Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.
European colonialism was one of the most expansive and devastating projects in human history. Spanning from the 16th to the 19th century and placing almost the entire world under European control, the atrocities committed against indigenous people and the plundering of native lands for “colonial treasures” is no secret.
With so many of these artefacts still on display in museums across Europe, efforts to return them to the countries they were pillaged from can prove a controversial topic. One of the most sensitive areas revolves around the treatment of human remains. How do institutions deal with human remains that were stolen in often horrifying circumstances with little regard for the people they were taken from?
The Human Tissue Act (2004) laid down the law about the removal, treatment and use of human remains and also led to a relaxation of legislation surrounding the movement of human remains. This allowed museums to start the process of returning remains to their country of origin.
The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford houses some 2,000 human specimens and is one of the organisations involved in returning items to their homelands. Human remains held in museums across Britain include skin, hair, teeth, bones and even shrunken heads. Since these hugely significant remains were taken without the consent of the individuals or their families, it can be argued that they were never really Britain’s for the taking. Te Herekiekie Herewini a worker at Te Papa, a museum in New Zealand dedicated to the repatriation of stolen goods stated “Maori and Moriori ancestral remains were taken without the permission of their family, and so the repatriation process allows for reconciliation of past wrongs and misdeeds associated with the arrival of Europeans into the South Pacific”. The return of human remains hardly makes up for the years of destruction carried out by the European colonisers, but perhaps it is a step in the right direction towards correcting historical travesties.
The return of these remains are of great importance for many of cultural groups who place significant value on the spiritual uniting of individuals to their ancestors. It is not hard to imagine how outraged people in England would be if the human remains of a king or bishop had been kept in some foreign museum for hundreds of years and robbed of a proper funeral. In my mind, repatriation is the only solution to the issue of whether remains should be returned. Colonialism is over, but the effects of rapacious and barbaric assaults on the infrastructures, materials and cultures of countries across the world still exist. Through our cultural insensitivity and avarice we robbed human beings of their dignity by displaying them in glass boxes; we viewed ourselves as superior and felt we had the right to steal from uncivilised “savages”. We were wrong, of course, and now that we have finally realised this, I think it is high time that we treat these stolen human remains with respect and return them to their long-awaited motherland.