Transforming Concerns about Human Remains into an Issue

Transforming Concerns about Human Remains into an Issue

It is helpful to situate the emergence of the problem of human remains in British collections within the context of the rise of this issue in other countries, drawing out the similarities and identifying diverging trends. Although the contestations over human remains in Australia and America, and indeed in Canada and New Zealand, are different in each country, there are parallels in the way in which they emerged. In the early 1970s, a developing American Indian political movement and the Australian Aboriginal land rights movement gained support and achieved legislation on questions of religious freedom and land rights (Cove 1995; Tilden Rhea 1997). In this context, prominent debates were conducted over the failures of assimilation, the definitions of identity, and the rights of such groups to land (Smith 2004a). There was a congruent concern about the fate of cultural heritage and an interest in preserving the past, with a growing focus on heritage and its significance to Western societies (Lowenthal 1985; Hewison 1987). Ideas about the problems of indigenous groups became linked to ideas about the importance of the past, and broader, anthropological concepts of culture (Brown 2003). As anthropologist John Cove (1995) observes, the Tasmanian Aboriginal rights movement formed in the 1970s, asserting its rights to land, as did similar movements in America and Canada, but broad social trends helped to reframe these demands over land into claims on historic cultural heritage.

Emerging requests on institutions to transfer remains were therefore framed with a motif of recognizing the needs of indigenous groups to interpret their own history (see for example, Tivy 1993; Hurst Thomas 2000). From the mid 1980s onwards, codes and policies were published advocating a more sympathetic attitude towards repatriation. In the case of the National Museum of the American Indian Act (NMAIA) of 1989 and the Native American Graves Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990, passed in North America, legislation compelled the inventory of human material and associated funerary items from all federally funded institutions and its delivery to lineal descendants and culturally affiliated tribes. In law, policy and codes of conduct, the problem identified was the rights and needs of the indigenous groups to their histories.

The contestation over human remains in British collections arose a decade later, in the 1990s. While holding similarities to America, Austral-asia, Canada and New Zealand, the issue in Britain saw different motifs develop over time. From the outset this was primarily due to the weak pressure from overseas indigenous groups on British institutions. This is not to present these groups as a single or fixed grouping. The politics of who is part of what tribe and who is considered legitimate is complex. Nor is it to compress the differences between these contestations. Despite such variations, the aim here is to indicate that there has been comparatively limited pressure from overseas indigenous groups on British institutions. Although there were requests for human remains from overseas indigenous groups, these were not high in number and nor was there a rise in requests. Indeed, the Human Remains Working Group Report, written by a government-appointed committee, noted that claims from overseas indigenous groups on institutions are ‘low’ (DCMS 2003b: 16). A survey conducted to evaluate the number of claims discovered only 33 claims on English institutions, seven of which had already been agreed to, and some of which were repeat claims (DCMS 2003a). This relative lack of pressure from groups, and the less pertinent comparable question of indigenous issues, explains why the problem of human remains developed more slowly in Britain than in some other countries.

The emergence of a problem like that of human remains in collections is most usefully understood as the outcome of the activities of individuals or groups making claims and complaints with respect to some condition that requests attention. Sociologist John Hannigan (1995) highlights the influence of ‘issues entrepreneurs’ in the creation of social problems: individuals who vocalize concerns and raise awareness to build a case for change. This first chapter introduces the individuals campaigning for shifts in museums and the treatment of human remains. It analyzes how they framed this problem and gained attention for it, and how their claims were legitimized. Many activists were initially from the United States and Australia. Others in Britain quickly adopted the problem through a process of diffusion: the process by which ideas spread among people. Significantly, many were archaeological, anthropological and museum professionals, who campaigned within the institutions and their disciplines.


It is possible to locate the surfacing of the problem of human remains and identify the diffusion of the issue to museum professionals in Britain by following the activities of the World Archaeological Congress (WAC), a non-governmental organization that runs an international congress every four years on the theory of archaeology. The anthropologist Peter Ucko organized the first Congress in Southampton in 1986, where he was based at the university. Ucko came to be an influential campaigner, with experience and contacts in Australia and America, where the issue was developing into an important concern. Previously Ucko had been Principal of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies in Canberra, an independent Australian government statutory authority, designed to record the language and customs of the Aborigines.

Although the first WAC was dominated by debates about academic freedom, it was here that concern about the holding of human remains of indigenous groups arose. In one conference session, Jan Hammil, a representative of the organization American Indians Against Desecration (AIAD), spoke about the storage of her ancestors, the desecration of sacred sites, and how this affected American Indians (Hammil 1995; Hammil and Cruz 1989). There was great interest in her speech, which resulted in a request for her to repeat the session, to participate in other sessions, and to address the plenary session, after which she was co-opted onto the Steering Committee of the WAC (Ucko 1987). Additional speakers at the WAC from America and Australia were campaigning against the excavation and holding of indigenous human remains. Papers were presented by the American anthropologist and activist Larry Zimmerman, British anthropologist and activist Jane Hubert, American anthropologist and activist Randall H. McGuire, Robert Cruz, a Tohono O’odham Indian from Arizona, and Lori Richardson, the Aboriginal advisor to the National Museum of Australia (Layton 1989).

