A secret love

One of the units I’m taking this trimester is titled ‘Understanding Public Policy’, so I thought I would share a secret with you.

I love policy documents.

No, really. Every now and then, research leads me to some sort of policy document and then I am lost for hours, trawling through the fine print. I find them fascinating because they say a lot more about an organisation than you will ever find on their homepage or TV commercial.

Take the following example.

In Australia during the 18th and 19th century, colonial explorers and anthropologists took Indigenous remains and distributed them to museums across the world. Understandably, Australian Indigenous communities have since been fighting to get them back.

In particular, London’s British Museum and Natural History Museum have been at the centre of demands for the repatriation of Australian Indigenous human remains.


Parallel lines by theilr
Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Whilst researching an essay on the meanings and consequences of the repatriation of human remains for Indigenous peoples, I came across the human remains policies of these two institutions, as well as that of the National Museum of Australia.

The National Museum of Australia has separate policies for Non-Australian Indigenous human remains and Australian Indigenous human remains. Both policies clearly state that the museum will not actively seek to acquire human remains. In addition, the policy relating to Indigenous human remains conveys a determined effort to return them to their rightful guardians.

4.1 The museum shall not actively seek to acquire Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander human remains, except in such cases as to remove them from private collections or general circulation or under government legislation. In these circumstances, human remains will be acquired with the intention to return them to the relevant Indigenous community/custodians.

4.6  Scientific examinations such as DNA testing or carbon dating will only be undertaken with the consent of the relevant community, where this is possible. No data should be made public without the consent of the relevant community in those cases.

The policies present the NMA as a safe holding place for human remains, that protects them from being used in any way – whether for display or research – that is against the wishes of any current or future relevant communities or custodians.

In stark contrast, the British Museum strongly defends its collection and its continued use of human remains.

5.4 The Museum will continue to add to the Collection and lawfully hold human remains ensuring that, as far as is possible, provenance has been clearly established, there is no suspicion of illicit trade and that the remains are of potential public interest to the Museum’s world audience.

As does the Natural History Museum:

1.1.2 The Museum holds human remains in its collection and aims to maintain high collections management standards. The material is maintained as an essential reference resource, for scientific study. The Museum is convinced that there is continuing scientific value in the curated collections of human remains, and that they should continue to be the focus of active research.

1.3.4 The Natural History Museum is founded on the principle that all items in the collection should be retained for the purposes of study and research for the benefit of all humankind.

The differences in these policies are fascinating to me, because they demonstrate conflicting priorities when it comes to human remains. Having read these documents, it seems that the National Museum of Australia emphasises the humanness of the artefacts, whilst the Natural History Museum and the British Museum see them as objects to be studied. The two museums in London highly value the need to collect and to research, whilst the National Museum of Australia emphasises the importance of respect and repatriation.

But why? How could they be so different?

Could it be the age of the organisations?
Both the British Museum and the Natural History Museum can trace their beginnings back to the 1750s, whilst the National Museum of Australia was not formally established until over 200 years later, in 1980. Perhaps their values reflect the ideology of the time in which they were formed.

Or could it be the location of the organisations?
Maybe we are more sensitive here in Australia to the pain caused by colonisation and the importance of human remains to Australian Indigenous peoples. Dr Michael Pickering, head of the repatriation program at the National Museum of Australia points out that “Australia sees repatriation of human remains as ethical, in Europe, however, they often see it as unethical and anti-scientific.”[1]

Or does it simply reflect the values of the individuals managing these institutions, and those who are writing the policy?

I look forward to studying public policy, because if an examination of organisational policy can reveal some underlying priorities in the organisation, then what could be learned from a closer analysis of Australian Government policy?

Stay tuned, my friends.
Trimester starts next week.


National Museum of Australia
  58437-Canberra by xiquinhosilva
Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

[1] Cited in Elliot, T 2010, ‘Spirits cannot rest so far from home‘, Sydney Morning Herald, 13 March (online)


National Museum of Australia: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander remains policy

National Museum of Australia: Non-Australian Indigenous human remains policy

British Museum Policy: Human Remains in the Collection

Natural History Museum: Policy on Human Remains

Further reading:

Daley, P  2014 ‘Restless Indigenous Remains‘, Meanjin Quarterly, vol. 73,  no. 1.


One thought on “A secret love

  1. Another great blog, Kathlene, and one that is relevant to something occurring in my home town at the moment. After 180-plus years of being stored in a British museum, some significant Noongar artefacts are currently on loan to a local museum. It’s a mixed blessing, though: local Aboriginal people are so happy to have the artefacts back ‘on country’ but are sad, too, because the artefacts have to be returned to the British Museum in April. I wonder if, as you suggest, Australians are more sensitive to the pain caused by colonisation and other nations, far removed, visually and culturally, from its effects, can espouse the importance of science and evidence over alleviating the suffering these policies of the past, and present, cause. Cherie

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