The remains of indigenous people from all over the world have ended up in various British institutions. Why do their descendants have so much trouble getting them returned?
In November 2011, Ned David travelled the 8,500 miles from his home on Thursday Island, off the tip of Queensland, Australia, to the Natural History Museum in London. He was on a mission to collect the bones of his ancestors. The material included skulls, a jawbone and other fragments from the Torres Strait archipelago, collected by Europeans in the 19th century as scientific specimens and anthropological curios. The museum had agreed that the remains should be given back to their “originating community”, and it was finally time to take them home.
A private ceremony was held – David is reluctant to share the details with outsiders – and afterwards he and his fellow islanders went back to their hotel. But the mood wasn’t celebratory. “Mate,” he says, “it was sombre with a capital ‘S’. There was sort of this eerie feeling after all the hoo-ha and the media, and whatever. We sat around and no one spoke. I think it took a long time to realise the significance of what we had done.”
The handover had followed a consultation in which islanders were asked what they wanted to do about body parts that were sitting in collections on the other side of the world. Feelings ran high. “It’s probably one of those rare exercises we have done as a nation in which we were in total agreement with each other,” says David, who chairs the Gur A Baradharaw Kod, or Torres Strait Sea and Land council. “As one elder said: ‘How would you feel knowing that one of your family members is in some strange place and, more importantly, hasn’t been afforded the right burial?’ That has an impact on the psyche of a group.”