Australian museums still hold 10,500 First Nations remains

The sharp increase in ancestral remains in Australian museums – despite the Australian government’s native repatriation policy – simply frustrates Mr. Weatherall.

Long-time Indigenous activist Bob Weatherall continues to question museums’ commitment to returning ancestral remains.Credit:Tony moore

“They should empty their closets, not fill them,” he says.

“I think this shows that repatriation should be under the ownership and control of Indigenous people, and not under the authority of government or a government scientific body.

“I think there is a huge conflict of interest there, and it needs to be addressed.”

It is now the official policy of the Australian and Queensland governments to return the remains of First Nations peoples to their local communities, despite its complexity.

The Australian government says that since 1990, 2,710 early Australian ancestors and 2,240 secret and sacred objects have been returned by the eight museums to their local communities.

The overseas places from which Australia's indigenous remains have been returned over the past 30 years.

The overseas places from which Australia’s indigenous remains have been returned over the past 30 years. Credit:Australian government

In one example, in May 2021, three spears taken by Captain James Cook and his crew in 1770 were returned to the Gweagal people in New South Wales. They had been located at Trinity College of the Cambridge Museum of Archeology. The The Shield of Gweagal remains in the British Museum.

The Arts Bureau said the process of restoring ancient remains “is sensitive, complex and can take some time.”

“The timing of the return of ancestors with provenance to a community is usually determined by museums in close consultation with the relevant traditional custodians,” said a spokesperson.

“The number of ancestors returned each year varies. Each return is community led and the timing is determined by the wishes of the communities and in accordance with their cultural protocols.

In 2011, East Arnhem Chief Lawyer Jacob Nayinggul is pushed in his wheelchair by ANU historian Martin Thomas as he oversees proceedings as human remains are eventually returned to their ancestral home in Gunbalanya, Arnham Land.

In 2011, East Arnhem Chief Lawyer Jacob Nayinggul is pushed in his wheelchair by ANU historian Martin Thomas as he oversees proceedings as human remains are eventually returned to their ancestral home in Gunbalanya, Arnham Land. Credit:Fairfax Media

He said the increase in possessions of ancestral remains should be discussed with individual museums.

Two museums – which are among the eight supporting the Indigenous repatriation program – provided details of their collections of indigenous remains.

The Queensland Museum’s collections of ancestral remains have doubled since 2010.

As of June 7, 2010, the Queensland Museum held 382 ancestral remains and 216 sacred and secret objects, according to all museum documents provided by Mr Weatherall this week.

However, in September 2021, the Queensland Museum said it held 1,288 ancestral remains and sacred items, which included many items that had not been recorded before.

A recent 12-month audit shows 809 ancestral remains – bones and skulls – and 479 sacred and secret objects.

A spokeswoman for the Queensland Museum said some communities have asked the Queensland Museum to “keep” the remains for them when they return from other museums.

“They are being held for communities. They are not exposed.

More recently, the Queensland Museum returned the Burnett Rock engravings to the Bundaberg area; and the ancestral remains of Malanda, in the far north of Queensland.

Bob Weatherall says the role of museums in repatriating Indigenous remains to communities needs to be looked at closely.

Bob Weatherall says the role of museums in repatriating Indigenous remains to communities needs to be looked at closely.Credit:Tony moore

Queensland’s figures were reflected in data for September 2021 provided by the Native Repatriation Program run by the Federal Office of the Arts.

The data, released last Thursday, showed that in Canberra, a similar story has emerged at the National Museum of Australia.

As of June 2010, there were 1,346 ancestral remains at the National Museum of Australia, according to information provided by museums to Mr Weatherall in 2010.

However, as of September 2021, there are 2,738 individually numbered sets of ancestral remains, the museum said.

“These represent a minimum of 463 people,” the National Museum said.

He holds 49 sets of remains at the request of the indigenous communities.

“The museum returned the remains of more than 1,200 people and 350 secret sacred objects to the communities,” said a spokesperson.

The Native Repatriation Program estimates that about 30% of these ancestors have no “provenance”, meaning they cannot be linked to a specific community or place.

Mr Weatherall slowly shakes his head as I show him the 2021 figures from the museums at his suburban wooden house in north Brisbane.

He had insisted a week earlier that “between 7,000 and 10,000 ancestral remains” were still held by the eight Australian museums.

Museum figures in the native repatriation program suggest he is right.

Indigenous rights artist Bob Weatherall closes the Brisbane Festival's Restless Dream performance by recounting his career in restoring ancestral remains to Indigenous communities.

Indigenous rights artist Bob Weatherall closes the Brisbane Festival’s Restless Dream performance by recounting his career in restoring ancestral remains to Indigenous communities.Credit:Half-way

His fight for the return of indigenous remains to their communities dates back four decades and was recognized this month at the Brisbane Festival.

The Brisbane Festival paid tribute to his work to bring ancestral relics home in the musical Restless dream, a collaboration with the Queensland group, Halfway.

During a song Bloodlines n ° 2 Bob Weatherall sings in spoken verse: “We tell them who we are and where we come from.” We are Kamilaroi, descendants of the Balonne, Moonie, Culgoa, McIntyre and Barwon rivers.

“We came to get you. We have come to take you home.

Bob Weatherall and the 1991 Edinburgh University statement entrusting him with the collection of Aboriginal remains

Bob Weatherall and the 1991 Edinburgh University statement entrusting him with the collection of Aboriginal remainsCredit:Tony moore

Mr Weatherall has lost confidence in the museum’s repatriation program and suggests a change.

There must be a separation between the role of museums and that of returning ancestors to their communities, he believes.

“It has to be a center of excellence for the repatriation of ancestors in order to bring them all home, and it has to be under the control of the natives.

Bob Weatherall and Professor Marcia Langton - then an anthropology student at the University of Queensland.  They are pictured here in Brisbane protesting Queensland's Indigenous affairs policies ahead of the 1982 Commonwealth Games.

Bob Weatherall and Professor Marcia Langton – then an anthropology student at the University of Queensland. They are pictured here in Brisbane protesting Queensland’s Indigenous affairs policies ahead of the 1982 Commonwealth Games.Credit:Bob weatherall

Mr Weatherall has a proudly framed statement from the University of Edinburgh Senate dated September 30, 1991, which designates him as an appropriate representative to receive “all aboriginal remains held by the university”.

Nearly 600 ancestral remains and objects subsequently returned home.

He set up a pilot project between 2011-12 to remove 32 ancestral remains from the Queensland Museum, the Anatomy Department of the University of Queensland and the Queensland Forensic Laboratories and had them re-buried at Kamilaroi Cemetery in St George.

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