It’s Not Just Art That Indigenous People Are Fighting to Reclaim From Museums. They Want Their Ancestors’ Remains Back, Too

There are thousands of bones, skulls, and even preserved heads of the victims of colonization hidden in museums' storage. But repatriation is rarely a simple process.

A delegation from Easter Island demonstrate outside the British Museum in London after requesting the return of an ancestor figure, or moai, 2018. (Photo by Adrian Dennis / AFP Getty Images.)

The British Museum, Berlin State Museums, French national museums, and even the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York all have—quite literally—been keeping skeletons in their closets.

Institutions across Europe and the US face growing calls to return art looted during the colonial era. But there is an even more emotive—and darker—dimension to the problem, of which few museum visitors are likely aware.

Western institutions have thousands of skulls, skeletons, bone fragments, and even preserved heads of Indigenous people that will never be displayed. While some have been or are on their way to being returned to their descendants, others lie hidden deep in storage, living in “museum limbo.”

Typically donated by collectors, missionaries, and colonial officials in the 19th century, these objects are a dark legacy of European’s voracious appetite for “curios” of so-called primitive people. Others were collected as evidence of long-discredited, pseudo-scientific theories of white racial supremacy.

Lou-ann Ika’wega Neel—a descendant of the Mamalillikulla, Da’nax’daxw, Ma’amtagila, ‘Namgis and Kwagiulth tribes of the Kwakwaka’wakw and vice chair of the the First Peoples’ Cultural Council in British Columbia—has been working with the Royal British Columbia Museum to help it return hundreds of human remains and sacred cultural objects. “It’s about closure and reconciliation,” she tells artnet News.

Neel stresses how important it is for communities to know that “their grandparents and great grandparents” are reburied with the correct rituals and ceremonies. Many believe that their ancestors’ spirits cannot rest until their remains are returned. “It is a form of healing,” she says.

Sydney Parkinson, Head of Otegoowgoow. Son of a New Zealand Chief, from the book: A Journal of a Voyage to the South Seas, in his Majesty’s Ship the Endeavour (1784). Te Papa.

The Skeletons in the Closet

Although they are less visible than objects like the British Museum’s iconic Easter Island head, which was recently subject to a claim by the Rapa Nui people, sacred remains were among the earliest class of objects to enter into the restitution conversation—and they could now serve as an important precedent for other looted colonial-era objects. “Only the restitution of human remains seems to be progressively finding its way into the institutional consciousness,” states a groundbreaking recent report about African artifacts plundered from French museums and commissioned by the French President.

Among the most prized “curios” were the preserved tattooed heads of the Māori people. The grim trade began in 1770, when the aristocratic botanist Joseph Banks arrived in New Zealand and traded a pair of linen drawers for the preserved head of a teenage boy.

Within 50 years, the trade of human remains was banned. But not before hundreds were sold, many of which ended up in museums in Europe and North America. New York’s American Museum of Natural History purchased 35 of them in 1907. 

The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa estimates that there are remains of at least 600 known Māori and Moriori ancestors, including their preserved heads, in European museums. This number is dwarfed by the human remains collected from around the world, excluding ancient remains discovered by archaeologists. For example, there are around 5,000 skulls of unknown Africans in Berlin State Museums, which were taken from the former German colony of East Africa (now Rwanda, Tanzania, and Burundi).


A More Recent Chapter

By no means do all of the human remains of Indigenous or colonized people date from the 19th century. A few were collected as late at the 1950s. When the Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl sailed the Pacific in 1955, he brought back bones belonging to the Rapa Nui, the Aboriginal Easter Islanders. They are now in Oslo’s Kon-Tiki Museum.

The Met in New York has far fewer modern human remains than its European peers, but the ones it does have are in one of its most celebrated collections. Ten “ancestor-trophy skulls” from West Papua are listed on its website. They are part of the collection donated by Nelson and Mary Rockefeller in 1965 in memory of their son, Michael Rockefeller, who disappeared while on a collecting expedition in the region.

The former director of the British Museum and founding director of Berlin’s Humboldt Forum, Neil MacGregor (left), and the President of the Prussian Heritage Foundation, Hermann Parzinger, greet German Chancellor Angela Merkel. (Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images).

