalisation why is it so rarely initiated and why does it always seem to await the claims of distant people? And why does Britain seem to be so reluctant to be accountable to these communities? Why is there so little transparency in the way British collections were acquired and so little sharing with peer institutions to assist them in formulating responses to claims?

The paper will look at the British attitude towards repatriation and try and explain its roots and causes set against a broader perspective of European attitudes. The questions that are raised centre around Britain and Europe’s preoccupation with ownership, to whom cultural heritage belongs, and the beliefs Europeans have of themselves and others that are critical to their own identity. It will also examine the attitudes of leading institutions in Britain and will explore the differences in attitude between London based institutions and those of the Home Nations. Is a rather unsuccessful record of dealing with repatriation cases and few high profile successful cases an underlying problem?

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John Morton
Sociology and Anthropology
La trobe University

Hot Property values

Repatriation is a recent concept and practice that has in the main been forged through museums and allied disciplines, such as archaeology and anthropology. It is more or less inseparable from a late- or post-colonial discursive climate. Hence, the meanings attached to such practices as the return of human remains or sacred objects in Australia have to be seen as part of the much larger question of the relationship between the state (or Australians at large) and its indigenous peoples - a question which also encompasses matters to do with land rights, heritage protection, national identity and public Aboriginality. I argue that these and other matters inevitably entail some idea of repatriation, so that it is important to understand that repatriation has a much wider frame of reference than the return of human remains and sacred objects, although the prominence given to these particular items is significant and emblematic, framing a link between Aboriginal ancestry and Aboriginal religiosity that sacralises the very idea of Australia. However, the creation of a sacred indigenous nation is fraught with multiplex contradictions, tensions and contestations over the value and ownership of, and rights in, various forms of property.

Virginia Myles,
Senior Analyst, Analyste principal
Archaeological Services Branch/Direction des services archéologiques
Parks Canada/Parcs Canada
tel: 819-997-3572; fax: 819-953-8885
Parks Canada’s Directives and Policies Which Guide The Disposition of Human Remains and Objects to Aboriginal People

Virginia Myles will speak about recent developments at Parks Canada Agency (PCA) regarding the disposition of human remains and objects to Aboriginal people. Staff have become increasingly aware of their responsibility to Aboriginal people to properly care for Aboriginal human remains and objects under their custody and, in some cases, repatriate or transfer human remains and/or objects to Aboriginal people. As well, under specific circumstances, PCA has agreed to the reburial of human remains and funerary objects on PCA lands. Directives and policies are developing and evolving to meet the current needs and priorities of the Parks Canada Agency and guide staff in appropriate ways that respect Aboriginal concerns and take into account Aboriginal interests as well as national and international examples of best practices.

Parks Canada has become increasing aware of ethical concerns surrounding Aboriginal interests in human remains and objects as the result of land claims and treaty negotiations and consultation with Aboriginal people during the implementation of repatriations and transfers. PCA’s approaches have been influenced by international conventions, standards and guidelines, such as the Vermillion Accord and within Canada by the Task Force Report on Museums and First Peoples and the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People. To guide staff, two directives were approved by the CEO of Parks Canada in 2000. One is Management Directive 2.3.4 Human Remains, Cemeteries and Burial Grounds and the other is Management Directive 2.3.1 Repatriation of Moveable Cultural Resources of Aboriginal Affiliation. Virginia is the co-chair of a multidiscipinary repatriation working group that is currently developing Guidelines for The Disposition of Human Remains and Objects to Aboriginal People: Repatriation, Transfer and Reburial.

Mike Pickering
Head, Repatriation Section
National Museum of Australia

Despatches from the Front Line? Museum Experiences in Applied Repatriation.

Like most Australian Museums, the National Museum of Australia has been active in the return of ancestral remains and sacred objects. Repatriation exercises have generally proceeded without incident, attesting to the effectiveness of methods and procedures applied by Australian Museums in the repatriation process.
This paper describes the applied activities of the National Museum of Australia in repatriating ancestral remains and sacred objects. The discussion then turns to consider what has been learned through this work and to identify what might be required for the future development of the repatriation process.
It is argued that while applied repatriation proceeds as a practice there is still a strong need for the process to be better informed by multidisciplinary debates that address the philosophical and theoretical considerations of repatriation.

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Martin Skrydstrup,
Doctoral Student
Department of Anthropology
Columbia University
452 Schermerhorn Extension
1200 Amsterdam Avenue
New York, NY 10027
Phone: +1 212 368 8480
Fax: +1 212 854 7347

Claiming Cultural Property across International Borders

Is the concept of ‘cultural property’, and the protocols involved in claiming it across borders, alien to Indigenous Peoples? Or do international legal regimes on cultural property, such as the UNESCO 1970 and UNIDROIT 1995 Conventions leave First Nations, Aboriginals and Indigenous Peoples with no recourse to action?

The widely covered repatriation stories of ‘El Negro’ (Spain-Botswana, 2000) and ‘Sara Baartman’ (France-South Africa, 2002), as well as institutional self-scrutiny reflected by the ‘Working Group on Human Remains Report’ (U.K., 2003) mirror a global change of attitude to the legitimacy of keeping human remains in museum collections. However, international repatriation of material objects remains an entrenched battle field with seemingly hardening positions.

The Declaration by eighteen Museum Directors proclaiming their institutions as ‘Universal Museums’ (2002) is based upon an Enlightenment vision of repatriation as encroaching the public domain. On the other hand, the recent seizure of the Dja Dja Wurrung bark etchings on temporary loan from the British Museum and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew to Victoria Museum in Melbourne (2004), signals Aboriginal frustration with the ‘universal position’ taken by the British Museum. This specific clash of attitudes is a signpost of an increasingly polarized climate.

In light of these developments, I will consider opening questions above and explore how past acts of international repatriation could potentially inform future pathways.

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Paul Turnbull
Professor and chair
School of Arts, Media and Culture
Griffith University
Queensland 48111

Histories of Skeletal Collecting in the Wake of the Vermillion Accord

Debates about repatriation since the late 1980s have construed the meanings and relevance of the history of collecting human remains in differing ways. Most noticeably, advocates of repatriation have drawn connections between anatomical collecting and the production of racial science in various colonial contexts. Some have gone as far as to represent western biomedical sciences as instruments of colonial aggression. By way of contrast, scientists interested in preserving remains procured in former European colonies have emphasized the cognitive and ethical distance now separating contemporary researchers and their disciplinary forebears.

Drawing upon examples from the history of the procurement and scientific use of indigenous Australian remains, this paper appraises the strengths and weaknesses of the historical claims made by supporters of repatriation and by those who wish to preserve the continued availability of remains to science. In the process, the paper suggests how historical research can most profitably inform our understanding of the ethical complexities of repatriation.