The holding of indigenous human remains subsequently became a ‘crucially important’ issue for the WAC (Ucko 1987: 228). Ucko consulted with AIAD about the treatment of American Indian human remains, traveling across Indian reservations with Jane Hubert, Robert Cruz and Jan Hammil to discuss the issue. The Steering Committee, including Ucko and Hammil, encouraged museums in Britain, such as the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, to remove skeletal material of overseas indigenous groups. They ‘raised the problem’ (Ucko 1987: 231) amongst the museum sector, arranging meetings and forging links between museum professionals, archaeologists, and indigenous groups. Direct contact between key individuals internationally, facilitated by the WAC network, was instrumental in the diffusion of the problem from North America to Britain, where adopters were members of the museum sector.

Peter Ucko and Jane Hubert assumed ownership of the campaign while they worked in Britain. Cressida Fforde, Ucko’s research student, built direct links with other activists and groups through the WAC and museums, significantly contributing to the promotion of the issue to the profession. Her research work gave the problem a British focus. Fforde researched the historical circumstances of the acquisition and collection of human remains, examining various separate collections.1 In 1997 she worked with FAIRA, the Foundation for Aboriginal Islander Research Action, and the London-based Aboriginal activist Lyndon Ormond-Parker, to identify and document Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander ancestral remains held in European institutions (Ormond Parker 1997). In 2004, she conducted a scoping survey of pre-1948 human remains in University College London collections (Fforde 2004a). Fforde also contributed a submission to the Human Remains Working Group Report (Fforde 2001) and the government and museum sector’s joint code of guidance (DCMS 2005). She has acted as an archives researcher, searching the museums for human remains to transfer to communities. For example, one set of bones she found was repatriated out of the University of Edinburgh to the Ngarrindjeri people of South Australia, in July 2008.

Receptive Museum Professionals

Theorists of diffusion make an analytic distinction between relational channels involving direct interpersonal contact between transmitters and adopters, and channels that do not involve personal ties (McAdam and Rucht 1993). Strang and Meyer (1993) observe that linkages may be cultural as well as relational, which may help to explain diffusion that is especially fast. Although it is possible to chart the direct relationships formed between campaigners in the WAC, Peter Ucko, Cressida Fforde and the museum sector, many were highly receptive to their campaigning and adopted concepts quickly, suggesting cultural purchase for these ideas. It is unlikely that a few individuals could otherwise have had such an impact.

In the 1990s, the professional body for the museum sector, the Museums Association (MA), commissioned the museologist and activist Moira Simpson to undertake two research projects to determine its members’ views about repatriation in general. She found the vast majority of respondents accepted the notion of repatriation (Simpson 1994: 28, 1997: 17). Out of the 123 respondents, only three were categorically opposed. Of these respondents only 17 institutions out of 164 had received enquiries or requests for repatriation (Simpson 1997: 17). Historic Scotland (1997: 9) notes a similarly sympathetic reaction in relation to the issue of reburial amongst archaeologists and museum professionals, which it comments is ‘surprising’. The act of repatriation also had support from the Museums Journal, the professional journal published by the MA. Two editorials published in the 1990s advocated the transfer of human remains out of collections (Davies 1993, 1994). The first editorial argued that UK museums should ‘stop dragging their heels over the return of human remains’ (Davies 1993: 3). The editor and writer of both editorials was Maurice Davies, later deputy director of the MA and member of the Working Group on Human Remains (WGHR). The articles included in the 1993 issue of the Museums Journal were primarily concerned with the relationship between museums and indigenous groups, with one article written by a Canadian scholar Dan Monroe, one of the authors of the Native American Graves Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). In 1994 the Museums Journal devoted an issue to the problem of human remains in UK museums. In that edition, British professionals and museologists took up the baton. The editor of the Society of Museum Archaeologists, Edmund Southworth, advocated that general policy and principles should be established to deal with human remains and restitution (Southworth 1994). Moira Simpson reported on her survey and discussed a positive case study of the transfer of Aboriginal remains from Glasgow museums (Simpson 1994).

The receptivity of certain members of the sector is further demonstrated by decisions taken by senior professionals to repatriate human remains to overseas indigenous groups. In the 1990s Bradford, Peterborough, University of Oxford Museum of Natural History, Pitt Rivers, Manchester University Museum, Horniman Museum, Exeter, and Whitby museums took decisions to transfer human remains to Australia, Canada and New Zealand (see DCMS 2003a; DCMS 2003b; Alberti 2009). In 1991, Edinburgh University began to repatriate its collection of skeletal remains, initially requested by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC) in 1982 (Greenfield 2007: 304). In 2000, it repatriated its remaining collection of Aboriginal remains and its collection of Hawaiian remains. In 2002, the Royal College of Surgeons returned remains to Tasmania (RCS 2002). Whereas these decisions were made in response to requests from overseas groups, one was initiated by a museum professional, as one report acknowledges: ‘Nor did the impetus to return material always come from overseas. The return of Maori human remains from the National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside was instigated by the then Keeper of Ethnography.’ (DCMS 2003a: 28)


