Engagement with Indigenous Communities over Human Remains at the Natural History Museum

Sunday, 16 February 2014
Acapulco (Hyatt Regency Chicago)
Margaret Clegg , Natural History Museum, London, United Kingdom
The repatriation of human remains is often presented as a simple dichotomy between scientists and the claimant communities in which no common ground can possibly exist. It is however possible, with goodwill on both sides, to understand the values and viewpoints of the other. The Natural History Museum has over the past decade adopted more constructive approaches when meeting with and supporting claimant communities which strives to combine respect for their needs and beliefs while still engaging in discussion about the importance of ancestral human remains to science. This approach necessitated several changes in our traditional way of working in this area, including a requirement to be open in our dealings with indigenous communities, sharing findings, and being prepared to leave the ‘ivory tower’ of the institution and meet with claimant communities on their home territory. We feel, and evidence shows that these initiatives are beginning to break down barriers and enable the scientists at the NHM and the communities to see each other as fellow human beings and cultural allies rather than political adversaries. Our experiences with communities have been many and varied. Our first repatriation, to Tasmania, was a difficult experience but our discussions with the community revealed a mismatch between expectations and understanding.  This has formed the basis for a new way forward for the museum. The repatriation of ancestral remains to Torres Strait was the first using our new methods and has allowed an exchange of ideas and understanding to be made which has culminated in the community deciding to leave ancestral Torres Strait remains in trust with the NHM for molecular analysis. This would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. Our most recent return was to Hawaii, this was a different experience as there is an expectation in the community that remains will be reburied immediately upon return. However, our long discussions, through meetings and conference calls allowed the community and the museum to move from being adversaries to collaborators, working to ensure that remains of doubtful provenance were correctly identified. Our current claim is from a group of communities in South Australia and we have and are working with these communities and their representatives to share our knowledge with each other and provide a greater understanding of the value and importance of these ancestral remains to all parties. Working with communities is allowing the emphasis to shift from conflict to mutual understanding and the realisation that both researchers and communities have a shared interest, respect and veneration of the remains.