The Natural History Museum (NHM) in London announced today that it will return a significant collection of decorated heads, a mummy, and other 19th century human remains to their Aboriginal descendants in the Torres Strait Islands. The agreement demonstrates "for the first time in the United Kingdom a new way of approaching repatriation claims in what has been previously a hugely polarized debate," says Richard Lane, director of science at NHM.
British museums are not known for speedy repatriation of objects, such as Greece's famous Elgin marbles, but in 18 months of negotiations, NHM scientists explained the scientific importance and care of the remains to elders on the Torres Strait Islands, an archipelago between the northern coast of Australia and New Guinea. The museum has also offered to hire an islander who will learn to work scientifically with the remains at the museum, and museum officials also reserved the right to retain the collection if it appears likely to be destroyed.
Most of the remains came from a cave on the island of Pulu, a site sacred to the people who live on Mabuiag Island. A missionary teacher had the remains removed from the cave after the island's community converted to Christianity; many of the decorated skulls and jawbones ended up with a dealer who sold them to the museum in 1884. A mummy was donated to the museum, and islanders traded other remains during the early to mid-19th century to officers and naturalists aboard Naval Survey ships, including one on which Darwin's close friend, English biologist Thomas Huxley, served as a surgeon. They were added to the museum's collection of 20,000 human remains.
After Torres Strait Island elders asked for the remains, museum scientists were able to identify the origins of 141 skeletal and soft tissue remains, ranging from a single tooth to a rare mummy. They linked 119 individuals to the Torres Strait islands, including 19 to specific islands.
Press reports in the United Kingdom suggest that some researchers are concerned that their ability to continue to study these remains will be impeded. But the NHM press release describes the elders of the islands as being "deeply touched" by the transfer, according to Ned David of the Torres Strait Islands.