To understand the construction of a problem, sociologist Joel Best (1987, 1995) analyzes rhetoric: the deliberate use of language in order to persuade. In this case, advocates argue for the transfer of human remains to culturally affiliated claimants through a discourse of ‘making amends’ and the therapeutic impact of return. Overseas indigenous communities still suffer from the impact of colonialism, they contend, leaving a detrimental legacy that can be alleviated by repatriation. Such motifs had broader cultural purchase and lent authority to their demands. Significantly, departing from other contestations over human remains, activists successfully extended the domain of their claims by associating their campaign with high-profile contemporary controversies over the retention of children’s body parts by hospitals. This expanded the problem to one that included the treatment of uncontested remains from the British Isles.

The March 1993 issue of the Museums Journal was dedicated to the question of human remains in museums.2 The front cover stated in prominent text: ‘REBURYING HUMAN REMAINS: Making amends for past wrongs’. The magazine devoted five opinion articles, one news item and the editorial to the problem. The reference to reburial in the cover headline was borrowed from campaigners in America and Australia, where campaigners had named the problem the ‘reburial issue’. The use of the term ‘reburial’ rhetorically acts to suggest that all remains had been uprooted, or exhumed unnaturally, presenting burial as the original and normal state—even though once transferred to communities, remains are not always buried, nor had they necessarily been recovered from a burial ground. The term ‘reburial’ was soon dropped by the majority of activists in Britain in the 1990s, and replaced with a focus on the need for ‘repatriation’. Repatriation is a term that is used by all participants in this debate, regardless of their position on the question, but it should be noted that the word, used accurately, describes the return to ‘home’ of an object or person. The assumption within the use of the term ‘repatriation’ is that the human remains have a home to return to, but this is not strictly the case in many instances. The human remains may be sent to a museum for holding, and the original tribe or person from who they were obtained may never be known. The dominance of the term and the use of it by campaigners from very different positions, as well as in other accounts of the issue, indicates an acceptance of a value-laden term that suggests that there is a rightful home to which the remains could be returned.

‘Making amends for past wrongs’ was the dominant frame for claims-makers in Britain in the 1990s. Activists, mostly professionals with a background in archaeology, anthropology or museology, aimed to change the minds of those in the sector who contested the repatriation of remains, predominately the scientists who research the remains. The case that the transfer of remains is essential to ‘make amends’ is clearly present in the secondary literature advocating the repatriation of human remains and demanding changes in museum policy. While a motif of making reparations for colonization is present in campaigning material in America and Australia in relation to the problem of settler societies (see for example, Monroe 1993; Mihesuah 2000; Hurst Thomas 2006), there is a greater focus on it in Britain, emphasized in research by activists specifically on the role of British collectors and museums in acquiring and using human remains.

The first reason given by campaigners for making amends, using powerful rhetoric, is the problem of the original acquisition. Anthropologist Jane Hubert is one of many who refer to this as ‘grave-robbing’ (Hubert 1989: 136. See also Zimmerman 1989; Fforde 2002; Macdonald 2006). Moira Simpson describes ‘the removal of bodies from battlefields, the theft of bodies from mortuaries, graves, burial caves and other mortuary sites’ (1996: 176). Tristram Besterman argued, at a public debate, that ‘the collections in our Western museums derive, at their most innocent, from grave robbing, and at their worst, from wholesale slaughter’ (IoI 2003: 3. See also Richardson, L. 1989; Bromilow 1993; Hinde 2007). Speaking on BBC Radio Four’s Today Programme, Marilyn Strathern, Professor of Social Anthropology at Cambridge University and a member of the Working Group on Human Remains (WGHR), stated: ‘We are thinking of theft of a very brutal nature’. She continued:

Strathern’s use of the currently fashionable term ‘abuse’, while self-conscious, is another reference to a recognized social problem that adds force to rhetoric aiming to establish that the historical removal of human remains has caused harm to communities.

Campaigners conducted original research on how human remains were acquired during the time of British colonial expansion in Australia. This was predominately undertaken by the archaeologist Cressida Fforde. Her research adds to the documenting of historical material during the period of British colonization, to use in building the case for repatriation on the basis of the problems with acquisition. For example, Fforde’s submission to the WGHR reads:

The Working Group, may, for example, wish to examine as a case study […] remains such as those currently held by a UK museum that are Australian Aboriginal individuals killed in a ‘punitive expedition’ in 1920. The leader of the expedition boiled down the bones of the massacre victims after slaughter was complete in order to prepare them as museum specimens. (Fforde 2001: 4)

In this excerpt, Fforde uses an especially graphic case to illustrate the treatment of individuals whose bones were then given to museums. The words ‘boiled’, ‘massacre’, ‘victims’ and ‘slaughter’ are all forcefully employed to suggest that this is how museums obtain their collections. The use of the word ‘specimens’ contrasts with the others, implying that people are killed in order to be prepared into museum objects.

A similar account, which appears to reference the same case and employs the use of numbers, was included in a newspaper article in the Guardian newspaper by the then editor of the Museums Journal,

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