The Met’s new director, Max Hollein, oversaw the repatriation of Māori remains at the De Young Museum in San Francisco, where he previously served as director. As the Met embarks on a $70 million overhaul of its Michael C. Rockefeller Wing, Hollein tells artnet News: “Museums have a vital role to play in participating in this complex dialogue, and the Met is committed to identifying and implementing the most respectful treatment of these objects.” The museum has not received any repatriation requests but welcomes discussion with communities about culturally sensitive works in the collection, says a spokesman.

Meanwhile, the creation of an ethnographic museum in Berlin’s planned Humboldt Forum, which is due to have a soft opening next year, has made the issue of human remains a priority in the German capital. The huge project overseen by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation is being closely watched by its international peers. In a surprise move, the foundation’s president Hermann Parzinger pledged to repatriate thousands of human remains to their country of origin. A spokeswoman for the foundation admits that the African skulls inherited from the Charité hospital are in a “deplorable state,” but that provenance research has begun thanks to external funding.


Bringing Back the Dead

Institutional attitudes toward the restitution of human remains have come a long way over the past two decades as a result of pressure from source communities and changing attitudes among some curators and museum directors in the West. But progress has often been slow, and returns, hard-won.

Māori and Moriori communities have achieved notable successes backed by the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and the New Zealand government. Since 2003, Te Papa has repatriated nearly 500 skeletal remains from museums in the UK, France, Germany, Sweden, and the US. The largest return so far has come from the American Museum of Natural History, which restituted 107 Māori and Moriori ancestral remains in 2014.

Museums that resist claims often cite the research potential as a reason for keeping the remains in storage. But Nick Merriman, who was in charge of the Manchester Museum in the North of England when it willingly agreed to return human remains to New Zealand last May, says there was no evidence that the museum had ever used the objects for research “the entire time they had been in the collection.” 

Bremen’s Übersee Museum recently repatriated 44 human remains to New Zealand. The director of the ethnographic museum in north Germany, Wiebke Ahrndt, says that she was surprised when Māori representatives personally thanked the museum for taking care of their ancestors. “We were not expecting that,” she says.

A welcoming ceremony at Te Papa with repatriated tūpuna (ancestors) from the UK, October 2013. Courtesy of The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

Ahrndt stresses that not every community wants the skulls or bones of their ancestors returned, citing those from Tibet and Haiti. But with the Māori remains, the ethical issues were clear cut. Her predecessor in the early 20th century personally stole some of the bones. The museum’s then-director complained—or boasted—that he had to remove them from sacred sites at night. “He knew he was breaking a taboo,” Ahrndt says.

Museums point out that provenance research takes time and money, although the cost of repatriation is largely borne by source communities. The Royal Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria offers an unusual model: it helps fund First Nation tribes to reclaim remains and sacred artifacts. Recent grants in a C$2 million ($1.4 million) program launched in 2016 range from building a community grave house to creating an inventory of all the museums in Canada and abroad that might hold the human remains of their ancestors.


To Return or Not to Return?

Not all requests have been successful. The British Museum has twice turned down claims in the past decade. In 2008, Te Papa tried to reclaim seven preserved Māori heads from the museum, but its trustees refused because there was evidence they were traded, not stolen. (The museum did agree to return nine human bone fragments at the same time.)  

In 2013, the museum turned down another request, this time from the Torres Island Straits, which is part of Australia. Again, the museum’s trustees rejected the claim partly because the skull of the young man was probably traded. Torres Strait Island representative Lui Ned David told The Australian newspaper at the time about his “unbelievably painful” experience with the BM.

On its website, the British Museum says that “it was not clear that the importance of the remains to an original community outweighed the significance and importance of the remains as sources of information about human history.” The heads and skulls remain in storage, deep in the heart of the museum’s main building in central London. Around 200 human remains in its Oceania collection, including 80 skulls as well as objects incorporating hair, bones, and teeth. They are kept in a special room, with strictly limited access, in the lower basement of its new World Conservation Centre.  

