Natural History Museum returns bones of 138 Torres Strait Islanders

Tears of joy as human remains are repatriated to natives of islands located between Australia and Papua New Guinea

The Natural History Museum is to return the bones of 138 men and women to the Torres Strait Islanders in Australia in what is believed to be the largest repatriation of human remains from any UK museum collection.

"They are our people and they are coming home – this is a wonderful moment for us," said Ned David, a community leader from the Central Islands.

"When I spoke to one of the elders on the phone tonight I could not hear any words, just sobbing."

As a gesture of respect the museum is not releasing any images of the bones.

Most, ranging from a jaw to full skeletons, have been in England since the mid 19th century. Some came back as sailors' souvenirs, some were collected by the surgeon of the British survey ship Rattlesnake, some were bought or traded among the first European visitors.

Those visitors were fascinated by the hundreds of islands that lie between Australia and Papua New Guinea, mostly now administered from Queensland. Many are threatened by rising sea levels.

Several islands used elaborate tattoos, some mummified bodies using techniques said to resemble those of ancient Egypt and others preserved and displayed the skulls of ancestors.

When the Natural History Museum was founded in 1881 the bones became part of a huge collection of 20,000 human remains, mostly from Britain, some dating back to prehistoric times.

Research at the museum has revealed that of the 141 sets of remains believed to be of Torres Strait Islanders, three were actually European and one Asian. These will stay in London.

Repatriation claims from many indigenous peoples began in earnest in the 1990s but for years were stonewalled by many museums with a blanket statement that they were not legally allowed to return the collections.

In 2006 the Human Tissues Act gave national museums the power to follow the example of many university and local museums by agreeing to repatriation.

Despite the acrimony of some earlier repatriation claims, both the Natural History Museum and the Torres Islanders hope the remains will not be lost to science but that research can continue for years, perhaps generations.

The museum's chiefs are also offering a placement to a Torres Strait Islander to work with them in South Kensington.

Richard Lane, the museum's director of science, said: "New techniques can reveal many things from the study of such remains, giving answers to questions which may well be of interest to the Torres Islanders themselves, such as where these people came from, how they lived, what their diet was.

"Nothing will be forced on the Islanders from outside, everything will be discussed between us. This must be a new way forward for museums."

David said: "Bringing our ancestors home is not about science, this is about human beings. But we are going to avoid playing the blame game.

"We want to grab the opportunity to build a bigger, stronger and wider relationship with the Natural History Museum."

Going home: human remains repatriated from UK museums

• In 2010 National Museum Liverpool returned the mummified body of a baby to the Torres Strait Islands: the skull had been stolen more than half a century earlier while it was on display in Norwich.

• In 2009 Brighton's Booth Museum of Natural History agreed to return two Aboriginal skulls, a skull waterholder and two thigh bones to Australia.

• In 2008 the British Museum agreed to return nine bone fragments to New Zealand.

• In 2008 and 2009 the Natural History and Pitt Rivers museums in Oxford both agreed to repatriate remains to Australia.

• Since 1996 the Royal Albert Museum in Exeter has repatriated human remains to New Zealand, North America and Australia.

• In 2007 the University of Aberdeen's Marischal Museum returned to New Zealand nine tattooed heads, part of the collection since the 1820s.


Maev Kennedy

The GuardianTramp

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