Conflict vs Concord: An Alternative Model for Human Remains Repatriation

Sunday, 16 February 2014
Acapulco (Hyatt Regency Chicago)
Norman MacLeod , Natural History Museum, London, United Kingdom
The repatriation of human remains from western museums back to their communities of origin is often presented as a symbolizing a fundamental dichotomy between the scientific research and the claimant communities with regard to the manner in which these remains are valued, across which little other than a common and intense interest in them exists. Examples of  insensitivity, misunderstanding, and stereotyping by both sides pepper the history of interactions between these groups. Nevertheless, both groups share a larger number of common interests than is often appreciated. These include interests in the light these remains can shed — tangibly and symbolically — on the origins, history and cultural practices of the groups they represent, the manner in which they can be used  — tangibly and symbolically — to educate young people about human history, and the evidence they provide of the common humanity of all people across vast spans of time and space. At The Natural History Museum (London) we have, over the past decade, been deeply engaged in a process of institution-wide constructive engagement with indigenous communities over these issues. It has been our experience that, with education, understanding, and goodwill on both sides, it is possible to bridge the perceived interest gap and develop respectful approaches to human remains access management that satisfies the needs of both communities. These approaches have taken different forms in different cases, but together they span the gamut from full repatriation and surrender of all administrative duties to claimant communities to retention, by mutual agreement, of a larger part of the collections belonging to particular communities to a community-sanctioned commitment to increase the amount of scientific research performed on these collections, in some cases with the active participation of individuals from the owner communities. It is our belief that this process of direct and constructive engagement represents a viable (if not the only) process by which both communities can attain the full and legitimate aspirations. Moreover, we see the products of this approach operating in the repatriation and scientific research programmes of many other institutions. The time has now come to  shift the emphasis of human remains repatriation and research work from a focus on ownership to one of engagement and collaboration based on mutual understanding of, and respect for, the valuable contribution both communities’ shared interest in these remains can make to their preservation, study and veneration.