Islanders remains repatriated from London museum

After a year and half of consultations between London’s National History Museum (NHM) and the Torres Strait Islanders in Australia, another repatriation of human remains from the U.K. to the Torres Strait community commenced on Mar. 9. This event marks the second and largest act of repatriation the NHM has undertaken. It acknowledges its desire to move towards improving archeological collaboration with aboriginal nations whose values have been repeatedly undermined.

The NHM has the remains of approximately 138 Aboriginal people, obtained during British exploration in the 18th and 19th centuries, that have been the subjects of scientific study since their possession. The Torres Strait Islanders are one Aboriginal nation out of many that have faced this form of subjugation. The repatriation decision demonstrates ways in which Aboriginal peoples can retain pieces of their history.

For the Torres Strait Islanders, the return of these remains is a great leap forward. The process of repatriation provides a way for the community to reconcile their cultural identity with the effects colonialism had, and still has, upon their existence.

The Torres Strait Islanders believe the spirits of a person are interconnected with their bodies and remains, thus the return of their ancestors will allow their spirits to rest after centuries of disruption.

Scientific research on human remains and other artifacts and sites does have immense capabilities in discovering new insights into societies of the past, and connecting these discoveries to society today.

“The people are represented through the artifacts that we find,” explained John Triggs, associate professor and department chair of archeology at Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU). “And in studying these, archaeologists seek to address aspects of society such as technological development, diet, social organization, settlement patterns, trade, migration, diffusion of ideas, religion and belief systems,” he added.

The analytical research on these artifacts can offer such a vast span of knowledge that remains contemporarily relevant.

However, there is an obvious tension between research and respecting the culture from which they belong to.

“Absolutely central to this process is the establishment and maintenance of an open dialogue between descendant communities and scientists, and alignment of analytical goals through the involvement of descendants in the decision making processes,” stated Bonnie Glencross, WLU professor of archaeology.

“While conditions such as obesity and diabetes are archaeologically invisible, they can be linked to historical changes in dietary quality and activity levels which are visible archaeologically,” Glencross continued. “This information is being used to develop pragmatic solutions for the treatment and prevention of health disparities amongst members of the community.”

The repatriation of the Torres Strait human remains by NHM demonstrates not only the action but the ideological change towards a collaborative approach to scientific research.