Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Knowledge or humanity

British Museum trustees' decision to return human remains to Tasmania was harder than we expected

Helena Kennedy
Tuesday March 28, 2006

Two bundles held by the British Museum, made of kangaroo skin and closed by a drawstring, are unremarkable, but contain human ash gathered from a cremation fire by Tasmanian Aboriginals in about 1830. They are extremely rare physical traces of a population nearly exterminated during European settlement in the 19th century. This genocide, in which the indigenous people were shot for sport by farmers, was one of the most shameful episodes in British colonial history. The last full-blood Tasmanian Aboriginal died in 1888, but the original population continues to exist in the form of Tasmanians of mixed Aboriginal and European descent. And it is their representative body, the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, that has asked for the return of their ancestors' ashes.

The law prohibits trustees from disposing of any part of the museum's collection - a sensible measure to protect against short-term financial or political pressures. But it has long been obvious that human remains are not like other objects held by museums. Descendants are distressed that the remains of ancestors have not reached their final resting place, in accordance with indigenous customs. And when, as in the case of the Tasmanian Aboriginals, those ancestors suffered such an egregious wrong, that distress is likely to be very intense.

Last year parliament passed a law recognising the unique status of human remains in museum collections, and enabling trustees to transfer ownership when appropriate. British Museum trustees welcomed this change; indeed, we helped draft a code of practice to accompany the law. Now the trustees could return human remains where the burial process had been interrupted, which includes the ashes in the bundles. But should they? That question proved more complicated than we expected.

The bundles were filled with the cremated ashes of a family member, then carried close to the body as amulets to protect against illness or alleviate physical pain. There is no way of knowing what would ultimately have happened to these two bundles had they not been collected by an outsider as records of structures of belief and religious practice among the native Tasmanians; it seems likely that they would have been laid to rest in a particular place in the landscape, perhaps in a tree or somewhere in the bush.

But - and it is a big but - these are now the only two such bundles known anywhere in the world. That means they are the only surviving physical evidence of a whole system of belief and a social order that has since disappeared: precisely the kind of object the British Museum was established to keep and preserve. In our present state of knowledge the ashes can reveal no further useful information about the health or physical history of the people when alive; but who knows what knowledge might one day be derived from them? As trustees, we had to consider if we could responsibly allow the loss of what might be the last possible information about Tasmanian Aboriginals.

The debate was difficult. How do you weigh a possible advance in human understanding against the desire of a community of people to see the return of the ashes of recent forebears so they can be disposed of with appropriate ritual? Which course of action will lead to greatest public benefit? Might a later generation of Aboriginal descendants deplore the loss of the already slender material evidence of Tasmanian customs? How will that loss look in a hundred years?

The trustees consulted three outside experts and the museum's own curators. There was much debate on fact and law. Eventually we unanimously decided that the ashes should be transferred to the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre.

· Baroness Helena Kennedy QC is a human rights lawyer and British Museum trustee

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006

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