Since Hartwig Fischer succeeded Neil MacGregor as director in 2016, there has been no change in the British Museum’s position. Fischer declined to comment on the issue to artnet News; instead, a museum spokeswoman referred to its published policy on human remains. 

The policy, which is due to be revisited this year, makes no distinction between ancient remains excavated by archaeologists and those collected during the colonial era. The justification for keeping both includes “important research” in fields, such as human biology, the history of disease, and forensics. No specific examples of recent research were given.

The Australian curator and writer Hettie Perkins, whose father, Charlie Perkins, help lead the fight for Aboriginal rights in the 1960s, is unimpressed by the research justification. “It was bogus ‘research’ that got this process of collecting started and it is insulting to privilege so-called ‘science’ over family or community claims,” she says.

Some Western museums also argue that they cannot return human remains because of a lack of consensus about exactly who should receive them. When a tribe becomes extinct, there are sometimes no narrowly defined “direct descendants.” Members of the Miawpukek First Nation, the Indigenous community in Newfoundland and Labrador, have tried for years to reclaim a pair of skulls with an especially poignant history that ended up in the National Museum of Scotland. (The skulls were stolen from the grave of a husband and wife who were members of the Beothuk people. The last of the tribe died in 1829, making their bones especially prized.)

While the Scottish museum has returned Aboriginal Australian remains, its trustees insisted that a formal request for the skulls first come from the Canadian government. Eleven months after the request was submitted, a spokeswoman in Edinburgh says that the request is being considered, but “we do not have an update on timing.”

Judy Watson, the names of men (2017), and 40 pairs of blackfellows ears, lawn hill station (2018). Installation view, “Representation, Remembrance and the Memorial” MADA Gallery, Monash University. Courtesy of the artist. Photograph by Andrew Curtis.

Museums Look Ahead

Some artists, often with Indigenous ancestry, are now shedding light on the issue from within institutions. Brisbane-based Judy Watson, who represented Australia at the 1997 Venice Biennale, along with Emily Kame Kngwarreye  and Yvonne Koolmatrie, has created a series of etchings with pointed titles, such as our bones in your collections, our hair in your collections, and our skin in your collections (1997), which were included in Tate Britain’s exhibition “Artist and Empire” in 2016. “My role is ‘to rattle the bones of the museum,’ to wake the dead who are not dead but alive to all of us,” she told British Museum curators during a residency there in 2015. 

Another Australian artist, Daniel Boyd, who is a descendant of the Kudjla/Gangalu peoples from Far North Queensland, has created installations from cardboard boxes that formerly housed the hundreds of human remains in the Natural History Museum in London. “At the time of my residency at the NHM, they were transferring [them] into new conservation-grade boxes and they were destroying the old boxes. I felt this was an important part of their history and that they should acknowledge that history,” he says. A group exhibition featuring Boyd’s installation of the haunted boxes is now on view at the Griffith University Art Museum in Brisbane.

Meanwhile, curators themselves are exploring new ways to address human remains. In London, the Royal Academy’s spectacular exhibition “Oceania” includes a stargazing ancestral sculpture in stone from Easter Island from the British Museum’s collection and an altarpiece that incorporates a human skull. 

Easter Island ancestral figure Moai Hava, installed in the “Oceania” exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, on loan from the British Museum. Photo by Javier Pes.

The Dutch National Museum of World Cultures secured the blessing of the source community in West Papua, as well as members of the diaspora in the Netherlands, before agreeing to lend the altarpiece. Beneath the vitrine, a wreath indicates that it is no ordinary object. 

The Rapa Nui have invited representatives of the British Museum to visit Easter Island. While reclaiming their ancestral figures from London or Paris’s Musée du Quay Branly, where the “Oceania” show travels next spring, may be a long journey, they will take heart that the Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo has just agreed to return their ancestors’ bones. Martin Biehl says that it began the process in November, adding that it will react “as positively as possible” if other claims are received.

“Oceania,” is on view at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, from September 29 through December 10 and then the Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, Paris.

“Boundary Lines” is on view from November 20 through 23 February 23, 2019, at the Griffith University Art Museum, Brisbane, Australia.

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